A Hypothetical Plan: Annual Jubilee

I’m reading a book right now that talks about The Politics of Jesus, and right now I’m reading about jubilee, or the period forgiveness of debt in ancient Israel.

I know there are some fellows who are doing this on a massive scale through the Rolling Jubilee, but as I was walking across campus just now, I began to think about it on a more local level.

What if churches began practicing an annual jubilee by raising money and then paying off the debt of a member?

Come talk about it on Google+

This is why you hire an accountant

Most of the people I know wouldn’t consider their financial lives to be all that complex, and similarly they would say their taxes are pretty straightforward. Made some money, spent some money, filed taxes. Certainly, when I announced that we were hiring an accountant, the response was mostly one of confusion mixed occasionally with derision. Mine and April’s accounts aren’t that different from most everyone we know, and they don’t need an accountant, so why would we?

Despite the remonstrations, after I had spent four hours working on taxes to discover that we needed to pay over $2000, I thought it might be wise to talk with a professional. I had managed to find enough credits and exemptions on my own to get that down to about $400 we’d have to pay, but that didn’t exactly leave me jumping for joy.

In the first meeting with the accountant, he listed a couple of additional things I wasn’t aware of (and which TurboTax never brought up) and said he’d look at our files to see what he could do. After less than two weeks, Kevin Yount was able to secure for us a refund of just over $1900.

Even with the fee his firm charges ($300), that’s a $2000 difference between what I was able to have us paying and what he got for us as a refund. To put it another way, we spent $300 and, in return, will have $1900 deposited into our checking account.

All without having to do any additional work than go in and sign a piece of paper.

We certainly wouldn’t expect such a good return every year, and we’ll probably have to pay some next year, but April and I will definitely be hiring their firm again to do our taxes. If you’re looking for a place to have your taxes done, check out Elliot, Robinson, & Co. We have really enjoyed working with them, and you can’t argue with the results.

Review of Mint Financial Site

Mint Home

Mint.com is a total pain in the ass to set up. But once you have it set up, it is the greatest thing ever.

What Mint offers you is centralized reporting, monitoring, and analysis of your personal finances. It does this by logging into your online banking accounts, reading your transactions and balances, and categorizing and organizing everything to make it easy for you to understand. ((I imagine you’re thinking, “OMG this seems like a huge security risk!” You may never be comfortable with something like this, but I’ll tell you why I’m not too worried. 1) It was just bought by Intuit, the company that also makes Quicken. They’ve got a reputation on the line, plus some federal oversight, so I trust them. 2) I read through all their privacy, terms of service, and end user license agreement stuff. It looks legit to me, and after a couple of months of using them, still seems solid.))

Fracking Online Bank Accounts

If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.
If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.

It’s hard to say which feature I value most in Mint, but the ability to see all of my finances in one place is pretty wonderful. Regardless of which credit card or checking account we use, I have one list of transactions. I can see at a glance how our investments are doing, how much is in our savings, and what bills have come out.

But this also means I have to have every account in there to get the full picture, and I couldn’t rest until I had them all in. My investment accounts were the hardest as they had the most strict security, followed by a couple of credit cards. Error after error, setting and resetting security questions, every problem you can think of. And yet, once it’s done, it is simply wonderful.

If you’ve got a lot of accounts like we do, you’re going to be tempted to quit before you have even started. When you run into snags, it’s easy to throw your hands up and move on. You haven’t seen what the site does yet, so it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Let me assure you, once you get this step done, it gets way better. Most of the accounts will stay setup forever, and while you might have to put some security answers in now and again, mostly everything will Just Work. Get past the initial setup and you will be rewarded.

With MINTY PIE

Minty Pie

Once you have all your accounts in, Mint will have built a list of your last however-many transactions. You may need to spend some time tweaking categories and whatnot, but that’s kind of fun. You can select from a long list that Mint already has ((Pro tip: Don’t set transactions to broad categories, such as Auto, but to specific ones such as Auto Insurance. This will help a lot when you get to budgeting.)) or make your own–just try and be consistent. Once everything is categorized, you can begin to see some trends.

The trending tools in Mint give you two neat functions. First, you can see how much you spent on what. I’m not the type to keep a check register of every purchase we make, but one month I tried to do so. I needed to know where our money was going, so I tried to mark down every cup of coffee, every order of Chinese food, and every MP3 we purchased. It quickly got out of control and I just couldn’t manage it–I gave up. Mint does all of that automatically, based off our actual accounts, which is freaking awesome. And then it shows me all that in a delicious pie chart.

