08Dec 2014
Bible Luke 2

It’s a four-word catchphrase seen on magnets, bumper stickers and December blog posts, denouncing our cultural emphasis on consumerism: Keep Christ in Christmas.

It’s easy to say, but how do we put it into action? And how do we do so without self-righteously condemning anything that has to do with Santa, shopping or the greeting so many believers love to hate: “Happy Holidays”?

Well, I think we start by focusing on what we love about Christmas—what makes it unique and truly worthy of celebrating—instead of dwelling on what we dislike. In other words, we make a decision to be known for what we’re for, not what we’re against.

With that in mind, here are a few simple ideas on how to keep Christ in Christmas.

Incorporate Scripture into your Christmas prep

Many Americans recognize the Advent season (a time of spiritual preparation that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas) by doing little more than eating tiny pieces of chocolate out of a cardboard Advent calendar. How about we keep the chocolate, but add some Scripture? The whole Christmas story is told in the first two chapters of the book of Luke. If you sit down with your family once a week to read the story, you’ll be able to cover half a chapter at each sitting. For smaller children with shorter attention spans, just five verses a night will get you through both chapters by Christmas Day.

Give a Gift, Magi Style

In the first two chapters of the book of Matthew, which also has an account of the birth of Jesus, we read about Magi, known to many as “wise men,” who brought valuable gifts to honor baby Jesus. As you budget for Christmas gifts this year, put Jesus at the top of your list by giving your first and best gift to Him. Practically, this could be a community service project centered around sharing Christ, a special gift to your church or the sponsorship of a child through an organization that shares the love of Jesus with kids around the world.

Go to Church

This sounds obvious, but church can easily take a back seat to the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. Make it a priority. It may mean ducking out of a family event a little early or skipping that annual Christmas Eve party at the neighbor’s. Sometimes we need to stand up for our beliefs and show the world what makes us different. Taking the time to attend a Christmas service is one of the most basic ways to do that. And to really spread the Christmas spirit, invite some un-churched friends to come along. Did you know the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. say they would actually go to a church service if someone they knew invited them?

Check Out Some Christmas Lights

The catch here is in remembering what Christmas lights represent, and taking time to explain it to your kids. In the very first chapter of the book of John, the first few lines describe Jesus like this: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. So pile into the car and take in those beautiful lights. And remember the great and glorious Source of all light.

Find a Christmas Activity Focused on Jesus

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking the kids to see Santa or heading to the mall for some Christmas shopping. But it shouldn’t be the only Christmas activity you and your children experience. Whether you take in a Christmas cantata at a local church or have some arts & crafts time making a manger scene, aim to keep Jesus-centered activities the main focus of the season. In my hometown (Charlotte, NC) we always set aside an evening for Christmas at The Library, where we know the birth of Christ will be celebrated. Other communities have concerts, live nativity scenes, plays and all sorts of ways to recognize Jesus as the true center of Christmas.

Hopefully these ideas will encourage us not to just talk about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” but actually do it. Our holiday season will be so much richer as we focus on Jesus. And more importantly, our joy may cause the rest of the world to wonder what they’re missing…and beckon them to enter into the best thing about Christmas and every day: a relationship with Christ.

02Dec 2014
simplify your life sign

If dealing with your finances feels like a chore, it may be time to simplify. Here are six suggestions you can use today. Hopefully they’ll help you spend less time thinking about money and more time doing the things you love.

Auto pay everything

Aside from attacking our debt, registering all of our accounts for auto pay is the best thing my husband and I have done for our financial life. Our utilities, streaming services, donations, insurance and one remaining student loan payment are deducted automatically from our bank account each month. We don’t even think about it. The only thing we pay the old fashioned way is rent, and it’s a whole lot easier to remember one payment a month than half a dozen. Many people also find success with automating a savings plan, which creates a nest egg with little or no thought.

Have joint accounts

If you’re married, having a joint checking account is a good idea for several reasons. First, the simplicity is helpful. All income can be automatically deposited into the same place, where it can be distributed wherever needed. There’s no need to worry about “his” and “hers” budgets or shuffling money from one account to another. Joint accounts are also good for accountability. Both partners know exactly how much money is coming in and going out, which can prevent a lot of arguments.

Create a monthly budget

Some people like weekly budgets; others prefer to do a daily budget check. You need to choose whatever works best for you, but I’ve found that thinking about finances every day can become a real burden. Budgeting on a monthly basis can save time and stress.

