Did you start the year off right from a financial stewardship perspective? Maybe you set some goals for the year and determined financial priorities based on those goals. If you did, well done! Maybe you even created a Spending Plan based on past spending patterns, information about your income and monthly expenses, etc. Again, Well done!
But Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
Chances are you’ve done this before. Maybe you’ve experienced more success in some years than in others. Maybe you’ve wondered why in some years, you seemed to meet your goals easily and in others, not so much. Or maybe, like most folks, your stewardship plans have consistently not panned out.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear notes that many sports teams start the season with the goal of winning a championship. But, obviously, not all of them actually achieve that goal. Merely having a goal doesn’t guarantee success; goals provide direction, but they don’t actually move us in that direction. To make progress toward the goals we’ve set, we need to put the right habits in place.
In the area of stewardship, we can group these habits into two broad categories: spiritual practices and financial practices. In this article, we’ll look at key habits in both of these important categories.
Key Spiritual Practices
Stewardship is, first and foremost, a spiritual endeavor. So it should come as no surprise that faithful stewardship relies on foundational spiritual practices. We’ll examine a few here.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
We start with prayer because prayer should undergird all the other habits – both spiritual and practical. Here are a few ideas for praying over finances and stewardship:
- Thank God for his many provisions (job, health, finances, housing, etc.). Ask Him to take care of you continually and pray for increased faith to trust in His care.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in setting up a Spending Plan that’s realistic and values-based and in making good spending decisions.
- Pray for discipline in tracking expenses and in adjusting the Spending Plan as needed.
- Confess any bad decisions or poor stewardship habits as needed, and ask God for freedom from temptation.
- If you’re married, pray with your spouse over your finances regularly!
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.Philippians 4:11-13
Contentment is perhaps the primary heart posture needed for stewardship. Contentment protects us from greed, envy, and materialism. It frees us from the trap of trying to keep up with our neighbors or live up to others’ lifestyle expectations.
We don’t come by contentment naturally. Our instinct is to want more and better. Desiring nicer things isn’t a sin; but if those desires aren’t bounded by contentment with what God has given, they can drive us to unhealthy spending patterns, leading us to serve money rather than God.
Closely related to contentment is gratitude. When we recognize that all we have is from God and when we’re thankful for His provision, we’re much more likely to be content with what He has provided, and less likely to pursue human visions (whether ours or others’) of what life should be. These heart postures are foundational to stewardship.
Contentment and gratitude are not natural; they are supernatural. They have to come from God as He works in our lives. So again, we’re back to prayer – asking God to mold our desires to His (Psalm 37:4).
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.1 Timothy 6:10-12
Scripture is full of examples of the cost of being led astray by money. Achan was tempted by some of the plunder of Jericho and disobeyed God’s order by taking it and hiding it (Joshua 6:18; 7:19-26). Ananias and Sapphira were caught between their desire for men’s praise and greed for their wealth, and so lied when they sold a house and brought part of the money to the apostles (Acts 5:1-11). The rich young ruler couldn’t part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23).
And here’s the thing – all these people were trying to follow God. They weren’t running away from God, living lives that denied His presence and sovereignty. But each of them got distracted by money, and this distraction led to their ruin.
So, how do we escape the enticements of marketers, whose messages constantly bombard us? Here are a few suggestions:
- Avoid online shopping sites unless you’re looking for something specific. These sites lower all the barriers to purchasing in order to entice us to buy. (Amazon even has “1-click buying” – which is maybe a little too convenient!)
- Similarly, stay away from home shopping channels on TV unless you’re looking for something specific that you know is being offered.
- Beware of “introductory offers” that offer something for free or a reduced price for a limited time. The whole point of these offers is to lure us into longer-term commitments. Unless it’s a product you really want, stay away from these, especially if they need a credit card up front.
We all have different weaknesses when it comes to impulse buying, habit shopping, etc. The best way to identify any specific weaknesses you have (and hence, practices/places to avoid) is to review your Spending Record for patterns. What? Not keeping a spending record? Well, the next best place to look is probably credit card statements – the online versions often provide enough information to help you discern details about the transactions. And keep reading – we have some thoughts about the importance of spending records below.
Key Financial Practices
With an undergirding of spiritual habits in place, it’s time to address some important financial practices. These routines make the most difference in the context of faithful observance of the spiritual patterns mentioned above.
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.Romans 14:12
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.Hebrews 4:13
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.1 Corinthians 4:2
Scripture is clear – we’re accountable to God for all He has given us, and that includes our finances and possessions. But how will we be able to give account if we don’t know what we did with those resources? How will we know if our spending patterns reflect faithfulness with what God has provided if we don’t know what our patterns are?
