Archives For September 2010

Bible with Cross Shadow by knowhimonline on Flickr       Today’s Personal Finance Bible Scripture comes from 1 Timothy 6:17-19.

       17 Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. 19 By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (NLT)

       I’ve lived my entire life in America, and I’ve only visited one other country (Haiti). But I know how amazingly blessed I am to have been born in a country where prosperity abounds. Even the poor in America are richer than most people in the rest of the world, yet we generally take our wealth for granted and tend to trust in it too much.

       Are you a Christian living in America (or a wealthy or prosperous Christian in any country)? I encourage you to meditate on this verse for the next week. How is God speaking to you through His Word? Do you trust in money more than God? Do you truly believe God provides everything you need? Where are you storing your treasures?

       Let’s try to make sure we don’t get so caught up in the riches of this world that we miss out on true life.

       Poverty has been on my mind for some time now. What is poverty? How do we measure it? How do you overcome it? How do you live in it? Each of these questions (and more) warrants a post or several posts of its own. But that last one is what I want to talk about today.

       I’ve been wondering what it would look like if my wife, Michelle, and I had to live in poverty. What would we have to give up? What would we spend our money on? What would life look like living in poverty?

Poor Family from the 1940s
 

Defining Poverty

       In this case, I’m going to define poverty according to the 2009 U.S. federal poverty level guidelines. For two people, the poverty level is $14,570/year. This level applies regardless of where you live in the U.S., which doesn’t make much sense to me since the cost of living varies so much by location. But perhaps the areas with a higher-than-average cost of living adjusts the poverty level guidelines for their assistance programs. That’s something I’ll have to look at in another post!

       I could use a different measure for poverty – a global measure, for instance. But the disparity between the global poverty level guidelines and the U.S. poverty level guidelines is extreme. Based on a $2/day/person poverty guideline (World Bank threshold), we’d be looking at $1,460 or 1/10 of the income for the U.S. poverty level. I can tell you right now that would mean giving up everything except food. No shelter, no transportation, no clothing purchases – absolutely nothing but food…and not much of that.

       So for this article, I’m going to use the federal guideline of $14,570/year which is pre-tax. I’m not going to include food stamps, federal/state health coverage, or tax refunds (namely, the Earned Income Credit). Some studies have shown that the poverty level income would be 30-40% higher if such benefits were included, but I’m going to stick to the $14,570 number for the sake of simplicity.

What Would Our Spending Look Like?

       If our annual income were $14,570, our monthly income would be just over $1,214. Here’s what I think our monthly budget would look like. Some of these numbers are based on actual expenses now and some are based on what I estimated after making changes to our lifestyle. I’m assuming we keep our current jobs.

Category Amount
Income $1,214.17
   
Giving $130.00
Saving $106.70
State & Local Taxes $39.46
Health Insurance $76.93
Rent $400.00
Renter’s Insurance $11.08
Groceries $150.00
Utilities $120.00
Auto (Gas, Maint., & Ins.) $130.00
Other (Household & Personal) $50.00
   
Total Expenses $1,214.17

What We’d Have to Give Up

       So the next question is how would this differ from our current lifestyle? Well, first we’d have to move. We’d have to find a place for 2/3 of the rent we’re paying now, and it would need to be closer to Michelle’s job to cut down on gasoline costs. A different place would also likely cut down on our utilities. This would be a major change since we’d have to move away from our family, friends, and church but not very far – just far enough to make it inconvenient but doable. We’d also likely be living in someone’s basement or sharing a place with another family for rent that cheap.

       We’d have to give up the excellent health insurance we have through Michelle’s work and buy a no-frills $10,000 deductible plan that doesn’t cover office visits or prescriptions. It would only cover serious catastrophes like cancer. In contrast, our current insurance has a very low deductible ($150/$300, I think?) and covers office visits and prescriptions for a low co-pay. We’d also be giving up our dental insurance, though I’m not sure that’s much of a deal anyway.

       Speaking of insurance, we’d have to decrease the coverage on our auto insurance to the state minimum levels and increase the deductible on Michelle’s car to $2,500. We’d also have to think about selling my car but that wouldn’t be completely necessary. Decreasing the coverage limits could expose us to some serious risks if we were to have an accident – likely resulting in bankruptcy if it’s a major accident.

       I don’t mind that we’d be paying less in taxes. But our giving would have to go down and that wouldn’t be so great. We’d have to make some tough choices there. All of our saving would most likely be short-term savings to cover the deductibles for our insurance policies.

