Balanced

One bankruptcy judge shares about debt, faith, and how to keep your budget

By Mary D. France

As a bankruptcy judge, I see people from all walks of life struggling with debt on a daily basis. As a Christian, I see how financial brokenness can lead to broken spiritual lives. And as a member of a BIC church, I see how important it is to consider the financial health of our members, just as we are concerned about their physical and spiritual well-being.

Yet so often, people in the Church seem reluctant to talk about money or stewardship. Despite the fact that we are just as likely as our neighbors to be in deep debt and anxious about our financial futures—especially around the holidays and in today’s financially unstable times—we avoid the conversation, either too ashamed or too intimidated to discuss our struggles and triumphs with one another.

However, if we recognize that a relationship between our finances and our hearts exists, then avoiding discussions on debt is an inappropriate and irrelevant response. The good news is that open dialogue on the subject really can make a difference in someone’s life. For although the specific reasons for a household’s difficulties may vary, I’ve noticed that a few common indicators consistently surface during most financial crises. I’ve also found that if steps are taken early on to prepare for these circumstances, the critical situations can often be avoided. Take Michael and Jen Snyder, for example: two hardworking individuals who appear to be living well, but who find themselves unexpectedly overwhelmed by debt.

Case study: Meet the Snyders

Michael and Jen are in their 30s and have two pre-schoolers. Michael manages an electronics store at the mall, and Jen is a first-grade teacher in the public schools. Jen’s widowed mother lives in the same city and provides day care when Jen is working. Too cramped in their small apartment, the Snyders bought a three-bedroom home four years ago with a small down payment loaned by Michael’s parents. The Snyders’ savings include Michael’s 401(k), Jen’s state pension, and a college fund they started for the kids last year. The monthly payment on their house consumes about half of their take-home pay. They also have car payments on Jen’s two-year-old minivan and Michael’s new truck. They carry a balance of between one and two thousand dollars on their credit cards. It is their policy to use the cards only for “big ticket” items like the refrigerator they had to buy in July and for trips to visit Michael’s parents in California. Because they are committed Christians, they contribute regularly to their church and have tried to move toward tithing. They are living comfortably and believe they are managing their finances well. After all, they are able to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their family, support their church’s ministries, and make all their debt payments when they are due.

Soon, however, dark clouds begin to roll in. Jen’s mom is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In order to provide the care she will need, the Snyders decide to add a fourth bedroom to the first floor of their home. They take out a home equity loan to finance the construction, which increases their monthly house payment by $240.00. They also make plans to take their kids to day care because Jen’s mom will no longer be able to care for them, which adds another $725.00 each month to their expenses. Just after the home addition is completed, Michael’s company closes the store he manages, putting him out of work for three months. Although Michael receives unemployment compensation payments, they are less than what he had been earning at the electronics store. To fill the gap, the Snyders begin using their credit cards to purchase food, clothing, and shoes for the kids, and new tires for the mini-van. In a relatively short period of time they amass $12,000 in credit card debt. During the period Michael was out of work, they miss a couple of mortgage payments. Now the mortgage company informs them that if delinquent amounts are not paid immediately, it will begin foreclosure. By the time Michael gets a new job, their finances are in shambles.

Michael and Jen face some tough choices. They can try to sell their home and find a cheaper place to live, but it will be difficult to find accommodations that will allow Jen’s mother to continue to live with them. Either Michael or Jen can get a second job, but this will place a greater burden on the other spouse to care for their young children and Jen’s mom. They may decide to file bankruptcy so they can obtain a breathing spell while they restructure their debt, but they see this as a personal and moral failure. None of these alternatives is attractive.

Coping with challenges, maintaining priorities

Could the Snyders’ situation have been avoided? Although some of their problems may have been caused by overspending, Michael’s job loss and the illness of Jen’s mom were outside of the couple’s control. And the credit card debt they incurred represented their desperate attempts to pay for the necessities following the loss of income, not the injudicious “splurging” on luxury items.

As the recent Nationwide television commercials warn, life comes at you fast. Until disaster strikes, many do not fully appreciate their financial vulnerability. Like Michael and Jen, they lack a financial cushion to enable them to meet their living expenses when life does not proceed according to plan.