Keep important info in one place

Whether you keep a computer spreadsheet or a paper copy of your records, make sure everything is in one location. I use a small binder of 3×5 index cards—one for each bank account, credit card, utilities bill, giving statement, etc. Account numbers, passwords and any other pertinent info are in one spot, so my husband and I can both find whatever we need without digging around. This is especially helpful around tax time.

Skip the extra credit cards

Collecting airline miles on one card, hotel points on another, and cash back on yet another can be more of a headache than a money-saver. If you divide your spending power over multiple cards, you’re not going to get very far with any rewards program. You’re also giving yourself the hassle of tracking multiple accounts and increasing your chances of missing a payment. Have you ever met anyone who got rich off of reward points or 2 percent cash back? Me neither.

Use mobile banking

I recently downloaded my bank’s mobile app, and I love it. I can check our balance, transfer money and deposit checks into our account with a photo and the touch of a button. It’s a big time and gas saver since I have no reason to go to the bank anymore. Now, if only my phone could print out cash. Then we’d really be in good shape!

01Dec 2014

A few years ago, my husband and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and started attending Mecklenburg Community Church. It was there that we first heard about a concept that, frankly, I was a little embarrassed hadn’t occurred to us a long time ago.

The idea is simple enough: Most of us have some sort of Christmas shopping list; we just need to make sure we’re not forgetting the most important gift.

The Typical Christmas List

Humor me for a minute and think about your typical holiday list.

Whether it includes just a few immediate family members or extends to your mail carrier, grocery bagger and favorite dental hygienist, you likely spend some amount of money on gifts each year.

And then there are the charitable organizations, some of which rely almost exclusively on Christmastime and other end-of-year donations. From the local animal shelter to the United Way, everyone and their mother is vying for a piece of the holiday pie.

Starting on Thanksgiving Day (which some have dubbed Black Thursday due to the rise of the post-turkey shopping spree) to Black Friday to Small Business Saturday to Cyber Monday to Giving Tuesday, it’s out of control.

If you aren’t careful, you’ll wake up on Red Wednesday, which is immediately followed by Dig-Out-of-Debt December.

Missing the Most Important Gift

In all the chaos, we can find ourselves overlooking—or at the very least, skimping on—what should be the most important gift of the season: the one we give to Christ.

Now, I realize a Christmas gift for Jesus isn’t something you can put a bow on, place under the tree and expect Him to come pick up while He stops in for a glass of eggnog. But a gift for Jesus doesn’t have to be invisible and abstract, either.

My church simply calls it Giving to Christ at Christmas, and it’s a tangible way to support the causes closest to Jesus’s heart—like helping the poor, taking care of widows and orphans, and advancing His Kingdom through the Church.

The idea is that our first and best Christmas gift should go to Christ, and we strive to give generously—above and beyond our regular tithes—to show God we have our priorities straight. Our best gift goes to Him first, not to Best Buy, Wal-Mart or that nonprofit that does excellent work but not Kingdom work.

More Than an Afterthought

My husband and I have started to budget for Giving to Christ at Christmas each year, and we’re getting better at doing so before we make our annual holiday shopping list.

The amount is between us and God (and the church finance guy, I suppose), and it varies from year to year based on how much we are able to give. There’s no magic formula. We just try to make sure it reflects our priorities and, subsequently, the real heart of the Christmas season.

So this year, go ahead and make your Christmas list, and feel free to include your dental hygienist and that cool nonprofit. But put it all in the right order. Give to Christ first. It is His birthday, after all.

30Nov 2014
home improvement

Remember when the only home improvement show on prime time TV starred Tim Allen and had almost nothing to do with actual home repairs?

Now home improvement shows are everywhere—Extreme Home Makeover, Love It or List It and Curb Appeal are a few of the dozens of reality shows that let us watch people turn their “ordinary” houses into dream homes.

Reality TV to Real Life

This isn’t just entertaining television; it’s a way of life.

We spend hours surfing Pinterest for design ideas. We spend entire Saturday afternoons wandering the aisles of IKEA and Lowe’s. And we spend thousands of dollars turning our homes into miniature palaces.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans spent $130 billion on home improvement projects in 2013. Yes, that’s billion, with a “b.”

Necessary or Excessive?

I understand that many home improvement projects are absolutely necessary. A hole in the roof, for example, is not something you want to overlook. But we all know a good chunk of that $130 billion isn’t going toward roof repairs. It’s going toward one creature comfort after another until we no longer have a reason to leave the walls of our home.

When did home improvement in the United States become an obsession—and an idol?

I’m not here to determine what is a reasonable home repair for you and what’s excessive; I’m just asking you to think about it.

