How Much of My Income is Mine to Spend On Me?

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The post title is a summary of a question I received.

It’s an extremely difficult question to answer.

The question goes on to ask about how one can purchase luxury items when there are people just down the street who are starving.

How Much of My Income is Mine to Spend on Me?

In an effort to address this reader question, I decided to highlight a few of the points I think are worthy of consideration.

1. Embrace the tension

Forbid it, Lord, that we should feel as though we’ve found a balance.

I find that the more content we are with our current situation, the more quickly we melt into the status quo. When that happens, we stop listening to God’s direction. We allow excuses and justifications to keep us from facing the awful truths of suffering and poverty that are all around us.

I live with this tension on a daily basis. Remember, the average annual income here is $775.

The tension is a sign of spiritual health.

2. Discover your Motivation

I’m finding that when you answer the ‘why’ question, you’ll make more progress than any other question.

Why did you buy the luxury item? Why didn’t you choose to give the money?  Are there unhealthy roots of greed? Unhealthy roots of guilt?

3. Acknowledge the Fallacy of Wealth Transference

If wealth transference was possible, I think this would be an easier situation to address.

Wealth transference assumes I could take my income and give it to a person in poverty and their life problems would be solved because they are now in possession of my resources.

Pragmatically, that is not the case.

The reason is because God intends for us to receive an income through work. Those who do not have the skills to manage money will not manage it well – no matter how much we give. You could give someone the money you’d use to buy a HDTV, and they might just go out and buy an HDTV.

It’s an unfair parallel to say I have so much and they have so little (if you are talking about money). A lack of money is not causing their problems. There is something more valuable you can give than money – time, mentoring, training …

3. Realize that buying luxury items is not inherently sinful

I found it interesting that the gentleman who asked the question says he has no trouble spending money on food, clothes, car, internet, and holidays – things he categorizes as needs.

In many places around the world, internet, cars, holidays, and even clothes are a luxury.

My point is simply: who gets to decide what is a luxury?

All of us live with a certain amount of luxury.

In the end, I think spending decisions are indeed very personal.

I do not believe I can judge a person’s generosity by what I see externally. God does that.

4. Recognize the dangers of guilt and the dangers of indulging

I think all of us find ourselves somewhere on one end of the above spectrum.

Some folks are paralyzed every time they spend money on anything. For such people, they need to be reminded that God, as our Father, gives us good gifts for our pleasure (1 Tim. 6:17).

Others spend as if they have no responsibility to the poor. The reason is that if they made it themselves, then they’re going to spend it on themselves. However, the Bible reminds us that a purpose of our work is to have something to share with others (Eph. 4:28).

Each probably needs to be challenged to move in the opposite direction.

5. Identify your giftedness and uniqueness

The reader asked:

How do other Christians deal with this… turning a blind eye (and buying yourself a new HD TV) doesn’t seem like a reasoned theological approach, but it’s what I fear most Christians do: That sometimes you just need to be selfish… Jesus didn’t teach that, did he?

Romans 12:6-8 indicates that giving is a gift. Furthermore, it seems like it is a gift that not all have.

If I’m giving and spending my mental energy as the purchase police for other Christians, then I believe God will relegate me to a tremendously bitter experience on this earth.

Worrying about what others are doing always does that. Instead, I think we focus on being sure that we’re honoring God with what we’ve been entrusted with. In Transforming Your Financial Diet, I call that Proportionate Stewardship.

Let me be clear that I’ve created a format and a venue where I do challenge Christians and their giving habits. The venue is my own, and people must click or subscribe to hear the MH4C message.

Still, I would not directly confront a personal friend or relative about an item they bought that I thought was too luxurious. I have neither the wisdom nor the judgment to do so.

If someone asks what I think, I respond. If they don’t, I don’t bring it up.

I find that when it comes to giving, I have enough logs in my own eye to worry about.

What advice would you give when determining how much to spend on yourself?

Comments

  1. Eric Charnesky says

    Craig,

    The question has an easy answer, none of it. All of our money ultimately belongs to God, we should not claim any of it as ‘mine’.

    I love the idea of embracing the tension, there is no easy answer to balancing spending/giving.

    I’ve been challenged lately in reading through James. James 2:14-17 speak of our faith being dead if we ignore the needs of our brothers and sisters for clothing and daily food.
    Yet all around the world we know millions are literally starving to death.

