According to a Christmas song it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Well, it is at least most of the time--all right, some of the time. But, as wonderful as the holiday season can be, it can also be very messy. We often struggle with broken relationships, frenzied schedules, and a lot of anxiety that can make Christmas quite a mess. One aspect of our lives that can really get messed up during the holidays is our finances. Just this week we had what is generally thought to be the biggest shopping day of the year. According to an article in Wikipedia one quarter of all personal spending annually takes place at Christmas. Last year the average household in America spent $1700 on Christmas. One third of the US population will spend more than $1000. One quarter of Americans say they will spend less this year than they spent last year, but overall Christmas spending is expected to increase 3.7%. According to studies of this experience Christmas shopping causes physical headaches for 1 of every 4 shoppers, and it causes sleeplessness for 11%. And if you were out in the malls this week, you may know from personal experience that it can be quite a mess.
Many people are looking for ‘just the right thing’ for those on their Christmas list. I don’t know if this item is on your Christmas shopping list. I may have heard something about this last year, but one of the hottest Christmas items again this year is the upside down Christmas tree. The specialty catalogue sales company Hammacher Schlemmer sells a 7 foot version including lights for a mere $600 and according to their website they are already sold out. I think you can get a version from Target for half that price. The Hammacher Schlemmer website says the upside down tree is modeled after the 12th century, central European tradition of hanging a tree from the ceiling. But the modern version with its smaller footprint was originally designed for specialty stores to display ornaments using a minimum amount of floor space. Purchasers of the upside down tree say that pets and small children won’t be knocking off the ornaments this way. But in case you are wondering why someone would want an upside down Christmas tree here are some reasons:
1) It is a novelty item for the person who has to have every new gadget available.
2) It is the one new thing that the person who always gets way too into holiday decorating can add to their collection
3) It’s a great way to get attention. You’ll likely be the first on the block to have an upside down Christmas tree.
4) If you’re short, you can actually put the star on the top of the tree
5) It is a great way to fit more presents under the tree.
Whether the upside down Christmas tree is just something different, or a seasonal fad like the silver tree of the 1960s lighted by a color wheel, or even if it’s a new trend in holiday decorating, I think the upside down Christmas tree is a very good symbol for what happens to many of us in our personal finances at this time of year. Our spending often gets upside down from our financial resources and the holiday season turns into ChristMess.
At this time of year you can find articles in magazines, newspapers and websites that try to help you with ideas you can put into practice to ease your financial burdens at Christmas, but the best counsel comes from God’s Word. I want to be sure you have God’s wisdom so you can celebrate God’s gifts and avoid a ChristMess.
Determine first of all that you will...
Incur No New Debt. This is absolutely basic in order to avoid creating a financial mess at Christmas. I understand how hard it is to withstand cultural pressures and manage personal expectations. It is way too easy to use credit cards and home equity lines of credit to buy gifts, to make travel plans and to put the payments off until months later. I have done that before and I expect you have, too, but it extends the ChristMess into a new year mess What happens is this...
"The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." [Proverbs 22:7, NIV]
God reminds us that being in debt is like being in chains or in jail. When we are in debt we don’t have the freedom to do whatever we want with our money. What’s even more disheartening is that when we are in debt we cannot freely respond to God with our money. We’ve already given the control of it over to someone other that God. We feel bad if someone comes to us asking us for help and we don’t have anything to help them with. I understand how it happens, but going into debt for Christmas stuff is never worth it. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have for people we don’t even like. You may say, “If I don’t do it my kids won’t get a new Xbox or whatever it is that the tv ads have made them drool for.” We never do our children or anyone in our family any favor when we put ourselves in slavery to debt. And, we’re providing an example that they will repeat to their own hurt as well. It is so much better to demonstrate financial responsibility and talk to our kids about why we are different than everybody else in the way we do things at Christmas time.
It would have been hard for you to convince Osceola McCarty that going into the slavery of debt is worth it. She was born in 1908 in Southern Mississippi. She dropped out of school when she was 8 years old and supported herself for the rest of her life by doing other people’s laundry. She would have died in obscurity except for what she did on July 26, 1995. After that day Ms. McCarty became a national hero. Her picture was printed on the front page of the NY Times and Guidepost magazine. She was invited to the White House as a guest of the President and First Lady. She received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University which is quite an accomplishment for a grade school drop out. They don’t hand out those things like Kroger coupons in the Sunday newspaper. Ms. McCarty was invited to speak around the country. She subsequently wrote several articles about her experience and she was an honored guest at Times Square in NY City on New Year’s Eve that same year. What happened on that day in July? Osceola McCarty was able to do what more sophisticated, more educated people have not been able to do. On that July day at the age of 87, Ms. McCarty walked in to her local bank and instructed the teller to draft a check from her account in the amount of $150,000 which she donated entirely to the University of Southern Mississippi. On a washerwoman’s income Ms. McCarty endowed an ongoing scholarship at a major university. She never would have left such a legacy if she had depended on credit cards and debt to address the financial challenges she struggled with throughout her life.
