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Stewardship. As in other areas of discipleship, we’re all at different places in this journey. We’re learning and growing. And we’re in different financial places as we learn and grow. Stewardship paths have common characteristics across different scenarios, but they also have some key differences.

3 Lanes of Stewardship

Without wanting to paint with too broad a brush, most believers fall into one of three general financial states. These can be thought of as three lanes on the road to financial freedom and Biblical stewardship. Although income is relevant, these lanes are characterized less by income than by how we’re managing it.

Lane 1: Stability

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “You might be in Lane 1 if…”

  • Your credit card balances are increasing month by month;
  • You’re consistently late on bills;
  • You worry each month if you’ll have enough to pay all the bills;
  • You’ve maxed out one or more credit cards.

If you’re in Lane 1, you need stability – to get to a point where each month doesn’t bring worry about getting to the next month.

Lane 2: clarity

You’re likely in Lane 2 if:

  • Your account balances are stable but you’re not saving much each month;
  • You’re able to meet all your bills each month but there’s not much left over for giving or saving;
  • You’re not maxed out on credit cards but not making much headway in paying them off.

Lane 2 is like treading water. You can tread water for a prolonged period, often not even realizing that you’re drifting downstream in the process. Because there’s no immediate crisis, it can be easy to think that things are OK financially.

But this is a dangerous place to be. One unexpected medical emergency, an unplanned job loss, a surprise car or house repair bill – any of these can create a detour that sends you careening into Lane 1.

If you’re in Lane 2, you need clarity. Clarity on your financial situation and on a path leading toward financial freedom.

Lane 3: Legacy

You’re probably in Lane 3 if:

  • You have significant net worth (not necessarily rich, but not worried about the future) and it’s increasing over time;
  • You have minimal consumer debt and no problem making any payments you might have.

This is where we’d all love to be! But even here, there’s often a lack of financial freedom caused by the pursuit of more. More money, more/bigger possessions, more vacations, career advancement, etc. These aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they can produce bondage for us when we have the resources to be living in freedom.

If you’re in Lane 3, the biggest need is for legacy. Not in the sense of how you’ll be remembered, but in the sense of the impact you’re making on your family, your church, the community, and the world. What will be different or better because of the resources God put in your care?

Stewardship in the 3 Lanes

In each of these three lanes, the principles of stewardship remain constant. God calls us to be Diligent Earners, Prudent Spenders, Generous Givers, Wise Savers, and Cautious Debtors – regardless of our financial condition. But what that looks like might vary from situation to situation. And each situation calls for its own wisdom in setting financial priorities and charting a course to financial freedom.

What’s common to all three scenarios? God is. God does not change based on our financial condition, and his love for us doesn’t vary with our account balances. Net worth is not our worth in God’s sight. He can be trusted – regardless of our financial state – to guide us, to provide for us, and to grow us in discipleship.

As a result, a key practice in each lane is prayer. Prayer for wisdom (James 1:5), prayer for God to be honored in all our financial decisions and actions, for strengthened faith to trust in His provision – prayer for anything having to do with our finances. We need to recognize that money competes with God for our allegiance – regardless of our financial situation – and consciously give that over to God regularly.

In this article, we’ll cover stewardship in Lane 1. We’ll cover the other two lanes in future articles.

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Stewardship Tenet: God is For Us

In Lane 1, we often feel like our financial situation is the most important thing about us. And indeed, money often occupies much of our  energy and thinking. Worry over bills and possibly guilt and shame over our lack of stewardship can eat away at us.

Our financial situation is important and worthy of intentionality – but it’s not the most important thing about us. The most important thing about us is what God thinks of us – and God is unequivocally for us.

We see this in the story of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16 and 21). In Abraham’s attempt to bring about God’s promise of descendants, he committed what we would consider adultery with Hagar (but was a relatively common practice at the time). The result was the son Abraham thought would fulfill God’s promise – Ishmael.

Later, when Isaac (the true son of promise) was born to Sarah, Hagar’s son Ishmael mocked him, leading Sarah to insist that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:8-10).

After Hagar and Ishmael had wandered in the desert a short time, the food and water Abraham had provided ran out. And just when Hagar had given up hope, God called out to her. He had seen her need and heard Ishmael’s cries, and He responded by miraculously providing water for them.

Time and again in Scripture, God provided for his people when they were in need – from the miracles He worked during the Exodus to provisions for needy widows in the times of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4) and beyond. Sometimes He provided miraculously, as in these examples; other times, He provided through his people, as when believers in the early church sold houses and lands and brought the money to the apostles to meet the needs of the poor (Acts 2:44; 4:32-34), or when Paul took up the collection for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17).