Tracking and categorizing spending is the single most foundational financial practice in pursuing faithful stewardship. Without tracking, our spending plan becomes more of a hope than a plan, because we’ll never know whether or not we’re actually following it. In this sense, managing finances is a little like losing weight. People who track their weight and journal their food intake are much more likely to eat healthier and achieve and maintain a healthy weight than people who don’t practice these disciplines. Similarly, those who track their spending and can account for where their money goes are much more likely to spend wisely than those who don’t.
Whether you use an electronic system such as an app or web-based tool or a pencil-and-paper based system, here are a few keys to successful tracking of spending:
- Do it regularly. Daily is best – it typically only takes a couple of minutes a day if it’s done daily.
- Do it together. If you’re married, involve both spouses. One spouse can keep the records, but both spouses should know where the money goes.
- Do it pragmatically. Most of us don’t need to track every dime; practices like a petty cash fund for small expenses can help minimize the time it takes. But if these unrecorded expenses become significant, it’s time to track more thoroughly.
- Do it honestly. Don’t ignore expenses that you may not be happy about or proud of. Did you overspend on eating out? Track it – don’t pretend that the money wasn’t spent or that it was spent somewhere else. Tracking expenses doesn’t help us if we don’t have accurate records.
- Do it graciously. Don’t beat yourself up over your spending. Acknowledge the truth, confess bad habits if needed, and make adjustments. The point of tracking isn’t guilt – it’s empowerment to make changes.
AnalyzE and Adjust
Tracking spending is the first step to both creating a Spending Plan and living it out. But equally important is analyzing our spending and making needed adjustments – and there will always be needed adjustments. Keeping records is foundational, but if we don’t do anything with those records, we won’t experience the benefits they can bring.
Analyzing spending means comparing actual expenditures to planned spending. This should be done at least monthly – more often for those who are in a cash flow crunch. Analysis should include asking and answering questions like:
- In what categories did we spend more than we planned? What caused the overage?
- In what categories did we spend less than we planned? Should we expect to spend more in these categories in the future?
- What categories have a plan but don’t necessarily include spending each month (such as clothes)?
Where we’ve noted significant differences, a few further questions help us determine how to respond:
- Do we need to adjust spending to better match the plan?
- Is the plan unrealistic in some areas and does it need to be adjusted? (Be aware of trade-offs: any increase in one area means a decrease in another.)
- Is the difference OK because we expect some fluctuation month-to-month? (Note: if there has been a similar difference in multiple months, an adjustment to the plan may be needed.)
The Spending Plan isn’t written in stone. Sometimes we may underestimate or overestimate how much we’ll need in a category. Sometimes life situations will change and necessitate adjustments. This part of the process is a key practice to ensure that our Spending Plan remains realistic, credible, and a good guide that reflects the values God has given us.
If you’re married, both spouses should participate in these activities. One person may be the primary tracker and may develop reports of how spending is matching up with the plan; but both spouses should be involved in decisions about adjustments to spending or to the plan.
This collaboration best reflects God’s design for marriage – a true partnership of mutual submission and cooperation (see Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:17-19). And it gives the best chance for success – like any important endeavor in a marriage, stewardship must be a team effort. Working together in the area of stewardship promotes unity and mutual discipleship.
You probably already automate some of your finances – maybe you have direct deposit of your paycheck into a bank account; maybe you have some bills set up to be paid automatically each month, like a mortgage. Taking advantage of these opportunities helps you to ensure that your financial priorities are carried out each month and helps avoid missing bills, etc. This in turn helps keep your credit score intact.
Automating giving can be an especially important way to ensure that generosity takes a place of priority in your finances. Giving is often the last part of the spending plan, and this can lead to a practice of giving the leftovers at the end of the month. Prioritizing giving honors God, and automating it can help ensure that giving receives the priority we want it to.
If you’re looking to automate more of your transactions, consider doing that in a single place (perhaps your bank’s online bill payment service) rather than making automatic payments at a number of different websites. This has a couple of advantages. First, it lets you see all your upcoming transactions in one place so that you can better track amounts. Second, it helps centralize your financial information – minimizing the number of sites where your information is stored and reducing your exposure to security breaches.
Genesis 41 tells the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams that foretold of a coming period of abundance followed by a period of famine. Joseph proposed a plan for preparing for the famine, and Pharaoh put him in charge of implementing the plan.
We typically don’t have the benefit of knowing what the future holds for our finances. We don’t know what global or national economic developments may arise, or what personal issues we might have to deal with. Even so, Joseph’s example can serve us well in any circumstances if we learn and apply a few key principles.
Upon receiving the assignment from Pharaoh, Joseph acted with urgency. He didn’t wait until year 6 of abundance to start thinking about the famine. He began collecting grain right away and storing it for the time of need.
Similarly, when it comes to finances, we need to act with urgency. For example, if we don’t have an emergency savings fund, we need to prioritize setting this money aside quickly. Retirement savings should not wait until mid-career. We need to address any consumer debt urgently.
