Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Toys in the Cot

Have you ever wanted anything so badly that you were willing to “throw all your toys out of the cot” to get it? You may not be familiar with that expression, but my Mom has used it for as long as I can remember to say, “a big fit to get your way.” Now when it comes to your money and that thing that you want is something that you want to buy, it may not take that many toys to get it. But the question remains, how hard will you push to get your way?

Now with a two year old, a four year old and a six year old in my house, I know a little bit about strong will, determination, and a lot about fits. It’s something I work with almost everyday: Training the will of a child to submit to guidance. It is so difficult to stay consistent in this very important lesson of childhood, yet I often think of the end result and that helps me in my daily effort.

One day, my son will be making a decision and will feel the heart of God cautioning him not to choose that path or buy that thing and instead of pushing to get his own way, he will yield. He won’t think of me in that moment, but I think often of him in that moment. For me, that is the true “why” in discipline and training. I’m not just training my children to hear and obey my voice. I’m training them to hear the Holy Spirit and to respond to His voice. If the only thing they learn is to submit to their own will and desires, they will fight the restraint that the voice of God sometimes brings.

In that moment when you are standing in a store, staring at the object of your desire, trying to justify the expense, coming up with all kinds of schemes on how to pay for it, or not bothering to scheme at all and just reasoning that you’ll put it on credit and figure it out later, desire is ruling your heart. It is a tricky moment. I encounter it often :) Unfortunately, I know you do to.

Sometimes, your desire clouds out all the other voices… reason, your budget, the Holy Spirit… and you buy it anyway and try to feel good about your decision. And then sometimes you stand there with that absolute disquiet in your spirit, and you have no idea why. You have the money, you want that item whatever it is, and your spirit is just absolutely saying “No”. Do you yield?

I have learned to, and a lot of it has to do with this story…

When my brother, Brad, was about 5 years old, my Mom, Brad and I were shopping in K-mart. My brother found this “wonderful” toy that he just had to have. He came to my Mom, full of desire, with the toy in hand. My Mom looked at his sweet face of longing and felt that deep groan (that every parent knows) when you realize that there is no way out but tears. She didn’t want to buy the toy and knew she needed some wisdom, so in that moment she just turned to the Lord and asked for it.

“Bradley,” she said to him. “Let’s ask God if He wants you to have that toy.” She took his hand in hers and then just simply prayed, “Holy Spirit, will you show Bradley if he is supposed to get this toy.”

“Now, I want you to go walk around and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and what He is saying to you.” My little five year old brother went traipsing off, toy in hand, to decipher the voice of God, while my Mom prayed like mad, “God, please, if you’ve never spoken before, please speak to my five hear old son!”

After a few moments, he returned. “Mom, I don’t hear anything.” My Mom looked in his little face and in her heart she knew that the Lord was wanting to take this moment to teach Brad a lesson. “Bradley,” she said holding out both her hands, “I want you to give me your toy in this hand. Now in my other hand, I want you to give me your desire.” So, my little five year old brother placed the longed for toy in one hand and then in pretend, placed his desire in her other hand. “Now, why don’t you try asking the Lord again and listening for what he wants to say.”

Brad walked away, but in just a few minutes he was back. A huge smile was spread across his face, and with absolute joy he said, “Mom, God said I’m not supposed to get the toy.” There was peace in that moment. There was sweet release from the hold of desire that comes with hearing the voice of God. Toy laid down, my Mom, brother, and I left the store that day without buying anything. My brother was just so excited to have heard from God. My Mom was just so grateful that God speaks to five year olds. And I had just learned the power of surrendering desire.

So what do you do in that moment of wrestling between the Holy Spirit and your desires?… You walk away. Leave it alone and surrender your desire. God doesn’t always say “No” and if you fear that He will then it will make it very difficult to trust Him. But here is the truth: God always has your very best at heart. He will never turn away from doing you good. And if He is saying “No” then there is an amazing reason that you may never know.

However, I have had times when I yielded to the “No” in my Spirit and had the thing that I wanted go on sale the next week. I have heard “No” and seen the Lord do miracles in giving me the very thing that I was going to buy. But I have also had Him quiet my heart and my desires so that the thing lost it’s lure for me and I was thankful that I didn’t waste my money on it. However, there are also moments when He says “Yes” and then boy is it fun to buy that thing. I always feel like when I have a big “yes” in my spirit like I got the golden stamp of approval and that item is going to last forever. If this is what He has for me, then whoohoo, it is going to be perfect for me and my family.

Obviously, I don’t wrestle over everything I buy. Honestly, that would be miserable and I would probably quit shopping… Ok, no I wouldn’t. But it is in the moments of submission when I have to know how good God’s heart is for me. It is in those moments when my soul is in conflict that I am so glad that my parents taught me obedience so that I can walk away and turn my desires over to the Lord. Now I’m not giving you a free pass if your parents didn’t teach you obedience. After all, it’s never too late to learn, and your heavenly Daddy is a much better teacher anyway. I just want to give you a tool for the next time you are tempted to “throw all your toys out of the cot” to get your own way. Walk away, let go of that desire, and surrender to whatever God has for you. It is always good, even if it doesn’t include the new car, or new throw pillows, or the newest released DVD.

Just like Brad, you may even find a joy in the “No” that you never dreamed was possible. It may be that hearing God’s voice and learning to trust him was the whole point anyway… the toy was just the object lesson. And as you stand there staring at your object lesson, it might help to realize that no matter how big your desire, God’s hands are big enough to hold it… you just have to take the simple step of surrender. Two hands… In the one hand: Lord, do you want me to have this? In the other: Lord, I’m giving you my desire. Powerful stuff. I dare you to try it. Who knows, He may even say “Yes” :)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Something Stirring

From the vicious heat of summer and the constant motion of my children, I suddenly feel a change coming. The rains have come this week. My precious Noah is back at school and life is beginning to find the rythm of routine once again. There is something about the Oklahoma heat that causes everything to dry up and stop and seek desperate shelter in the relief of a friend's pool. That is where my creativity has been hybernating. It is where my writing has both whithered and found refreshment. I miss the flow of creativity. I miss the sermons that I often preach to myself. And I miss helping people to escape the desert of debt and find an oasis of both God's faithfulness and a practical plan for leaving the desert... forever.

I feel in my heart it is time to write again. I feel the stirrings of my book, calling to me from the neglect of these keys. There is a time for rest, a time for just being Mommy, and then there is the time where God calls your heart to His purpose and the journey begins again.

So I am here again. I'm going to attempt to write at least weekly, maybe more. But it is important that I write and it is important to keep on going. I have also been contemplating starting a couple of other blogs because many times I just have too many other things to say that have very little to do with finance... Maybe, one thing at a time :)

I hope this summer has been a good one for you, and I hope that just your skin has been sucked dry by the heat and not your wallet. It is funny, because no rational person would pay $4 for an icecream cone until it is 104 degrees outside and then you will gladly empty your wallet for one. I have (a time or two) this summer. Mostly on behalf of my kids. Mostly.

I have always loved the changing of the seasons, and as this one closes I feel that familiar excitement coming to my heart. Something new is around the corner. New beginnings, new friendships, a new season. It is good to feel the stirring and I hope that you too will be stirred in the journey with me. It's time to get our houses in order and discover again why we are doing what we are doing and what else God has for us on the journey. It's a good time to say goodbye to summer heat, vacations, expenses, and neglect, and I can't help feeling that for all of us, the rains have come just in time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Number of Faith

I have to admit, when it comes to believing God for His provision, that provision has often had an exact number in my head. Maybe it's because I think in numbers, or because of my belief that it is important to be specific with your prayers. To me it is a different prayer when you pray, "Lord thank you that you are taking care of me" versus "Lord thank you that I am safe as I drive to work today. Your angels surround me and Your word says that even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I don't have to fear because You are with me. Thank You for being with me as I drive today." As you get specific with your prayers, your faith arises and you begin to declare the promises of the Lord. You also get to see specific answers to praise God for.

For instance, recently I was praying for my friends marriage. As I prayed I felt led to ask the Lord to intervene in a 180 degree turn around. It was hard for me to imagine the situation ever changing for the better, but as I prayed specifically for their communication skills and for breakthrough, I also prayed that it would be a "suddenly" work of God. One week later, my friend called to tell me the miracle that God had done in her marriage. God had brought them to a place of agreement in an amazing, suddenly way. I was so glad that I hadn't prayed a little, "Jesus, bless their marriage" prayer, but had been specific. Because when God answered, not only was my friend's marriage transformed, but my faith soared. I wasn't just happy for my friend, I was charged to believe that God could move any mountain. It is amazing to see God move on anyone's behalf, but for some reason when His movement answers a specific prayer from your heart... it blows you away.