Respond to God in Faith

Since God is for us and since He is sovereign, how should we respond in situations of financial difficulty?

Seek His Kingdom

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:31-33

When we’re in a position of financial difficulty, we naturally focus our energy and thoughts on that difficulty. But Jesus counsels us not to worry – even about the most basic needs of life. God will provide; our priority, even in the midst of financial crisis, should be to seek God’s kingdom first.

And let’s not forget the second part – seeking God’s righteousness. In crisis situations, it can be tempting to take matters into our own hands – as Abraham did with Hagar. We can find ourselves toying with that questionable tax deduction, dealing with others in less than fully honest ways, or taking shortcuts to increase our income.

Seeking God’s kingdom requires seeking His righteousness – in all we do. It’s no accident that this passage occurs in the context of Jesus teaching about storing treasure in heaven rather than on earth. We really do have to choose whether to serve God or money – a hard choice, especially when we’re in financial difficulty. But there isn’t a “both/and” option here – according to Jesus, it’s “either/or”. We store treasures in heaven or on earth, not both. We serve God or money, not both.

Seek His Wisdom

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1:5

This instruction occurs in a context of suffering trials. In times of financial crisis, we’ll be faced with decisions that call for God’s wisdom. How do we prioritize bills? Is a balance transfer to lower our payments wise, or does it just open the door for more debt? Do we need to make any big life decisions, like possibly selling the house or car?

Financial crisis forces us into hard decisions. And these decisions have consequences – often large ones that may go well beyond our financial picture. We need supernatural wisdom for these decisions – not our own thoughts.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Practice Joy

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Trials are never fun. If they were, James wouldn’t have had to encourage believers to find joy in the midst of trial. But how can we actually be thankful for trials? How can we experience joy in their midst?

The secret is focusing not on the trial, but on what the trial is producing in us. We might have difficulty seeing those results in the moment. But there’s a larger story taking place and the financial difficulties we face are only part of that story. If we’re paying attention to God’s work in our lives, we can find ways in which He is growing and stretching us – developing perseverance and maturity, among other things.

Joy in the midst of financial crisis doesn’t come naturally. We have to intentionally and regularly connect with God to experience the joy He wants for us as He develops us. This goes back to what we said earlier about seeking God’s kingdom. If we’re going to experience joy and peace in the midst of crisis, we have to intentionally seek after God.

Practice Gratitude

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Like joy, peace in the midst of crisis doesn’t just happen. In prayer, we submit our problems to God, relying on His strength and wisdom. But prayer can be a form of “sanctified worry” – unless we remember also to be thankful. Paul isn’t advocating here that we thank God for what He has done – he’s telling us to thank God as we pray for our needs. We thank God in anticipation of what He will do, in addition to thanking Him for what He has done. The prayer that trusts God to act and that reflects gratitude even in the midst of need is the prayer that brings peace.

Just a few verses later, Paul talks about having learned the secret of contentment regardless of the circumstances. He’s experienced both times of need and times of plenty, and he’s been content in both. Contentment and peace are closely related to a spirit of grateful prayer.

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
Pray for Faith

We’ve done the math, and there’s no way to meet all the bills this month. That’s a place of worry and it can be a real obstacle to seeking God. This is where faith comes in, but trusting God when the math doesn’t work isn’t always easy. And sometimes past experience causes us to falter in our faith.

Mark 9:14-29 records an episode where Jesus casts a demon out of a boy. The disciples had previously failed to cast it out, and the father was desperate. When Jesus arrived on the scene, the father begged him to cast out the demon “if you can” (verse 22). Jesus responded that everything is possible for the one who believes, and the father answered in a way that we can all relate to: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

We believe God is sovereign and can do anything. But we don’t know what he will do. So we waver – wanting to trust, but afraid we’ll be disappointed with the results. We want to be like Abraham, who didn’t waver in unbelief regarding God’s promise of descendants, even when the prospects looked grim (Romans 4:18-22). But we struggle because God hasn’t given us specific promises like he did Abraham (and sometimes we misapply Scripture in a search for those promises). We believe, but we don’t know.

Like the father in the Mark 9 story, we need to come to God not just in faith, but for faith. And here’s the good news: God’s response doesn’t depend on the strength of our faith. He longs for us to come to him with all our fears and even doubts. Jesus healed the boy despite his father’s wavering – and imagine what that did for the father’s faith!

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Lane 1:

Steps to Stability

Faith – even a not-so-strong faith – can keep us grounded as we pursue financial stability. The one who trusts in God’s care is less likely to take shortcuts or to compromise integrity in the process. God builds character in us as we respond out of faith.