    Over 13,000 children under the age of 5 die every day from complications of starvation “Undernutrition contributes to five million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries.” – http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

    Instead of asking how much giving is enough, why aren’t we asking what will it take to provide for our brothers and sisters around the world?

    James 4:17 (NASB) “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

    James has opened my eyes to see the log I have had stuck for so long. I’m praying for God to change my heart and help me share more of what He has blessed me with.

    • says

      Eric,
      If the question was how much belongs to us then the answer would be easy. However, the question how much can we spend on ourselves is much more complicated.
      If we are to view ourselves as stewards (I think that’s the right biblical image) then any manager would get a salary. We want to do what God wants us to do with His money, but it is perfectly legitimate to ‘take a salary’ from that money. Remember, with Ananias and Sapphira Peter told them that the field belong to them and they could have used the money as they wished. I think that story reminds us that God wants us to have and enjoy a portion of what he blesses us with.

      I focus on our giving because we can only give in relationship to what we earn. Give as we’ve been entrusted. If there is a need for 50 million dollars to solve hunger I cannot solve that problem. But if I have $1,000 I can certainly give from what God has blessed me with.

      You make a fantastic point about switching our focus away from our needs to the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. It is something we should all be aware of and willingly wrestle with.

      Thanks for adding value to the discussion.

  2. Maria Harrell says

    Craig:
    I wanted to encourage you this morning. This topic is really difficult, and yet you provided a well rounded answer. I know from personal experience that your own trials must have have helped you to see and understand at least some of what this issue encompasses. (For who can know it all?)
    Be encouraged, keep studying and striving. But most importantly, thank you for your daily efforts to maintain an intimate relationship with God. So that in turn, we might reap some benefits from the sacrifices you make.

    Blessings to you and your family,
    Maria Harrell

    • says

      Maria,
      Thank you. As I mentioned to Paul this post has been one I’ve dreaded writing (because I knew I couldn’t package it in a nice little box and solve everything).
      I do believe God uses our experiences to teach us. I am thankful that he has allowed our family to live in a developing nation for these last six years as I’ve grown so much.

      Thanks again for your kind words.

  3. says

    Thanks Craig. You have no idea how much I needed this post. For the past few YEARS, I’ve felt guilty every time I’ve purchased anything. Sigh.

    • says

      Robin,
      You’re welcome. I think God does use guilt at times to motivate us, but guilt as a long term driving factor for serving God will ultimately end up empty.
      Unfortunately, fundraising organizations use guilt as a tool to get more money! I think we all need to develop a healthy theology of wealth and money and then move forward based on that love and passion for God.
      By the way, every time I feel like I’ve moved past guilt something happens to trigger that old enemy.

  4. says

    Craig, I’m really enjoying the posts you’ve been publishing lately! Great questions and great attempts at answers. (I say that because I know you wouldn’t say you have the perfect answer.) Keep up the great work!

    This is a question I’ve struggled with myself. I think you’re right – struggling with these questions is a good sign. The time to be worried is when you never ask yourself these questions at all.

    • says

      Paul,
      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying them. I’ve gotta say they’ve been painful for me to write. Painful because I know I’m at the heart of so many of my challenges.

      I got this question about three weeks ago and it’s been sitting in my inbox because I was afraid to answer it. I finally forced myself to do it and I’m thankful that it has helped open up some conversation on the topic.

  5. says

    I rarely spend any of the money I earn on me. I mean I enjoy saving and personally feel better being able to do things for family and friends and those in need. There is nothing wrong with treating ones self but I dont think there is a magic number or percentage.

  6. says

    Craig,
    Very good and practical suggestions. I find that when I am given money I am more likely to just “blow it” than if it is money I have worked for. So, what you said above about wealth transference is, I think, right on. Wealth transfered is often wealth not handled well.

    I really like your money articles. Here is a question and an offer: Would you write a guest post for my blog (Family Fountain) directing some very basic financial wisdom to newly married couples? I have just performed a couple of weddings and have a few more I am doing this spring/summer. It would be nice to have a good article on my blog to refer them to. You can write about simple and practical things: starting a savings account; having a plan to pay off college debt, and balancing that with buying a house; etc. (I get asked this one quite a bit: “Should we pay off college debt and then buy a house, or should we buy a run down house while we pay off college debt so we are at least building some equity?”).

