“economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, [but] they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important, . . . [and] most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives.“
–NY Times Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks on The Sandra Bullock Trade
I want security. I want to know that we are living within our means and will not have any difficulty paying our bills if something happens to one of us. I want to know that we will have our needs met when we are old. And, given the longevity in my husband’s family, old may mean really old–other than accidents, everyone has lived well into their late eighties and mid-nineties. And so, we have worked to make careers and to make money.
But, despite those efforts, we are not really any happier. We lost sight of plans we made, dreams we had, when we first married –to live simply so we would have more time with family and friends.
We “paid attention to the wrong things.” Security and happiness did not spring forth from things we thought would make us happier. In fact, for every “thing” we had, it meant more work–to care for it or pay for it–and less time for each other. As our salaries grew, our expectations grew. The expectation of having a little bigger or nicer home or car. What were we thinking?
Security comes from Christ not a bank account–When I keep my eyes on Him I know this deeply. And, I know His love, through relationships with others. I know that all the “things” we own and all the things I have to take care of distract me from relationships.
I know we need the Spirit to lead us in this journey to a simple life, so that we may find peace. We need to be led so that we may live less on the “surface of life” and dig deep into the important things.
If I could counsel my children or others about how to make this journey happier, I would say: own less, work less, live more, love more. Don’t be worried about getting things. Instead spend time receiving Christ and all that flows from Him.
“See how the flowers of the field grow. . . . If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ . . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” —Matthew 6:28-34
I remember dreading going to the store when my kids were young—I don’t mean infants or toddlers, they were easy then, they didn’t know how to beg me to buy them the cool foods or the nifty toys they spotted at the check-out stand. They didn’t know how to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate again. They also hadn’t been mesmerized by the toy companies that relentlessly targeted kids in their TV commercials.
So, the kids learned to want. To want this or that cool action figure. Or that awesome new truck. Or that lovely new video-game. Or, just about anything they set their eyes on.
It wasn’t that my kids wanted any more—or any less—than other American kids (or adults). But, the shopping excursions exhausted me. Come to think of it, the pre-shopping build up exhausted me, too. “When are we going to the store again? “ “When we go to the store next, can I get the new [fill in the blank awesome toy that all my friends have]?”
I hated sounding like a broken record. “No.” “Please don’t ask.” “Sorry, I don’t have the money for that right now.” “You’ll have to wait for a birthday and see if you still want it.” “We’ll see.”
Aside from these shopping related interactions with my kids, life was good. So, I decided we needed to find a way to fix the problem. The problem: the kids and I were in a struggle over what the boundaries were with money. And, it wasn’t appropriate or practical to sit down and have a heart to heart about the value of money, how much we had to spend, what it means to want v. need. Let’s face it, it would be nice, but that is just not the reality with kids.
So, my husband and I wrote down all those things that we provided to the kids that were important to the kids and us, but that were essentially “wants” not “needs.” The list included: clothes, other than school clothes and the basics like coats, shoes, undies, and socks; summer camp tuition; movies and other activities with friends; dining out; books; toys; gifts for friends and family; and, a few others (depending on the age and gender of the child).
Next we added up what we spent annually on these things and then sharpened our pencils – what should we be spending on these things?
Once we calculated the annual dollar amount, we figured out how that money was spread out over the year. What were monthly expenses or allowances and what were larger annual expenses—like camp tuition. We did this because we wanted to give them a “lump sum” in their bank accounts to cover expected expenses that they would not have time to save for this first year. As I recall, we started the program in January, but tuition for camp was due in February, and we had already planned for the kids to attend camp. So, we started them with the camp tuition in January. The next year, of course, they had to save for camp tuition and other large expenses.
So, we gave the kids an annual dollar amount, gave them a “lump sum” (about 3 months worth) up front, and then gave them a monthly “allowance.”
The next–and final– step was talking to the kids – explaining the plan, why we had it, and laying out the rules. Kids like rules – bright line rules provide a sense of security. And, for my kids, it made them happier. We sat down with the kids explained the plan. They were excited. And, they liked the rules:
They were responsible for certain types of purchases and activities. We gave them the list.
We told them that they could not ask us to buy for them any of the items on the list.
We gave them a list of what certain things cost – like movies, camp, shoes, ski lift tickets.
We told them that when they ran out of money they could not ask for more.
We helped them figure out how much they would have to save every month to buy certain items or to have enough set aside for camp or other large expenses.
We told them that we were not going out to dinner unless everyone in the family wanted to pay for their own. Or, if a child wanted to take the family out to dinner with his or her money, that was fine.
We told them that we would always shop at the grocery store from a list. They could not ask us to buy foods at the store that were not on the list. But, they could buy the items themselves—if that was what they wanted to spend their money on.
The result: no more conflict over money. Period. Shopping was relaxing. We had no pre-shopping build up.
The kids often asked us to help them figure out what they could afford to buy – and when they bought things, they learned to shop for bargains. This also opened the door for us to talk about saving for big purchases or giving to a charity or church, which both of the kids chose to do. I remember when my son wanted a new pair of swim trunks – which we didn’t think he needed. So, he went shopping. He found a few pairs he liked and ultimately bought the pair that was on sale for 40% off. He was so proud of himself and his purchase.
The money plan was rewarding for us all and gave us all much more peace and certainty around money issues!
I’ve shared this idea with several friends – one told me I saved her life. A bit of an overstatement, to say the least; but, I smiled when she told me, because I remember the sense of peace this plan gave our family. Suze Orman would be proud!
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.
-1 Timothy 6:6-7
Our culture makes it easy to want things now — credit cards, no down payments on homes. You name it, we can get it now. We know where that has gotten us as a society. But, we saw it in our kids, too. Wanting that item they saw on TV or the item their best friend just got; asking for things while shopping because the cool packaging caught their eye. Everywhere they turned the message they received was “you need this,” “buy me,” or something similar–a message that made them want what they didn’t have and perceive that they needed something more.
We struggled to figure out how to teach our kids to wait–to not buy on impulse. To be content.
Our recipe was simple: A piece of paper, a magnet, and a refrigerator. It helped all of us learn about waiting and making thoughtful decisions.
So here is how the refrigerator-note solution worked. If the kids wanted something, they had to write it down on a piece of paper and put the date on it. We then posted the item on the fridge. It stayed there for two weeks. If they still wanted the item at the end of two weeks, they could buy it– assuming they had enough money.
The result? Our kids rarely ended up buying the items posted. I don’t remember where we learned that trick, but I am grateful for it. It helped the kids and, over the years, it has helped us, too. Nothing like writing down that you want a $15,000 car and posting it on the fridge for two weeks — only to decide that you really didn’t need it or want it after all.
This works for other decisions in our lives, too. When prayerfully considering family choices, I found that posting the prayer where I could take a moment to consider it throughout the day helped. I find I jump in and make life’s decisions on my own. It feels better to do rather than to consider thoughtfully and prayerfully. I think if I’m doing and moving forward that is good. But, of course, my spur-of-the-moment, shoot-from-the-hip choices, haven’t always been what a prayerful and well-considered decision may have yielded.
Being content with what we have and learning to wait will always be a struggle. We desire. It is part of being human. But, learning what makes us desire and act impulsively–and then finding ways to change those impulses honors God’s desire for our lives.
Note: I re-posted this from my old blog. And, I just saw that Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and founder of The Mentoring Project, started a series today on commercialism that fits nicely with the theme of impulse buying that I touch on here. You might check out his post.