Avoiding the credit trap

Pastors aren't usually alcoholics; a few may be workaholics; but a great many have become chargaholics. There is a way out of economic bondage, however. Here's how.

Thomas L. Are is pastor of the Shallowford Presbyterian church, Atlanta, Georgia.

Don dropped out of the ministry because of his personal guilt. He wasn't an alcoholic, he wasn't guilty of any crime. He had created no offense against his neighbor and had never missed a day at work. Don was simply in debt. He served a medium-sized church a mile down the road from my congregation. I heard a year ago that he had resigned.

Yesterday, when he stopped me in the parking lot of my church, I hardly recognized him. He drove up in a car that looked like a junkyard reject. Had he not been so neatly dressed, I would have thought he had been fishing.

"Hey, Don," I said, "where have you been? I haven't seen you since the Middle Ages."

"Tom," he said, "if I told you all that has happened to me in the past year, you wouldn't believe it." Don paused, stared at the ground, started to say something, and stopped. Finally he asked, "Have you ever been in debt?"

"Everybody I know is in debt; it's the American way of life, you know." I laughed, trying to keep the situation light.

"For me," he said, "it's hardly been a way of life. In fact, it almost became my death. It cost me my church, my home, and my family. I don't blame Jean for leaving me. I hardly spoke to her for six months."

"I heard about your divorce, Don. I know it's tough." "Yeah, it is. I'm still a bit numb," he confessed. "You see, I've been on an emotional drunk for more than a year. It started when I began getting notices that I had overspent my line of credit on six charge cards. I owed more than three thousand dollars to Master Charge and Visa alone! Then the utility companies threatened to turn off the lights and water. Before I knew it I owed more each month than I was making. My cash flow couldn't cover what I had already spent."

Don went on to explain how he would compensate for feeling so powerless by going out and buying something else. "I guess it made me feel that I was still in charge of my life. I kept buying things I didn't need. Then at home I would hide the things I bought."

"Hiding goes with the debt life," he said. "That's part of the hell of it. Debt doesn't show externally until it begins to destroy you. It corrodes you on the inside long before it's recognized by others."

As Don's financial problems mounted, he withdrew more and more into himself. He became irritable with his children, impotent with his wife, and angry with every "successful" friend he knew. Don is a high-principled man, but inflation, credit cards, and poor will power combined to destroy his self-esteem.

Later, when I was alone and busy doing other things, I couldn't get Don out of my mind. His story could have been mine. I was drowning in debt too, but was ashamed to admit it. "I don't spend more money than I make," I often joked. "I just spend it faster than I make it." Laughing as though I had everything under control, I refused to face the fact that each year I seemed to make more money and yet sank deeper and deeper in over my head. Credit cards had become my master.

I didn't plan it that way. Getting in debt is like riding a bicycle downhill. It's exhilarating at first. Life in the charge lane is a lot of fun. But you always have to go back home—uphill. That's how debt works. Charging is fun and easy. Dragging back home, though, is tough. An expert in this field once told me, "It takes ten months and four days for the average charge to be paid."

Americans carry more than 600 mil lion credit cards—four apiece for every adult in the country—and we pay 23 percent of every take-home dollar to service carrying charges. It's bound to catch up sometime. Those of us whose income is mostly precommitted before we even get it can hardly afford to give away almost a fourth of our money to credit cards. Credit cards should be called "debt cards."

The largest merchandising companies in the world depend on these amazing plastic cards. Recently Sears sent me two notices in the same mail. One told me I had overspent my line of credit. The other, my regular monthly bill, said, "None," in the box showing the monthly payment due. The following month Sears increased my debt limit! The company didn't want me to reduce my account; it just wanted me to keep on paying the finance charges. Sales personnel are trained to encourage customers to buy on credit.

Credit cards make it easy to use someone else's money, but it's the most expensive credit in the world. In addition to the high price of a loan (currently 18 percent in most areas), there is another aspect of credit cards even more costly. Impulse purchases. Retailers gear their business toward enticing us to purchase things that we decide to buy after we enter the store. And the entire scheme of buying on impulse depends upon credit.