Resources for becoming balanced

As global markets fluctuate, folks across North America are feeling the pinch. And as our personal financial positions adjust, now is a great time to take a look at where exactly your money is going and to make adjustments as needed. Here are some resources to help you on your way:

Create your own budget

* betterbudgeting.com

Calculate the amount you need for a solid emergency fund

* bankrate.com

Receive counsel in debt and financial planning

* mma-online.org

Reflect on the broader implications of stewardship shared in the BIC devotional guide “What’s it all about?”

* bic-church.org/ministries/wiaa

This is where prevention and planning come in. Financial difficulties are bound to occur, and although financial planning does not prevent adversity, it does enable people to cope with these challenges while maintaining their priorities.

Wisdom in planning

But is planning for one’s future financial security a Christian practice? What about Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:31 that we should not worry about our lives—what we will eat, drink, or wear?

I don’t believe Jesus condemned planning; He simply warned that advancing the kingdom of God, not ensuring personal financial security, must be a Christian’s first priority. After all, everything that we have belongs to God. It is important to manage His resources wisely and to rely upon Him, rather than our own strength or plans, for our provisions in life. As Matthew 6:33 reminds us, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Actually, the importance of planning for the future is affirmed in the Bible. Proverbs 21:5 instructs that, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” And in Luke 14:28–30, Jesus cautions His followers to weigh the cost of discipleship: “For which of you, when intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ ”

How to avoid the debt trap

To lay a proper financial foundation and avoid becoming mired in debt, most financial advisors recommend the following steps:

* Identify your values. Determine what is important to you. Try to name five core values that you would place at the center of your life. As Christians, our financial responsibilities extend beyond ourselves to our churches, our communities, and the world. We know that our lives can only be full and rich if we dedicate ourselves to God and commit our financial resources to His guidance.

* Keep track of what you spend. You may be surprised to find where your money goes. Do your expenditures reflect your values? Are you adapting to changing economic conditions, or are your expenditures dictated by habit? For example, in our current economy, food and gas prices are rising rapidly. Adjusting expenditures for other items may be needed to pay for these necessities. Keeping track of your spending also may identify “splurges” or impulse-buying patterns that may create financial hardships. Tracking your spending can be as simple as recording every expenditure in a small spiral notebook or as sophisticated as using a computer spreadsheet or program.

* Develop a family budget. A budget is simply a plan—a plan for how to spend the money you have. As Christians, we recognize that everything we have is a gift from God. We are not the owners; we are simply the managers of what He has entrusted to us. Our budget should reflect our values and enable us to set priorities for our spending.

* Start an emergency fund. Many financial advisors suggest that households maintain an emergency fund with enough money to cover expenses for three to six months. A payment to the emergency fund should be treated as if it were any other bill to be paid. Once you have generated a budget cushion, you will have the resources to meet basic needs if there is a job loss or extended illness, as well as the ability to take care of any major, unforeseen expenses, like getting new tires for your car or repairing a leaky roof. This may seem like a lot of cash to reserve, but as the Snyders found out, the consequences can be serious if you have no cushion at all.

* Eliminate bad debt. Although perspectives on debt can vary among Christian financial advisors—some suggest that all debt is bad, and others advise that wise borrowing enables families to lead fuller lives—all would agree that when debt becomes an overwhelming burden, it should be eliminated. David Ramsey, a radio host and author of several books on finance, suggests that you look at all your debts and work toward paying off the smallest one first. Once your first debt is paid, devote that payment toward paying down the second-smallest debt. Others advise first paying off debt with the highest interest rate and then applying that payment to the debt with the next-highest rate. Either plan can work if you are faithful about making the payments on a regular basis.

As a bankruptcy judge, I am empowered to help debtors obtain a fresh start. As a Christian, I strive to see debtors who appear before me as whole persons, loved by God and deserving of my honest and compassionate service. And as a member of a BIC church, I recognize that a person’s spiritual needs can be affected by the financial challenges that they face. Knowing this prompts me—as it should us all—to a life of greater sincerity and honesty as we each work to make our lives more balanced.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2008 issue of In Part magazine.
Mary D. France

Mary D. France serves as a U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pa. Off the bench, she speaks to high school and college students about the dangers of credit card abuse through the CARE Program. She and her husband, Ken, live in Boiling Springs and attend Grantham (Pa.) BIC.

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