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Money: The Great Mischief Maker

By Dr. James Dobson

I find it interesting that Jesus, who came to say so many important things and through whom the universe was made, spoke more about money than any other subject. Not only did He talk repeatedly of money, but most of His pronouncements included warnings about it. He had a dramatic encounter with a rich young ruler. He told disturbing parables about Lazarus and the rich man, and about the rich fool. He said, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21), and, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). And finally, He asked a question that has echoed down through the corridors of time: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26).

Twenty centuries later, we still have to deal with that eternal question.

The intervening years have made it clear why Jesus gave such emphasis to the dangers of money. Men have lusted for it, killed for it, died for it, and gone to hell for it. Money has come between the best of friends and brought down the proud and mighty. And alas, it has torn millions of marriages limb from limb! Materialism and debt have devastated more families than perhaps any other factor, and believe me, it could destroy your marriage as well.

Men and women tend to have different value systems which precipitate arguments about money. My father, for example, was a hunter who thought nothing of using three boxes of shotgun shells in an afternoon of recreational shooting. Yet, if my mother spent an equal amount of money on a "useless" potato peeler, he considered it wasteful. Never mind that she enjoyed shopping as much as he did hunting. They simply saw things differently. On a larger scale, this divergence can produce catastrophic arguments over how to allocate limited resources. Curiously, those with unlimited financial resources are in no less jeopardy. One of the richest men of his time, J. Paul Getty, owned an estate that exceeded $4 billion in net worth. This is what he wrote in his autobiography, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1981.

"I have never been given to envy, save for the envy I feel toward those people who have the ability to make a marriage work and endure happily. It's an art I have never been able to master. My record: five marriages, five divorces. In short, five failures."

The article continues:

"He termed the memories of his relationship with five sons "painful." Much of his pain has been passed on with his money. His most treasured offspring, Timothy, a frail child born when Getty was fifty-three, died in 1958 at the age of twelve, of surgical complications after a sickly life spent mostly separated from his father who was forever away on business.

Other members of the Getty family also suffered from tragic circumstances. A grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped and held for a ransom of $2.9 million. When Getty refused to pay they held the boy for five months and eventually cut off his right ear. Getty's oldest son apparently committed suicide amid strange circumstances. Another son, Gordon Paul Getty, has been described as living a tortured existence. He was ridiculed in correspondence by his father and was the least favored son. Similar sorrow has followed other members of his unfortunate family."

Not many of us will have to worry about managing an estate the size of J. Paul Getty's. But whatever our financial status, there are monetary principles we should understand and apply if we are to protect our families. Because of the critical nature of this discussion, we are going to turn to an expert for advice. Following is an edited version of an interview I conducted with Larry Burkett on a Focus on the Family broadcast. Larry is president of Christian Financial Concepts, and has devoted his life to helping families live within their means. I believe the advice that follows will be especially helpful to young couples who are establishing lifelong spending habits. Now is the time to lay hold of these fundamental principles.

DOBSON: Larry, based on your experience as a financial counselor, what is the most important advice you can give a young married couple about managing their money?

BURKETT: Without question, the first counsel I offer is the area of credit and its potential to destroy a family. As I have often emphasized, credit is not the problem in itself, but its misuse poses a serious threat to the well-being of the home. In this context, I often tell couples to label their credit cards: "Danger--Handle with Care!"

Credit is so accessible in our society today; it can be used for every conceivable expenditure. It is very tempting for the typical family to use it to buy things they really cannot afford. By so doing, they don't avoid the inevitable payment, they only delay it, threatening their financial security in the future.

DOBSON: Describe how that process takes place. How does a young couple manage to slide into serious credit problems?

BURKETT: Many of the debt-ridden couples we counsel started down the road to financial ruin very early in their marriage. While the wedding bells were still ringing in their ears, they were arranging loans for cars, refrigerators, and dishwashers they really couldn't afford to own. About two years into the marriage, they were overwhelmed by their payments and decided to consolidate their debts into one loan. This maneuver helped them survive the moment, but it only forestalled the inevitable. They didn't change their spending habits and continued to use credit as a means for handling unexpected emergencies and for acquiring unnecessary items. It didn't take long before their monthly payments became too heavy again, only this time the outstanding debt was far greater. This led to feelings of hopelessness and guilt which caused them to begin arguing and blaming each other for their troubles. When they were this far down the path, bankruptcy and divorce became their likely destination.