In my basement a pair of hip boots hangs on the wall. I have never tried them on. I have no use for them. I don't even fish. But one day, while walking through the sports department, I looked up and there it was—a life-size picture of a man standing in a trout stream, reeling in a fish weighing at least eight pounds. Of course, he wore hip boots. Immediately my mind reasoned: I work hard; I need some diversions. And I deserve to catch a fish like that! So I bought the boots. I don't remember whether they cost $16.95 or $24.95. It didn't matter. Psychologically and emotionally I wasn't going to have to pay for them anyhow. The purchase went on a credit card.

My wife once asked, "How much do we owe Sears?"

"Thirty-four fifty a month," I answered.

The total doesn't matter when you're living in debt. The goal is to get by, not to become free. Yet, sooner or later, debt always catches up.

Don and I had joined the host of those who are unable to pay as they go because they are still paying as they had gone. Someone described us and them as "people buying things they don't need, with money they don't have, to impress neighbors they don't even like." We were in trouble. We were chargaholics.

Americans are on a spending spree. The figures keep changing, but the average American has personal debts totaling more than three fourths of his annual take-home pay! And we do it to ourselves. There are exceptions, but for the most part we put ourselves into economic bondage by buying things we don't need.

Don's experience forced me to face the fact that if I hoped to be a successful minister, I must stay out of debt.

Paul says, "Owe no one anything" (Rom. 13:8, R.S.V.).* He probably had in mind the tributes and taxes owed by each citizen to the government. But the text also speaks to me about my personal finances. The writer of Proverbs says, "The borrower is servant [slave] to the lender" (chap. 22:7). Debt has a way of destroying the debtor. We pay more than interest for our debts. The real service charge is our freedom. There can be little zest in life when we "owe our souls to the company store." I'm not saying a Christian can't use credit cards. But I am saying that if you are consistently paying the monthly minimum, Christian or not, you're in trouble!

Don had "hit bottom." This phrase, used by alcoholics, describes the experience of losing everything, including self-respect. I didn't slip that far—to lose everything. I never had an appliance repossessed. But I lost sleep, friends, and self-respect because of the money I owed. Some of the cruelest fights in my home have been over my financial foolishness.

I don't know why I felt such a compulsion to buy things. To impress my neighbors? Maybe so.

Someone said, "The problem is that every time we catch up with the Joneses, they refinance." But there's a worse problem yet. The real problem is that catching up with the Joneses never impresses the Joneses. We and the Joneses have a genuine need for love, respect, and acceptance. These needs are worth working for, but they don't come to us as the result of financial success. Bragging to our neighbors, no matter how subtle, turns them off. If I tell the Joneses how expensive it is to pay a servant to clean my pool, they don't give me respect. They break their necks getting away from me.

People aren't impressed with what we possess. "A pretty girl is one I notice, but a charming girl is one who notices me." I never impress my neighbor by forcing him to notice me. I impress him by noticing him. So I go in debt to buy things that produce the exact opposite of the acceptance I really want. Both the debt itself and the things it buys work to take away from me those things I need most.

I needed a plan to control my spending. Fortunately, there are many books on the market today that tell the reader how to get out of debt. Most of them point out the obvious fact that a person can't spend more money than he makes and get away with it. They recommend such money-saving tips as these: Don't go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. See whether you can fix it yourself before calling a repair shop. Never decide to make a sizable purchase and then buy it on the same day. Wait for sales. (Some claim that you can get anything on sale if you are willing to wait for it.)

Which plan to use is not important, but it's imperative to have a plan. These helps were valuable to me in terms of dollars. However, if 1 had the self-discipline to follow a plan, I could have avoided debt problems in the first place. I needed something more.

The most essential addition to any plan, for me, is a partner. I needed a friend with whom I could be honest about my finances, someone who cared enough about me to take pride in the things I didn't buy, who would go cold turkey with me in cutting up credit cards, and who supported me in setting new standards for seeking the good life. The success of Alcoholics Anonymous is not found in its plan, but in its supportive fellowship. Those of us in debt also need a supportive partner, someone to share our circumstances.

I found my financial partner in Peggy, my wife. She insures our financial goals by her careful spending. If she chose, she could spend me broke in one afternoon, and she knows it. It's her very careful budgeting that saves us.

Some ministers combat the financial strain by sending the wife out to work. This may not be as profitable as it promises. One expert, George Fooshee, Jr., says, "I have even seen cases in which the cost of the mother's working exceeds her income; and a net income of 20(t to 40(£ an hour is the rule rather than the exception for a working mother." Deduct taxes, transportation, meals at work, extra clothes, and child care, and little profit remains in the average wife's paycheck.