You can drill down into this to see how much you spent inside each broad category (for instance, inside Food & Dining we have: Groceries, Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Fast Food), and you can also organize it by tag or merchant. What’s also neat is the ability to set this to bar graphs and compare it against other people (who use Mint, obviously) in your country, state, or in other places of the world. It helps put expenses into perspective if you see that, on average, everyone is spending way less than you on something. Or, as might be the case, if they’re spending way more than you, you can feel kind of good about it.

Trends will help you see where your money is going, and that will help you decide what your budget needs to be.

Realistic Budgeting

budgetbars
As a general rule, your budget should not look like a Christmas tree.

Something Mint has taught me about budgeting is how to make our budget realistic. It’s easy to set a budget and not stick to it, which is what I have done for years. Or, to put it more accurately, we would budget for the big expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance, groceries, etc.) but not for little ones (coffee, eating out, clothes). We didn’t have any way to save for those things specifically, nor did we have any way to measure and account for them. If we needed to, we took from savings.

Once we could see how we generally spent our money from the trend analysis, though, we could set some definite goals and limits. It’s important to be able to tell yourself, “No, I won’t spend more than $$ on <item I want>,” but it’s worthwhile to prioritize your desires and make sure you’re not miserable. For instance, I want April to feel free to buy coffee in the morning, but we can’t afford for her to buy a latte every day. We budget enough for her to get a regular coffee most days and limit ourselves to that. We don’t say, “No more coffee!” because that would be crazy.

Mint will also let you do rolling budgets and pre-filled budgets for extra-monthly expenses. Let me give two examples to clarify these.

A rolling budget allows you to roll the balance of a budget from one month to the next. We use this for most of ours, but the best example is on utilities. Over the course of the year, our utilities average about $141 per month. During nice months (like the one we just finished) though, it’ll be a lot less. We can budget $141, knowing that’s average, and when we only spend $80 on utilities, the other $59 can roll to the next month. This will add up until we hit one of those terrible periods where our utility cost spikes to $250 a month for 2-3 months, and since we budgeted and rolled money accordingly, we’re fine. Doing things this way prevents us from spending the excess (we could have just spent the extra $59 on something else, but then we’d be screwed later) because the money stays in the utility budget and is accounted for.

A pre-filled budget is ideal for expenses that only crop up occasionally. For instance, we pay a $22 trash fee every three months so the nice men with the truck will come and pick up our garbage. Mint lets me set that up and then fills a budget of $7 every month, so in three months there will be $22. This helps me save for the expense and keep us accountable.

We use rolling budgets for food, clothing, and some other things as well so we can do fun things. Maybe April can’t get the dress she wants this month, but the money will roll over and she can get it next month, or something. We have a pre-filled budget for Sam’s Club as well, where we spend lots of money on bulk items (and by buying in bulk we save more in the long run). We don’t need to go every month, but we spend a lot of money when we do, so it’s good to plan for that in advance.

Grow Strong in the Force

Keeping an eye on your finances, knowing where your money is going, and adjusting your spending accordingly to meet your goals are important keys to financial success. If you have ever reached the end of your bank account and been confused where all your money went, something like Mint would probably be really helpful for you. You don’t have to use this site, but from experience I can say that it’s a lot easier than doing all this by hand.

I was previously managing our finances through a Google Spreadsheet. I kept track of the big expenses throughout the month, kept an eye on what would be left in our checking account by the end of the month, and tried to coordinate everything between the different accounts. It worked, but I didn’t have a good overall picture of our finances or financial health. I couldn’t analyze the trends in our spending. Now I can, and that means I can make adjustments far more easily.

I’d suggest you at least drop by their site and check it out. Mint has been a HUGE help to me, and I think it could be helpful to a lot of other people I know too. Let me know if you have any questions or need any help with it.

Investools Workshop

investools

I recently spent a weekend at an Investools Workshop, a two day program (eight hours a day) of learning about stocks, options, and investing. There was a lot of up-selling and sales pitch in there as well, but let me assure you, this was some solid training about how to invest. I was quite impressed and I learned a lot from this program. The most important thing I learned, though, wasn’t the trick of how to invest smart. Rather, it was the principle of money management.

Here’s what it comes down to: I don’t let someone else run my life. Similarly, I shouldn’t let someone else run my money.