       We’d have to spend less on groceries but not much less than we currently spend. I don’t imagine there would be any problems there. We’d just have to limit our meat intake and replace it with beans instead and shop a little more carefully. Eating out would be out of the question. We’d also need to cut our household and personal spending in half.

       Beyond that, we’d have no cell phones, no Internet connection, and no TV (that last one’s not any different from now, but I’m just saying). We wouldn’t be able to pay my student loans unless we gave up saving or giving (or some of both), but forbearance or an income dependent plan would be an option at that point. We’d have no money for entertainment or travel of any kind, and every dollar would need to be meticulously tracked and spent with care. As it is now, I don’t track what we spend our ATM withdrawals on completely so that would have to change.

       So while it wouldn’t be easy or “fun” to live on this budget, it would be possible. But we’d have no chance of saving anything for retirement, buying a house if we wanted to do that, or doing anything that required money outside of this budget. (That means no more sewing or jewelry making for Michelle. My hobbies don’t really require any money right now I think.)

Living Off Uncle Sam (or You, Rather)

       I didn’t include government benefits in that budget, but if I had things would have worked out quite a bit better. Between Section 8 housing, tax refunds, food stamps, health coverage from Pennsylvania, and utility assistance programs I think we could live at pretty much the same standard we currently enjoy. (Except for the housing part…that would likely be a major decline.)

       These benefits would probably comprise at least 25-40% of our budget in this scenario. At that rate, we could probably afford cell phones, an Internet connection, auto insurance at our current coverage, our normal household and personal spending, my student loans, and even some entertainment. Or we could choose to save that money, invest in ourselves (to increase our income), or give to people in more need than ourselves.

Possible But Not Enjoyable

       I’m not making light of this scenario. I’m certain it would still be stressful and emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t be impossible to live this way. (Though I’m having difficulty convincing Michelle of this. :))

       I think the reason I can say this is because Michelle and I are pretty content. We don’t have to have the latest gadgets or fashions. We are naturally frugal people who don’t enjoy spending tons of money. We have low-key hobbies, can entertain ourselves, and know how to cook. We’re also disciplined enough to say no to ourselves on the non-essentials. All these factors combine to make it easier for us to live on less than most people in America. (I don’t say this to boast but to simply point out facts. Many people get sucked into the culture and go with the flow without question. Neither Michelle nor I have ever been ones to follow the crowd.)

       I’m thankful we’re in a situation where we don’t have to make these choices. God has blessed us with all that we need and then some. But I struggled with creating a sample budget for this scenario, and I now have a slight understanding some of the choices people are forced to make when they’re living on so little. I say slight understanding because I don’t think you can truly comprehend what it’s like to live on that kind of income until you’ve done it.

Your Thoughts

       Do you think you could live at the federal poverty level? What would have to change for you? What would you have to give up? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

       In the last part of this series, we finished talking about practical applications when we take on God’s View of the World, Money, and our lives. We looked at how we should act and what we should do when we take on God’s View and live out His will. Today, we’ll start talking about the results of following God’s teaching on contentment. How will contentment benefit you, and what kind of effects will it have on your life?

Delighting God

       When our focus is no longer on wealth and material things but fully centered on God, we can begin to please Him. It’s amazing to think that despite our weaknesses and shortcomings we can still manage to please the Creator of the entire universe by simply learning to be content and centering our lives around Him.

   23 Thus says Yahweh,
       “Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom,
       neither let the mighty man glory in his might,
       don’t let the rich man glory in his riches;

       24 but let him who glories glory in this,
       that he has understanding, and knows me,
       that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness,
       justice, and righteousness, in the earth:
       for in these things I delight,” says Yahweh.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 (WEB)

       It’s nearly unthinkable that we can delight God, but we really can delight Him when we talk more about His goodness and our relationship with Him than our wealth or accomplishments.

Enjoying Life

       In Ecclesiastes, Solomon experiences all the things the world tells us will make us happy—power, wealth, and pleasure. He reflects on his experience and realizes all the things the world recommends are quite meaningless. He also reflects on what he sees in the world, and most of his learning about the best things in life is summed up by Ecclesiastes 8:15.

       15 Then I commended mirth, because a man has no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be joyful: for that will accompany him in his labor all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15 (WEB)

       Now, Solomon is not recommending that we all “eat, drink, and be merry” as the world understands it. He’s commending the enjoyment of life, which is really what contentment boils down to. When we’re content in any situation and learn to value God and His ways above all else, we can find true joy in life that will stay with us always.