That said, in the context of faith we need to take practical steps to pursue stability. Moving from crisis to stability isn’t a matter of prayer or action – it takes both.

Clarify Where We Are

Moving toward stability requires that we fully understand where we are right now. We may see our credit card balances increasing, but understanding our current situation goes deeper than that. We need to be able to answer key questions like,

  • Where is our money going?
  • What are our opportunities to make adjustments?
  • Can we realistically stabilize our financial situation in our current environment?

Answering these questions requires us to track our spending. We can’t change what we don’t know, and if we don’t know what we’re spending currently, we don’t have a basis for making decisions that will improve our finances.

Most of the time, if we’re not tracking our spending, we’re spending more than we think we are. But if we don’t know where we’re spending it, we don’t know how to make adjustments. Tracking our expenses helps us identify where to adjust and determine whether any major changes are needed (for example, a second income, selling a large asset like a car or house, etc.).

If you’re looking for a tool to help you track spending, see the free resource at the bottom of this article.

Characterize Where We’re Going

Once we know where we are, we need to figure out where we’re going. Getting to stability is a key milestone on the road to financial freedom. But what does stability look like?

Cash Flow: Changing direction

First, financial stability requires a positive or neutral cash flow. That means that we’re making more than we’re spending, when everything (including taxes) is considered. It’s obvious that we can’t know for sure that we’ve gotten there unless we’re tracking our spending against our income.

A neutral cash flow is OK – in fact, in the largest sense cash flow is always neutral. Spending incorporates everything we do with our income – saving, giving, lifestyle spending, and debt reduction. If our cash flow is neutral but we’re making progress on reducing debt, we’re on the road to stability.

Sometimes, financial crisis occurs because of a one-time unexpected expense or drop in income (such as loss of a job). But usually, financial crisis occurs because we’re spending more than we’re making over a long period of time. Getting to neutral or positive cash flow will likely take some work and some trade-offs; more on this later.

emergency fund: Creating margin

Unplanned events occur. Cars break down. Appliances wear out. Houses need maintenance. Without an emergency savings fund, these unplanned events plunge us further into debt and deepen our financial crisis. To guard against this, we need an emergency fund.

A good recommendation for an emergency fund is about 2% of annual gross income. So for a family that grosses $50,000 a year, an emergency fund would be at least $1,000. Typically, this is an amount large enough to handle most unplanned expenses but small enough to accumulate relatively quickly.

Establishing an emergency fund should be considered a “sprint”. If you don’t have one currently, make it a top priority and fund it as quickly as you can. In some cases of financial crisis, funding emergency savings won’t be easy – after all, financial crisis usually means negative cash flow. Putting this fund together may require some short-term or one-time actions, like selling some assets, taking on a second job or additional hours, or other adjustments.

generosity: conditioning the heart

In financial crisis, it can be hard to think about giving – especially if we’re not currently giving regularly. This usually stems from one or more of several misunderstandings:

  • Guilt: Maybe lack of discipline, bad decisions, or just plain selfishness have led us into this crisis. The resulting guilt can form a barrier in our relationship with God, and this barrier can keep us from giving.
  • Doubt: Perhaps we lack the faith to believe that God will provide for us, so we feel we must do it all on our own. We need to be in control of our resources rather than giving that control over to God. (This also reflects a misunderstanding of stewardship.)
  • Assumptions: Perhaps incomplete teaching about giving has led us to believe that the only giving that “counts” is the tithe – 10% of our income. Since we know we can’t get there right away, we postpone giving until we feel like we have enough resources to tithe.
  • Priorities: We might not see the importance of giving because we don’t recognize the fact that our handling of money actually guides our hearts toward or away from God.

Giving isn’t about rules or minimums. It’s about connecting our heart to God. When we’re in financial crisis, our main need is – as it always is – to connect with God. Yes, we need to improve our cash flow and establish an emergency fund. Yes, we need to track our spending. But more than everything else, we need constant connection with God. That’s what generosity does.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21

We would naturally think that we put our treasures where our heart is, but Jesus tells us that it actually works the opposite way – our treasures lead our hearts. Developing a heart for God in the midst of crisis, then, includes beginning down the road of generosity.

Scripture has many examples of believers giving out of their poverty, including:

  • The widow at Zarephath, who fed Elijah with her last bit of flour and oil (1 Kings 17)
  • The widow who put two coins into the treasury at the temple (Mark 12:41-44)
  • The Macedonian churches, who gave out of their poverty to support the Jerusalem believers experiencing famine (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).

