Lots of people make resolutions this time of year. Not surprisingly, things like paying down debt and saving more tend to show up the most.
According to Fidelity’s Fidelity’s 11th annual New Year Financial Resolutions Study, “more than half of Americans, 53%, say they aim to save more in 2020, 51% plan to pay down debt, and 35% say they will spend less in the new year.”
Paying off debt—especially credit cards—should be a high priority. If you’re carrying too much debt, it will limit your ability to do other things with your money, like saving and giving.
If you need to focus on debt, then do it. (I like the Dave Ramsey “snowball method.”) If not, I’d like to propose that you consider saving more and giving more as your new year’s money resolution.
Saving more (giving to your future self and family), and giving more (giving for the building of God’s kingdom and the good of others) are the best things you can do with your money.
We’re don’t do very well at either
Many studies show that we aren’t doing that great at either saving or giving.
A 2018 survey by Bankrate.com found that nearly 40% of those surveyed said that they regretted not saving enough. And it seems that everywhere we turn, we’re told that we need to save or aren’t saving enough for retirement. There is a lot of research to back that up.
Here are the results of the Northwestern Mutual Planning and Progress Study of 2019:
- According to a new “study,” more than a fifth (22%) of Americans have less than $5,000 saved for retirement, and nearly half of working adults (46%) expect to work past the traditional retirement age of 65.
- The annual study found: More than one in five (22%) Americans have less than $5,000 saved for retirement, and 15% have no retirement savings at all.
- That’s an improvement from 2018 when 31% had less than $5,000 saved, and 21% had no retirement savings at all.
- While 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day, nearly one in five (17%) have less than $5,000 saved for retirement, and 20% have less than $5,000 in personal savings.
- For Gen X, the numbers are higher—21% have less than $5,000 saved for retirement, and 22% have less than $5,000 in personal savings.
- More than half (56%) of Americans don’t know how much they’ll need to retire comfortably.
- More than a fifth (22%) of non-retired U.S. adults believe it is not at all likely that Social Security will be available when they retire.
- On average, people think there is a 45% chance they will outlive their savings, and 41% have taken no steps to address it.
The numbers aren’t very good for giving trends either. According to Non-Profit Source, on average, Christians give only 2.5% of their income to churches. They also reported,
Setting aside the argument about whether God intends Christians to tithe or not, the number of people who give at least ten percent of their income to the church is less than a quarter. This is further proof that the Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule) is alive and well.
Surprisingly, of upper-middle-class families (those making $75,000 or more), only one percent donated a tenth of their income! What if the majority of Christians gave some amount that is reasonably proportional to their income(2 Cor. 8:12, 16:2)? And imagine if those giving proportionally starting giving sacrificially (2 Cor. 8:3)? Total giving would be astronomically higher!
Start with spending
If you want to save and/or give more, you have to have the financial surplus to do it. You can’t save or give money you don’t have.
A lot of people think they can’t afford to save or give more. They would say that either their expenses are too high, or their jobs pay too little, to find a surplus to save and give. That can be a legitimate problem—sometimes, income is the problem, and that’s where you need to focus. (Debt may also be a factor.)
But some, if they are honest, would admit that their real problem is spending.
I think it’s fair to say that lots of us, even those who are relatively “well off,” feel that they can’t save or give more because of an unceasing tendency toward consumption and debt-funded lifestyles. And consumerism shows up in a lot of different ways.
We worry too much about keeping up with our neighbors or our “friends” on Facebook. (Have you noticed how people show photos of their new car, house, or a luxury vacation, but not the loan documents or credit card bills that fund them? When is the last time you saw a photo of a past-due collection notice on FB?)
You know that appearance can be deceiving, right? Proverbs 13:7 says, “One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing. Another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth” (ESV).
When you see that big new fancy house or car, you don’t know the finances behind it. Many are mortgaged or financed to the hilt. ( Nor do you know what their life is really like—they may look “rich” but are just barely getting by. Or, more likely, they are going deeper in a hole every month.)
According to the NY Federal Reserve’s 2018 Q4 Household Report, published on February 13, 2019, American household debt increased for the 18th consecutive quarter. They estimate that,
…total household debt increased by $32 billion (0.2%) to $13.54 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2018. …Furthermore, overall household debt is now 21.4% above the post-financial-crisis trough reached during the second quarter of 2013…
This data suggests that LOTS of U.S. households are living above their means. There is also a Bankrate.com study that says that less than 40% can cover a $1,000 emergency from savings.
So, best not to worry up with the appearances of others. Proverbs 12:9 says, “Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread” (ESV). This verse is about conspicuous consumption.
The servant reference seems out of place (they were more common in biblical times), but what this verse is saying is that it’s better to live like an ordinary person than to try to look like a great man and lack bread. (As Dave Ramsey says, “act your wage.”)
In other words, better to live below your means and avoid a debt-funded lifestyle than to “live big” and always be worried about how to pay for it.
