I read through Dr. Richard Swenson’s book Margin every year. I usually pick it up when life has once again become too chaotic. As I do, I’m convicted afresh at how I spend my time, my resources, my day-to-day life.
Recently, I flipped open to the chapter about finances. Patrick and I have walked twenty years of marriage—without financial margin and with financial margin. I can attest living with it is much better!
One particular time of stress came when we lived in Southern France as church planters. We’d been there six weeks. Life was full of cultural transition, wary children, undiagnosed and relentless sickness, bewilderment, and a gnawing feeling that we were crazy. When we saw our giving report—near month’s end we were less than fifty percent supported—part of me panicked. How can we live on that? Lord, what are You doing?
And then I reevaluated. And remembered.
God had been utterly faithful to us in the past. Why wouldn’t He be faithful again?
As I wrangled with panicked thoughts, I thanked God that He had brought us on a budgeting journey—that today, we would benefit from all those years of following God’s direction for finances. At the computer I restructured our budget, bringing it down to bare essentials. Although we hadn’t used the envelope system since we were first married, I decided to reinstate it, so we could physically see where our cash was going.
When I presented the lower budget to my husband Patrick, we both smiled. All those years of budgeting benefited us today, on many levels:
- We learned the necessity of debt-free living.
- We started budgeting the moment we were married.
- We lived on my husband’s income and used my teaching salary to save for a house and pay off debts.
- When our first child was born, I was able to stay home because we were accustomed to living on one income.
- By God’s grace, we became debt-free several years later.
Before you think we were poster children of fiscal perfection, let me assure you that we made many financial mistakes—buying two houses that were too expensive for us, estimating our budget based on a projected raise (that never materialized), and buying a minivan when we didn’t have the means to make the payments. Yet, God was faithful. And when He called us to be church planters in Western Europe, we were able to leave, no debt attached.
We learned discipline. Because we’ve existed within the parameters of a budget, we’ve learned how to get along with much and with lack. I’ve winnowed down our food budget substantially. We’ve saved money to pay cash for used cars. We’ve shopped around for the best deals on insurance. But, mainly, it’s been the simple, daily discipline of keeping the budget that is a great benefit to us today.
We learned to live on sporadic, transient income. Twelve years ago, Patrick felt God’s calling to pastoral ministry. Two years later, we moved to Dallas for seminary. For seven months, Patrick had no regular income while we siphoned our savings. At the moment we were to run out of money, he landed a good contract. Still, it was never easy. Our income resembled an undulating cosine wave—up and down, up and down. We learned to budget over the period of a year so that our down months were fed by our up months. After four years of seminary, by God’s provision, Patrick graduated with a ThM—and no debt.
We learned the importance of giving. When the giving report came in during our time in France, I was tempted to stop some of our offerings. Thankfully, a friend reminded me of God’s provision and faithfulness. So, we wrote those checks as a joyful offering to Him. Just because we were missionaries (and receiving our livelihood from the generosity of others) didn’t mean we would cease to be givers. I’ve realized there is always a temptation to lessen giving. Always. Yet, by God’s grace, we’ve been able to increase our tithes and offerings yearly even as missionaries.
Even today, stateside, we struggle. We make wrong decisions. We worry. But, we’ve found that a debt-free lifestyle, persistent budgeting with regular and sporadic income, and a heart bent on giving has helped us navigate life’s financial battlefield.
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Life is undeniably a gift from God, but this does not mean that it will unfold exactly as we desire. When we give gifts, unplanned things may happen. The warning every child hears when receiving a BB gun as a gift, is about shooting an eye out. We give gifts with the best of intentions, but life is too complicated for us to control how it unfolds. Solomon said it this way, “time and chance happen to everyone,” (Eccl. 9:11). This does not mean that the gift is flawed. It just means that we do not control every detail of life. It means that people have the ability to make their own decision. In the process of making decisions, some people make poor decisions. The only way life could function flawlessly is for God to take away our ability to make choices. I do not think any of us want God to turn us into preprogrammed little robots. That leaves us with our current situation, God gave us the gift of life and many people misuse that gift. This means that sometimes we will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone else makes a bad choice and we will suffer.
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