I have seen this many times in my finances as well. Most recently, I saw God answer as I was preparing my grocery list yesterday. I had spent some of my grocery money already and as a result I was having to plan my meals on a relatively tight budget. To be specific, I had $85 to buy meals for 13 days. It honestly seemed a little impossible. I finished making my list, and as I sat there looking at my list I was really doubting that I could buy all of the ingredients and items on my list for what I had left in the grocery budget. Then in my spirit came this verse from Psalms 37, "I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his children begging for bread." All of a sudden, faith sparked in my heart. I even wrote the verse across the bottom of my grocery list. I will not lack. My children will have food. Thank you Lord for Your amazing provision.

Inspired, I got my calculator out and began to add up the cost of my groceries. Do you know that I had exactly enough money for my entire grocery list, including tax? I sat there amazed, and even more amazed when it actually worked as I checked out at the grocery store. I just felt God's smiling at me: "Why do you worry, little one? I know what you need."

Yet even in God's amazing faithfulness, I can sometimes get bogged down in the specifics. If God doesn't provide in exactly the way that I have asked and believed, I can sometimes feel like He didn't come through. For those of you who don't know, my husband and I have embarked on a very thrilling adventure this year. Matt started his own graphic design business and through the transition of this year we have had to believe God for His provision on many occasions. However, on some of those occasions, God hasn't met my numbers.

I have pondered this dilemma a lot. Why is it that sometimes He will provide to the dollar as He did with my groceries, and other times it looks like He hasn't provided at all? People often speculate on this issue as to whether you had the right amount of faith, or didn't have faith, or maybe you are missing God. I know I have asked these same questions on occasion. But last week I had an epiphany.

I was sitting with our books and looking at my budget and I started talking to God about my budget. "Lord," I prayed, "I need $x.00 by the 15th of this month. I am just believing you for the money to meet our budget." My prayer was quite a bit longer than that, but at the end of it I sat quietly and I so clearly heard the Lord speak to my heart and say, "I am not locked into your numbers." Honestly, it was like He had just tossed me a water balloon which burst all over my perfectly planned budget. In that moment I realized that God had never promised me to provide the exact numbers of my budget. What He had promised me was that He would always provide. He had never promised me that I could spend money however I liked and that He would pay the bill, but what He has promised is that if I walk by the Spirit I will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. In other words, sometimes what I perceive as lack may just be me missing the Holy Spirit and overspending. Sometimes, His provision just doesn't work with my numbers.

As I sat there reeling from the effects of His words, the questions began to come in my heart. Have you ever lacked for food?
No
Have you ever lacked for shelter?
No
Are you clothed? Are your children clothed?
Yes
Is there anything that you truly need that God hasn't provided?
No.

And I realized in these questions that many times when I am questioning God's lack of provision (or my perception of it) what I should be reminding myself of is:
Am I starving? Am I naked? Am I without shelter?

Then God is providing for my needs, it just looks different than what I think it should look like. My heart turned in such a dramatic way that day. Instead of expecting God to match my numbers with His provision, I am asking Him for the wisdom to match my spending to His provision. And that turns out to be as simple as, if He doesn't provide more than $85 to spend on groceries, then I don't spend more than $85 on groceries. If I actually need something beyond that then I believe Him for the provision that need before I spend.

I know that Matt's and my financial situation is a little extreme right now. Most people take out loans to start a business and we are doing it without loans. In fact, we have joked that we are working our way through starting a business the way that some people work to pay their way through school without loans. It has been such a huge learning curve for us. I've learned so many lessons, but many of them are lessons that it will be so much easier to share once we have walked through this valley a little further. That is one of the reasons why I haven't been writing lately. It is easier to write on the other side then when you are down in the middle of it all. But through every lesson, we have seen God in His faithfulness and I will be excited to share from this season one day.

In the mean time... we do not lack. Both in the specifics and in the big picture, God is taking care of us. I know that He cares about my budget and that even the concept of having a budget is a thought from His heart so that we can manage well what He has given us. However, I think all of us need the reminder that though we work with our numbers and our salaries, our commission checks, our paychecks and our budgets, God's provision goes beyond our numbers.

It is just a wonderful truth that I am beginning to realize, and that is: we may believe God for a specific number in provision, but you can't really put a number on His provision. The key is in believing and not necessarily the amount you are believing for. So go ahead and ask, believe, seek, and knock... but if He doesn't answer immediately, it may be because He is busy sneaking in the back door to surprise you. God will always answer, it just may not come from the direction you were expecting, and it may not always fit neatly into your numbers :)

God bless until next time.
Tracy

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Oompa-Loompa Wisdom

I am white... not as an ethnicity (although technically that is true too)... but rather as a very pale, ghostly winterish shade of hiding under sweaters for the last 6 months white. I was especially white sitting next to my darling mother today who has just returned from a glorious beach vacation. "Wow, look how tan I am," she rejoiced as she held her beautifully golden arm next to my, what all of a sudden appeared to have turned bluish-white, arm. It was a very cool day here in Tulsa, so maybe that's why I appeared a little blue.... or maybe it's just my skin crying out for sunshine. So far, the distress signal has gone unnoticed as we have had rain everyday for the last two weeks. Will summer ever come?

Last week, as I was thinking about my brilliant whiteness and praying for summer, I decided to try to do something about it. I hate tanning beds and had recently watched a movie where they had gone for mystic tans. Of course in the movie (Bride Wars), the tanning goes horribly wrong with Anne Hathaway's milky white skin going an awful Oompa-Loompa-ish orange, but I felt optimistic about my chance of success. I decided to make an appointment for a mystic tan.

I organized with Matt to have the children and dressed in a hideous getup to protect my skin after the mystic tan. Apparently, very bad things will happen to your skin if you get it wet after mystic tan, and unfortunately for me, it was still raining in Tulsa. So, covered in a huge rain jacket, pants, long sleeve shirt, socks and shoes and no makeup, I arrived at the Tanning Salon. The teenager working behind the counter took me through the paperwork and then started on an extensive tour of the salon. I'll spare you the details, it was really only the ending that I remember anyway... the part where she says, "The best deal for you is to get a month membership because mystic tan only lasts for 5-7 days." 5-7 DAYS!!! I thought it would at least last for a month. "For how much?" I hesitantly inquired... "$30 for a single application. But you can join for a month for $75," the girl added cheerfully.

Now, I had gone to great lenths to be at this appointment. I was excited to have color on my skin, even if it was fake color. I had even been praying all week asking the Lord to provide for my mystic tan. It really was the desire of my heart, and I knew it was a small thing for the Lord. Yet as I stood there and realized the stupidity of paying $30 for a tan that would last for a week, everything became clear. "I'm so sorry," I said to the girl," but I need to cancel my appointment." I felt silly, I felt a little dissapointed, but I also felt really peaceful. And as I walked down the steps to my car, I felt the Lord speak these words to my heart, "See, I provided." I just started laughing. He did provide. Only, He didn't provide the money, He provided me with wisdom. God knew my real need, and He answered my prayer.

There are so many times when God's provision doesn't come in the form that we are expecting and asking. He is absolutely faithful to take care of His children, but sometimes His answer is to give us the wisdom to walk away from a situation that is just a financial drain. There are times when you absolutely need a financial miracle, but that miracle may come in the wisdom to handle your finances better. Or that miracle may come in the form of additional work. I love how God takes care of us, because He does it from outside of our box with the perfect view of the big picture of our lives. Who knows, in His perfect big picture of my life, maybe He knew that my skin would turn oompa-loompa orange with mystic tan, or maybe He just knew that the lesson that I learned through that experience was infinitely more valuable than a $30 tan.

Whatever the reason, I know that God was working for my good in all of it. I asked Him to provide, I gave Him the desires of my heart, and in including Him in that process, I allowed the miraculous to be part of the frivolous. After all, mystic tan is not high on the priority list in the budget. It's actually a total waste of money, but God didn't say "No." He could have put a check in my spirit about it, but He didn't. Rather, He took the opportunity to teach me a wonderful lesson of faith and His provision, and I left that salon closer to Him and rejoicing that He had provided. I wasn't tan, but I was totally content.

Even today, as I looked at my blue-white skin next to my Mom's golden glow, I remembered again His "provision" at the Tanning salon and it just made me smile. Maybe God likes me pale... well, that seems like a stretch. I think He just likes me listening, and asking, and including Him. He likes being in relationship with me, and in that relationship comes everything I have need of, whether that is peace, or patience, or finances, or grace for a situation, or wisdom. He doesn't just GIVE me what I need. He IS what I need and in relationship, He gives me Himself for my need. That is why God isn't a vending machine, and faith isn't making out my Christmas wish list of desires. Faith is believing that He IS and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) In other words, I believe in God and His goodness, and He comes into my situation and brings His goodness for my needs. He doesn't "reward" us with stuff. He "rewards" us with Himself.