DOBSON: How common is that tragic scenario?

BURKETT: I'm afraid it happens much too frequently. Studies indicate that approximately 80 percent of couples seeking divorce state that the focus of their disagreements is money.

DOBSON: How can they avoid running their finances and their marriage into the ground?

BURKETT: Money is either the best area of communication in a marriage or it is the worst. At the outset of their marriage, a couple must deal with questions such as: Who is going to balance the checkbook? How often will we eat out?

What kind of car will we buy? How will we pay for it? How will we use credit cards?

If a husband and wife can't have meaningful discussions and reach agreements over these questions, they probably can't talk about any of the other areas so vital for a healthy relationship. That's why I recommend that every couple sit down and develop a family budget. This is not a popular idea, but I believe many people have had bad experiences with budgets because they have misunderstood the concept. There are generally three reasons why couples have failed in this area. First, some men think the budget is a weapon they can use to attack their wife's spending habits. As a result, it becomes a source of constant bickering and fighting. Second, there are those who establish an unrealistic budget that inevitably ends up in the trash. Finally, many families try to correct three years of bad spending habits in three months. They become disillusioned with the budgeting process because they couldn't succeed immediately.

DOBSON: What is the proper approach to budgeting?

BURKETT: A budget is nothing more than a plan for spending money. It doesn't limit expenditures, it defines them. It makes this simple statement: "We have a given amount of income, and this is what we're going to do with it." If a husband and wife can agree on a basic plan and learn to appreciate each other's assets, I believe they will also begin to improve in other areas of communication as well.

DOBSON: How do they begin to develop an outline for their spending plan?

BURKETT: I would advise they approach their budget on an annual basis. A proper family budget is not a one-month spending plan: It is a twelve-month plan.

DOBSON: What are the major categories they must consider, and what percentages should be allocated to them?

BURKETT: I must be careful to point out that the percentages I provide are only guidelines. First, they should plan to set aside 10 percent of their gross income for tithing to their local church. And they can expect that the government will take 15 percent for income tax. Now let's look at the remaining amount and divide it into several categories with corresponding percentages.

Property Taxes     Life  
Utilities     Health  
Rent/Morgage     Medical  
Car Loan     Recreation  
Fuel     Vacations  

Obviously, these categories and percentages will vary according to a particular family’s priorities and preferences. But this is a good place to start.

DOBSON: Explain how these funds would actually be set aside for the intended purposes. Can you provide an example?

BURKETT: If you are paid twice each month, I recommend you take the amount allocated for your entertainment expenses, convert it to cash and put it in an envelope marked accordingly. Then, when you go out to a restaurant, ball game, or theater, use the money in that envelope. The key to budgeting is to stop spending for that specific category when the envelope is empty. That's the only way it will ever work.

DOBSON: As I look at these percentages, I'm sure many people will draw the conclusion that they will need a second income in order to make it. Will sending the wife to work solve the problem?

BURKETT: Unfortunately, if the motivation is to deal with overspending, the wife's employment will only accelerate the dilemma. She'll generate a greater income, which will give them a greater ability to borrow, and this will lead to greater debt. This contributes to a vicious cycle because she will be forced to work in order to help make payments on their loans.

DOBSON: You are not recommending that newly married wives never seek formal employment, are you?

BURKETT: Certainly not. I don't believe Scripture prohibits a wife from working outside the home, it just discourages it. I am merely suggesting that every young couple in the childbearing ages avoid depending on the wife's income. They must learn to live on the husband's wages. If the wife wants to work, then that income should be set aside, if possible. If they become committed to living on her income and she becomes sick or pregnant, the pressure of needing her income can eventually lead them down the credit road I described earlier. Let me reiterate. The second income is not the problem. It is indulgences and bad spending habits that create the problem.

