For most of my life, I’ve tried not to have to pay much attention to money. I chose a university that would pay me a full scholarship so I wouldn’t have the pressure of working during the school year and worrying about the debt I would incur. Despite being the captain of the math and science team in high school and going to a top engineering school, I majored in a course of study with much worse salary prospects (economics) simply because it was more interesting to me. When looking for summer jobs and thinking about post-graduation plans, money was one of the least important factors; I knew I lived cheaply, so I didn’t think money could really improve my life at that point.
That perspective eventually began to change during grad school when my scholarships began to run out. Looking ahead I realized I would end up with $65,000 in debt by the time I finished my studies. When looking at my career options, I also realized that some of the more interesting jobs in the places I wanted to live wouldn’t really pay enough to support Kate (while she finished her PhD) and I while still making payments on my student loans. To be honest, the realization that money actually had some control over my life ticked me off. (Looking back now, I know I was very lucky to have avoided having to worry about money for so long. I would be better off if I'd started to pay attention much sooner!) I finally acknowledged that I would need to take money more seriously and I began pursuing some of the more higher-paying career options out of grad school. However, this didn't fit well with how I wanted to live my life. I didn't want to always be worrying about how high my income was and limiting my location and activities simply because I wasn't making enough money...
The Chart That Changed My Life
Then one day I was browsing the internet to avoid writing my thesis and came across a chart similar to this (described more fully here).
How Savings Rate Affects Working Years Until the Rung of Independence
I had a series of reactions and realizations:
“Whaaaaaaaaaaat. That’s all there is to it?!? All I have to do is have a high savings rate and then it is only X number of years until I never have to make decisions influenced by money again?”
“Yeah I guess that makes sense – even though retirement is usually defined as reaching a certain age, really the key part is just having enough money. “Retirement” could be possible at any age if I have enough money to replace what I would get from Social Security or a pension.”
“But how I do get that high of a savings rate? I suppose if I took that higher-paying job but continued to spend the amount of money I spend in graduate school, I would already be saving (or paying off debt with) nearly half of my salary…”
So for a while, that was it. I showed the chart to Kate and she was immediately on board. We decided that our broad financial goal would be financial independence. With a sense of purpose motivated by anger and annoyance that my career and geographical options were limited by the need for a certain level of salary, I became committed to plotting our escape from required full-time employment. I wanted us to be able to follow our skills and interests and opportunities in life, whether they were paid or not. I began to meticulously research our housing, transportation, and lifestyle options near my future job in DC in an effort to keep our expenses as low as possible and our savings rate as high as possible.
But Wait, I'm a Christian - Does That Matter?
And then, after these initial exciting realizations, I remembered that I am a Christian, and perhaps my life plan for the next several decades perhaps shouldn’t be motivated by anger at something as normal as a full-time job. I came to admit that both sounds and is silly. This caused the next series of reactions and realizations in my head:
“Dangit! Does this mean I should indeed plan to work a typical job until my 60’s? My career does provide something society needs (better government accounting and finance), and lazing about all day isn’t exactly the ideal of Christianity.”
“Wait a sec - why am I assuming I will just be lazing about all day if I save enough money to live off of? I’ve never been happy doing that before, and don’t see why I would start now. Also, my career isn’t unethical, but it isn’t a particularly Christian career either. I could probably find at least a dozen unpaid ways of spending my time that would be more impactful than making government a little more efficient.”
“But what if I reach financial independence and realize that I am, in fact, really good at making government more efficient and it is the most impactful use of my time? Well, that’s okay! Just because I have enough money to retire doesn’t mean I have to. If that’s the case, I could give away my salary instead of continuing to save it.”
“Whoa! Give my whole salary away? That much money could make a big difference somewhere - probably the equivalent of saving a good number of lives each year through mosquito nets or providing clean water or vaccines or some such.”
“Hmmm. Saving lives is kind of a big deal. Jesus did talk quite a bit about giving to the poor, comforting the sick, and feeding the hungry. If I could help save lives by careful planning and budgeting my finances, then really the only Christian thing to do is carefully plan and budget my finances!”
“Well, that’s that then. Maybe in 10-15 years when we reach financial independence we will stop working to do something more impactful. Not sure exactly what that would be, but I’ve got a few ideas in my head and a while to figure it out. Or maybe my job will be impactful, and I will want to keep working and give my whole salary away. With that kind of money saved up, I would also be in a good position to negotiate a job that allows me the time to be a good neighbor, family member, and generally focus more on the million ways to be a good Christian. Either way, spending money unnecessarily now won’t really help anyone or anything.”
Those conversations took place in my head over a few weeks in early 2014 and have changed the course of my life since. After mulling over all this for the past few years, I’ve had a few more thoughts.
Saving a large amount of money, which can then be used to give to the poor or to purchase freedom from needing to spend time earning a salary, is a very powerful prospect. I have come to believe that I, as an American living in this age of prosperity, should not be wasting this powerful opportunity to use my financial resources responsibly. I think a lot about Luke's take on this:
Or, in a similar vein, Spiderman’s memorable words:
“With great power comes great responsibility...”
It has also made me wonder why I don’t hear about communities of Christians who already have figured this out and are all giving 50% or more of their income away. I’ve heard about several notable Christian philanthropists, but they have all been isolated wealthy individuals rather than groups of middle-class Americans who are committed to simple living and financial responsibility. Of course, it is not all that easy to be that disciplined with money (which Jesus pointed out):
In other words, it’s pretty dang hard. I haven’t sewn since Home Ec in 7th grade, but my master-quilter mother assures me that camels are much larger than needles. In my experience, that has been true too. When faced with the option of purchasing yet another board game or a fancy new bicycle, I can find it difficult to turn it down and say “no, that is not a good use of money.” But since I’ve been entrusted with this opportunity to have more wealth than I need, I know that “even more will be demanded” of me. And that probably means I shouldn’t buy a board game if I don’t have time to play it or a slightly faster bicycle when mine can already beat the estimated Google Maps travel time (if I’m trying really hard, otherwise dang Google is over-optimistic about my skills).
For me, my “conversion” to caring about money, frugality, and financial planning came at the convergence of three different thoughts.
- I don't want to make all my life decisions based on money.
- Responsible financial planning makes it within my power to reach financial independence!
- As a Christian, my life is not just about what I want – so I have a deep responsibility to think deliberately about my decisions regarding my finances.
These three ideas have been in turn exciting, scary, intimidating, and life-giving. But they are the ideas driving my life.
Of course, my plan should not be everyone's plan, but I have come to realize over the past few years that I need far less money to be happy than a typical income would provide, so to waste that surplus would be wrong. As I talked about in What Is Money, the particular context of each person’s life and personality make so that even while I have little to no room to judge other people’s choices, I still have plenty of room to judge myself! Which I must do, because as an American in the 21st century I am definitely a camel...
Note from Kate: My “conversion” story is much the same as Alex's, and started with Alex telling me about that fateful chart. I won't rehash it here, but I will say that just starting to be deliberate with our money decisions has opened up opportunities that I never imagined.