So even though I didn't get what I thought I wanted, I got more of God. I had a great laugh feeling His peace and presence all the way home from the tanning salon, and my heart was totally happy. I learned a wonderful lesson and my heart opened up in trust even more. He is so good and He only gives good gifts to His children. Who knows? Maybe His good gift to me was that my Mom didn't lean over today and say to me, "Wow, look how brown I am next to your orange arms." When I needed His provision, He provided me with wisdom, and I think there may be some areas where that is God's answer for your need too. Because without His wisdom, we are all just one bad decision away from Oompa-Loompa land.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spreading Your Budget Too Thin

Is there such a thing as having a budget with too many categories? It sounds funny because many of us DO have extra categories that we would love to be able to fit into our budget. But what if you are able to fit them? I know that in the past that I have often mentioned to be specific and realistic with your list of expenses. If you are spending money on something, it is important that it is included in your budget, or it will be going on the credit card and creating debt. However, there is a difference between a budget and a wish list, and I want to talk about that today.

Recently, a lady was talking to me about how tight her budget is. "I just don't have much wiggle room," she complained. But as we continued to talk she revealed that she has categories for everything in her budget: her hair, getting her nails done, her house keeper, Christmas, vacations, birthdays, anniversary, yard work, plus all of her bills. Honestly, her "budget" sounded like my wish list. She had planned for everything thinking that she was being smart with her budget, but had left herself with nothing left over. Now, she has the funds to be able to do that; however, she has also maxed out her budget to the point where she feels like she has no money (yes, I know that may sound crazy to some of you who would die for a manicure or even a vacation, but to others it will make perfect sense... so hang in there.).

The issue here is that she has come to view the optional, fun things that only come from abundance as mandatory for her life. By putting these "extras" into her budget she is giving them a place of importance that she may feel is valid, and yet they really are not essential. Sometimes you can forget that spending that money is optional just because you have it set aside for that purpose.

For instance, instead of looking at her budget as tight with no wiggle room, she might consider adjusting some of these optional things. She could drop her weekly manicure, or iron her own laundry and thereby cut back on her dry cleaning budget, or even reduce her savings for Christmas (and then spend less at Christmas). I feel like I am picking on her, but many times we are all guilty of thinking that a certain thing is just not "optional". One of my dear friends insisted to me while I was doing her budget that even though she was in debt, "Getting coffee is just not optional." I laughed with her, because coffee may not be optional, but buying a Starbucks Latte at almost $4 each several times a week is definitely optional.

We all get these blind spots that we think we just can't live without. However, when those blindspots are sabotaging your budget and causing you to constantly feel like you don't have enough, then it is time to re-evaluate what is actually important. That $4 Latte three times a week is an additional $50 a month that is coming out of my friend's budget! That is an extra $600 a year that could be going towards her debt. It is funny because when your perspective changes, everything becomes optional.

Even if your budget is tight and it seems impossible to squeeze in anything else, there still may be areas that you have locked yourself into "having" to have, that are really not neccessities. Another friend of mine insisted that she just had to have money for eating out. "You could save a lot of money by cooking at home," I suggested. I could tell by the look on her face that no matter what I said she was still going to do what she wanted to do. Eating out for her had become a "neccessity", yet if she really was as tight as she said she was, then she would have seen eating out for what it is: a luxury. So.... tight, but not that tight :)

And that is exactly my point. If you feel like your budget is tight and you are always barely making it then you may need to give yourself some more "wiggle" room at the expense of your luxury categories. I am not even suggesting that you cut them out all together. One Latte a week would still reduce your budgeted amount by $35. Or perhaps, have your home cleaned every other week, or even once a month. How about limiting yourself to only eating out for lunch ~ a time when many restaurants reduce their prices for the lunch menu, you are less inclined to order as much as dinner, and thus your bill will be significantly lower? That way you can still get the flavors you love and free your budget up as well. If you are already paying for a cell phone, you may consider cancelling your home phone number? Most people are using their cell phones more these days, and that extra $25 a month (at least) for a land line, may well be a luxury that you will never even miss.

Along these lines, I have a confession to make: I don't have a hair budget (or a nail budget for that matter ~ although that would be lovely... and stupid for me... I have three children after all. My nails are constantly destroyed). It is something that I would love to add into my budget, but there just isn't room at the moment. We have prioritized our budget and really the only place that that money could come from is savings, and I am not willing to do that. So, when I need my hair cut I just have to believe God for the money for my hair.

And you know what? He is wonderful at taking care of me. He knows my needs and is the one who is providing for me, whether through my husband's work, or my side work, or whatever the source... it all comes from His hands. Every time I need a haircut it is an opportunity for me to believe God and see His faithfulness. You may also need to cut some of your luxury items out of your budget and just start specifically believing God for His provision for those items. Can I encourage you to then wait for His provision and don't put it on the credit card. It may just be a great lesson in faith and in seeing the faithfulness of God, or His faithfulness may be revealed in you not needing that luxury as much as you thought you did.

It is wonderful to have a budget, but it is also OK to leave things (especially things that are Luxury) out and then IF you need those things you can pull that money from your Gift budget, or Entertainment budget, or even from Clothing money. I am not saying to put it on credit card, or to be foolish about things that you regularly need and that need to be included in your budget. I am just saying that there is such a thing as spreading your budget to thin, and in that thiness it often becomes unlivable. Giving yourself a little bit of wiggle room will often stop that burn out and the spending free fall that often comes after budget burnout and that lands you back in debt.

Instead of labeling your Latte budget as "Latte budget", how about "Free money". Sometimes just changing the title may help your heart to relax in what you have to spend and in not feeling so tight. It may seem like "semantics", but giving yourself permission to spend that money on other things than Latte's (and then having the boundary to stop spending when the envelope is empty) can really help your heart to keep going with budgeting. It may be a choice like, "Do I want to be able to buy my coffee out next week, or do I want that new book." You may decide to check it out from the library instead of buying it, or you may decide that you can make coffee at home next week. But in that freedom to choose and to wiggle, you will feel freedom. You are still within your budget, but you aren't locked into too many itemized categories. Call it all Free Money or Entertainment Money instead and then wiggle away :) Or you may just decide that you don't need the coffee or the book, and instead you put that money into savings. And that is the whole point.

Your budget is a guide to your financial journey. It should never be prison, so don't get locked into too many categories that only seem essential. Determine the categories that actually are essential and then put more money into savings. After all, budgeting isn't just for your wish list of wants today, it is for your dreams for tomorrow. and I promise you that when you are able to put down the cash deposit for your new home, or pay for your children's tuition to university, or take your dream vacation... you won't miss the Latte's at all.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Outside of My Box


This past Tuesday, I had a divine appointment. It just so happened it was with my hair dresser. My hair dresser is a wonderful girl named Claire. One of the things I love about Claire (besides her wonderful skills with hair) is that Claire lives outside of the box. I have the feeling she always has. When I first met her she had pink hair, and this wonderfully spunky attitude. But underneath her unconventional exterior, Claire has faith like a giant.

She told me at this past appointment that her friends are always suprised that she is a Christian. "Why are you suprised?", she asked a lost friend recently. "I've just always felt accepted by you, not judged," her lost friend replied. In my opinion, Claire is the perfect missionary. She is full of love, anchored in her relationship with Jesus, and absolutely real.

So, I was sitting in her chair, and she starts talking to me about God's provision in her life. Her car broke down last week and she had to put $700 into repairing her car. Thankfully she had that money in savings, but it was money she was going to use towards attending her brother's wedding. So, she simply turned to her heavenly Father and asked Him to provide. When I sat down in her chair, she had just gotten off the phone with her brother who told her that he wanted to pay for her ticket to come to the wedding! "You don't know how extremely serious my brother is about money. This is totally a miracle." I completely believed her.

God has done incredible miracles for Claire. She has just been through one of the worst years of her life after surviving a heart breaking divorce and her Father's unexpected death (she is only about 30!). She has a son and is now raising him as a single Mom. And yet even in all of the heart break, I still see God's smile all over her life. And so does she.

As she was rinsing my hair, she started talking to me about being a giver. "I used to be a hoarder. I would worry about needing it later. What if I run out? What if I don't have enough? But you know what? I would just end up never using it. The clothes would end up being out of style, or it would just sit in a closet. Now, I just look for opportunities to give things away. It's amazing, because I will give a purse away, and God will give me an awesome purse instead. It just makes you want to keep giving, because God keeps giving."

As I listened to Claire I felt God say to me so gently, “I am not in your box.” I honestly wanted to cry. I felt His peace come all over my heart, and the tension that I have been carrying about our finances melt away. Until that gentle reminder from an unexpected source, I hadn’t realized how much I had let go of my Father’s hand and become dependent on my own resources to meet my needs.

Matt and I have started a new business, and though the business is going well, it is still hard going. This past month has been especially tight financially. I do have a wonderful plan for living on a commission based income (which really does work). However, sometimes things happen outside of our plan. There are things that no matter how hard you try to cram EVERYTHING into your budget, will still surprise you. As they say: life is full of surprises. Unfortunately, surprises often happen outside of our plans, beyond our budget, and outside of our box. Fortunately, God does not live in our box. He is not contained within our budget and He is not limited by our income in His ability to provide.