Now, on the theological side, yes, God runs my life and my finances. Let’s accept that as being the case and leave it be. ((I believe wholeheartedly that God wants us to live our lives, and that he wants us to be good stewards of what he has given us. We don’t do that by sitting around doing nothing, or giving our talents to other people rather than cultivating them.))

The traditional method, as I was taught it, is to give your money to MetLife or some other mutual fund company. They invest it and make it grow, and they send you statements about how your money is doing. Until you start nearing retirement, you should probably just toss these in a drawer and forget about them because they don’t matter. You don’t lose or make any money until you sell your stocks, and you don’t sell until you retire, so forget’about’it. Let MetLife take care of your money and everything will be just fine.

As I have come to realize, though, MetLife et. al. sucks at managing money. I saw this myself before I first heard about Investools at the Get Motivated seminar. They just aren’t that good at managing money, and Investools clued me in about the “why.” The reason MetLife et. al. suck at managing money and subsequently lose tons of it as the stock market plummets (while others are still raking it in) is because they’re too big. There are a lot of restrictions on how much and how fast they can trade, so when things start too crash, they can’t react quick enough. When the market starts to go up, they can’t invest in time. In general, they’re sluggish and so they lose.

Five years ago, individuals didn’t have the tools needed to invest easily by themselves. Now they do, and the best toolset from what I have seen is pictured/linked above. It really gives you a lot of analyses you can’t get elsewhere, and without it I don’t think I could invest nearly as well. Right now I’m just working with fake money, but my confidence is growing as my analyses (with the help of the tools provided by Wealth Magazine) are proven correct.

If I rely on MetLife (and then pay them all the fees they’ll charge me over the years), we’re simply not going to have enough to retire. And it’s not just about retiring and Living The Good Life for our final years. I also have to take into consideration the declining health of the age’d. My goal since I was nine years old was to be a good husband and a good father, and part of that is making sure we’re not a burden to our kids. Being out of money but needing healthcare for another twenty years would suck for them, and I don’t want to do that to them. We’ll prepare early.

I don’t know how this will all work out, but I know this much: we need to at least be responsible enough to look after our own finances. We can’t just dump money in a mutual fund’s lap and assume they’ll take care of us. Therefore I’ll manage our finances myself, and Investools has given me what I need to do that.

Much Ado About Money

There are two reasons I haven’t written about money or our personal finances before. First, I felt like I was gloating, though I wasn’t. It’s just that we’re in a good place financially, and while I’d like to share some tips and my steps for how we got here, I felt like it was improper. Second, I haven’t written about money because I didn’t have all that much to say. I can list my steps, but that’s about it.

My first draft, written months ago on this topic, was long and annoying. I hated it, so I never published it. I’m not even rewriting it now–instead, I have some new things to say, and they might actually be worthwhile.

Here’s the bottom line: April and I do quite well financially, and we do that despite making less money than most everyone we know. Well, maybe not “everyone,” but we make less than a lot of people, especially those I work with. ((To clarify, I’m not saying we “do better” than everyone, either. Part of my perception is that we define comfort differently, so the sort of lifestyle that is nice to us is “unacceptable” to others. I tend to think those others might need to reevaluate their priorities, but that’s neither here nor there. All I’m trying to say is, we feel pretty comfortable with our current life, and I know a lot of people who make more money but are less comfortable. My implication throughout the series is that this is because they don’t manage their money well.)) I suspect we will continue to do quite well, and while we probably won’t be winning any hypothetical contests, we’re alright. Others will have more than us, but we’re reasonably comfortable, and that’s worth something.

I’m learning how to invest and manage our money, and we’ve got a solid financial plan for the next ten years or so. As I start to think and talk more about finances, though, I keep having advice thrown at me. This advice is well meaning, but it’s also annoying, and I want to address that too.

So it’s now Financials Week here at SilverPen Pub. Feel free to tune out if you want (I’m sure April will, since she has to hear about this stuff all the time), but I’d really encourage you to join the discussion. Share what works for you, and let me know if there’s something more you’d like to hear about.

Stay tuned to read more about investing, Mint.com, Dave Ramsey, and what works for us.

Interview with Springfield Vineyard Church

April and I have been considering changing churches for several months now, long before the announcement in January that they were cutting the college minister’s position to part-time. We already had some issues with the worship and preaching at First & Calvary, so the stuff with the college ministry just highlighted how some of our priorities differed from those of the church leadership. Subsequently, over the last few months we have been visiting other churches and asking around to see if there might be a better fit for us here in Springfield.