    Also, you can link back to any articles on your blog where there might be fuller explanation, and plug your e-book. I’d like these young couples to have a financial resource, and your blog would be a good one for them. Also, the article does not have to be original; it can be a compilation of other things you have written, but I would like for there to be some unique feature for the guest post.

    Let me know what you think.

    Thanks,
    Warren

  7. Jon says

    Thanks Craig. Some really helpful reflections.

    I love the notion of living in the tension – that every decision is important, and that hard/fast rules don’t apply (although when I say love, I also mean frustrating). I think this is where I’m at now.

    I think your reflection on the fallacy of wealth transference doesn’t hold for my UK context – as it implies that people are poor because of their personal circumstance and skills/attributes – and that absolves the state (and employers) of responsibility. While for some they are poor because of who/where they are – in the UK today there is only 1 job for every person unemployed, and state benefit is below the relative poverty threshold – therefore there is nothing one can do to change those circumstances. But that is my socialist mindset coming through.

    And finally – while I completely agree that spending time being the giving police is unhelpful – learning how other people make decisions is entirely a valid way of coming to ones own conclusions. My concern is that I’m not sure the majority of Christians have a process for this (hey, I don’t have a process for this) – and I want to know, how does one come to the conclusion that buying an Ipad or an Xbox or a top-of-the-range sports car is a justifiable use of wealth when there are people who can’t afford the basics of living (especially when those people live next door). The question is loaded – and that’s because I can’t stack it up against Jesus’ teaching – but clearly many Christians can, so how do they do it?

    • says

      Jon,
      Thanks so much for your reply. It’s given me more to think about … :).

      Wealth Transference:
      When I speak of wealth transference I mean to say that I cannot take what I have and give it to someone else and they will not have my standard of living.
      It is a world wide principle not a geographic one.
      Here’s a couple of examples from what I’ve experienced here in PNG:
      * A woman needed money to pay for her daughters school fees. I helped here by giving here K150 ($75 USD). The next day she came to our house when we were having a garage sale and bought K40 worth of DVD’s.
      A contributing factor to her poverty is that she is purchasing frivolous things (DVDs) and ignoring more important purchases (School Fees).
      * We see it time and time again when fathers spend money on alcohol and come asking for money for food for their family.
      I’m not insinuating that these people are poor by choice. But, they have contributed to their situations (or a family member) and until that changes no amount of money can solve their financial problem.

      The solution, in my opinion, is mentoring, modeling, and a lot of patience (in addition to necessary financial gifts). My call is not to give up or ignore the needs of the poor, but to realize where we must focus our efforts.

      I think the answer to your second questions (spending) relates heavily on where you fall on the wealth transference issue.

      If those who I give money to can spend money ‘just for fun’ then shouldn’t I as well? (I recognize this is a very humanistic approach) I see many people who walk around drinking Coke which costs about an hour and half of most peoples salary. Many Westerns could by an Ipad for an hour and a half of work. In my opinion there is little difference. All people (rich and poor) do spend money on luxuries. For me the goal is to do it in moderation to be sure I’m balancing my spending.

      That’s why I’m a proponent of the graduated tithe. It provides me with a system to enjoy a part of the income I have for my own luxuries while opening the door to increase my opportunity to give.

      • Jon says

        Thanks again.

        I think I’m satisfied with the Wealth Transference. I get the dilemma, and I feel the tension of the solution. And when we’re given money to be the stewards of (even if it’s just small amounts) it’s difficult to know where to give it – but I like the holistic approach.

        However I’m still hung up on the ‘salary’ bit (as you put it). I do like the graduated tithe and I think that’s something I’m going to pick up in my next financial year. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take the discussion a bit further.

        Your basis for having expendable income ‘just for fun’ is based on what other people have. (NB I like the way that you term it in number of hours worked not in cash). But what makes us distinct as Christians, separate from those ‘in the world’?

        For example: I guess in your context it would be inappropriate to drink only coke, and only from labelled cans – even though that is the norm in my setting. And it would seem to me to be equally inappropriate if I were to have three cars parked outside my house (when most people here don’t have one). For me there is a sense in which our radical Christian lifestyle has to relate to the poor in our communities… And the crux of the issue is I don’t know how to do that while at the same time still enjoying some of the small luxuries of the world.

