Guest Columnist Peace of mind for the 'financially fragile'

Last month, the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) published a paper entitled “Financially Fragile Households: Evidence and Implications.”

The paper examines households’ financial fragility by looking at their capacity to come up with $2,000 in 30 days. Its conclusions are stunning: in the U.S., almost fifty percent of households either probably or certainly couldn’t do it.

Now, many of us have experienced financial stress at one time or another, but this study reveals the pervasive nature of the problem.

Consider the impact on families all over the country. Excruciating stress. Arguments. Perhaps even divorce.  In short, lack of hope.

What is the proper Christian response?

Shortly after reading the paper, Fr. Val J. Peter, director emeritus of Boys Town, sent me a copy of his thought-provoking book “How Does a Christian Profit from Tough Economic Times?"

Fr. Val makes a compelling case for eschewing consumerism, and recognizing the spiritual opportunities to be had in the midst of financial difficulties.

From seeing the problem articulated so dramatically, to reading Fr. Val’s prescriptions for turning things around, it hit me – there really is an opportunity here. 

You see, I’ve been financially fragile. My wife Kathi and I were married at a young age, and always seemed to have more kids than money. In fact, it took years and tremendous effort to make it to the point where we had any savings at all.

Throughout those years, we prayed, stressed, budgeted, talked, and yes, even argued. Thankfully we made it through intact, but my heart goes out to those caught in the throes of financial hardship.

In our case, there were two factors that drove our lengthy turnaround process: trusting God, and getting on the same page financially. 

Trusting God with our financial lives was the first and most important step.

As converts to Catholicism, Kathi and I had embraced the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and openness to life. We made a conscious decision to place this aspect of our lives in God’s hands, leading to the blessing of our eight children. As a practical matter, this also put a strain on our finances. It became clear that our challenge was to trust God with all aspects of life – including money. 
Thankfully, we had an opportunity to attend a course in personal financial planning at our parish. As a CPA, I admit to attending somewhat reluctantly at first.

As it turned out, the main benefit wasn’t learning new technical skills – it was getting Kathi and I on the same page in terms of financial priorities.

This was the tipping point in our financial “conversion.”

Once we began working together, we got rid of our credit cards, eliminated all consumer debt (including car payments), built up some savings and began to whittle down the mortgage. It took time, prayer, and sacrifice.

This approach has paid enormous dividends. Getting our finances in order resulted in my ability to leave the corporate world for a Catholic non-profit organization last year.

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I believe this was a gift from God, but recognize it wouldn’t have been possible in a financially fragile state.

The lessons I took away from this experience were to trust God more than the happiness that next expenditure would bring, alluring as it might appear.

Consumer urges tend to be insatiable, so resisting them requires humility, perseverance, temperance, and even mortification.

By placing our hope in God, we also build the critical discipline of detachment. After all, if we are striving to be radically converted Christians, we should think differently about money than society as a whole.

On a practical level, here are some great tools to learn more about personal financial management, and put Christian concepts into practice.

Catholics can check out Phil Lenahan’s Veritas Financial Ministries, and his “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free,” also available through Our Sunday Visitor.

For a non-Catholic Christian approach, I like Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” program.

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Placing our trust in God – and learning to live in abundance or need – are great ways for Christians to profit from tough economic times, and provide an opportunity for much-needed peace of mind for anyone feeling “financially fragile.”      

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