But a working wife involves an even greater negative: conflict of schedules. In all my ministry I have felt the need for full-time support from my wife. I cannot control my schedule. Thus, for us to have much time together, we depend upon her being free. I cannot schedule the times when her availability becomes the key factor in my survival. The effectiveness of my ministry depends upon her sensitive support of me. She is my partner.

So rather than send my wife to work, I put a value on my time and talents. For years I accepted speaking engagements without any mention of remuneration. On one occasion I flew to Hot Springs, Arkansas, six hundred miles away, spent two nights, delivered the after-dinner address at a convention, and was given an honorarium of $125. The plane ticket alone cost more than that! Too many times I invested two days' time and hours of preparation for a $20 "love gift." After one such experience I felt used, angry, and sure that I had in fact set myself up for it. I now set a fee for services that fall outside my normal ministerial duties to my own church.

Now when I am invited to preach a series of special services, I discuss what the inviting group have in mind, what I think I can do for them, and announce right up front that I have a "suggested" fee. A few times the invitation was withdrawn. But even on those occasions I felt good about valuing my time and was glad to stay home.

Like most pastors, I am employed by the congregation 1 serve. So I discuss each year my financial expectations with these partners, the church personnel committee. I "set up" this committee meeting beforehand by having lunch with a few key members. (I always pay for the lunch.) During this informal setting, we discuss the church's total budget, expected income, and salaries of all staff members. Then I frankly ask, "Now, George, what about my salary?" I admit that I don't feel entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but it's the only way I know to avoid feeling like a kept woman.

Something is wrong with the system when the only acceptable time for a minister to discuss his salary is when he moves to a new church. I choose to remain in my present church and trust the caring support of my officers. And in the churches I have served, the officers have never failed to surprise me with their concern for my financial well-being.

I am buying my own house. The tax and equity advantages of property ownership make living in a church-owned home the most expensive "compensation" ever to plague the minister. The church that really wants to help its pastor should furnish him a car, which decreases in value, not a home! The only hope most pastors have of fighting inflation is to build up equity in a home. (Remember, IRS requires that the specific portion of the minister's salary allocated for housing be approved annually and recorded in the minutes of the official board. I have my session include a statement that says, "Up to one third of the pastor's salary may be used for housing if needed." This action covers any unusual expenses I may incur that are more than the designated housing allowances. Speaking of the IRS, I found it profitable to pay a CPA to file my income tax return. By knowing what to claim, he saves me far more than he costs.)

Finally, in spite of expenses and taxes, I splurge every now and then. Peggy and I will go to a restaurant and not even look at the right side of the menu. We order exactly what we want. I can't do this often, of course, or we'd both go to jail! Yet I find it valuable from time to time to remember that what we share together is more important to us than the whole economic system.

My children have also become partners. Peggy does not work, but our children do. College tuitions are climbing like a homesick angel. At the same time, though, student earning power is rising too. Our high school kids find jobs. Our agreement is that one half of all they make they may spend any way they wish. The other half goes into a savings account for college.

This sense of financial partnership with my children is important both for me and them. Students who pay for their own education make better grades than those who go to school on dad.

There is one more economic essential without which I would inevitably fail. I need God as my financial partner. For this reason I tithe. In setting aside the first 10 percent of my income for the church, I am declaring that I take seriously my partnership with God. In effect I am saying, "Lord, I have learned that I can't handle my life alone. In practice, as well as in prayer, I turn its management over to you."

There can be little meaning to my life if I use all its resources only for my own benefit. In giving to the church, I become a part of all that the church does. I help to keep its doors open. My tithe represents the most satisfying money I spend.

I can't afford to tithe. There is no way for me to draw up a budget on my income and have 10 percent left over. I begin with the tithe first and budget the rest. It's a matter of faith with me, not finances. In tithing, I am saying that I trust God, my heavenly partner, to see that I make it. I have discovered that tithing is the first step to financial freedom. It protects me from choking on materialism by keeping my priorities straight.

I've learned the hard way how to make it on a pastor's pay. It still isn't easy, but it's a lot easier than being in debt.

* The Scripture quotation marked R.S.V. is from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

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Thomas L. Are is pastor of the Shallowford Presbyterian church, Atlanta, Georgia.

January 1983

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