As Claire began to cut my hair she said to me, “Tracy, God knows exactly what you need. Just ask Him. He will provide.” And in that moment, I realized that I have done a lot of juggling with my budget, a lot of thinking about my finances, but I haven’t actually asked God specifically for our needs. Many times we ask God to provide in general, but there is really something amazing about praying about the specifics. It’s almost like we target our faith rather than just casting it out there for whatever. So, as she blow dried my hair, I asked God for His provision for my much needed Dentist appointment. I asked Him to provide for the other things that have been on my heart. And I asked Him what I could give away that I have been hoarding.

And in that surrender, I felt faith arise inside my heart. Jesus said in Mathew 7:11, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Sometimes we get so locked into our boxes that we forget that there is anything outside of it. We forget about our wonderful Father, and as a result we lack simply because we have never asked.

So this week I have been asking, and I have already seen his amazing provision (outside of our budget). He provided for my hair appointment (What an awesome blessing!). And even for my dentist work through some side night gigs that Matt got at the last moment. I have seen God’s hand this week, and I too have felt His smile again. It has been such a good reminder because no matter how much I plan, I scheme, I work, I earn… God is not in my box. And thankfully, He’s not in yours either.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Lesson in Trust

How ironic that I celebrated my 1 year anniversary of this blog by not blogging for two weeks? I can hardly believe that it has been a whole year. Honestly, I have really missed writing lately. There seems to be so many other things fighting for my time and my attention... cute, cuddly, hungry, sticky things during the day. At night, it's just finding the balance between time with my sweet husband, my part time job, cleaning up from the day, laundry, taxes, (did you notice I skipped right over the 15th of April and tax season?), helping Matt with our new business, and the wonderful world of blogging. It's all been a little much and consequently I haven't been writing. I haven't been working on my book either.

There has been a lot of other things going on in the Jones household, and I am going to talk about them as I go along. God has been teaching me a lot lately. A lot about faith. A lot about His goodness and trust. A lot about me.

Have you ever noticed that lessons in trust are not easy lessons to learn. I remember in university doing this "trust excercise". It was supposed to help build teamwork and confidence in your team mate. You would stand with your back to your team mates and fall. You had to trust that they would catch you. I remember standing there when it was my turn and thinking, "I don't know these people at all." I didn't really doubt that they would try to catch me. They weren't mean (as far as I knew). I just doubted if they would be successful in their efforts. Would they put themselves in harms way if it looked like I was going to hit the floor? Honestly, I hated the trust excercise. I never did hit the floor, but I didn't like being out of control. I didn't like trusting strangers. I really didn't like that I felt scared.

Unfortunately for me, I think there are remnants of the trust game throughout our lives. So many things are beyond our control. So many times it seems like we are falling backward only to find the arms of our wonderful God, gently catching us and making our world right again. This last month has felt like that for me. I have felt a little like I was falling blindly, praying for Him to catch me, and when He finally did this past weekend I just wanted to weep in relief and surrender.

Why do I doubt His faithfulness? Why do I question what extreme He would go to to catch me? Is is posssible that I still don't know Him for who He really is? Do I still not know the incredible love that He has for me? It is only when I lose sight of His goodness that fear creeps in. But as He rights my world once again, I feel foolish for ever doubting Him. I regret the wasted moments that I gave to fear instead of to trust. I may not have known or trusted the other students who were given the task of catching me, but I do know my wonderful God. And He is big enough for me.

Which totally reminds me of this Geico (insurance) commercial which cracks me up every time. So since this took kind of a serious turn, here is a little humor for you at the end:



Thankfully, with God it is the other way round.
God bless,
Tracy

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Early Years: From Wedding to Waffles

Have you ever wondered why it is traditional to give engaged couples so many presents? Why do they need 12 of those very expensive goblets? Is registering for a drill or a waffle maker really necessary? I can remember registering for my wedding and feeling so horribly guilty when selecting my china set. In the end, I opted for an every day set of dishes instead. I didn't want my friends and my parents friends to have to pay for those dishes. "I can buy them later if I want them," is what I thought to myself at the time.

However, what I didn't realize then, and what I realize now is... no you can't buy them later. Or if you do buy them later, later may be in 10 or 15 or 20 years because shelling out a huge chunk of money for dishes is going to be a very low priority for a very long time. There is a reason that so many businesses take out small business loans when they are starting. It is difficult to begin something from nothing and it is expensive. In many ways, getting married is a lot like starting a small business. You start with very little (or nothing) and out of that attempt to build a life together, and it would be so helpful if there was a loan for that... that you never had to pay back.

Registering for that waffle maker may seem frivolous and greedy to you before you are married, but when you eat nothing but waffles for your first year of marriage, you realize what an amazing gift that waffle maker was. The chances are, if you neglected to register for a waffle maker (which we did), it might take you about 10 years to get around to being able to afford the frivolous, luxury items. (After 9+ years of marriage, we just bought our first real waffles maker a few weeks ago, and we LOVE it.)

Most of the things in my kitchen are from my wedding. Ten years later, I am still so very thankful that my Mom was with me in the process of registering. "Don't just think about now," she would say, "Think about your future." I had no idea what she was talking about then, but I sure do now. She was saying that the start of a marriage is hard work. It is hard times financially, and the baby years are even tougher. She was saying that in ten years time, when I still haven't bought my china, I may be very glad that I registered for a blender, or silverware, or my beautiful goblets, and really wish that I had registered for china. These items don't make your marriage, but trying to figure out how to afford glasses, silverware, and plates so that you can eat can really put stress on your marriage. The cost doesn’t seem like much before you are married, but as the fees for starting electricity at your new apartment, or bills from eating out on your honeymoon, or even moving expenses add up… having to spend another $30 for a waffle maker can feel like an enormous amount.

There is just so much expense to starting a life together. Yes, you may have two salaries, but you also have repairs on two vehicles. You have twice the need for groceries, toiletries, clothing, hobbies, health insurance. And then comes the desire to buy a house, and then furnish a house, and then the infinitely worthwhile, but enormous cost of having a baby. The start up costs for newly weds are definitely daunting.

In my experience, there seems to be two paths to take in the financially landmine-filled newlywed land: either you dig a deep hole of debt, or you live on Ramen noodles (for those of you that have never eaten Ramen noodles, you aren't missing anything at all - especially nutritionally, but you do feel full and they only cost $.25 a package.) The point is, either you learn how to budget and to live within what God has given you to live on, or you run the risk of sabotaging your financial life for years to come. Unfortunately, it isn't very fun to think about your budget when you are in the honeymoon faze of marriage, but it can save you so much hardship.

I think it is also so important during the beginning years to realize that you aren't being deprived and you are not the exception. Virtually everyone who is married (unless they inherited wealth or made their fortune first) has had to go through the lean times of early marriage. You both come from different backgrounds in your approach to money and finances and that takes some adjustment and negotiation. There are also so many startup costs to the early years. Guess what? Everyone around you realizes this and if they are married, they have been through this too. This is actually the real reason why they are so thrilled to be able to bless you with a wedding present. You are not alone and this beginning is just part of the journey.

As part of this beginning, it takes some work to learn to cooperate financially with another person. On the one hand this can be a blessing because you have such a great ally in accountability with spending; however, if you are both prone to spending, cooperation may mean that you end up in a spending spree. The key is to find a system that works for both of you, allows you freedom, helps you to communicate, and keeps you both heading towards the same goal financially.

So, if you are newly married, or engaged, or just considering marriage, determining a budget may be one of the best things that you do for your future together. However, also realize that your budget is going to need lots of adjustment in the first year. Don't write the budget in stone, but rather keep the conversation about your money going. There is so much to learn about each other when you are newly married, but there is also so much to look forward to.

In my opinion, it's not the surprise expenses, or the lack of resources that make the first years hard. It's when communication breaks down that things get tough. As long as you are talking about where you are and coming together in agreement over your finances (even if it's just to agree how disgusting Ramen noodles are), then you are in it together. And as difficult as the circumstances might be, that togetherness will put a rosy glow over every part of the early years. Just ask anyone with a vibrant marriage that has been married a while and they will probably tell you... yea, the first years were hard, but we also wouldn't trade them for the world. Even what is heavy becomes lighter when the burden is shared. The ugly things become beautiful when there is love. And the sweetest moments of your life can happen sitting in an apartment with little furniture, eating waffles because it's all that is left in your pantry and loving every minute of sharing life with your very best friend. Because the truth is, it’s not in the wedding service or even on honeymoon that you discover the incredible gift that God has given you in your spouse, it’s in the early years.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Behind the Vacuum

I had an experience with a vacuum cleaner yesterday that started me thinking. My two year old son, Luke, is a fearless, rascally boy who loves dismantling the vacuum, but for some reason it scared him yesterday. As I was vacuuming under his kitchen chair which was littered with dropped veggies and crumbs, he kept yelling and running away. I was watching him in sort of amazement because first of all, Luke is fearless. Second of all, he never does that with the vacuum. However, the thought that really gripped me is that usually when he is scared of something he runs to me.

