Practical Stewardship: Tips for Reducing Debt and Spening Wisely

You’ve determined that you want to be a better steward of God’s resources, to live within the boundaries of what He’s provided. So how do you carry out this plan? And is it wrong to ever take on debt?

Haste Makes Waste

While the Bible discourages the use of debt, it is not labeled a sin and is not prohibited outright. Debt simply defined as any money owed to anyone for anything—can sometimes be used as a means to reach a goal. Yet too many times debt occurs because of impatience, greed, self-indulgence, and lack of discipline, and it creates financial bondage.

Before going into debt, financial advisor Ron Blue suggests you ask yourself these four questions:

1. Does it make economic sense? (The cost to borrow must be less than the economic benefit received, and there must be a guaranteed way of repayment.)

2. If married, do my spouse and I have unity about taking on this debt?

3. Do I have the spiritual peace of mind or freedom to enter into this debt?

4. What personal goals and values am I meeting with this debt that can be met in no other way?

The Money Trail

If you’re committed to not allow expenses to exceed what’s available, tracking what flows in and out is a necessity. Budgets aren’t just for those in debt but for all who want to control spending—and even develop a surplus for God’s work.

Christian Financial Concepts, founded by money management expert Larry Burkett, offers a free online budget guide <>.

This site will take your gross monthly income, separate out your tithe and taxes, then suggest percentage limits for 12 other spending categories. Areas covered are: housing, food, automobile, insurance, debts, entertainment and recreation, clothing, savings, medical expenses, miscellaneous, private school and/or child care, and investments. Other excellent resources on budgeting are also available at your library or Christian bookstore.



Home Sweet Home

The biggest financial commitment most people make is the decision to purchase a home. Too often, people buy based on what they like and see others have, not what they can afford. They believe a house is affordable because their salary will cover the mortgage payments. But they fail to count the total costs, including maintenance, new furnishings, and remodeling projects that may follow.

Burkett’s budget chart offers a conservative guideline for how much income should be allotted to housing. For example, a person making $40,000 should spend no more than 30 percent of after-tax-and-tithe income ($28,800) on housing expenses (mortgage, utilities, etc.)—$720 per month. That may sound impossible in some expensive metropolitan markets. Yet the fact remains that the other budget categories will eat up a large percentage of income, and any extra money you put into a home must be cut elsewhere so that you aren’t spending more than you earn.

People are tempted to spend beyond their means for housing at two times in their lives: 1) at the start of their careers, counting on two salaries to earn their way into it, 2) and 7 to 15 years into a marriage, when they feel the need to upgrade. This usually occurs due to peer pressure and a cramped feeling after the arrival of children and the related “stuff” that accumulates.

Typically, this second temptation happens when the husband’s salary reaches the level of their pre-kid days when both spouses worked, and they are just now getting some breathing room in the budget. Once the decision is made to “move up,” it can take many years to achieve a surplus in the budget again. Becoming “house poor” through such a move can put undue stress on the family. Both spouses may be forced to work, even though the desire is for mom to be home with the kids. Similar pressures can haunt the single homeowner who may have to take on a second job to make ends meet.

Instead of jumping into that larger home, a better plan is to prepay $50–100 on the principal of a mortgage and save monthly toward a future house’s down payment. If done consistently, a homeowner will be able to put the equity and savings towards the new home and keep the mortgage at the same level of the previous residence.

Money for repairs and replacement needs should also be factored into the monthly housing allotment. Handling a broken dishwasher, damaged roof, or worn-out carpet can wipe out savings if not anticipated.

Food and Fun

One way to cut down on “going-out” expenses is to have an entertainment envelope. At the beginning of the month, put a deSignated cash allotment into an envelope. Whenever the family visits a restaurant, rents a movie, or heads to a concert or ball game, cash from the envelope should be used. When the supply is gone—no more spending until next month. It’s a great method for controlling impulsive decisions, forcing you to decide ahead of time what entertainment and vacations are most important to the family.

An envelope can also help you overcome the temptation to hit the drive-through food line when in a hurry. In 1994 Americans spent in excess of $79 billion on burgers, shakes, and fries—prompting another $12 billion spent on weight-loss programsP Using cash at the grocery store can also open your eyes to an area where budget abuse may be happening.

