When I first converted, one thing I immediately noticed was how common it is for Christians to praise God for every good thing that happens in their lives, even if it happened as a result of human actions. God was praised for giving someone a job, even though they took the time to apply and show up for the interview. God was praised for healing cancer, even though the patient endured rounds of chemotherapy.
I don’t want to say that God couldn’t be responsible for those things. I believe every good thing in this life is ultimately from him. But after watching my father slowly die of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and my husband struggle to find a job after being unexpectedly laid off, our savings draining away month after month, my mind can’t help but think of everyone who wasn’t so lucky. Doesn’t God care about them?
Things are a lot more stable now. My father is still gone, and I miss him terribly, but my mom has found someone who makes her happy and adds a new dimension of joy to my family that we didn’t expect to find again. And after nine agonizing months, Josh has a job again – one he really loves, with employers that treat him well.
That nine-month stretch, during which we lived off my writer’s income while digging into our savings, and occasionally accepting help from our parents, taught me a lot. I won’t deny that the biggest reason we were able to keep our house and not declare bankruptcy was because of the financial privilege we had to begin with.
And even if worse came to worse and we did have to sell our house, my empty-nesting mom welcomed us back to her house in Ohio, where we could have lived rent-free until we found new jobs and re-built our savings again. Is that God’s provision for us? My best answer, honestly, is I don’t know. But I think that depends a lot on how you define “provision.”
The lessons I learned during that period of uncertainty were a mix of Christian hope – God provides, but not always in ways we expect – and the Jewish practices of Tzedakah (charity) and Tikkun Olam (mending the world).
A while ago, I had set up automatic withdrawals to donate to local food banks and international rescue missions for refugees. With less money to donate, I had to re-evaluate what it means to “give.” Turns out, giving your time and energy to causes can be just as beneficial as giving financially. I had to re-learn the importance of calling my senators, showing up at protests to make my voice heard, and volunteer work with the actual beneficiaries of my money.
I also had to rethink my definition of “financial security.” That’s a term that means different things to different people, I know.
Around Month Six of unemployment, a friend talked us into taking a Dave Ramsey class at a local church. Ramsey, if you’ve never heard of him, is an evangelical financial guru whose advice is practically gospel to a lot of people. I was a little skeptical in the beginning, especially when he called it a “baby step” to put one thousand dollars into an emergency fund. I can think of five people off the top of my head who do not have one thousand dollars to their name, and if they did, it would immediately have to be given to rent or car payments or something else required to survive. It seemed to me that Ramsey was out of touch with how most Americans live.
But there was one thing he said that has stayed with me (and, I suppose, was worth the cost of enrollment): those who hold onto their money with an iron grip are more likely to lose it, compared to those who incorporate giving into their lives. How is that possible? The more money you give, the less you have in your account – that’s pretty simple logic. And I don’t believe in tithing for the sake of getting more back in the end, which kind of defeats the purpose of giving in the first place.
Here’s what I think Ramsey meant (although I can’t say for sure): we may have had less money than what we were used to, but we doubled down on our efforts to engage with our community. We had people over for game nights at our house at least once a month, and requested that people bring side dishes to share (or chip in a few dollars for pizza). As more people became aware of our situation, they left the food with us rather than take home the leftovers.
At one point, a bunch of our friends chipped in money for a Target gift card, which covered our groceries for an entire month. It came with a note that thanked us for hosting them in our home. And because we could no longer afford to go out for lunch after church, we invested more time in one-on-one meetings with people, either in our house with coffee or out hiking in national parks.
At the risk of sounding horribly cliché, please bear with me when I say that some things you gain during a period of financial struggle are, in fact, priceless.
Now that our situation has changed – Josh works at a pain management clinic while driving for Uber on the side, and my freelance career has grown considerably in the last few months – I look at money differently than I used to. This month, I admit it was jarring to look at our savings account and see a number that is much lower than what I was used to seeing at the start of our marriage. I’ll be honest, it still freaks me out a little bit. I want that number to be much higher. I would feel so much more secure if only that number were higher.
But we have enough to cover the mortgage for this month, and the next. When the money from this week’s paycheck is spent on the car payment, student loans, and groceries, another paycheck will replace it.
We’re basically breaking even right now, and still don’t have much for going out to eat with friends, but we’re surviving. We have food in the fridge, and our two fur princesses maintained their life of luxury this whole time. If they are happy, we are definitely happy.
I don’t want to end this with some useless platitude about how true wealth is found in relationships or whatever. I’m still irked by the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness,” because money pays for housing and health insurance, which are two big staples for the bare minimum of happiness.
But it still remains true that money isn’t everything. My spending habits have changed. I’ve been inspired to sell or give away a lot of “stuff” I thought was valuable, but turns out, I can live without it.
And, most importantly, having less money forced Josh and I to grow closer in ways that maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise. So there’s that.