For those of you that have never met my Luke, I am quite definitively his favorite person on the planet. Luke LOVES me. I know that at some mysterious point in the future all of his admiration and love will switch over to Daddy and he will follow Daddy everywhere, but for now he is my personal fan club. There is no comfort like Mommy, no one else like Mommy to kiss it and make it better, or put him to bed. From this wild and wrestling, roaring and wriggly child, I get cuddles and kisses and sighs of adoration. I love it.

In that moment, as I looked at my son running from me I kept wondering why he would run from the person he loves most. I’m cleaning up his mess. I am doing this for him. I’m saving him from ants. I would never ever harm him or hurt him, and yet he is afraid of me with the vacuum.

And somewhere in that moment, I felt the heart of God. There are times in our lives when God starts cleaning house. He starts messing with our messes, or cleaning up friendships and relationships. He may clean out a cupboard with lost dreams, or sort through a closet of masks that you have been hiding behind. He may even start cleaning house in your career so that He can move you into a better place for your gifting and personality. Sometimes it is a cleaning, sometimes a sorting, but it is always for your good and to give you a future and a hope.

Yet so many times when life gets difficult or uncomfortable, we run from the vacuum cleaner. We don’t want things to be hard or loud. We don’t trust the process and sometimes we can even forget how much we love the God who holds the vacuum. We hide from his cleaning, we shrink back from the junk he wants to remove from our hearts.

I have a friend who is mad at God. He feels that God hurt him and he has determined that God can never make it right. Consequently, in every instance when God wants to heal or to bless him or to clean him of the baggage that he is carrying, he shrinks back. He runs from God’s presence all the while craving the very thing he is running from. When he gets into a worship service he weeps and weeps, but won’t let God come near enough to pull the thorn out of his heart that is causing all of his pain. He says he still loves God, but the truth is he just doesn’t know Him.

Just like Luke with the vacuum, in the noise and discomfort, my friend has lost sight of God’s heart for him and His kindness and love for him. He fears the vacuum because he doesn’t know that God would never hurt him. God didn’t hurt him in the first place. The enemy did that and blamed it on God. God wept with him in his pain, He didn’t do it to him. There is evil in this world and God in His incredible mercy gives us freedom of choice. We have the freedom to chose Him, or not, just as others have the freedom to inflict pain. We are not His puppets, we are His kids. Ironically, as thankful as we are for our own freedom, we so wish that God would control everyone else and take away theirs. It is a cycle of blame and destruction and all it does is push us further from our Father and the truth of His goodness. It is as simple as this:

God is good.
The devil is bad
God can only do good.
The devil can only do bad.
So if He wants to clean something where the enemy has made a mess, it is only with our good in mind.

As all of these thoughts flashed through my mind, I felt little hands pulling at my pants leg. Luke’s beautiful face was turned up toward me asking me to hold him. I picked him up, perched him on my hip and kept on vacuuming. Once again he was fearless. Once again he had found his Mommy’s arms and all was well in the world. You see the safest place to be during the cleaning is in your Father’s arms. He isn’t doing anything “to” you. Rather the two of you are tackling the mess together.

If you have been running from the vacuum cleaner in your life, it is a really good idea to re-examine your position. Your Father is only good and if you are running from him, you are probably wasting a lot of energy on needless fear and missing out on something wonderful (like an ant-free life). The chances are, if you have been running from God in some area of your life and fearing what will happen if you surrender, you are overcomplicating the situation. You don’t have to clean up the mess yourself. You just have to get on the right side of the vacuum. Your Father has you. He will do the cleaning. You just have to find His arms.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Budgeting Review - "Practicing your Payday Plan"

This blog is actually a wonderful illustration of how to use your budget, but it also is a great example of the blog that I never wrote on "Diggin Out" when you have gotten behind. I was so happy to find it and I hope it will be a helpful illustration to everyone of how to manage your finances with the help of a budget. Have a blessed day today, even if it isn't payday :)

Payday! Yea! For my husband and I, yesterday was payday and I thought it might be helpful to walk you through exactly how I use my budget. I realize that not everyone receives a salary or is paid on the 15th. There are a multitude of different pay cycles which I have written about and you can find here. However, all of us get to sit down and pay our bills, no matter when or how you get paid. Today, I want to take you through that process using a budget. Some of the steps I haven’t discussed yet, but I will get there. If I just touch on something today that I haven’t dealt with, I will probably come back to it in the future.

The first thing that I do when I get our paycheck is I sit down with our Quicken program, my check register, my finance binder, and a printed copy of my budget. If you do not use a computer program to track your spending and accounts, then you should have written ledgers for your checking account and for each of your credit cards. In that credit card ledger is where you keep a running total of what you owe on each card. Remember, (see my blog on managing your credit cards) a credit card should never be used as money you don’t have. This is a sure way leading to debt and difficult times. Inevitably, something will come up that will make that payment hard to make. A credit card should only be used as an alternate means of payment when you already know where in your budget the funds are coming from.

Through the whole of my payday process, my printed budget is my road map. I first of all will look at what I have in my bank account and make sure that my bank account is balanced with the most current statement. If you have a program like Quicken, it will download your statement for you and is very helpful in balancing. I need to do and entire blog on how to balance your statement, because I know that would be really helpful for many of you who are just now coming out of hiding from your finances. The reason you balance your statement first is that sometimes there are fees or miscellaneous charges that you have forgotten to enter into your register. You want to be absolutely accurate with what you have in your account, because bouncing checks is an extremely frustrating waste of money! I had a friend who bounced an electronic check and the company resubmitted it twelve times before my friend realized what had happened. They ended up with over $300 in bounced check fees from their bank. Matt and I never wanted to even come close to this, so at the beginning of our marriage we decided that we would always keep a “buffer” in our account that we would consider our “zero”. Our particular bank charges fees for a checking account unless you keep a minimum balance of $500 in the account, so we keep a $500 buffer in our checking account at all times. We never even consider that money in any equation. It is just emergency protection that is saving us from fees. Even if your bank doesn’t charge you any fees for checking (Sorry, South Africa!), it is still a very good idea to keep a buffer in your account, so that you never experience the panic and waste of being overdrawn at the bank.

Your bank statement only comes once a month, so you can decide whether to balance it at the beginning or middle of the month according to when it comes. Once you have balanced your checking account you are ready to begin to work with your deposit. The first thing that I do is to take my account down to zero (or $500). If for instance, my utilities were lower than I expected and budgeted for, I will transfer out any surplus into my savings account. Basically, each bill period, I only keep the funds that I need in my checking account. If it is money without a purpose, I would rather have it earning interest in my savings account. I can always withdraw it if Matt and I decide there is something that we need or would like to do with that money. So I start from zero. Now part of starting from zero means that I look at my credit card and completely pay off my balance. Now this is not for those of you in credit card debt. Your debt payment is made as part of your budget, and you also should not be using these cards and accruing any more debt. This is for those of you who use your credit card as a part of your budgeting plan to pay for gas and groceries, etc. Everything that you put on this card must be paid off every month, and I actually pay it off every bill period (so twice a month). This way I am accountable to know exactly where the money is coming from.

Let’s say for this example, that my credit card is current, my account is balanced, and I am ready to do my bills. This is the part where you get to use your printed budget and implement your budgeting plan. I simply take our paycheck and subtract whatever cash that I am taking out for budgeted expenses and then write in the deposit amount. I will actually track all of that cash in Quicken and in my register. So I will write into my register: Deposit: Salary $X.00 Cash out $X.00 (groceries $X.00, gas $X.00, entertainment $X.00, etc). Matt and I actually do a combination of Credit card and cash for our bills and spending. I withdraw the cash amount and then write the total deposit into my ledger (enter it into Quicken). I also cross out on my written budget any category that I withdrew cash for, so groceries, gas, and entertainment, etc.

So now you have your bank account buffer (so $500.00 for us) and your salary deposit (minus the cash that you have taken out) total in your account. The next thing I do is, I start at the top of my bills for the bill period I am in and just write them in, so at the top of my sample budget for the bill period of the 15th is Electricity. I go into my finance binder where I hole punched and stored my electricity bill when it came and enter that amount into my ledger. If it is a paper bill, I will write the check and put a stamp on. If I can pay the account on line I will go online right then and pay the bill. The majority of my actual bills are automated which means they automatically debit from my bank or credit card on a day that I have set. However, that is not possible for every company and bill. Some of you may also pay your bills through bill pay with your bank, which is a wonderful option (if your bank offers it with no fees). You would just then sit with you written budget, your binder, ledger and billpay, and just enter your bill total and pay it from your bank account. I then cross off Electricity. And I just go down the list of bills that I have made, paying the bill, entering it into my bank ledger (or Quicken or whatever program you use). It usually only takes me 20 minutes to sit and pay all my bills because they are all in one place thanks to my binder. They are mostly automated so I only have to write a few checks, and it is just entering all of my bills into my ledger. I will also pay myself first in this process and transfer out savings to my ING account.