Paul describes the Macedonian churches this way: “They gave themselves first of all to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 8:5). This is true generosity – and note that Paul makes no mention of the amount of their gift or what percentage of their income it represented.

Key milestone: 10-10-80

Many Christian stewardship ministries recommend a “10-10-80” target to serve as a stewardship guideline to shoot for. This isn’t a dividing line between good stewardship and poor stewardship; it’s a milestone on the stewardship journey – one that may still be a distance away if we’re in Lane 1.

The plan looks like this:

  • 10% of gross income for giving
  • 10% of gross income for saving (which includes debt reduction)
  • 80% of gross income for everything else (lifestyle, taxes, etc.)

In the early stages of recovering from financial crisis, 10% of income for giving may not be attainable. And savings and debt reduction will probably need more than 10% of income for a while – especially while establishing an emergency fund. Remember, 10-10-80 is a guideline. It’s a goal to shoot for (but not necessarily a place to stop).

vision: How does it feel?

One last aspect of understanding where we’re headed financially is envisioning what it will be like to get there. Getting out of financial crisis usually takes time. How will we sustain momentum over the long run? Part of the answer is picturing the future.

  • What will it feel like to know that all the bills can be paid each month? How will this impact our thoughts and emotions?
  • How would it feel to handle the next emergency with an emergency savings fund rather than adding to our debt?
  • What will we do when debt payments aren’t taking so much of our income? How will we give, save, and spend?

Envisioning a stable financial future, and the freedom that it brings, can help us with the discipline and patience we need to get there.

Chart the Course:

Creating a Spending Plan

We’ve already touched on the importance of tracking and categorizing spending to understand where we are financially. The next step is to create a Spending Plan that will help us to control where the money is going. This Spending Plan should take into account our learnings from tracking spending, but it will likely need to include some adjustments to our current patterns. After all, if our current spending was working, we probably wouldn’t be where we are financially!

The course to financial stability begins with a Spending Plan that addresses cash flow and generosity.

priority 1: Generosity

We start with generosity because, as we mentioned earlier, our treasures guide our hearts. Generosity expresses our love for God and our trust in him to provide for us.

It’s counterintuitive to start with giving. If we don’t know how much we have available, how can we know how much to give? But in a way, that’s exactly the point of starting here. Giving should not be the “leftovers” after all the bills are paid. God wants, expects, and deserves “firstfruits” giving (Proverbs 3:9). Our giving should be a priority, not an afterthought.

If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

2 Corinthians 8:12

This doesn’t mean that we should all start out at the Biblical benchmark of a tithe (10%) for giving. In cases of financial crisis, that’s often not feasible. But we shouldn’t let that stop us from beginning and continuing our journey of generosity. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that it’s our willingness to give that makes our gifts acceptable.

A few verses later, Paul emphasizes again that it’s the posture of the heart that matters:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:7

From a practical standpoint, giving the firstfruits rather than the leftovers means simply this: basing our giving on our income, not on what’s left at the end of the month.  Paul addresses this in his earlier letter to the Corinthian church:

Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

1 Corinthians 16:1-2

Notice that Paul doesn’t specify a minimum threshold of giving – but he does say that it should be based on our income. As part of the Spending Plan, then, start by prayerfully determining what percentage of your gross income you will give.

You may find, after completing your Spending Plan, that the percentage you determined isn’t feasible to start. Adjust accordingly (we’ll talk about that shortly). Keep this guideline in mind: cheerful giving should stretch us but not break us financially.

priority 2: Emergency fund

These next two priorities really occur together, but we emphasize the Emergency Fund first because this is the place where we build margin into our finances and it’s often overlooked. Unexpected expenses will occur, and our only options are to have margin set aside to cover them, or to go further into debt to handle them.

As we mentioned earlier, a good goal for an Emergency Fund is about 2% of gross income. This is an amount that most people can set aside relatively quickly but that’s also sufficient to cover most (not all) unexpected expenses. So, for example, a family whose gross income is $50,000 a year should have at least $1,000 in emergency savings. This is enough for most minor auto or home repairs or to replace an appliance. Having more set aside is better, but a good starting point is 2% of gross income.

priority 3: Debt retirement

Debt retirement needs to happen along with Emergency Savings. The exact priority depends on the situation; if you can’t meet minimum payments on credit cards, then this must be top priority. If minimum payments can be met, then the Emergency Fund is top priority until it’s funded.

It’s tempting to think only in terms of minimum payments, but real debt retirement doesn’t occur at this level. Minimum payments are designed to keep us paying for a long time on debt, because that’s how the credit card companies make their money.

