This article appeared originally in the June 2007 Levitt Letter.
As the person entrusted to oversee this ministry’s finances, I hope to strengthen the body of Christ by sharing lessons in stewardship that I’ve learned since graduating from UT Austin with a management degree. Life’s three biggest purchases are typically house, car, and funeral. This article is the third in my “Wise as a Serpent” series, and it offers a brief strategy for managing personal finances. For home buying basics, please see the February 07 Levitt Letter, p. 13, posted at www.levitt.com. The April edition, p. 9, features pointers on buying cars.
To begin with, the Bible doesn’t seem to favor or oppose retirement. Working at least part time in our golden years helps us live longer. Whether or not the Rapture is right around the corner (and I think and pray that it is), I believe in living mortal life as if we could die tomorrow or live forever. That means living boldly in faith, but also managing conservatively all that God provides.
If you tithe, tithe first. Then, pay yourself—before committing to discretionary expenditures—by saving ten percent of your net income and dipping into savings only for emergencies. Aside from preparing reserves for rainy days, by saving a tenth of what we make, we acclimate to a slightly lower standard of living and provide a hedge against the tendency to forever spend and acquire. Maintaining savings of six months’ worth of net income provides a cushion and acknowledges God’s abundance. Please bear with me as I suggest these general guidelines, intended for those who live above the poverty line.
Families who routinely carry credit card debt must avoid certain luxuries in order to catch up and put their financial houses back on solid ground (Matt. 7:24). It makes better sense to pay off debt, in most circumstances, than to invest, and it is foolhardy to borrow in order to invest. The widely read Christian financial counselor Larry Burkett (1939 – 2003) taught me some key financial principles, and you can find worthwhile reading on Christian stewardship at www1.crown.org/library/default.aspx?catId=19.
When it comes to investing, most Christians reflect on Jesus’ parables of the servants whose masters entrusted each of them with sums of money (Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27). Believers typically hope to resemble the faithful servants who successfully multiplied what they received. Unfortunately, many gentle doves (Matt. 10:16) will rely on the stock brokerage industry, which, when it comes to selecting individual stocks, is about as rigged against the individual investor as Las Vegas against the gambler.
The website www.dallasnews.com/business/scottburns is a source of varied information on retirement planning, prudent spending, and the pitfalls of trusting financial consultants (read: self-interested salesmen). Conflicts of interest pressure them to sell whatever investments maximize income for them in the short run, rather than long-term security for investors. Scott Burns endorses no-load (commission-free) mutual fund companies, like Vanguard (www.vanguard.com), that offer the option of flat-fee financial advice. Or, on your own, you can pick several broadly diversified mutual funds—but only once you have six months’ worth of net income in the bank. Scott Burns also recommends Daniel Solin’s book The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read: The Simple, Stress-Free Way to Reach Your Investment Goals.
Most investors aren’t aware that stock brokerage contracts disallow litigation and, in the event of a dispute, require arbitration with NASD cronies. NASD stands for National Association of Securities Dealers. Would you force a consumer with a complaint about a used car purchase to be judged by a jury of used car salesmen? From what I have read and experienced, the Securities and Exchange Commission is about as effective in protecting the individual investor as the Department of Homeland Security is in securing this country’s borders.
I share these thoughts with you in the context of applying biblical principles to cope with this increasingly complicated world. I offer them as illustrations of biblical principles that are worthwhile in the here and now. And, finally, I submit them as an example of this ministry’s belief in sound business principles.