I had been invited to the Vineyard numerous times over the last six years, but I had never managed to visit. Now that we were shopping around, though, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to check it out. As I have since learned, Vineyard is more of a movement of affiliated churches rather than its own denomination, though labeling it as the latter wouldn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination. We didn’t know much about Vineyard as either a movement or a church, though, and beyond knowing a few of the members we were pretty hazy on what this congregation was like. Though we are going to participate in some of the community events they have coming up, we had a few topics we wanted to discuss specifically with Tim, the pastor of the Springfield Vineyard Church.

Spiritual Gifts

This was the biggest topic of the night and the one on which we spent the most time. In general, I have never felt particularly free to practice or express giftings of the Spirit in church, but that freedom is something I am desperately seeking now. I wanted to know how the Vineyard approached spiritual gifts and what they did about/with them.

Tim’s response was a bit of a surprise because he began by telling us how the Vineyard first came to be. In short, the man who eventually founded the denomination was on mission in Africa and he noted how certain ministries’ mesages were received. Those who embraced the gifts of the Spirit, performing healings or prophesying in the name of God, were well-received by the natives and took root. The more conservative missionaries who performed no such acts were largely ignored. After all, if a man can go down to the witch doctor and be healed, why listen to someone who cannot heal you?

If God is ready and willing to act in such a manner (such as healing), why should we avoid it? Therefore, the Vineyard embraces spiritual giftings and seeks to employ them, but it attempts to do so in a method that leaves room for… disbelief and error, I suppose. They don’t want non-believers to feel particularly uncomfortable, so if a person is prophesying, that person will phrase it in a way that allows the recipient to say, “No, I don’t think that’s for me.” Likewise, humility is essential in the exercise of the gifts, because it is entirely possible for us to misunderstand God or God’s intent.

The conversation on this point was rather lengthy, so I’ll leave it at this: I appreciated his response, and while I don’t particularly agree with always phrasing things in non-committal terms (I think that when God reveals himself, or commands us to do/say something, that’s unequivocal and shouldn’t necessarily be couched in terms that could imply relativity), the openness and acceptance towards those giftings was encouraging. I was satisfied with Tim’s response.

Missions

The Vineyard is a church planting movement, which is to say that one of their primary focuses as a denomination is to start more churches. They believe this is the most effective way to spread the Gospel, and so the job of a Vineyard missionary is to enter an area, start a church, train indigenous leadership, and after a few years hand that church over to the new leadership.

The Springfield Vineyard church supports three missionaries and also supports a team on short-term missions. In addition, they regularly schedule community service projects in local neighbourhoods, including the one in which April and I live. Their priorities seem pretty solid here.

Finances

Tim admitted that their church is struggling, just like every other, and this is due to a combination of different factors. Their budget, originally made three years ago, assumed a congregation of 150 members (at the time, they had 115). However, they recently bought a church building and moved. At this time, a number of the families that had previously attended the Springfield Vineyard stopped attending (presumably due to the longer drive). The Vineyard is now around 90/150 members, has a building to pay for, and all this in the context of an economic downturn.

Despite that, Tim shared the algorithm for judging church financial health with us: a financially average/healthy church receives $20 per person per week. The Springfield Vineyard is around $30 per person per week.

So, while they have less money than they need to meet their budget, less members, and specifically less affluent members, the numbers are encouraging. I’m glad to know that people are giving. I also appreciate the way the church goes about collecting money (it’s pretty understated, but also very transparent–Tim lets everyone know what’s going on along the way, and the weekly email sent out includes a budgetary summary). Tim told us that the Vineyard has always had an emphasis on serving the poor, and their previous location in an upscale strip mall in the nicest part of town was incongruent. He feels they are truer to themselves now and better able to serve God’s vision for them, and that’s what is important. I am confident the finances will work themselves out, and appreciate the transparency on the matter.

Church Leadership

Over the last three years, I have become accustomed to the somewhat democratic organization of the Presbyterian denomination. There are committees and subcommittees and voting sessions and nothing takes less than six months to get done. This system has its strengths and weaknesses, as you might well imagine,

The Vineyard is almost completely opposite, and Tim wanted to be very up front about that. The denomination believes in local control, so there isn’t really a hierarchy or strict set of codes by which local congregations must abide. There are no dues that I know of. And there is no congregational voting or even appeal. The only restrictions placed on Tim, as he put it, are ones he places on himself. That being said, there is a body of elders that leads the church and makes the decisions. The number of elders is currently… two. And Tim’s one of them.

