Here’s a scenario for you. You are serving at a church and things go sour. I mean, they go really sour. Meetings are arranged behind your back. Students stop coming to events and making excuses to avoid you. Your weekly staff meeting with the pastoral team becomes a finger pointing competition. And all roads are leading back to you. You’ve done nothing wrong but everyone hates you. You leave the meeting and head back to your office. You know your ministry at this church is coming to an end. You have felt it ending for a long time. And you are sweating the reality that a job search is imminent.
All spiritual realities aside. In these moments, and all vocational people in a church will one day be in these moments, there are two positions you can be in.
Position A: You can make a rational decision, knowing that you will be financially OK whether you stay at this ministry or not.
Position B: You can make an irrational decision, knowing that if you get fired you are screwed financially.
[Of course, I’m simplifying this as there are lots of options.] The point is that when things hit the fan at work you need to be able to make a decision that is ultimately best for you and your family. And being knee deep in debt with no savings is not going to help.
Having worked in churches for nearly 10 years I know that there is rarely much margin between income and expense. And this makes saving money hard and acquiring debt easy. Add to that mix that many people in youth ministry brought college debts into ministry… and you have a recipe for disaster!
So, practically speaking, what can you do?
#1 Most Important Thing: You need to figure out how to get a few grand in the bank. You hear every single personal finance person say this and there is a good reason. Having 2-3 months living expenses in the bank allows you the freedom to make decisions that are best for you and not just what will get you through the next couple of months. Living paycheck to paycheck just leads to you acquiring more and more debt. I believe for folks in ministry this is more important than paying down debts… our jobs are just that insecure. And this goes beyond just job issues. I don’t think you can seriously build a budget until you have this little bit of breathing room.
With almost no margin, how do I get that much cash in the bank? Some ideas…
– Sell stuff. Have a garage sale. Have a bake sale. Sell used books on Amazon. Sell your baseball cards on Ebay. Sell your extra car.
– Make more money. We’ll talk more about this in another post. But practically speaking, if there is no margin between what you bring in and what goes out you will need to find another source of income. For Kristen and I this meant that Kristen watched a child from the church four days a week. It wasn’t much… but it helped us widen the margin. If you’re single… you’ll need to look for alternate forms of income. Again, we’ll talk more about this in part five.
– Spend less money. That’s easier said than done, I know. Our friends mocked us, but in Michigan Kristen and I learned that by heating our house less we could find a bit of margin. Also, cutting back on things you don’t really use that much can make a big difference. Remember this is just temporary until you get a few grand in the bank. 6 months without DVR or trips to Starbucks will be worth it.
– Decide a dollar amount to save per paycheck. I take great pleasure in transfering a prescribed dollar amount to savings every payday. But if you lack the discipline to do that, there are more forceful options. If you have direct deposit simply direct a set amount to your savings account so you never actually see it as spendable income! A more manual way to do this is to ask the person who cuts paychecks at the church to write you two seperate checks. One goes in checking and the other goes in savings. If you really lack discipline… go ahead and have the take out your tithe/offering too!
#2 Most important thing: You need to stop using your credit cards. When Kristen and I got married we didn’t have any debts. About a year later we bought a car and went into debt big time to make it happen. But that wasn’t the really dumb thing. The dumb thing is that a few weeks later I said “yes” to an offer for a Discover Card. That thing has been a thorn in my side ever since. At first we paid it off every month and I only used it for gas purchases. Then, we took 3 months to pay for a laptop. Then we bought some furniture. And started using it everywhere we went. Then the monthly balance was so high I couldn’t make myself pay $1000 per month so we let the debt build a little. Before we knew it, it was almost maxed out and we were screwed! The point is… until you take the first step and take using the credit card as part of your buying habits… it’ll own you.
– Stop carrying it with you if its a temptation.
– I like using plastic for every purchase, that’s why I use my debit card.
– Come up with a repayment plan on your own. Currently, we dedicate one of Kristen’s paychecks to savings and one to paying down debt each month.
– As you pay down the balance, call the card company and ask them to lower your limit. While you’re at it ask them to lower your interest rate.
– Try to pay at least double the minimum payment… you need to get the principle down ASAP to incur less interest payments.
– Once you get a few grand in the bank, turn all your efforts to getting rid of credit card debts. If you have more than one debt, pay the one with the highest interest rate off first.
#3 Most important thing. Reward yourself! Look, our jobs are hard. And I think some of the reason so many of us get ensnared in debt and no savings is because we overcompensate and reward ourselves too much. I think there is ample reason to celebrate your successes and take time to celebrate. My beef with Dave Ramsey’s style of personal finance is that he’s too aggressive. He sets you up for a fad diet… and once you reach your goals you have starved yourself so much that you are liable to go buy something stupid just because you can. I go for a more reasonable style of savings/debt repayment. I’m OK with it taking a few months longer if it means I make sustainable changes to my life. That’s why we reward ourselves regularly along the way. We save up a little something outside of our “plan” and then do fun things! Our family has a date night each week… it’s frivolous, but it is a nice reward. I think you deserve to treat yourself for doing a good job! I know in youth ministry there aren’t many other people who will reward you, so reward yourself.
Here’s the good news. Getting a few grand in the bank will probably only take you 6 months if you make it a legit goal. And from there you can turn your DVR and your heat back up! But a little bit of pain is going to go a long, long way for you sustaining in youth ministry into your 30s and beyond.