I’m not trying to tell you how much money to spend; just make sure it’s carefully budgeted like anything else.

And I’m not looking to give you a guilt trip about how your living space ranks on a global scale; but I am reminding you to be thankful.

Finding a Balance

It’s good to make our homes safe, clean, peaceful places where families can live and play and grow together.

It’s not good to be make our homes into idols, where precious time, energy and money are taken away from the most important parts of life—our relationships with God and one another.

I’ll leave you with the words of 1 John 2:15-17 from The Message. These are words that continually challenge me. I hope they’ll do the same for you.

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father.

Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him.

The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

28Nov 2014
Online shopping

When it’s time to go shopping—whether you’re walking into a store or surfing the web—you want to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible. And locking in a great deal comes down to more than just “sale” signs. Below are five things I’ve learned to do before buying anything. Turn them into a mental checklist before you make your next purchase and see how much cash you can save.

Check my wallet

Few things are more infuriating than rushing through the checkout line only to find an unused coupon hiding in your purse…after you’ve left the building, of course. (Can you tell I’ve experienced this a few times?) Now I keep all my coupons in one place and sift through them before I get to the front of the checkout line to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.

Check my phone

Whether I’m pulling up a store’s discount app (such as Cartwheel from Target) or using a general barcode scanner app to compare prices, I try to make sure I’m getting the best deal possible. I also check through email and texts for any mobile coupons. Plenty of stores will regularly send you coupons just for signing up for their email alerts (Old Navy, Payless and Bed Bath & Beyond are a few examples). Create a new email account if you don’t want promotional emails clogging up your regular inbox.

Do my research

For large purchases like electronics, my husband and I are pretty thorough with our research. For example, we don’t want to pay full price for the latest iPhone if a newer model is coming out in a month. It’s also good to check customer reviews and get a feel for when certain products may go on sale (Black Friday sales, for example). Big purchases should not be impulse buys.

Use EBATES or AmazonSmile if possible

If you do any amount of online shopping, you need to check out these two websites. EBATES gives you cash back for online purchases you’d be making anyway. AmazonSmile gives a percentage of your purchase to the registered nonprofit of your choice. There are nearly 1 million charities to choose from. Some of my favorites are my local church, Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (full disclosure: I work for BGEA). If you’re going to buy something anyway, you might as well help out a worthy cause while you’re at it, right?

Say “no” to the store’s credit card offer

If you can’t tell, I’m all about saving a buck whenever possible…with one exception. You will not see me digging through a wallet full of store credit cards. Believe me, I know it’s tempting to get that extra 10 or 20 percent off for “signing up today” for a new credit card from Sears, Kohl’s, Target, Marshall’s and on and on. The retailers push those cards so hard because they know that they—not the consumer—will usually win in the long run. Getting 15 percent off isn’t really a good deal when you have so many cards to keep track of that you forget to pay one on time and get slapped with a 20 percent interest charge.

27Nov 2014
Happy Thanksgiving

Sometimes my prayers sound like a heavenly To Do List for God. I fill in different names and circumstances depending on the day.

Oh, God, please heal _________ from _________.

Comfort _________, who is struggling with _________.

Keep _________ safe while he travels.

Show my skeptical friend, _________ that you love her.

Forgive me for _________.

I know I’m not the only one with a laundry list of prayer requests. And the Bible says we should pray for one another, so there is nothing wrong with asking God for those things.

There’s also nothing wrong with putting the list down from time to time and just being thankful for what God has already done.

The Thanksgiving season seems as good a time as any to do so.

If, like me, it’s been a while since you set the list aside (God already knows it better than you do, by the way) and just thanked Him, would you join me in offering a simple prayer of thanksgiving this season?

If we practice thankfulness, perhaps our prayer list will begin to look a little more like this:

Oh, God, thank you for the time you healed _________ from _________.

Thank you for comforting me when I was struggling with _________.

Thank you for all the times you’ve kept _________ safe while he traveled.

Thank you for loving my skeptical friend, _________, even if she doesn’t know it yet.

And thank you, thank you, thank you for allowing your own Son to die and come back to life, all so that I could be forgiven. You are amazing. In Jesus’ name, amen.

The FaithWorks Financial Team wishes you a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

 

26Nov 2014
Giving gifts

Christmas shopping stresses me out.

I can think of about 20 reasons why, but I’ll just give you my top five: Big family, small budget, mall crowds, time crunch, and what I like to call “gift perfectionism”—the unhealthy need to track down the perfect gift for each person on my list, from my husband to that second cousin I only see at weddings and funerals.