This doesn’t particularly bother me, as I’m personally fairly oligarchical. I don’t think running an organization by referendum really works, so I think the key is getting good people in leadership and letting them do their job. If you don’t approve of the job they’re doing, you kick them out or go elsewhere, problem solved. But you can’t have ninety people with their hands at the tiller. I do hope the number of elders increases soon, but apparently there are more people involved than just those two, so that’s something. There are also the spiritual leaders and the Board of Trustees.

Sermons

After the frustrations April and I have both encountered with the sermons at First & Calvary, I was curious what Tim’s sermon prep was like. He told us that he knows what he’s preaching every Sunday through the end of the year and that average weekly sermon prep is about twenty hours. After hearing him preach twice, I was already sold though: he can manage 30-45 minutes sermons without notes, pausing, losing his place (except once, briefly), or repetition (unless such repetition is called for). As someone who has to do a decent amount of public speaking, I found his oration skills particularly impressive. Tim said that he has been doing this since he was thirteen years old.

Final Thoughts

We met for about two hours and left feeling better about the Springfield Vineyard Church than when we sat down. I was already pretty positive, and I’m even more so now. I think April is more satisfied with the church as well now.

We are attending a communal dinner with six other people on Saturday night, and we’re going to volunteer to contribute food for the upcoming church painting. After we’ve spent some more time with the community of the church, we’ll know better which direction we’re going.

Until we make a final decision, we will continue tithing to First & Calvary, but I’m definitely leaning towards the Vineyard. We’ll see.

First & Calvary Presbyterian Church Cutting College Ministry

I am currently distributing this letter to members of First & Calvary Presbyterian Church who also happen to be faculty, staff, and/or students at Missouri State University, but also wanted to post it for everyone to read.

In short, First & Calvary Presbyterian Church has elected to respond to budgetary concerns by cutting the position of College Minister from a full-time staff position to part-time with no benefits. This will effectively mean the end of the college ministry at First & Calvary, a move I find particularly remarkable for a congregation that resides on a college campus. Because a lot of people weren’t aware the position was being cut, I wrote the above letter to notify them and encourage people to attend the upcoming Town Hall meeting.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the church views college ministry as a component of Christian Education (that is, after all, the budget and line items under which the ministry has been placed), and strictly in terms of CE, it might be viewed as less than satisfactory. Many members have children who grew up in the church but, upon reaching college-age, stopped attending, and we have not been successful in getting those kids to come back. Moreover, we only have 5-10 college students attend on Sunday mornings, and if that’s the only means by which we are measured, it is difficult to justify a full-time position for 5-10 people.

However, the college ministry is so much more than that, and I fear that our benefits have been overlooked. As Brian wrote in The Review (the church’s weekly newsletter) last week, we have had over a hundred students through our doors in the last four months, with over thirty attending most every week, and have logged more than 150 hours of community service in the last semester. We serve members of the church as well as the campus community, but a lot of members don’t even know we exist.

Now is the time to let them know. If we’re going to get this decision reversed, we need to convince people that college ministry, that FnC, is not just a Christian Education youth group for five or ten kids. Rather, it is an outreach, a ministry that dives into one of the most important mission fields in the world, ministering to and discipling the future leaders and visionaries of our world. Working with college students means investing in the lives of those people who will, very soon, be changing the world in which we live. If you want to “go into all the world,” train college students in the teachings of Jesus and you’ll be right there.

There is a Town Hall meeting at the church this Sunday, February 1st, at 12:15 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room (downstairs, AKA the gym where the contemporary service is held). It is ostensibly for members of the church, but if you are a student, faculty, or staff member, not just of Missouri State but somewhere in the Springfield area, I would encourage you to attend and let your voice be heard. As far as I’m concerned, First & Calvary is stating that they are cutting missions work to the university, that the university is no longer valued or valuable, and that they see no need to invest in it.

I value college ministry highly, and cannot stand idly by when such talk is bantered around. Whether or not the above sentence represents the motivation or feelings of the people who voted to cut the ministry, it is most certainly the outcome. Cutting Brian’s position to part-time means the end of FnC and subsequently the end of any real missionary and discipleship work towards the university.

I will be at the Town Hall meeting, and I encourage you to attend as well. Let us show the church the value of a college ministry and implore them to reconsider.

To read my letter about the ministry, its impact, and its value, please click here.