       The joy of contentment in God can keep us happy and optimistic no matter what happens to us because it’s founded on Him. The eternal power and truth of God can overcome any situation, allowing us to fully enjoy life and realize our blessings even in the worst circumstances. And learning to be content in every situation can give us joy that lasts throughout our entire lives—unlike wealth, which is so uncertain and may not last through tomorrow.

A Strong Tower

       Throughout the Bible, we see a continual reference to God as a strong tower and mighty fortress. He protects those who trust in Him, and His strength overcomes all obstacles. When we are content with God’s provision, blessing, and His gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, we have the ultimate protection from any worldly disaster. Poverty, sickness, economic depressions, death, stock market crashes, natural disasters, job loss—none of them can hurt us because we will always have eternal life in Jesus. Despite what the world says, it just doesn’t matter what happens to us in this life. Nothing can ever separate us from the love of Jesus.

       Do I mean that God will protect us from all these things? Not at all. Terrible things happen to Christians all the time and they really test our faith. But if we weigh the worst tragedy against the fact that we have been saved by Christ, we’ll always see that we are truly blessed. God keeps us safe through all things because He has given us eternal security through Jesus. Wealth can never do that.

   10 The name of Yahweh is a strong tower:
   the righteous run to him, and are safe.

   11 The rich man’s wealth is his strong city,
   like an unscalable wall in his own imagination.

Proverbs 18:10-11 (WEB)

       We like to imagine wealth will protect us from all the bad things in life and give us access to all the good things in life. What we don’t realize is that we are just imagining that it can do all those things. Wealth can only protect you so much, and it can only give you the things that the world says are good. But there’s no guarantee that your wealth will be there when you really need it.

       There is only one guarantee, and there’s only one way we can find true safety in life. Trusting in God and finding contentment in what He’s blessed us with—whether little or much—will provide us with a strong tower capable of withstanding anything that might come our way. Contentment in God gives us joy that lasts as long as we live rather than a little pleasure for a fleeting moment.

       The truth is that money and things can never give us the happiness and security we’re seeking. God has already given us all the happiness and joy we could ever need—we just need to look at our lives through His eyes. Once we start doing that, we’ll see how truly rich we already are.

Want to read the entire Bible study series on Contentment? Download your free copy of Contentment Is Wealth: A Bible Study on Contentment now!

       The personal finance world is filled with stupid rules of thumb that just don’t work when you want the right answer. Sure, they’re easy and simple. But the problem is that they ignore crucial bits of information that are absolutely essential to determining the right choice for you. One of these stupid rules is the idea that you can afford a mortgage that is 2.5 or 3 times your annual income. Here’s why this is just plain dumb.

A. H. Allyn Mansion by cliff1066TM on Flickr

It Ignores Interest Rates

       This one ought be be obvious. This 2.5 or 3 times your income rule of thumb completely ignores the fact that interest rates have a large effect on your payments.

       To keep our example simple, let’s imagine that Bob makes $50,000/year. This rule of thumb says that Bob can afford a $125,000-$150,000 mortgage. We’ll go with $150,000. Today, the rate on a 30 year mortgage is about 4.5%. At this interest rate, Bob would pay $760/month or $9,120/year – about 18% of his gross annual income.

       Rewind to just a couple years ago when rates were 6% and Bob would be paying $899/month or $10,778/year – about 21% of his gross income. Go back to the 2000s when rates were around 8% and Bob would be looking at $1,100/month or $13,200/year – about 26% of his gross income.

       Now, these all sound affordable for Bob but keep in mind that I’m only talking about principal and interest here. I didn’t include taxes and insurance, which could easily put him over the limit in that last example. So one major problem with the 2.5 or 3 times your income rule is that it cannot and does not account for changes in interest rates.

It Ignores the Time Period

       I assumed in the first example that Bob was getting a 30 year mortgage, but this rule of thumb doesn’t really say how long the term should be for your mortgage. I assumed 30 years because it’s the most common and it’s probably what people who spread this stupid rule are thinking. But look at what a difference it makes to go to a shorter time period.

       Using $150,000 as our mortgage amount and 4.5% as the interest rate, we saw that Bob would pay $760/month for a 30 year mortgage. Keep everything the same but change that to a 15 year mortgage with 4% interest (since rates are lower for 15 year mortgages) and Bob will be paying about $1,110/month. So he’s gone from paying about 18% of his gross income to almost 27% simply by choosing a different term for the mortgage.

