Gregory S. De Jong
A young man came to me seeking financial advice upon the recommendation of his parents. There had been many similar inquiries over my two decades as a financial planner, typically from young adults wondering how to save up for their first home or curious if they should open an IRA. But this conversation was different: “I love her; we’ve been dating for three years, and I would like to think about marriage,” he explained, “but I know that if we do marry, I’ll inherit her $50,000 of student loans. It doesn’t seem right.” He was struck by the contrast between his parents, who had encouraged him to work and save during high school and college, and her parents, who, despite limited financial means, had encouraged her to attend a private college and cover tuition primarily by borrowing. Sadly, this young couple’s relationship soon ended.
What are we to think about debt? While most Christians would concur that “excessive debt” is unwise, what exactly does that mean? With whom are we to talk about debt—or, even more generally, our personal finances? The topic may seem unworthy of an adult Sunday school class and too personal to discuss with peers. Our parents may have felt uncomfortable broaching the topic or unqualified to offer more than the truisms they heard from their parents. And so, more often than not, we default to a pragmatic view that says, “I’m intelligent enough to figure this out ... and the lender’s guidelines will keep me from getting into too much trouble.”
We may be tempted to think that the Bible’s teaching on debt is appropriate for a simple, Old Testament, agrarian society, but lacking in specific guidance for today’s modern economy. Too quickly, we abandon our efforts to think biblically and critically about significant financial choices, and we adopt a decision matrix indistinguishable from that of our unsaved neighbor. In so doing, are we becoming blind to one of our culture’s most insidious means of enslaving us? Of particular concern, are we ushering our teens and twentysomethings into adulthood, ignorant of debt’s unintended consequences and ill-equipped to counter its siren song?
Many of the consequences of significant debt are obvious. Unpaid mortgages result in foreclosure and loss of one’s home. Unpaid car loans may result in one’s car being repossessed in the dead of night. A tarnished credit score, inability to borrow, and perhaps even garnishment of wages or personal bankruptcy are outcomes we’ve heard about, but hopefully not experienced.
What are debt’s less obvious consequences, particularly when the size of the debt is such that it will demand many years of concerted effort to repay? As an example, let’s consider Tom, a hypothetical 24-year-old who has $25,000 of student loans, has recently traded his worn-out college car for new wheels (and a $20,000 car loan), owes his parents $3,000, and has a $2,000 credit card balance. He has full-time work, and his wages easily cover his rent, car payment, and normal living expenses, but he’s only making the minimum payments on his student loans and he can’t seem to work off his credit card balance, much less pay back mom and dad. Tom’s story is a common one, and neither Tom nor his parents are too concerned; after all, many of Tom’s friends went on to graduate school and have loan balances that are double or even triple his.
Although Tom hasn’t spent much time pondering this, he’s going to be digging out of his $50,000 hole for a long time. When the car loan is paid off in five or six years, he may have only a few years’ respite before he’s tempted to buy another car. It will be a decade or more until his final student loan payment is made. As for the credit card and what he owes his parents, he’s hoping his next pay raise will help. “I’m making my payments; everything will work out fine,” thinks Tom.
Why should we be worried about the Toms (and Suzies) in our midst? The list is long: Is Tom tithing? To the extent he puts anything in the collection plate, is it done cheerfully or reluctantly? Has he built up an emergency reserve to cover financial surprises, or will those end up on his credit card? How will he accumulate a down payment to someday purchase a home or condo? Will his debt complicate a relationship that might otherwise lead to marriage? If Tom is married, what stress does the constant juggling of finances add to his relationship with his wife? Is Tom carrying appropriate insurance coverage (health, life, disability), so that these contingencies don’t result in a financial catastrophe for his wife, his parents, or his church’s diaconal fund? Will tight finances delay starting a family? Once children arrive, will the choice of schooling be dictated primarily by a lack of money? If Tom experiences any financial setback, will his parents feel compelled to keep him afloat (as have many of my clients), to the detriment of their own financial security? Although never intended, Tom has entered adulthood with a financial albatross around his neck that may impair him spiritually and relationally for a decade or more.
Is debt really a problem in our covenant community? While the Bible certainly gives us a better guide for responsible financial decision making than anything the world possesses, are we truly using it to transform our thinking and our habits? Are we really buying less expensive homes and carrying lower credit card balances than our unsaved neighbors? Are we actually keeping our lives free from the love of money and fostering contentment (Heb. 13:5; 1 Tim. 6:8–10)? Hopefully most of us are, but that probably doesn’t represent our Achilles heel as a community anyway.
Our vulnerability lies in the arena of higher education. Speaking only in generalities, and lacking hard statistics, let us consider some of our traits. We tend to place a high value on obtaining a college education. Many of us strongly favor private Christian colleges with their higher costs, compared to state or community colleges. Some of us send our daughters off to such institutions secretly hoping that they will find a godly husband and only work for a few years before producing grandchildren for us.
We consider it acceptable and even desirable to usher a large percentage of our high school graduates off to a four-year “investment” in themselves, often without any serious attempt at comparing the very real costs with the hoped-for benefits. Is a four-year degree really appropriate in light of the teen’s career aspirations? If those are unclear, would it be better to work for a few years while goals come into focus? Could the local community college satisfy core requirements adequately at a fraction of the cost? Does a graduate degree, which theoretically qualifies you for a $10,000 higher annual salary, really justify $40,000 of additional debt and two years’ delay in receiving that first paycheck? Have you factored in that the $10,000 salary increase is only $6,000 net of tithe and federal, state, and payroll taxes, and that the debt with interest may ultimately exceed $55,000?
Above all, is anyone, whether parent, grandparent, youth leader, or deacon, helping our young people understand the enormity of the financial decisions that they are making? How many parents are sitting down with Tom or Suzie and saying, “We don’t know exactly what college will bring, what scholarships you may get, or what summer jobs will be available, but no matter what, let’s agree that under no circumstances will you borrow more than $15,000”?
How many are starting even earlier by emphasizing to our young teens the value of a part-time job, the importance of the tithe, and the prudence of saving for the future? Yes, a schedule filled with babysitting or lawn mowing may restrict our children’s social life, after-school activities, summer sports camps, and mission trips, but should we help them understand self-denial and delayed gratification at age 15 or wait until it is forced on them at age 24 by a crushing debt load?
If you know or suspect that you are not managing your finances well, where should you turn? Certainly the foundation for all of your efforts should be the Word and prayer. Ask for wisdom and discernment; ask for a clearer sense of your blind spots, of where you are most susceptible to financial temptation. Pray for a teachable spirit and someone to whom you can be accountable.
Then seek out help, recognizing that it probably needs to extend over a sustained period of time. While debt problems occasionally result from a single, unexpected calamity, far more often they stem from habits or attitudes that have been present for many years and will not be easily dislodged. Your deacons might be of much help, or you may know a Christian accountant or financial planner. Meeting with them for an hour or two might provide at least a recommended course of action, but without sustained follow-up and accountability, lasting change is unlikely.
Outside resources, such as Crown Financial (www.crown.org), Dave Ramsey (www.daveramsey.com), and Compass (www.compass1.org) should be considered. While their theology may differ from ours in some areas, these fellow Christians bring experience, practical tools, and a well-structured approach that could be invaluable.
Finally, for those with the opportunity to impact our teens, make wise financial stewardship a part of the legacy you pass on to them. May God bless our efforts to raise up the next generation that serves him even more faithfully than we.
The author is a ruling elder at Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Ill., and a member of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, June 2014.