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Domestic Church Mary P.

Financial Stewardship: Creating A Family Budget

Happy 2017! The new year means that people are thinking about ways to change and fix all the things about their lives that need changing and fixing. Faithful Catholics might think about improving their spiritual lives – resolving to start praying more, going to confession more, yelling less, being more grateful, etc. In the midst of that crucial spiritual stock-taking, I want to propose a more “practical” item that deserves consideration – finances. Specifically, I want to address creating a budget.

Money issues are a practical matter, but they have spiritual implications as well. For example, one of the major causes for marital strife and even divorce is financial difficulty or disagreement. Having a workable family budget goes a long way toward creating personal and familial harmony. Without a budget, there is much more room for stress and conflict. More broadly, money is a tool to be used in the service of our calling as spouses, parents, and missionary disciples. We must be good stewards of it in order to carry out that calling. Budgeting is part of that stewardship. 

I’m not in any way a financial professional or expert. Rather, I’m a wife and mom who takes care of the family finances, and has finally found a budgeting system that I can stick to (after eight years of marriage and many failed attempts). I’m someone who has witnessed the dire consequences in people’s lives of not being good stewards of their money. As such, I believe in the importance of budgeting, and want to share some tips for those who do not have a budget.  (There are many resources out there for further information on the topic of budgeting and being a good financial steward). 

  1. Recognize your need for a budget. Even if you are in the top tax bracket, you need a budget. Budgeting isn’t just for those who must watch every penny simply in order to feed their families. On the flip side, even if you think your budget would never be “in the black,” you still need one. You might think that your necessary spending outweighs your income (and thus rely heavily on credit), but creating a budget and tracking your spending will help you see where you might be able to cut back so that your budget can balance.
  2. Find a budgeting tool that works for you. Even if you use pen-and-paper or an Excel spreadsheet, it’s critical that your craft your budget in a way that makes the most sense to you and is easily implemented in your life. I use a website called EveryDollar (created by financial guru Dave Ramsey). Until I discovered this website, I had never been able to create a budget that accounted for all my expenses (not just the monthly, predictable ones), let alone one that I was able to stay on top of. There are other websites and apps out there. Look around to see what will work for you. Take advantage of free trial offers for paid programs (as long as you can trust yourself to cancel before the trial is over if you decide you don’t want to use it!)
  3. Work with your spouse to create the budget, and make a mutual commitment to stick to it.  You both need to be on board with the budget in order for it to work! If either of you are reckless spenders, the budget will be sabotaged. (If you or your spouse are unable to get your unnecessary spending under control, considering talking to your priest or a counselor). Communicate and re-evaluate the budget often.
  4. Use a “zero balance” budget. This is a type of budget where you account for every penny that comes in. If you bring in more than you spend each month on necessities and “extras,” consciously allot the rest to savings or to paying down a debt. By using this kind of budget, my husband and I were able to pay off our student loans more quickly. You should go back and adjust the budget at the end of the month to make sure it zeroes out. If you over-budget in a category like groceries or gas, you can put that extra money toward a category you may have under-budgeted for, or toward debt and savings. Adjust the next month’s budget to reflect your actual spending habits.  
  5. Budget for the bills that you pay on a non-monthly basis, and other irregular expenses. For example, our water bill is paid quarterly. Each month, I set aside one-third of what I expect the bill to be, so that the money is all there when needed. I also have funds set up in my budget for things such as clothing, homeschooling materials, and home maintenance. I put some money into each of those funds every month so that it’s there when I need it.
  6. Track everything that you spend. This is where the website/app I use has made all the difference. I am not “on top of things” enough to record every purchase I make or keep every receipt. For a fee, my budgeting tool imports all my bank activity. I can simply drag and drop each item into the appropriate budget category. Since I rarely use cash to make purchases, this has made it extremely easy to keep track of every expense.
  7. Be realistic. For example, if you think you “should” be spending only $500 on groceries every month, but you can’t seem to come in under $600 no matter how hard you try, then budget for $600 and cut back somewhere else. Part of being realistic is budgeting “fun money” for you and your spouse to be spent however you want (barring anything immoral of course). This helps cut down on the frustration of adhering to a strict budget. If you create an overly-idealistic budget that you can’t adhere to, you are likely to give up on budgeting. 
  8. Set specific financial goals and use your budget to work toward them. One of these goals should be an emergency fund for those unforeseen large expenses (which tend to pop up in clusters). Other goals might include saving for a house or a new vehicle. (It’s best to pay cash for a vehicle rather than incurring debt. But, if you have to take out a loan, you still need to have a down payment saved up). You should think about long-term goals, such as retirement and college funds, as well. 
  9. Make charitable giving (especially to your parish) a non-negotiable. The Church does not require us to give a specific percentage of our income. But we are required to help provide for our parishes. Do not give from your surplus. Instead, give sacrificially, like the Scriptural widow who gave her last coin.

Successful budgeting usually involves a lot of trial and error. Like all efforts at self-improvement, it’s probably not going to come easily at first. Don’t give up. Financial stewardship -of which budgeting is a critical aspect- is part of a life of discipleship. 

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Why We’re NOT Saving for College

One of the first things people used to say to us when we told them we wanted a large family was, “But how do you plan to pay for college for all those kids?” My answer was simple and usually shocked them: “We don’t.”