As a result, the Spending Plan needs to account for all the minimum payments and then allocate an additional amount – whatever is available – for accelerated repayment. This amount should be applied to the lowest credit card balance first; then when that card is paid off, applied to the next lowest balance, etc. This is a technique often referred to as the “debt snowball” and has been proven to be the most effective method for retiring debt from multiple credit cards.

A word of caution when it comes to debt retirement: Opening new credit cards and transferring balances from old ones – even at a lower interest rate – is usually a step in the wrong direction. The reason for this is that unless the causes of the debt are addressed, the real effect is the creation of additional available credit, which will tend to get used up over time, resulting in a larger overall debt load. In some cases, a balance transfer or debt consolidation loan may be a partial solution to help with cash flow. In these cases, it’s usually wisest to close out the cards from which balances are being transferred in order to minimize the increase in available credit.

Reality Check: Managing Trade-offs

Rare is the Spending Plan that actually balances on the first attempt! Additionally, we often find that even our balanced Spending Plan doesn’t reflect reality – we’re overspending consistently. In either case, the next step is to manage trade-offs.

Typically, managing trade-offs means cutting back expenses somewhere. But where? The simplest path to follow is to identify which expenses are discretionary and which are not, and then which are fixed and which are variable. Every expense is either discretionary or non-discretionary and every expense is either fixed or variable.

A discretionary expense is one that we can choose to eliminate. Typically, entertainment expenses fall into this category, as well as some household expenses. A non-discretionary expense is one that we can’t easily eliminate, like utility bills or a mortgage payment.

A variable expense is one that changes from month to month. Utility bills, most household expenses like groceries and clothing, and many entertainment expenses fall into this category. A fixed expense doesn’t change from month to month, like a mortgage, or housing association dues, etc.

Discretionary variable expenses – like many entertainment expenses – are the easiest to eliminate or reduce; we can simply choose not to spend that way. We can eat in rather than going out, watch a movie on TV rather than going to the theater, etc. Discretionary fixed expenses can also be eliminated but usually require some action, like cancelling a subscription.

Non-discretionary variable expenses can’t be eliminated, but often they can be reduced or postponed. Clothing purchases can usually be postponed if needed; perhaps grocery expenses can be reduced by eliminating junk food, etc. Some are harder to adjust, like utility bills – but even here, there’s usually something that can be done if needed. 

Non-discretionary fixed expenses are the hardest to address. The only way to eliminate a car payment, for example, is to sell the car.

Making Hard Decisions

Sometimes, we have to choose between good things. For example, it may be necessary to temporarily stop saving for retirement in order to set up an emergency fund or to retire enough debt to stabilize our cash flow.

Other choices may involve significant lifestyle changes. Perhaps we need to sell some assets in order to pay off enough debt to stabilize our cash flow. Maybe a non-working spouse needs to get a job temporarily, or maybe we need to look to pick up extra hours or a second job to raise our income enough to get to a positive cash flow. In some situations, perhaps we need to downsize a car or house or move to a less expensive neighborhood, etc.

These decisions go way beyond just our finances, so they’re not easy to make. They require a clear understanding of priorities and non-negotiables as well as a solid grasp of our financial situation – and, of course, prayer! There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer here; each of us must wrestle with balancing our life priorities against our financial realities. In some cases, it’s a matter of timing – maybe now is not the time to go back to school or to start that new business. These decisions call us to pray for wisdom.

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Stewardship Keys

Financial crisis is a lot to deal with. It distracts our thoughts and our energy. It can bring despair and discouragement and can tempt us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. In the midst of all this, holding on to key principles and practices and adopting a posture of faith can keep us centered.

Key Principles
  • Our net worth is not our worth in God’s sight.
  • God created and owns everything, including all the resources he has put in our care.
  • God is the one who takes care of our needs.
  • God cares more about the position of our hearts than the position of our finances, and is always looking to mold us into the character of Christ.
key practices
key posture
  • Gratitude: Avoid envy of others by practicing gratitude for God’s provision.
  • Trust: Believe in God’s forgiveness; don’t let shame be a barrier to action.
  • Perseverance: Be in it for the long run and avoid “get rich quick” schemes (1 Timothy 6:9-10; Proverbs 28:20; 16:32)
  • Resolution: Make needed changes sooner rather than later and avoid relying on balance transfers, debt consolidation, etc. as an alternative to making these changes.
key perspective

Psalm 121 provides a great perspective for all of life, but especially in times of crisis (financial and otherwise):

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life;

the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

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Free Resource

Good Sense Spending Record

Managing your finances requires first that you understand how you're spending your money. Good Sense wants to help! Submit the form to the right to download the free Good Sense Spending Record and start tracking your expenses today! 2-3 minutes a day is all it takes.