        I want to be a man of God. I don’t want to be motivated by what I ‘should’ be doing, nor by a sense of guilt. But I do want to do what is right, and good, and true to my faith. I am confident that God will provide for what I need (metaphorical manna) – is taking more than I need a liberty that our radical calling cannot justify?

        • says

          I’m really enjoying this conversation as it is stretching me and helping me grow.

          By the way, I think you know (but may not) that I live in a developing country call Papua New Guinea. The average annual income is $775 so I spend a lot of my time around the poor. I also spend money on luxury items. Last year the most expensive single purchase I had was a MacBook Pro computer. It cost about $1,200. There’s always a struggle and a tension with spending and giving. The thoughts I’m sharing are what I practice in the midst a vast gap between my income and the income of those I’m around.

          What makes us distinctive as Christians?

          It is how we are living (which includes our finances) in response to what Christ has given. I think the key question at hand is at what point is it Christ-like to keep something. Especially something for fun. Mother Teresa took this to one extreme. She refused any luxury in life. She even tore up carpeting when there was no advantage to removing it other than the fact that it made people more uncomfortable. There may be some Christians who are called to or attracted to this lifestyle.

          I’ve never felt like the gospel offers that type of call to all Christians. I believe that we work to provide for our own needs (and yes some wants) and the needs (and yes wants) of others. The issue is that we all put the line (how much for me and how much for them) at a different place.

          My goal through this blog is to encourage some people to challenge themselves to give more. For others they need to be challenged to rest at peace with the role they are already playing in helping others.

          Jesus frequented table feasts. Those events included luxurious items like wine and choice meats. It wasn’t a conflict of conscience for Jesus to feast while there were people like the beggar who was outside Lazarus gate.

          Thus the gospel call is not to avoid luxury, but to moderate it in light of our responsibility to others. Saving is not the issue, but saving too much is (hoarding). Luxury is not the problem, but luxury without moderation.

          I’m not suggesting we compare ourselves to the wealthy around us to determine our standard of living. That is very contrary to the fundamental message of this blog and my faith.

          Instead, my concern is when people feel like they must sacrifice more than those who receive the gift sacrifice. Perhaps it’s human nature to want to spend money on frivolous things. I saw it when I did visits in the Memphis Inner City. There it was jewelry. No air conditioning. No food. But a person might have a $150 gold watch. Here in New Guinea its technology. Almost everyone has a cell phone even though they earn very little.

          How am I comfortable using a portion of my money on purchases for myself? I seek to responsibly handle what God have given me. That doesn’t mean keeping everything and it doesn’t mean giving everything. It means finding a balance.

          We need to be contentious and others center in our giving. If a person gets true joy out of giving away everything then I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage that person. I’ve visited with a lot of people here in PNG who are paralyzed with guilt. They need to learn that it’s OK to take the family out to eat and celebrate God’s generosity.

          The motivation is the biggest issue. Why does a person do what the do?

  8. Jon says

    Thanks Craig. I deliberately left a week or so before I responded so that I could have a fresh look at it. But I’m still not sure I’m ready to respond fully. I’ve been sitting (uncomfortably) with the challenge to confidently keep more.

    It seems to me that (big) personal spending always comes with a justification – whether its myself or my friends – the purchase or luxury always comes with a reason or purpose. “I bought expensive plates, so they will last” or “I bought a new car, because I need if for work” or “I bought a new TV, because it was on offer”. And in some ways it doesn’t matter what the reason or justification is – it just always feels that the justification is a cover for personal desire.

    And I am uncomfortable with the idea of buying things when the real (hidden) justification might be, “because I wanted to”. This I don’t see in Jesus’ life. Enjoying luxury, yes – and especially when it was given to him (the perfume, the feasts, etc) – but not using his own resources for his own desire.

    Having what I perceive I need is easy to live with. Having what I can convince myself I need makes expensive purchases easier to live with. But simply having what I want feels abhorrent (and yet, it’s what I want).

    I am stuck in a loop, unable to resolve the tension – which is why I can’t fully respond yet. Your arguments have all made sense, and for the most part, I agree with the premise…

    …but I can’t get away from the fact that they might just be a cover for having what we want and giving into personal, material desire. And I don’t know how to square that with Jesus’ life.

    So the question persists. And I think I’m learning to enjoy that. At the very least, it’s a good check on my wallet.

  9. says

    One of the most painful realizations I had when I started getting my financial life in order was that I wasn’t earning as much money from my job as it seemed.

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