DOBSON: Have you found a distinction between men and women in their attitudes concerning money?

BURKETT: It may surprise you, Dr. Dobson, but from my experience, I've found that the big spenders in our society are not the women, as we've been led to believe. On an impulse, a woman will buy too many clothes or too much food. On the same impulse, her husband may buy a boat, car, or airplane.

DOBSON: That's certainly a departure from conventional thinking! Isn't it true that women usually control the family's assets?

BURKETT: While that may be true, most families in financial trouble got there because of the husband's impulsive spending. As a general rule, women are far more careful with money than men. They tend to be more security oriented and have an inherent fear of debt. For this reason, I always stress the importance of communication and balance in a couple's relationship and attitudes about money. The husband and wife should agree on their budget. It is a cooperative plan. God intended for a husband and wife to "be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). That principle must certainly be practiced in the area of finances.

DOBSON: Who should conduct the bookkeeping chores in a family?

BURKETT: Assuming the couple has agreed on a spending plan, I would suggest the wife serve as bookkeeper. She is typically more disciplined and more motivated to make the budget succeed. That doesn't mean the husband yields leadership in the area of financial decisions. Remember, the more important decisions were made when the budget was established. The bookkeeper is simply allocating the expenditures that have already been predetermined.

DOBSON: Would you agree that the ultimate responsibility for the family's finances rests with the man?

BURKETT: Yes. As in other areas, the husband is designated in Scripture as leader in his home. He is held accountable by God for his family's well-being. I always advise that the man take a "hands-on" approach to the home finances if a problem develops.

DOBSON: What kind of insurance is appropriate for the family struggling financially?

BURKETT: There are two fundamental questions which must be addressed in regard to insurance. First, How much is necessary? Insurance should be used only to provide for the family's needs, never as a source of profit. Many couples make the mistake of using their policies as an investment tool, but these plans offer a very poor return on the investment (they may not even keep pace with inflation) and only serve the interest of the insurance company. Insurance should arrange to provide enough income to maintain the standard of living previously sustained by the principal wage earner before his death.

The second question is, How much can you afford? As I mentioned in our discussion of budgets, a good guideline for this expenditure is approximately 5 percent of your net income. For most families, this means that simple term insurance is the only option.

DOBSON: If insurance is not the best investment, what is?

BURKETT: I should preface my remarks in this area with the following axiom, "If you want my advice about investments, don't take my advice." I know what works for me, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will work for everyone else. However, I am willing to say that the average family should invest in things that have real value—items that have physical material assets. Thus, the best investment a couple can make is a home. It follows that the second best investment is rental property. If they have extra money and want to put it to use and don't mind the extra work, then they should buy a rental home, fix it up, and rent it. The value of a home will grow as fast as anything else and it has real value. Everyone needs a place to live, regardless of what happens in the economy.

Second, stay in familiar territory. Never invest in an area you don’t understand. I have rarely met a doctor who makes money outside of medicine. Most physicians make their money in medicine and then lose it in egg farms, ranches, and oil wells.

DOBSON: I deeply appreciate your perspectives, Larry, because they represent scriptural absolutes that are relevant to every marriage. You've given us much to think about. If you could summarize all of your advice into a single statement what would you say?

BURKETT: Let me conclude by repeating four simple words: Stay out of debt. If young couples remember nothing else I have said and retain only this concept, I can assure them that their family's financial future will not be a source of trouble.

As a final thought to these comments by Larry Burkett, I would like to emphasize the Biblical principle of tithing. I learned to give a tenth of my income to the church when I was a preschool lad. My grandmother would give me a dollar every now and then, and she always instructed me to place a dime of it in the church offering the next Sunday morning. I have tithed from that day to this. I also watched my father give of his limited resources, not only to the church but to anyone in need. My dad was the original soft touch to those who were hungry. He was an evangelist who journeyed from place to place to hold revival meetings. Travel was expensive and we never seemed to have much more money than was absolutely necessary. One of the problems was the way churches paid their ministers in those days. Pastors received a year-round salary but evangelists were paid only when they worked. Therefore, my father's income stopped abruptly during Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer vacation, or any time he rested. Perhaps that's why we were always near the bottom of the barrel when he was at home. But that didn't stop my father from giving.