When shopping for food (including hygiene/health and paper products) it’s best to take two lists along. One list should contain the current items you need. The second is a master price list, telling the lowest and normal prices you’ve noted in the past for items you typically purchase (i.e. apples, pasta, chicken, yogurt, frozen vegetables). The first list will help control what you put in the cart, while the second one alerts you to good sales worth picking up now to incorporate in your menus or save in the pantry for the future.

Too many expenses of people who don’t live on a budget can slip into the hole of the “miscellaneous monster” which devours more and more if left unchecked. Vacations, entertainment, clothing purchases—these are things most of us need or want regularly, so make them a budget category. The miscellaneous category should be saved for the less predictable items like gift buying, holiday supplies, and snack money. Set a limit, stick to it, and reassess periodically.

Shop wisely. Try this policy advocated by Burkett: When you think you need to purchase something, put the item on a list and wait 30 days. Anything else that becomes a higher priority during the 30 days gets put on the list as the wait period starts for that item. During these “no buy” days try to get three price quotes and read information on the product (Consumer Reports magazine or other reviews) so that you are assured a good deal on the best brand available. You may even see during that time that you don’t need to make a purchase at all.

A number of books offer useful tips on frugality—reflecting economy in your expenditure of resources. One popular idea is to seek out bargain-priced treasure at thrift shops. Clothing, toys, and equipment for young children, in particular, are usually outgrown and set aside before they are worn out.

Watching lots of TV is a sure way to increase your spending. Companies spend millions on their advertisements and have become very good at enticing people to purchase their products. Often the goal is to make the viewer discontent with his current situation in life, giving the false picture that things will satisfy. Why not invest in some fun games or puzzles to use for a family night and shut off the television? This will not only help you spend less, but should improve family relations as well.

In these days with easy access to money via debit and ATM cards, a consumer can see his checking account dwindle before his eyes. This can create problems with knowing how much is left when the ATM receipts are lost or misplaced before they are recorded. A better way to control spending is to use an allowance system, giving each spouse a set amount at the start of a new month. Feel free to spend this money on anything (flowers, golf or aerobic classes, lunches with co-workers). Using allowances can help end conflicts over “who’s spending what” since each person has an allotted amount to use as he or she pleases.

If spending in excess is a problem, make the savings account hard to tap into. Don’t sign up for an ATM card. Pick a bank or credit union that is out of the way. It is also good to put savings meant for long-term goals in CDs.

Put aside money toward big purchases before getting that new vehicle or taking the summer vacation. It’s much nicer to receive than give when it comes to interest. If you can afford a car payment, then you can afford to pay yourself a monthly amount to be saved toward a car. Christians need to exhibit patience and look to God for their needs, not to Visa, MasterCard, or Sears Financing.

Laddering is great technique to help you save for long-term goals and make money accessible at regular intervals. It calls for investing an amount of money (say $500) in CDs at one-, two-, three-, four-and five-year maturity times. Each year when a CD comes due, if the money is not needed, reinvest it for five years. At the end of five years you will have all the CDs invested for a higher interest rate, with money available at one-year intervals.

Good stewards, no matter what the amount is that has been put in their trust, will continually look for ways to wisely use God’s resources to carry out His will. It can be very freeing to remember our position as caretakers and to see His blessings used for His glory.


1 Ronald W. Blue, Master Your Money (Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 55.

2 Ross Crosson, “Four Major Finandal Dedsions that Affect Eternity,” Sound Mind Investing, vol. 10, no. 11, November 1999, p. 162.

3 Ronald W. Blue, Generous Living (Zondervan, 1997), p. 32.

This article is reprinted from Covenanter Witness, a periodical of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPNA), July–August/2000.

Harry Nagel is a systems engineer with STI and a volunteer budget counselor, trained through Christian Finandal Concepts. He serves as an elder at Anchor Fellowship RPC in Waldorf, MD. Harry and his wife, Jeanette, a former writer for Prison Fellowship, are raising two sons in Fairfax, VA.