At the end of entering all of my bills, I might have some categories that I leave the funds in my bank account for, and these are the only categories that you need to track for the next two weeks. As an example, let's say that you hate carrying cash and so you leave your grocery money in your account. It is imperative that you track this money as you spend it. Write it down on your printed budget or in a ledger, but do not count on yourself to remember. We always “think” we have spent less than we actually have, unless you track your spending.

So with all of your bills entered, paid, and current, you are done with your bills until the next bill period. It may seem difficult just reading it, but it is going to be so simple as you actually do it, because you won’t be searching for bills. In fact, bills that don’t fluctuate like your mortgage, you can simply enter the amount from your printed budget. And at the end, you have all of your bills that are paid and current crossed off your printed budget and only the ones that you are still tracking will be unmarked. The total amount budgeted for the unmarked bills or expenses should total exactly what you have left in your account (minus your buffer amount).

So maybe 45 minutes of your time, twice a month and you will never have to worry about missing a payment or a bill, or if you are forgetting something. You can relax about your finances and get on with enjoying your life. Budgeting isn’t difficult or stressful. You just needed a plan. And now that you have one, it’s time to practice using it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Budgeting Review - "Balancing Your Budget

If you have come this far and have determined your budgetable income, and all of your monthly bills and expenses, then it is time to balance your budget. This blog will walk you through that process, as well as give you some great encouragement along the way.

God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. As we face your budget today and try to determine how to bring balance. I just want to remind you of that verse. This is the time that many people want to get into fear when it comes to their budget. Fear that there isn’t enough, fear of deprivation, fear of knowing… None of this fear is from God. He is not in your fear. Neither is He controlled by your fear. Let go of your fear of the unknown and face your budget. God is with you today.

So… balancing day. How exactly do you do it? The idea behind it is that you want to enter all of your expenses and still have surplus, even if it’s only a little bit, left from your income. Now, a new friend named Ashley left a comment yesterday asking a question that I just want to address quickly. He asked, “I get my salary once a month, (end of month), all my bills are debited or paid by the 2nd of the month. I therefore have no expenses (bills) to pay by the middle of the month. Should I still be putting my salary into 2 portions?”

Now, Ashley’s situation is unique in that all of his bills are being automatically debited on the same day each month. I wish all of us could do this because it makes bill paying so simple; however, for most of us, our bills are due at all different dates during the month, with many of them having inflexible due dates. Utility bills, for example are often set with inflexible due dates because they are dependent on when the company comes to check your meter and they often give you only a few days to make your payment once they bill you. However, for Ashley, no I would not complicate by dividing up what is already so simplified for you. I would leave all of your bills coming out of the first of the month as they do, but I would divide up your discretionary funds. So your budget might look something like this.

If your situation is similar to Ashley’s in your income setup, but not in the way that your bills are paid then I would typically still recommend dividing your monthly income in two. This will enable you to divide your bills into two sections (please see my blog “Simplicity”) and not have to be constantly managing your bills all month. It enables you to only have to sit down twice a month and work with the bills that are due. Also, I have discovered that if you take your entertainment money, or grocery money (for example) all at once, it is very rare to have anything left by the end of the month. Typically you spend it all in the beginning, and really struggle at the end.

So for today’s topic of balancing your budget, I am going to continue to address the issue from a position of dividing your income into two sections, since this is going to work best for most people. The very first thing to look at when starting to balance your budget is your mortgage/rent. Your mortgage/rent is typically the biggest bill that you will have in your budget. So when you enter your mortgage amount into the budget it may take the majority of your first of the month budgetable income. So from there you need to choose the bills that are going to best fit with your mortgage and not cause you to go over.

So let’s say that you have inputted all of your bills due on or after the 1st into your beginning of the month section and you are two hundred dollars over the amount of your income. There are several solutions to that. The first is to identify the bills that do not have fixed due dates such as Savings, Giving, Car Insurance, Infrequent bills that you are saving for, Groceries, Gasoline, Entertainment, etc. These expenses can easily be moved between sections and allow you to try to move your expenses around. You can even divide these up and pay them in both sections if that is what works best for you. For instance, I have a section for savings in both my beginning of the month and middle of the month sections. So lets say I save 300 dollars a month. I might have 150 coming out of each section, but if I need an extra $50 as I am balancing my budget, I might reduce my savings amount to $100 in the first section and then increase my savings to $200 in the second section.

A second solution is to look at the bills that have semi flexible due dates close to the first and to move them to the middle of the month. These might include bills like your retirement savings, insurance, or credit card payment… anything that you can call and request a different bill due date or automatic payment date. Companies will typically be happy to bill you earlier or to debit your account earlier, so it might just require a simple phone call to move your due date for a bill if you absolutely cannot get your budget to balance without doing that.

So now, what if the issue is not having too little money in the beginning of the month and too much in the middle of the month? What if your issue is not having enough money for your total? What if once you enter all of your bills, both sections are in the negative, meaning that you have too many expenses for you income? Don’t get in a panic. This is just your moment for discovering why you are in debt. If your outflow every month is always more than your income, then the only possible result is going to be debt. So don’t despair, this is just your answer to why you are in debt, and it is a great thing to discover or you can never change it. It is simply time to re-evaluate your “necessary” bills, as well as your discretionary (meaning flexible) expenses. Are you spending too much on impulse purchases for clothing and eating out? Can you reduce your grocery budget? Are you killing your budget through all of the presents that you buy for other people (a topic for another day)? Are you living beyond your income in your new car payment or in the vacations that you take each year?

These are very hard questions for many people, and for some reason seems to stir up all kinds of fear. Fear of deprivation, and having to give something up, fear of being controlled, fear of not getting to do what you want to do. I want to remind you again… “God has not given you a spirit of fear” Ask Him for the wisdom to know what to change and how to live within what He has given you to live on. Surrender your desires and your fears. Your heavenly Father loves you and He knows what you need. Sometimes His answer may even be a job with better pay or a raise, or His answer may be to give you the wisdom to manage what He has already given you. However, it is really amazing when you begin to live within your income and with gratitude, how quickly increase will come in your life. It is just so true in so many circumstances, when you get happy where you are, and learn to be content whether you have a lot or a little, God always brings more. Again, He is after your heart, so let Him have your heart, your fears, and your trust in your finances, and you will be amazed at what He will do.

The picture at the top of this blog is entitled “Perfectly Happy”. It was the first picture that came up when I did a search for the word “balance”, and somehow I think that is significant. As your budget comes into balance, as you weigh the plan to live within your means, as you face what lies before you, I think you come to a place of acceptance and peace. I don’t think you can ever be “perfectly happy” when you are in fear and denial and your entire life is out of balance, but in the truth comes freedom, in the light comes answers, and in the place of balance you will often find happiness… or at least a reprieve from constantly falling off the beam and into debt… and that really is a happy thought. But even if you have just discovered that you have fallen off the beam, God is with you. He is for you, and just like a Daddy helping his little toddler to walk for the first time, God is so excited to help you to come to the place of balance.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Budgeting Review - "Directions for the Journey"

The next few blogs are on how to use your budget. The very first step which I cover today is to print it and carry it in your wallet. The following story will humorously illuminate some reasons why:

Last year I had the opportunity to speak at a ladies retreat in New York with my Mom. It was such a fun thing to get to do together and we had a lovely time. We flew into Newark airport and were picked up by three very sweet ladies whom we had never met before and the plan was then to drive to Long Island Beach where the retreat would be held. Well, my Mom and I were in the back seat with one of the ladies in between us, and let me just say the conversation from the front seat was just a little disturbing. There were many, many comments like, “I hope we don’t get lost”, and “I’m just not good with directions”, and “Let me just call my husband to find out where we are.”

My Mom and I just kept our mouths shut and started praying… not so much that we would find it, although we were very ready to get out of the back seat, but that we would find it soon, because we were both starving. We had been up since 4am to get to the airport and it was now around 2pm and the muffin at the airport was a long time ago. Well, towards the very end of the journey, my Mom starts talking to the ladies about how she wished that she had her “Nuvi” with her. She and my Dad drive to many of their meetings and the “Nuvi” is a GPS device that tells you exactly where you are and gives you specific directions on how to get to where you are going. Well, the lady in the passenger seat, whose car we were driving says, “I think we have one of those…” and proceeds to pull out a “Nuvi” from the glove compartment! Wrong turn after wrong turn, wandering aimlessly trying to find a place to eat, frantic phone calls to husbands, and we had a “Nuvi” in the car with us the whole time…

Some of you may be wondering why do I need to have this budget, Tracy? I track all my finances on my computer and everything is automated. Well, I’ll tell you. Life has a tendency to throw you a lot of surprises and turns, and even the need for u-turns sometimes. It is all very well to be able to track where you went once you have already gotten to your destination, but how much better is it to have directions in the car with you telling you how to get there. This budget is like your own personal financial “Nuvi” or printed directions. It is your roadmap to when each bill is due. It is your signal when you are reaching the end of your budget for entertainment for the week, saying, “OK, stop here or you will not reach your destination.” And what is your destination? A life without debt. A life with savings, and provision for the unexpected. A life with hope and a plan for moving towards your dreams. That is why I have the sections to the right on your budget. This section doesn’t have to be your plan for what to do with your extra money. It may be your section for tracking your savings and watching your dreams grow. Make it your own, but write down your financial vision. Carry it with you. Look at it often, and remind yourself why you are doing this. If you are going to a place you have never been before, it is wise to have directions, and this budget is your directions for a new life.