Urgency requires sacrifice. Anyone can put together an emergency fund over a couple years without making major sacrifices. But acting with urgency means that we prioritize key financial goals and make trade-offs to accomplish those goals. Maybe we sell some assets in order to quickly set up an emergency fund. Or maybe we dial back on entertainment in order to accelerate debt repayment. Perhaps we opt for less expensive vacations in order to begin saving for retirement sooner rather than later.
We need to establish financial habits such as tracking spending with urgency. The sooner we start, the sooner we begin to see results! Putting off financial disciplines and habits not only delays the results, but tends to lead to deeper holes to dig out of. James warns us not to presume on the future (James 4:13-16). Acting with urgency assures that we don’t.
You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.Hebrews 10:36
Joseph knew that he wasn’t going to save enough grain for 7 years of famine in a single harvest. He worked for seven years to store the grain. He didn’t stop at year 6 with a thought of “that should be good enough”; he made the abundance count for all 7 years.
Scripture doesn’t tell us, but it’s certainly likely that Joseph faced some opposition and obstacles over the course of 7 years (after all, who likes to pay taxes?). As the early years went by, maybe some families stopped believing that the famine was coming and resisted storing some of their grain. Maybe some other families didn’t want to participate in the program for one reason or another. We don’t know what Joseph faced or how he overcame it, but in all likelihood he surmounted several obstacles to accomplish the end goal.
Similarly, we shouldn’t expect that our financial stewardship will look like a straight line up and to the right. There will be peaks and valleys, unforeseen crises and other obstacles. Maybe we receive an unexpected bonus one year, or maybe we lose our job. Maybe one year we get a big tax refund and another year we owe taxes.
The emergency savings fund is a great example of perseverance. We set it aside, knowing that an emergency will come. And it does come – at a time we’re not anticipating, but we’re ready. Perseverance means that we don’t fret over using up the fund; instead, we rejoice that we had it set aside and we work hard to put it back in place.
Paying off consumer debt and saving for retirement are additional good examples of perseverance. These don’t happen overnight; they take time and discipline.
Joseph was thorough. When he was collecting the grain, he didn’t randomly select areas to collect from. He didn’t collect only part of what he had planned. Scripture says that “Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities” (Genesis 41:48, emphasis added). He “traveled throughout Egypt” (verse 46) – not just staying in the comfortable places.
In the same way, we need to be thorough as we apply stewardship principles to our finances. If we have two incomes, we don’t faithfully steward one and just do whatever we want with the other. We don’t diligently track expenses paid out of one account and neglect the others.
Stewardship is based on the principle that God owns everything and that He has entrusted us to manage a part of His resources for a period of time. The Parable of the Talents artfully illustrates this (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). When the master came back from his journey, the servants returned to him everything he had given them and all that they had gained. Two of the servants had acted the entire time with urgency, perseverance, and thoroughness, and were rewarded by the master.
At some point in time, we will return to God everything He has entrusted us with. We won’t need to make excuses for what happened to us – unforeseen emergencies, etc. And God will be less concerned with the amounts that we return than with our faithfulness in stewarding His resources. (Note that the master commended both of the first two servants – who had earned different amounts – in the same way.) If we’ve consistently acted with these same characteristics – urgency, perseverance, and thoroughness – we’ll hear the same, “Well done.”
Glorifying God with Stewardship
Jesus’ words at the Last Supper encouraged his disciples to apply what he had taught them regarding servanthood. As with any Scriptural truth, the blessing comes in the doing, not just the knowing. Jesus’ concluding words in the Sermon on the Mount point out that the difference between wisdom and foolishness comes not in hearing his words, but in doing them (Matthew 7:24-27). James echoes this thought with the image of a man who looks at himself in a mirror but does nothing about what he sees (James 1:22-25).
As regards stewardship, these passages encourage us to both hear and apply God’s Word. Not once or twice, but over the long run. With urgency, perseverance, and thoroughness. In times of financial abundance and in times of relative famine.
We’ve said elsewhere that the point of stewardship is God’s glory. Consider the results of Joseph’s diligence:
When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.Genesis 41:56-57
All the World
Joseph didn’t save just Egypt. As we learn in Genesis 42 and on, Joseph’s own family came to buy grain; God used the famine not only to provide for Joseph’s family but ultimately to bring them down to Egypt, as He had always intended. This was possible because of Joseph’s obedience and perseverance.
But it didn’t even stop there. “All the world came to Egypt.” Picture their response when they learned that reason there was grain in Egypt was because there was a God who revealed what was coming! How grateful to that God they must they have been. How worship of God must have spread to the nations!
How will our stewardship bring God glory in the eyes of others, and around the world? Will it be through our generosity in supporting global mission endeavors? Could it be because we’ve saved enough to help our neighbor out in a crisis? Will it be the ways we use our possessions for the benefit of others?
We make this possible by both knowing and applying Biblical wisdom – day by day, month after month, year upon year. May God give us strength to exercise faithful stewardship over the long run!