This morning in church the Gospel reading was Luke 12:13-21, which follows:
Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."
Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
The priest spoke generally about having possessions, having too many possessions, being tied down to possessions, and so on, but didn't directly touch on what I find most interesting about this story. The man already had barns, right? The ones he was going to tear down? And in building these barns he had, presumably, determined the maximum amount of grain he needed to store to feed his household, sell some, and have an emergency stockpile. And yet, when he produced more than that quantity he had set for himself, he changed his perception of how much he needed to store.
This seems to be the American story, in my mind, at least for those who move middle-to-upper class over the course of their adult lives (and isn't that "the American dream"?). A young couple starts out with "nothing" -- which is how we refer to it, though it's not really nothing. It's a small salary, a small apartment, a tight budget. One or both of them is promoted. They start bringing in more money. They move to a house. They treat themselves to more luxuries. They make more money and spend more money taking care of the bigger house, the electronics, the cars, the boat/camper/jacuzzi/whatever. The more they make, the more they find to spend it on.
At what point do we say "enough"? That's not part of the American story. Maybe that's the myth, in our minds, that we'll get to a point where we have "everything," but there's always more to buy, and the message is that you're supposed to spend more as you earn more.
Last night we went to a party one of my coworkers and his wife hosted. We met another young couple -- maybe 4 years older than us -- who had recently bought a new place in the city, which I gathered to be an apartment. At one point one of them made a comment wondering when they'd be able to afford "a place like this" -- the second-floor condo where the party was held. Not to detract from the condo, which was beautifully decorated and certainly spacious, but it was essentially a long hallway with a living room on one end, a kitchen on the other, and a bedroom and bathroom off the middle. In my mind, it offered no advantages over what we currently have -- maybe some more square feet, but nothing we "need."
We do, eventually, want to move to a house (actually, build our own), but that's because we want to have five kids. In designing our house, we're trying to minimize unnecessary space -- our kids can share rooms; we want easily movable furniture to have adaptable spaces. I just don't grasp the notion of wanting to move "up" for some psychological or social reason.
I recently read an article on Mint.com (one of my favorite sites, if I haven't mentioned it enough) that suggested that the easiest way to make lots of money is to "act poor." (Then the article goes off in some other direction about why you should invest in the stock market now, but anyway.) This is the part that I found most relevant to what I'm talking about:
Your friends probably won’t be doing this. The moment they get jobs, they're going to want a better car; fewer roommates; dinners on the town. And that's ever so tempting to do since you've likely suffered through lean years as a college student. And that new job you're getting could allow you to pay for some luxuries, even if it doesn't pay a lot. But there's a great pay off to living like a college student. If you manage to save really prodigiously for just a couple of years, you can build an emergency fund that will tide you over when times are really bad.The article is aimed at college grads, but I think the advice works for anyone. If you have a reasonable budget that takes care of your needs and doesn't deny you some wants as well, then there's no reason you have to change your budget every time you increase your cash flow.
To be clear, what I don't like is the idea of being a penny-pincher for the sake of hoarding as much money as possible. That's just being the rich guy with the bigger barns all over again. My mom always talks about how her father was so cheap that she had to pay her own way through college even though he had the money for it, and then when he died, she "got a bunch of money when I was too old to need it anymore." The point is not to save money for the sake of saving money.
I'll close with one final reference. Last summer at a garage sale I picked up a book by Larry Burkett called "The Complete Financial Guide for Young Couples." This was right before Mike and I got married, and I thought, what better time to read a book like this? The book is from the '80s, and I didn't realize until I started reading it that it had a Christian focus. What I loved the most about this book was his philosophy. Essentially he said: If you are making enough money to be relatively comfortable -- to take care of your needs and your basic wants -- and you have an emergency fund saved up, as well as a retirement fund and college funds for your kids, then you're set. That's it. You don't need to make crazy investments in the stock market; you don't need to invest in rental property. You don't need to take huge financial risks and chance getting yourself into debt.
This was completely the opposite message from practically every financial article I'd ever read or anything I'd heard from financial "experts," telling you to invest, create passive income, get out of the rat race, and don't you know you could be a millionaire if you play your cards right?
You can't take it with you, folks, and you'll never catch up to the Joneses, so if you're blessed to have a steady income that allows you to save a little every month -- give thanks.
P.S. Today marks one wonderful year of my married life with Mike -- here's to many more!