       This rule of thumb doesn’t help us determine if we can afford a 30 year mortgage or a 15 year mortgage. There’s no distinction at all. That’s strike two!

It Ignores the Rest of Your Situation

       Finally, this stupid rule of thumb completely ignores the rest of your situation on a number of levels. Let’s look at them:

  • Taxes & Insurance – As I showed you before, Bob was getting close to pushing the limits on his income just with his principal and interest payments. What if real estate taxes are high in his area? What if insurance is expensive because he lives in a hurricane zone (or for some other reason)? This rule fails again.
  • Down Payment – What if Bob puts less than 20% down on his mortgage? Well, he’ll have to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI). Bump up that payment a little bit more now. Oh wait, that doesn’t seem to matter in this rule of thumb.
  • Debt – What if Bob is up to his eyeballs in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy? This 3 times your income rule is absolutely ludicrous in that case, but it doesn’t seem to come with that caveat.

       These are just a few other areas where this rule proves to be absolutely stupid. I’m sure you can think of many more. The point is that simply multiplying your income by 3 to figure out how big of a mortgage you can afford is short-sighted, unwise, and just plain dumb.

The Solution

       There are other rules for figuring out how much of a mortgage you can afford. There’s the 28/36 rule, the 29/41 rule, the 4 times your income rule, the 5 times your income rule, and so on. Now I have to admit that the 28/36 rule is a little better than these “x” times your income rules. But it still ignores a lot about your personal situation.

       By now, the solution ought to be obvious to you. The best way to figure out how much of a mortgage you can afford is to look at your situation and your budget and work backward from there. If you blindly follow the conventional rules, you completely ignore the important factors that can help you make the best choice for you. You also fall into the trap of allowing society, culture, media, or businesses (banks and real estate agents, in this case) determine what your life should look like and how you should spend your money.

       Think for yourself. Work out the math on your own. (It’s not much more than addition, subtraction, and a little multiplication.) Figure out what you need and want. Then determine what fits in to your situation.

What Do You Think?

       What do you think about financial rules of thumb? Why do we like them? What are some rules of thumb you’ve heard that you’d like me to write about? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Bible with Cross Shadow by knowhimonline on Flickr       Today’s Personal Finance Bible Scripture comes from Luke 6:30.

       30Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.

Luke 6:30 (NLT)

This passage is also found in Matthew 5:42.

       Jesus tells us to give to anyone who asks of us. The Amplified Bible further clarifies this as those who are in want of necessities. I’m not sure He meant for us to give money to an investment banker who is worth a few million just because he asks. But to anyone who is in need, we are to give—generously, freely, and without condition.

       The second part of this verse would have meant more to the Jews at that time. Romans could demand just about anything they wanted from the Jews and there was no legal recourse. Jesus tells His followers that if someones takes away their possessions they are not to demand them back. I don’t know about you, but that would be so far beyond my human nature that I know I couldn’t do it without God working through me.

       Jesus’ point here is very clear. We should be generous in our giving and in our forgiving. Living out extraordinary generosity in our lives is a huge testament to the faith and an excellent example for all.

       You may have heard that buying a whole chicken and cutting it up yourself is cheaper than buying chicken parts (legs, thighs, wings, breasts) separately. And most of the time that’s absolutely right – especially when whole chickens are on sale. But there are times when chicken parts are cheaper than a whole chicken (usually when they’re on sale and whole chickens aren’t).

       The question is: how do you know when you’re getting a good deal? Well, with some information from the More-With-Less Cookbook based on data from the USDA, here’s how to know when it’s cheaper to buy chicken parts instead of a whole chicken.

  • Breasts – Buy chicken breasts when their per pound price is equal to or less than 1.4 times the per pound price for whole broiler-fryer chickens.
  •  

  • Drumsticks, Thighs, or Legs – Buy chicken drumsticks, thighs, or legs (the drumstick & thigh together) when their per pound price is equal to or less than 1.3 times the per pound price for whole broiler-fryer chickens.
  •  

  • Wings – Buy chicken wings when their per pound price is equal to or less than 0.8 times the per pound price for whole broiler-fryer chickens.

How to Use This Information

       When you’re going to buy chicken, simply look at the per pound price for a whole broiler-fryer. Multiply by the appropriate factor (1.4, 1.3, or 0.8) and compare that to the price for the respective chicken parts (breasts, drumsticks/thighs/legs, or wings). If the price for the part is equal to or lower than the price you came up with, then the parts are a good buy. If not, you should buy the whole chicken.