I remember Dad going off to speak in a tiny church and coming home ten days later. My mother greeted him warmly and asked how the revival had gone. He was always excited about that subject. Eventually, in moments like this she would get around to asking him about the offering. Women have a way of worrying about things like that. "How much did they pay you?" she asked. I can still see my father's face as he smiled and looked at the floor. "Aw," he stammered. My mother stepped back and looked into his eyes. "Oh, I get it," she said. "You gave the money away again, didn't you?" "Myrt," he said. "The pastor there is going through a hard time. His kids are so needy. It just broke my heart. They have holes in their shoes and one of them is going to school on these cold mornings without a coat. I felt I should give the entire fifty dollars to them." My good mother looked intently at him for a moment and then she smiled. "You know, if God told you to do it, it's okay with me."

Then a few days later the inevitable happened. The Dobsons ran completely out of money. There was no reserve to tide us over. That's when my father gathered us in the bedroom for a time of prayer. I remember that day as though it were yesterday. He prayed first. "Oh Lord, you promised that if we would be faithful with you and your people in our good times, then you would not forget us in our time of need. We have tried to be generous with what you have given us, and now we are calling on you for help."

A very impressionable ten-year-old boy named Jimmy was watching and listening very carefully that day. What will happen? he wondered. Did God hear Dad's prayer?

The next day an unexpected check for $1200 came for us in the mail. Honestly! That's the way it happened, not just this once but many times. I saw the Lord match my dad’s giving stride for stride. No, God never made us wealthy, but my young faith grew by leaps and bounds. I learned that you cannot outgive God!

My father continued to give generously through the mid-life years and into his sixties. I used to worry about how he and Mom would fund their retirement years because they were able to save very little money. If Dad did get many dollars ahead, he'd give them away. I wondered how in the world they would live on the pittance paid to retired ministers by our denomination. (As a widow, my mother received just $80.50 per month after Dad spent forty-four years in the church.) It is disgraceful how poorly we take care of our retired ministers and their widows.

One day my father was lying on the bed and Mom was getting dressed. She turned to look at him and he was crying.

"What's the matter?" she asked.
"The Lord just spoke to me," he replied.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" she prodded.
"He told me something about you," Dad said.

She then demanded that he tell her what the Lord had communicated to him.

My father said, "It was a strange experience. I was just lying here thinking about many things. I wasn't praying or even thinking about you when the Lord spoke to me and said, "I'm going to take care of Myrtle."

Neither of them understood the message, but simply filed it away in the catalog of imponderables. But five days later my dad had a massive heart attack, and three months after that he was gone. At sixty-six years of age, this good man whose name I share went out to meet the Christ whom he had loved and served for all those years.

It was thrilling to witness the way God fulfilled His promise to take care of my mother. Even when she was suffering from end-stage Parkinson's disease and required constant care at an astronomical cost, God provided. The small inheritance that Dad left to his wife multiplied in the years after his departure. It was sufficient to pay for everything she needed, including marvelous and loving care. God was with her in every other way, too, tenderly cradling her in His secure arms until He took her home. In the end, my dad never came close to outgiving God.

May I urge you to give generously not only to your church, but also to the needy people whom God puts in your path? There is no better way to keep material things and money in proper perspective. You can hardly become selfish or greedy when you are busily sharing what you have with others. You see, God does not need your money. He could fund his ministries from an annual beef auction alone (He owns the cattle on a thousand hills). But you and I need to give! Those who comprehend and respond to this Biblical principle will find that He is faithful to “open the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it! (Malachi 3:10). And don't forget the greatest blessing of all: The curly headed, impressionable children around your feet will be watching and will someday pass the good news on to their kids! That may be your greatest legacy on this earth.



Image of Love for a Lifetime. From Love For A Lifetime by Dr. James C. Dobson
Copyright © 1993. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.