I recently read a book about the financial habits of a sampling of American families. In a year-long study, a research team followed the economic lives of real families through a series of interviews and financial diaries.
The book exposes the reality of the income instability many households face. Even families with incomes in the mid- to upper-five figures expressed concerns about their financial security due to fluctuations in their income and expenditures.
The case study that struck me as most illustrative of the behaviorally driven portion of the problem was the story of a couple names Sarah and Sam. They had a combined income of about $65,000 in the year of the study, both had regular jobs, but still struggled to make ends meet and failed to pay many of their bills on time. There was no huge crisis that could explain their difficulties.
The authors of the book were careful not to express judgment, but it is clear from the case study that the problem in this situation is not the economy, the employer, or the system. It is with the people making the day-to-day decisions.
Before going on, let me offer the qualifier that there are many circumstances in which poverty or financial insecurity are driven by injustice or simply by events outside of the individual’s control. Financial struggles are not always the result of moral failure of those struggling.
Those that are truly poor often lack the social network and other resources to improve their situation without external intervention. I’m not kicking the lame person and telling them to walk.
However, in the case of Sarah and Sam, they were dragging their own cloud. They earned $65,000 but had convinced themselves that life would be better if they only spent a few thousand more each year. That is the case for a lot of people.
Poverty vs. Insecurity
The reality is that a lot of people suffer from financial duress unnecessarily because they lack the discipline and/or knowledge to make better choices.
For example, I knew of a couple with two incomes that were somewhere near the six-figure mark (one above and one, I think, slightly below) who spent more each month than they made and had marital strain because of it. There was definite insecurity in this situation, but it was entirely self-induced.
The couple from Financial Diaries with a $65,000 in income, no savings, and overdue bills had dug their own hole and were suffering because of it. They didn’t need a government program as much as a lifestyle change that involved making better decisions.
Poverty is almost always accompanied by insecurity. However, insecurity can come at any income level.
The First Step
One of the biggest problems in our consumeristic society is that people want to be rich. In reality, by historic and global standards, the vast majority of Americans are already rich. But many people want to live like the uber-rich. They want luxury upon luxury in a never-ending stream of comfort.
Unfortunately, luxuries don’t feel like luxuries once you get used to them.
If you had lived in the Southern U.S. in the nineteenth century, you would have suffered through oppressive heat in the summers. Luxury was having ice available and the ability to sit in the shade on a porch designed for cross breezes. Now we’ve got air conditioning, which is wonderful. However, it isn’t enough to knock the temperature down to 78F, there are people who want their house at 65F in the summer when it is 90F outside. If it gets above 70F, then people act like it’s a hardship. If the AC breaks, then it is an emergency. In reality, any artificial cooling is a luxury, but it doesn’t feel that way once you get used to it.
The first step in fixing a lot of personal financial problems is for people to learn to be content.
In his letter to the young pastor, Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money and continually desiring to have more:
If you are reading this blog post on your tablet, smartphone, or desktop computer, you have likely already far exceeded the basic standard of living commended by Paul. In fact, if you are like most of us in the developed world, you’ve got a closet full of clothes and a week’s worth of groceries in the kitchen.
That should be enough.
But for most of us it isn’t.
In reality, most of us live lives of abundant resources, but we always want more. Like the family making $65,000 each year, we think that if we could spend like we make $72,000 it would be just a little better. And the credit card companies allow us to do that. Then we end up behind and stressed.
What we need to do is learn to be content on a fraction of what we make, to enjoy the luxuries that we have, and to celebrate God’s secure provision for us in this life. After all, Paul’s bar for contentment is low.
The consequences of our quest for more are real and often readily apparent. For Sarah and Sam, they had to play a complex juggling game to keep the lights on and keep up appearances. Because they wanted more than what they had they “pierced themselves with many pangs.” The wounds were largely self-inflicted. Let us avoid that trap.