It’s hard to argue that we don’t encourage an extended adolescence for our children these days. In addition to providing the right clothes and expensive, popular electronics during childhood, we’re now also expected to:

  • buy our children’s first car (at age 16, of course),
  • replace that car when they wreck it,
  • pay for college (of their choice),
  • pay for at least one semester abroad,
  • help them get their first job and apartment,
  • pay their credit card bills if they can’t,
  • pay for their wedding,
  • let them move back in as an adult (indefinitely and rent-free), and
  • help raise our grandchildren.

In fact, adults moving back in with mom and dad has become so common we have a name for them: boomerang kids.

It goes without saying that we’re not going to feed into the clothing and electronics competition so many parents fall prey to today, mostly because we can’t afford it. But we’re also not going to subsidize my adult children’s lifestyles, either. And that starts with paying for college.

First, it’s not our job to pay for college. As parents, we’re morally obligated to provide the material needs of food, shelter, and clothing, along with basic secular and religious education. Beyond that, my children are not entitled to a new car, a college education, or a big wedding. They’re not entitled to a certain standard of living, either. They’re only entitled to having their basic needs met by me and their father until they’re capable of providing for their own needs.

Second, we’re not going to compromise our family’s quality of life now to save for something our kids may not even need in the future. We have no idea what vocation God will call our children to; to follow Him, they may not even need a college education or a wedding. If they’re unsure of their vocational calling as young adults, they can go into the workforce or military. Too many young people go to college with no clear vocational direction, spending their parents’ money or racking up debt for themselves unnecessarily.

If God does call our children to a professional career that requires college or to married life, they can 1) worry about it once they discern that call, and 2) trust that God will provide what they need THEN to follow His will. Jesus tells us over and over that we’re to trust God to provide what we need, when we need it.

And He said to His disciples, “For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! You men of little faith! And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (Luke 12)

Obviously, we have to work and do our part, too. We also have to be good stewards of His financial gifts and part of that is saving money when we can. Even then, though, like everything else, we must consider the reason we save and its impact on our spiritual lives and families. It’s hard to argue that saving to afford another child, for a sterilization reversal, for emergencies, or for retirement is the same as saving to buy your teenager a car or a lavish wedding day. “What’s the highest good we can achieve by using God’s money?” we’re required to ask. Rarely is the answer, “To pay for things my adult child may want in the future.”

My three older kids actually fight over who’s going to play with and take care of our 2-year-old toddler. What a loss if we’d stopped having children to save for the older ones to go to college.

One of the saddest outcomes I’ve seen among couples who believe they’re obligated to pay for college is that they limit their family size to do so. I simply can’t imagine God wanting us to deprive our children of more siblings so we can save for the day when one or two of them might need to go to college. A sibling is a friend given to you by God to accompany and support you on the journey of life. My youngest sister, Darlene, is priceless to me. I’m the oldest and she’s the fourth child; I shudder to imagine the richness my life would have lost without her in it, if our parents had decided to stop at two kids to save for my college or wedding. A sibling is an incomparable gift infinitely more valuable to our children than any future financial benefit we can offer them.

Finally, paying your own way builds character and we don’t serve our children when we pay for things that are actually their responsibility to earn. I’ve seen so many middle-aged couples who’ve taken out a second mortgage, dipped into retirement savings, or even taken on a second job to pay for their child’s college or wedding. No matter how extravagant, selfish, or unnecessary the child’s wedding wish, the parents bend over backwards to provide it because it’s their baby’s “special day.” They forfeit their own financial security to cater to their adult children, spending money they don’t have because they can’t bear to say those terrifying four words: “We can’t afford that.” Or better yet, “Pay for it yourself.”

If my kids want a big wedding, they can work, save, and pay for it. If they want a new car, they can work, save, and pay for it. If they want to go to college, they can apply for scholarships and grants, work part-time, and take out loans to pay for it. They can decide whether wracking up $120,000 in student loans to earn $30,000 a year as a teacher is prudent, or whether half that time at community college and the rest at a cheaper state college would achieve the same goal. Let them learn to assess the true value of things and decide whether the sacrifices to obtain it are worth it. It’s amazing how frugal young people become when they’re bankrolling the venture, not mom and dad.

I also want my children to become caring adults who consider others’ needs before their own. Which is why they won’t see me or their father taking out an extra mortgage or working overtime in our 50s or 60s to provide things they ought to be earning themselves. I attended a reputable liberal arts college in the mid-1990s, and saw countless young adults disregard the financial sacrifices their parents made to pay for their education. I’ll never forget my roommate calling her parents and screaming at them because they hadn’t sent enough spending money in the latest care package. (Never mind that her middle-class parents had taken out personal loans to put both her and her sister through college at the same time.) Most whose parents were footing the bill for college expected their parents to pay for spring break vacations to a tropical locale, too. My peers’ lack of gratitude was disgusting. And that was 20 years ago; young people today have an even stronger sense of entitlement toward their parents.

I’m sure by now my husband and I sound like stingy, selfish ogres. We’re really not. Like all parents, we want our children to lead happy and productive lives and to the extent we’re able, we’ll help them financially–when they NEED it. But the fact is, our family is solidly middle class and we have five children (so far). Whatever financial help we’re able to provide will necessarily be limited to what we can spare without compromising more important goals like having more children, providing for our younger children’s needs, and saving for retirement.

Even if we got a huge windfall tomorrow, however, and became fabulously wealthy, we still would not be financially supporting our adult children. We’d still expect them pay for the majority of their college education. We’d expect them pay their dues, which means making their own sacrifices to reach their goals. And be grateful for whatever we can contribute to their goals, without feeling entitled to spending our money as if it’s their own.

Yeah, it’s tough love. And I expect plenty of folks to disagree…especially our children! Oh, well. They’ll just have to thank us in hindsight.