Every month I print a new copy of my budget and I fold it and carry it in my wallet. I still input all of my spending into Quicken and I record it in my check register… but this budget is my vision. It is my roadmap to where we are going with my finances. I physically cross off bills as I pay them on bill paying day. On the first and the fifteenth I sit down with my budget and enter all of my bills that are due for that section into Quicken (and my check register, although I don’t necessarily recommend this, it is just a habit for me). I then track my spending on that piece of paper for the rest of the categories, like groceries, and gas. I transfer out all surplus money from my account into my savings, which forces me to stick to my budget and not overspend. If I am continually short in a category, my husband and I will adjust our budget, but we always do so with the vision in mind.

So that is why I feel like this concise, clear, easily accessible budget is so important. You may love your financial software program, but mostly it just tracks where you have been, and can also make something that is very straightforward into something very complicated. Your financial plan needs to be simple, it needs to be easy to follow and even adjust, but I also firmly believe it needs to be written (printed is OK :) ).

Habakkuk 2:2 says “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.” I love this verse because it is basically saying if the vision is plain and written out clearly, you get to run to your destination. In other words, you get to get there a whole lot faster! This is truly the heart of budgeting… purposeful spending in order to reach your dreams… as quickly as possible.

There is a small chance you may still reach your financial destination without directions in the car. We did eventually reach Long Island Beach (well, actually we only got there after we started using the Nuvi). But I guarantee you if you do decide to go through your financial life without a map, it will take you a lot longer to get where you want to go, and like my Mom and I in New York, you will probably be extremely hungry when you eventually get there. So save yourself time, frustration, hunger and a lot of u-turns, and get yourself a financial “Nuvi”. It will not only tell you where you are, like we looked at yesterday, but a budget will also help you to get where you want to be, and to get there a whole lot faster.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Budgeting Review - "A Plan to Stop Juggling"

You have determined your budgetable income, and made a list of your bills, expenses and even discretionary categories, so today is the big day. This blog is going to help you to plug all of that information into a spreadsheet that will change your financial life. It is so simple to use and understand, and yet it is the key to budgeting success.

One of the most difficult things about juggling finances is that you feel like you can never stop. Some people are constantly dropping balls, others just put some of the balls down until they can afford to pay them. The juggling act is constant and exhausting. You never know when the next ball is going to be thrown in or how many there will be. What I am going to be giving you today is so incredibly valuable because it is not just a way to manage the juggling act, it is way to end it.

I am so excited about what I am going to be sharing with you today because it is a very simple, very straightforward “Excel” spreadsheet that you can plug all of your information into and will allow you to determine your budget. Many people fail because they can never grasp the big picture of their finances, and this visual budget is going to help to give you that picture. So if you just want to see what I am talking about, you can view my blank budget here. Or, if you want a copy for yourself that you can actually work with (which I highly recommend), you can download it here.

This budget is going to help you to stop the juggling act. The first step is to click in the top peach box (You can change the colors on your budget later :) ), and to enter in your bi-monthly budgetable income. If you only figured out your budgetable income to a monthly figure, simply divide your monthly budgetable income total by 2. When you have entered in your bi-monthly income, you will notice that it will automatically add the two together to give you your monthly total and also put that total in your Surplus category and Savings. Do not worry about those numbers right now. They will automatically adjust as you enter in your bills and expenses.

The second step is to get your list of bills. This is where knowing the date that every bill is due is going to be extremely important. I want you to begin to plug your bills into the budget according to when they are due. If they are due after the beginning of the month, plug them into the first section entitled (beginning of the month). If they are due on or after the 15th of the month, plug them into the second section. You can change the names of any of the categories that I have put in for an example, although I would recommend leaving the category entitled “savings” found in both sections, because it is linked to the savings tracker in the yellow section of the budget.

Obviously, the categories will need to be changed for your specific situation, but they will give you a general idea. Furthermore, don’t worry if the numbers don’t add up correctly for today (if your bills total more than your income in one of the sections). I am going to be addressing how to balance your budget in detail in an upcoming blog. For today, you have started. You may be able to mess with this budget and figure it out for yourself, which is wonderful. If you need to see an example of a completed budget (all the numbers are made up ~they are not mine, because what I pay for my mortgage isn’t the point :) ) I have posted one here. If it is all a little confusing, don’t worry because by the end of this series, this budget will be so simple and clear. So hang in there with me.

I know some of you may already manage your finances through a program like Quicken, or Microsoft money. I use Quicken, but I also use this budget and I am going to go into why later on this week. So let me just challenge you to trust me and go for it.

This budgeting plan is going to set you free from the juggling act. You will finally have all of your balls in one place and you will know exactly when each ball needs to go out because it is due. You will also be able to see at a glance where your money is going and what your plan is for your money. It is time to get all of the weight, uncertainty, and confusion out of your head and into a plan. It is time to stop tossing your bills up and hoping the money comes in before they land. You can succeed on a budget, but it needs to be clear, it needs to be comprehensive, and it needs to be easily accessible and changeable. If you will walk with me this week, I think you will see that this budgeting plan is all of that and more: it is also your chance to quit juggling, and to finally clear the balls from your head so you can get on with the rest of your life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Budgeting Review - "Expenses - Cash, Credit,or Debit"

Discretionary money, or money that you spend at your discretion, is very often the downfall of budgets and kings. It is the money that you spend at a whim on clothing, or groceries, or a latte, on eating out or gifts for people, that many times will kill your budget. So, how do you manage that money in a way that it won't destroy what you are trying to establish in your budget? I am so glad you asked :) The following is my favorite plan for discretionary money and I hope it will help you to tame your spending beast as well.

One of the questions I get so often is “How do you keep track of your grocery money?” It is probably about groceries because most of my friends are Moms and staying in the budget with groceries is a huge part of our world. Grocery money, Gas money, Entertainment, Gifts, Free money, and just whatever categories you have in your budget that you don’t automatically pay as a bill, are really the most challenging thing about budgeting and the areas that most people overspend the most on. I consider these categories as discretionary spending, because it is money that you spend all throughout the month at your discretion. So what is the best plan for staying in budget and handling this money?

Well the truth is there is not one answer for all people in how to handle this money. Basically there are three methods for discretionary spending: cash, credit card, or bankcard. Or you can even use a combination of the methods. It really is about finding the system that works the best for you. For some people, carrying cash is scary and they would prefer to use a credit card. For others, spending on credit cards has gotten them into serious financial trouble and they absolutely need the boundaries of a cash system. And others prefer to use their debit card for everything so that they only spend the money that they have, but don’t have to carry cash. Using a bankcard also forces them to keep a careful record of what they are spending so that they do not overdraw on their account. For me, the system that works the best is a combination of cash in envelopes (the envelope system) and credit cards. I am going to go into the envelope system in detail for you today, because even if it is not your method of choice, all of us need to pull the reigns in on our spending at some point and the envelope system is an excellent way to bring you back on budget. Then in tomorrow’s blog I will write about how to manage discretionary spending on credit cards.

So, you haven’t had cash in your wallet in years due to the magic of the plastic card… and your question is, “How does this paper money even work?” Well, you might love it and you might hate it, but it will definitely work to keep you on budget. It is also a great opportunity to really get a feel of what you are spending each month. If you will notice on my budgeting plan (click here to view it and here to download it), I have a space between bills and what I consider discretionary spending. This helps me to separate it from those that I pay on bill paying day twice a month. For me, this is what I draw in cash when I make by bank deposit twice a month. I take $x.00 for groceries, entertainment, gifts, gas money, etc and then I have little bank envelopes that I have written groceries, entertainment… on and I divide up the money into it’s designated categories. Those little bank envelopes fit easily into my wallet and they really make it so easy to track your spending. When the entertainment envelope is empty, we skip going out to the movie. You can physically see what you are spending. I also tend to draw the money in large bills. It just seems a lot easier to wastefully spend $1, $5, $10 bills than it is to spend $100’s.

If you are nervous about carrying that much cash, then it might work for you to take the money out of your wallet and leave it in a secure place in your home. Then take out the cash you might need before you leave home and put it into your wallet. However, if this is your plan, have two sets of envelopes, because if you just take a $20 bill out of grocery money and stick it into your wallet, it is so easy to forget where you got it from and then just feel like “Oh well” and just spend it. The whole idea is to track your spending. If you get caught out with no money, you can use your card to pay for it, but then write the amount on your printed budget that you carry in your wallet or put the receipt into the appropriate envelope and immediately when you get home, put the cash into a “to be deposited” envelope to pay for that purchase. That way when you go to pay your credit card, you simply deposit your cash from that envelope and it should be exactly what you need to pay for what is on your card. Remember, the money to pay your credit card has to come from somewhere and the envelope system just lets you know exactly where it is coming from.