Oh, and my “sleigh” is too small. I live hundreds of miles from most of my family, which means I fly to my hometown for Christmas. And for some reason, US Airways doesn’t seem to want to transport my 32 Christmas gifts from Point A to Point B without charging some exorbitant fee.

A Perfect Storm

You see, from the mall parking lot to the airport, the whole Christmas shopping endeavor is a perfect storm. More often than not, I end up losing my cool, busting my budget and more importantly, forgetting all about the fact that Christmas is not about me. Or presents. Or shopping malls. It’s about celebrating the day our Savior showed up in our world on a rescue mission.

So, this year, how about we rescue ourselves from the chaos and financial strain of Christmas shopping and free up some time to focus on Jesus?

We don’t have to skip the gift giving entirely, but we can certainly find ways to significantly cut down on shopping stress.

Trim the Tree…And Your Shopping List

One of the best ways to trim your holiday shopping list is to get the whole family (or church group or workplace department) to use the Secret Santa approach. You probably know how this works—put everyone’s name in a hat and have each person pick a name. Then set a spending limit and stick to it. If you typically purchase gifts for 10 people, you just reduced your shopping list by 90 percent. Can you feel the stress melting away?

If you’re thinking, “My family is far away, so the names in a hat thing isn’t very practical,” no problem. The online Secret Santa Generator has you covered, and it’s free.

Just make sure you don’t put it off. To make this new gift-giving method a success, it’s important to work out the details well in advance…not two days before Christmas.

Whether you try the Secret Santa idea or get creative with other ways of lessening your holiday shopping bills, now is the time to get everyone on board.

Don’t put up with another year of the same old, preventable stresses. Make a change now, and enjoy a truly merry Christmas later.

10Oct 2014

I’ve heard it said that there’s a difference between “simple” and “easy.” The steps to getting and staying out of debt are simple, but they’re not easy. If they were, everyone would be debt free.

 

Here’s another truth about financial freedom: it takes more than willpower. Maybe you’re struggling to get (or stay) on financial track. Or maybe you’re doing pretty well but could use a little boost to propel you to the next level. If that’s the case, check out these five tips and be inspired to take that extra step toward financial peace.

 Have an accountability partner

We’ve posted about the importance of having a “foxhole friend” to keep you accountable when it comes to spending habits and financial goals. If you’re married, the natural choice is probably your spouse, but it’s also a good idea to have a friend or another couple to keep you on the straight and narrow.

This doesn’t mean revealing your salary, your 401(k) balance and every little detail of your budget. It’s about finding encouragement, seeking wise counsel, and having someone in your life who isn’t afraid to say, “no” to frivolous purchases and bad financial choices.

 Post goals and reminders where you’ll see them often

There’s something powerful about speaking a goal out loud. It makes it real. Equally powerful, I believe, is the act of writing (or typing) out your goal.

Do you want to be debt free by next Christmas? Write it down.

Do you want to save $40,000 to put down on a house? Write it down.

Post a sticky note where you’ll see it. Use your calendar app to remind yourself to take action. Whatever you do, make it concrete and visible.

Be part of a small group

Whatever challenge you may be facing, it’s important to remember you’re not alone. But sometimes we have no way of knowing someone else has gone through the same thing we’re experiencing unless we fess up and put ourselves out there.

Make it a priority to get involved in some kind of small group or Bible study. Many churches also offer financial education classes, which is a great way to learn about a biblical view of money while meeting others who are in the same boat. You can share ideas and help each other reach your goals faster.

Create space for a daily “quiet time.”

If you have financial problems, chances are they didn’t just fall out of the sky. There are underlying beliefs and habits that led to the problems.

So, how do we change our attitudes and fix what’s broken? Through daily, intimate time with God.

Whether you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier, find a quieter lunch break spot or skip a TV show, do what it takes to make time with God a priority.

Dive into the Bible.

Journal.

Pray.

It’s amazing how a few minutes spent communing with God can change us from the inside out.

Track and celebrate your progress

Nothing is quite as motivating as a win. When I’m working to lose weight and I see that I’ve dropped a couple of pounds since my last weigh-in, I get an extra pep in my step, and I’m motivated to work even harder. The same is true for most of us when it comes dropping debt or hitting a financial goal.

Track your progress carefully and don’t let a win slip by without some kind of recognition. We’re more likely to keep on pushing when we mark our successes and celebrate them well.

The celebration doesn’t have to be lavish; the simple act of pausing to recognize an achievement can go a long way.

So, are you ready to get that next win?

Go!