Not succumbing to a consumerism-driven lifestyle can be very difficult in our culture. In many ways, the economic system in this country—which is still the envy of most of the world, by the way—acts as a giant machine designed to separate us from our money. Encouraging people to reduce their spending and save and give more is like suggesting that someone go without air.
Everywhere we go, we are bombarded with messages like, “you need it,” “you deserve it,” and you can afford it,” (which introduces spending’s accomplice—credit). All of this makes it all too easy to overspend, leaving us with little or nothing left for saving. So, what can we do?
There is only one solution: You have to plan how much you want to save and give and then be intentional about working your plan. As mentioned earlier, there are legitimate reasons not to save or to give as much, or to suspend them for a time. But most people can find something to save and give if they look hard enough.
First, decide what you want to give and need to save and then figure out what you can and can’t afford to spend. If you’re going to save 6 percent of your income, and you have been spending everything you make, you are going to have to find a way to reduce spending by 6 percent. If you’re giving 5 percent want to increase it to 10 percent, you’ll have to cut spending by 5 percent.
How you do that is up to you. But I would suggest starting with a budget (if you don’t already have one) and track your spending to see where your money is going. You may be surprised at how much you are spending on things like coffee, fast food, or dinners out.
Once you have a handle on where your money is going, you can look for ways to redirect it toward saving and giving.
Then save—the sooner the better
Procrastination is a killer. A lot of people think that rather than saving a little, starting when they’re young, they will save a lot when they get older (when they have more disposable income).
Saving something later is better than nothing at all, but they are overlooking a major point: the compounding effect.
In my book, Reimagine Retirement, I describe two different savers—Bob and Bethany. Bob starts saving at age 25 and puts away $5,000 a year for 40 years. Based on a 6% annual growth rate, he ends up with $773,810 at age 65. On the other hand, Bethany, who is also 25, waits ten years to start saving at age 35 and saves the same $5,000 per year for 30 years at the same growth rate. She will have a balance of $395,290, which is about half of what Bob will have! The difference-maker for Bob was the extra ten years of tax deferral and compound growth.
This example shows the clear benefit of starting sooner than later. As Proverbs 20:4 reminds us, “The slacker does not plow during planting season; at harvest time he looks, and there is nothing” (CSB). Your working years are your “planting season,” and retirement is “harvest time.”
The book of Proverbs also reminds us repeatedly of both the obligations and benefits of generosity. Although a lot of people focus on spending less, paying down debt, and saving more—all good things, by the way—I see no good reason not to give something, no matter what your financial condition.
Consider Proverbs 3:9 and 10: “Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your produce, then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine.” I know that the “prosperity gospel” preachers often quote these verses, but we know from the whole counsel of Scripture that this is not a covenantal promise. It’s not an absolute assurance that if you give (seed) money, you will automatically enjoy prosperity.
On the other hand, the principle of the blessings of generosity is very real in Scripture; there are blessings from honoring God with our giving.
I know that many of you when you look at your finances see all kinds of obligations. But God has given us the “firstfruits” principle. And one of the best ways to do that is to tithe (the dreaded “t” word).
I understand that is an ongoing debate about tithing (is it still required under the new covenant or only an old covenant idea; and if we should tithe, then what is a reasonable percentage). These are all, in my opinion, unnecessary distractions.
If we look at the “firstfruits principle,” it embodies two things:
- God is our creator and provider; he has given us all things, including our ability and opportunity to work and earn an income.
- The most appropriate response is gratitude; giving from what we’ve been given, and making that a priority before saving, spending, or anything else.
The biblical principle of firstfruits giving is not a matter of percentages—5% versus 10% versus 20%—or other minutiae such as before-tax or after-tax, etc. It is a matter of the heart.
Those of us who have received God’s good gifts, and most importantly, the gift of redemption through his Son, have been given more than we can ever repay. In fact, God has a claim on everything we have because it all belongs to him in the first place. Psalm 24:1—”The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (NIV).
Therefore, firstfruits giving, in some amount (5 or 10% would be a good starting point) is a reasonable way to start. But our giving shouldn’t end there. We should consider giving more—perhaps 15, 20, or 25% or more as God enables. We can do that by keeping our spending in check and saving what we need and no more.
Because we don’t want to sound like we are embracing prosperity gospel theology (which I categorically reject), we sometimes discard the baby with the bathwater. We can completely miss the fact that the Bible is replete with exhortations to give freely, and if you do, it will go well with you. We have already looked at Proverbs 3:9-10, but there are others:
Proverbs 11:24: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want” (ESV).
Proverbs 22:9: “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (ESV)
Stay the course
Once you have spending, giving, and saving plans in place (sounds like a “budget” doesn’t it?), stick to it! It will take some time and attention, but the benefits will far outweigh the amount of effort.
Saving consistently over a lifetime, even if the amounts are relatively modest, will reap earthly rewards. But giving consistently will result in heavenly ones.