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Building Faithful Margin as Stewards of our Personal Finances

Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with a newly married couple. As happens in my line of work, the topic of finances came up. The newlyweds were astonished that my wife and I discussed money regularly (without fighting), knew off the top of our heads our household budget lines, and generally approached money without a deep sense of anxiety. We assured them that our financial approach had not developed overnight. Yet, over years of marriage and careful practice, we found that taking care of our financial lives is essential for both our relationship with each other and our own spiritual health. In today’s post, pastor Jerry O’Neal invites us into a helpful overview of healthy personal finance practices. His wise advice works for couples, individuals, and families of all kinds.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders


Building Faithful Margin as Stewards of our Personal Finances

Jerry O’Neal

In a recent children’s sermon based on 1 John chapter 3, I asked the kids in my congregation: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They gave various responses (police officer, teacher), then one energetic boy looked at me with a straight face and said, “A hamster.” Needless to say, I was taken aback by his comment. In my stuttering response, I said, “Well, many of us adults may feel like we’re living our lives on a hamster wheel…”

Do you feel like you’re living your financial life on a hamster wheel -- running endlessly, never getting anywhere, never able to get off? The way to slow down the wheel is to build margin in our lives. We sometimes hear about building margin into our calendars, creating Sabbath rest in our schedules.1 How might we build margin into our financial lives? Here are a few strategies:

Keep a budget: To create margin in our finances, we need to first know what kind of margin we have. This means having a realistic view of our income and expenses on a regular basis. A budget is simply a plan for our finances: as John Maxwell has famously said, budgeting is “telling your money where to go, rather than wondering where it went.” Interestingly, when people begin using a budget, they often seem to “get a raise,” because they become more intentional with their financial decisions. Lots of good budgeting apps and spreadsheets are available online, so I won’t recommend one here, but the budgeting process itself is important: it helps us be trustworthy managers of the financial resources God has entrusted to us (cf. 1 Cor. 4:2).

Spend simply and frugally: While we may have some control over our income, most of us have more control over our expenses. Do we purchase the expensive coffee at the coffee shop, or do we brew our own at home? Do we purchase a new or used car? Spending simply and frugally can help us create financial margin. A couple of thoughts here: first, frugal does not necessarily mean cheap. We may want to purchase a slightly more expensive item that will last longer or that lines up with our values (e.g. fair trade, sustainably sourced). Also, the largest purchases we make (homes, cars) give us the biggest opportunities to build margin (or reduce it).

Build emergency savings: Our lives are full of uncertainties: we do not know when a car will break down, an unexpected medical need will arise, etc. Thus, we need some basic level of savings to provide margin against these emergencies. Most financial experts recommend saving enough to cover 3-6 months of expenses, but any amount saved will help. Grace Duddy Pomeroy has an excellent video here that talks about how to build emergency savings.

Get out of debt: Our American culture is the most debt-ridden culture in the history of humankind. While we certainly want to pay our debts responsibly, one of the best ways to create long-term financial margin is to get out of debt and stay out of it. This includes all kinds of debt: mortgages, car payments, student loans, etc., for as Paul says, we should “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13:8). Also, if we have the capability to forgive others’ debts (e.g. family members who owe us money), we should do so in fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

Pray: This last suggestion may not seem like it relates to finances, but in fact it does as Martin Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” acknowledging that God is the provider of all good gifts, including our finances. Likewise, when I pray through my financial decisions, I find myself remembering that the money isn’t really mine at all -- it belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), and I am simply managing it for God’s purposes.

Many of us feel like we’re on a hamster wheel in our financial lives. By faithfully creating some margin in our finances, we can slow down that wheel and experience some of the Sabbath rest that God desires for us all.

[1] David Loleng, “Generous Space,” in Stewardship 101: An Invitation to Financial Stewardship, Center for Stewardship Leaders, 2017, pp. 12-13.

For More Information

Jerry O’Neal serves as pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Muncie, IN and stewardship director for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA. From his background in mathematics (Ph.D. in operations research, Georgia Tech, 2005), he has a passion for helping people to faithfully manage their personal finances for God’s purposes.

Rethinking Stewardship: Join us on July 25-27 for three days of conversation and exploration at Luther Seminary's Rethinking Stewardship: From Solemn Obligation to Inspired Choice. More information here.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Credit Cards in Wallet 1" by Chris Potter at www.ccPixs.com. Creative Commons licensing via Flickr.

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