       If you want several of one particular chicken part but they’re not on sale, then your best option is to buy several whole chickens, cut them up yourself, and freeze the rest for later. Now, I’m sure many of you have never cut up a whole chicken before, so if you need a little guidance I recommend this episode from Good Eats by Alton Brown:

       Another good option when whole chickens are on sale is to simply roast the whole chicken in your oven. The meat itself is often enough for two or three meals for a family of four, plus you get the bones for making chicken stock (very useful and tasty stuff). Again, some Good Eats episodes are quite handy for this. I’d suggest these two:

Your Tips

       Have you ever bought a whole chicken and fixed it? What are your tips for first-timers? Share your ideas in the comments below!

P.S. Thanks to The Digerati Life for reminding me to write about this!

       In the last part of this series, we continued talking about practical applications when we take on God’s View of the World, Money, and our lives. How should we act and what should we do when we take on God’s View and live out His will? We’ll finish that discussion today, and in the next part of the series we’ll start talking about the results of following God’s teaching on contentment.

       Proverbs has tons of great personal finance advice, but Proverbs 23:4-5 has a very practical application for our lives—especially today.

   4 Don’t weary yourself to be rich.
   In your wisdom, show restraint.

   5 Why do you set your eyes on that which is not?
   For it certainly sprouts wings like an eagle and flies in the sky.

Proverbs 23:4-5 (WEB)

       When we look at the world around us, we can see people everywhere wearing themselves out trying to get rich. And how many families have been torn apart because of an obsession with work? How many people have committed suicide because they lost their wealth? We have to be wise enough to know when to quit—when enough is enough.

Bald Eagle by Velo Steve on Flickr       Worldly wealth can be quite fickle. It’s temporary (even if it lasts your entire life), faulty, and can disappear very quickly. I’m sure we all know of cases where money has come and gone quite easily. That’s the problem with worldly wealth. While we think we’ll get security if we have enough of it, the truth is that it’s built on a weak foundation and can’t provide the things we really need. Even if it gets us through our old age, we can’t do much with it once we’re dead.

       This is why Jesus tells us to focus on heavenly treasure and God’s kingdom. Unlike worldly wealth, these things are permanent. They’re built on a foundation stronger than any we’ve ever known. The lasting treasure we pile up in heaven will always provide for us during this life. And when we’ve passed on, we’ll still have all of it. No matter what happens to us, we can never lose the treasure of God’s love living in us. We might not be rich and famous, but we’ll always have the invaluable gift of eternal life.

       Paul mirrors the wisdom of this proverb in his instructions to Timothy for the rich:

       17 Charge those who are rich in this present world that they not be haughty, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on the living God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy; 18 that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; 19 laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold of eternal life.

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (WEB)

       Wealth makes it easy for us to become arrogant and stop trusting in God. We gain a false sense of security, because the truth is that worldly wealth is very uncertain. But when we place our trust wholly in God, He provides everything we need. God can give us joy that we can’t get from anything else on Earth. His joy lets us see the true value of things in our life, and His love working through us makes our lives much more valuable than any amount of money ever will.

       Paul’s very practical advice is that we should use money to do good—not to store it up and trust in it. We should focus on doing good things for other people in the service of God. We should be generous and always ready to share. This is the essence of God’s view on contentment—that we should not be obsessed with things or wealth or status, but that we should always be ready to do good, to love others, to share what we have, and to always trust that He will provide everything we need.

       Contentment means that we stop being obsessed with buying that new iPod, but instead we give that money to the hungry.

Give us this day... by Mr. Kris on Flickr

(Click the picture to read about the tragedy of hunger in our world.)

       It means that we drive our old car a little longer, so that we may be able to give clean water to the thirsty.

Woman with child collecting water by hdptcar on Flickr

       It means we live in a smaller home, so that we can provide shelter for those that have no place to stay warm or out of the rain.

Homeless by Henrique Vicente on Flickr

       It means that we stop spending so much time working and pursuing wealth, so that we can spend time building relationships with our family, our friends, our neighbors, complete strangers, and even our enemies.

Relationship by Smile My Day on Flickr

       Fully pursuing contentment means that we totally trust in God for His providence, and we stop worrying about what’s going to happen in the economy.

       And what do we get for all of this? A good foundation of heavenly treasure that lasts for eternity, and the ability to experience true life rather than that illusion of the “good life” that’s fed to us every day. Contentment allows us to live out a true life in Jesus and to fully experience His love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Want to read the entire Bible study series on Contentment? Download your free copy of Contentment Is Wealth: A Bible Study on Contentment now!