What I love about the envelope system is that I don’t have to keep track of every single purchase. We just buy groceries and gas and even entertainment and we know what we have in the envelopes and we can just relax and not constantly worry if we are going over budget or where the money is coming from. To me, it allows us to live on a budget, but not have to constantly monitor and track our budget. The envelope system does it for us.
It also makes it really fun when I get a great deal on diapers and spend less in “baby money”, because the cash left at the next bill pay period can go to something fun, like a “day to buy something” for my kids, or an extra date night for my husband and I. However if you save a significant amount in a category, then I would suggest maybe adjusting your budget and putting that extra money to a purpose like increasing your savings, or financing a dream, or putting extra toward debt. What you do with your money is up to you (and your spouse if you have one), but the key is just to be purposeful with that money. If you decide to just have fun with it, then go ahead and spend your $20 on a movie, because it will just motivate you for next month to come in under budget again.

Now if you are married, the envelope system needs to be negotiated. The way Matt and I handle it is we divide the money up. I keep the grocery money because I do the shopping, the gift giving money (again because I do the shopping), baby money, and my clothing money. Then he keeps the entertainment money in his wallet because we like to be together when we spend it. That way we are making memories, having dates, or eating out as a family. He also keeps a portion of the gas money that he needs for his car. However, Matt doesn’t like to have to go in to pay so he will take his cash and load a free gas card with his money, and then uses that to pay at the pump. He has to always go to the same kind of gas station, but he does that anyway so this works for him. So in his wallet he has his “free” money, his gas card, entertainment money, and his clothing money, which he can spend on clothes or whatever. What has worked for him is a version of the envelope system. He will use paper clips and sticky notes, or even just keep the money in separate sections of his wallet. For instance, he will fold his clothing money and put it behind a picture just because it helps him to purposeful with it and not to just spend it on a whim. There is a way to make this work, and if you are trying to come out of a freefall of spending and bad financial habits, this may be exactly the reality check you need. It does take some self-control when your envelope is empty and a “desire” comes up, but this is actually really good for you to realize that it is giving in in these moments that has sabotaged you in the past and kept your finances in disarray and debt. Just submit that desire to the Holy Spirit and go on about your day. :) I can feel you smiling at me like, “Yeah right.” It is never fun to reign your flesh back in, but it is so worth it!

So, giive the cash/envelope system a try. Like I said earlier, you may hate it, you may love it, it will definitely challenge you, but it could also change your financial world around. It is a great “litmus test” to see if what you have allotted for groceries (for instance) is actually livable for you family. It really will reveal a lot about your spending habits, but if you actually let the cash/envelope system become the habit, it will also revolutionize and simplify your finances and help to change your spending habits.

Money is spent easily, it goes quickly and there is no simple solution to managing it except to manage it. And just like water in your hand that so easily flows between your fingers, the only way to keep money in your hand is to find a way to contain it. The envelope system is simply a system of containers for your resources, yet it is also a great way to know that although you may be out of money in one particular envelope, you will never be empty handed in your finances again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Budgeting Review - "Expenses - Finding the Holes"

In the last few days we have reviewed how to determine your budgetable income to be able to plug it into your budget. As you have seen, there are so many different scenarios for this, but I hope that you were able to find your situation in my scenarios and develope a plan that will work for your income. Today we are looking at how to determine your expenses. In your budget, you are going to list all of your bills and expenses and the following blog is going to help you to do that. God bless.

Have you ever felt like trying to get ahead in your finances is kind of like trying to blow up a balloon with a giant hole? The more energy, time, and air you pour into that balloon, the more frustrated you become because it just won't get any bigger. And even worse, the second you take a break, it completely deflates and you have nothing to show for your efforts. It all just feels like a mystery because you never know where the air is going. And all of this frustration is simply because you have never taken the time to identify the holes.Today we begin the adventure of finding out exactly where your money is going. To me, budgeting is all about being purposeful with your money so that you don't just continue to throw all of your energy and money to the wind.Your "hole finding" mission for today is to identify all of your bills. I want you to make a list of every place that your money is obligated to go. If you have already made your binder, or organized your filing, then this step is going to be easy for you. Your bills are going to be specific to your life, but here is a list of some general categories:
Mortgage/Rent
Savings
Giving
Insurance
Electricity
Gas
Water/Sewage
Telephone
Internet
Cable TV
Car payment
Car Insurance
Credit Card Payment
School loans
There are also other categories which have more flexibility, but actually tend to steal more air and I want you to make a list for these categories as well. Categories like:
Groceries
Gasoline
Entertainment
Baby Expenses (if you have one)
Clothing
Gifts
Try to be realistic and specific about what you spend your money on. If you go get your hair done every month then you need a hair category, etc... Try to be as specific as you can. This is where your money is going and it is imperative to identify every area. Don't worry about all of the "holes" in your balloon right now. A lot of that is just life and what it costs to live, but as we go along in this budgeting process, you will realize that by not being purposeful with your money, you have allowed some of those holes to sabotage your dreams. This is just the beginning, so hang in there with me, because I am confident that this plan is going to finally get your balloon off of the ground.
Bills That Are Fixed
The next step on your journey to establishing a budget is to determine what you are averaging in spending in each of the categories that we established yesterday. We are also going to determine each bill's due date, as that is critical to knowing which paycheck each bill must come out of and it's placement in the budget. So get out your list and let's start with your Mortgage/Rent. It will be easy to determine because it is a fixed amount each month. Write down the amount and the date that it is due by. I want you to do this for every bill that is fixed (does not fluctuate from month to month).

If you do not have paper statements, you can check online for your bills. Most companies now allow you to access your account online and will let you see your bills for the last few months. If you do not have online access to your bill, you can also check your bank statement (or check book register) to track your spending in a category. If all this fails, you can always call the company and they will definitely be able to give you your bill totals for the last few months.
Bills That Fluctuate
So what about bills that change from month to month? One of the most confusing issues that people have with setting a budget is, "How do I know what to budget when my bills vary so much?" In the winter your gas bill will typically be high and then drop to nothing in the summer (unless all of your appliances run on gas). It can be a challenge to know what to budget when your bill can fluctuate by more than $200! So here is what has worked for my household, and some ideas that have helped others with their budgets as well.

This is where it is really helpful to have the last 12 months of statements or be able to access them either online or by a phone call to the company. The first step is to take the last 12 bill totals and add them together. Divide the total of this by 12 and you will have your monthly average. However, it is always better to budget too much than too little and in the months where your bill reaches $150, you will struggle if your average is only $70 and that is all you have budgeted.

There are several ways to compensate for this. First of all, you can budget your bill at the top side of your bill (at $150) and then in the low months (when it is only $30) just put the difference into your savings plan. This is a great plan if you have lots of flexibility in your budget (make a lot more money than your actual bills). However, the average person does not have this flexibility, so this plan can be very difficult for them because that is an extra $120 that they are unnecessarily putting aside each month. Your bill will only be that high one or two times a year, and many people need that money to live the rest of the year.

A second plan is to budget your bill half way between your average bill and your highest bill of the year. That way the majority of your bills will be covered by your budget, but maybe two bills a year you will need to draw from your savings to make up the difference. The third plan is to budget your bill at the average bill and start a savings plan just for that utility. Each low month of the year (months with the lowest bill), you would take the overage in your budget (the difference between what you budgeted and the actual bill) and put it into a savings account so that money is there when the bill is in the high months. This third plan requires a lot of discipline to not spend the extra money when your bill is low, but it is definitely do-able. I will discuss savings plans in detail later, but I currently have five savings accounts open which I use both to manage our money and to save for our dreams.

Another idea for managing your variable bills is to take out the variation. Many utility companies offer fixed rate programs, in which they take the average of your last 12 months of bills and that then becomes your fixed bill total. They do have to adjust it each year for rises in cost of gas, electricity, etc and for your actual usage, but they should only adjust it once a year. Many companies will also refund you the difference if your actual usage is less than what they have charged you over the course of the year.

I have used all of these plans over the years, but I have found that the easiest is to allow the utility company to average my bill for me. If that is not available, I now do a combination of the second and third plan. My budgeted amount is between the high bill and the average total and when the bill is at its lowest point I will put that money in savings for the two months when that bill is high. Most of the year I have enough to cover the bill and I don't constantly have to be micro-managing the money. There is also the factor that when my electricity bill is at its highest in the summer, my gas bill is often very low, so I can use the surplus from my gas to pay my electricity.

Regardless of what plan you choose to use to set your budget for your utilities, it is very important to have a plan. Try to think through your personality, the flexibility level in your finances, and what is available to you through your bill company. These factors will help you determine which plan will best fit you and your family's needs. Having a plan in place for your utilities means that you will no longer have to worry about your bill totals from month to month. Instead, you will be free to sit back and enjoy the weather, no matter what season you are in.