You can determine to follow her example and incur no new debt this Christmas. How could that be possible? Here are a couple of suggestions.
a. Pay Cash. You always end up spending more when you use a card--even a debit card. Many of you have seen the commercials on tv these days that show dozens of people shopping and everybody smiling and happy music playing and people in line paying for their purchases with plastic. When one of those people in line starts to write a check, the music stops, the screen turns black and white, the people all become sad and the announcer makes a pitch for a visa card to replace that check (or cash). Then when the card is handed to the cashier, the color comes back the music plays and everyone is happy again. That’s an overwhelming message to persuade people to use a credit card rather than cash. You know it costs merchants a percentage of the sale which they have to pay to the credit companies in order to accept credit cards. Even though it costs, they know that people on average spend 25% more when they use a card--even if it’s a debit card. People spend more using a card than when they pay cash. And, then you end up paying more for the product because of the interest you are charged if you don’t pay off the whole balance at once.
b. Shop early. Last minute shopping is desperation shopping and you will buy something that you don’t really need, because you don’t have time to think about it. Shop when there are sales and when you have time to comparison shop.
c. Talk to the people you exchange gifts with. The people you most want to give gifts to are people you really care about and who really care about you. They are family and close friends. If they really care about you, you can be real honest with them and tell them you are trying hard to get out of debt and stay out of debt. Suggest that instead of buying presents for each other that you simply enjoy some special time together during the holidays. Your time and friendship are greater gifts than you can buy and the time you spend together will keep you away from the mall and its temptations to overspend.
" Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another..." [Romans 13:8, NIV]
God’s goal for us is complete freedom from financial bondage and staying away from any new debt will go a long way toward Cleaning Up the ChristMess.
This next principle may may seem to be a strange way to keep your spending under control, but you need to have the right people on your Christmas list. It may seem counter-intuitive to say, but one of the ways to enjoy financial success is to make sure you will...
Be Generous to those in need.
There is just this promise from God that He is interested in helping those who help others.
"Be generous, and you will be prosperous. Help others, and you will be helped." [Proverbs 11:25, GNT]
God Himself takes on the responsibility of caring for those who have no one to protect and provide for them. God aligns Himself with the widow and the orphan and He provides for them through people who make themselves available for this process. God wants to give to those in need and those who give to the needy are replenished and taken care of in the process themselves. God wants to keep in good shape his conduit through which He supports the poor.
"Oh, the joys of those who are kind to the poor! The Lord rescues them when they are in trouble...He gives them prosperity in the land and rescues them..." [Psalm 41:1-2, NLT]
The opposite happens to people who close their hearts and hands toward the poor. Hettie Green experienced it. She lived in a shack. Every morning she ate cold oatmeal for breakfast because she didn’t want to pay money to heat the water in her house. Once her son injured his leg and she didn’t want to pay for medical care, so she searched for medical treatment that would be free and took so long doing so that gangrene set in and her son’s leg had to be amputated. She died alone in 1916 with an estate of $95M. She had $31M in cash. What happens is that hoarding shrinks the heart. Trusting in material possessions is false security and is foolish toward God.
"Riches lead to the downfall of those who hoard them." [Ecclesiastes 5:13, God’s Word]
There are many opportunities to give to people in need. The Salvation Army have collection points for this at many shopping centers. Here at our church on Christmas Eve we ask you to make a special generous gift which we call a White Envelope gift for our Brotherhood Fund. Our Brotherhood Fund helps people in our own community who have special financial needs they can’t afford on their because of financial difficulties. There are organizations like World Vision and Compassion and International Disaster Emergency Services who all serve the poor and needy around the world. You can select a project with one of these ministries and make a donation for it in the name of someone on your Christmas list. Your friend or family member will receive a card letting them know a child or family or village received a life giving gift that will make a difference and keep them alive. Knowing someone will be able to live is a much greater gift than a new sweater. Cell groups can get together and make a gift like this that could transform a whole village by donating funds to provide a clean water supply. You would be amazed at what life-giving things can be done for a relatively low price.
When you are generous with those in need, you are not only cleaning up the ChristMess, you are being life-giving for the whole year. God gets involved in your finances when you are generous with those in need. He wants to be involved in your finances all the time and not just with your special gifts at Christmas. The most important way to clean up your ChristMess Shopping is to make sure you...
Give God What Belongs To Him
If you’re spending God’s money on more stuff, you’re living spiritually and financially dangerously. When we face financial pressures and bills pile up it’s really easy to use everything we have to pay on our bills and say to ourselves, “I don’t have any money to give to God. I have all these bills I have to pay.” But, when we do that, and don’t give God what belongs to Him, we’re creating more ChristMess.
"You are robbing me of the offerings and of the ten percent that belongs to me...I am the Lord All-Powerful, and I challenge you to put me to the test. Bring the entire ten percent into the storehouse, so there will be food in my house. Then I will open the windows of heaven and flood you with blessing after blessing." [Malachi 3:8-10, CEV]
One of the ways to clean up our ChristMess is to give God what belongs to Him. At this time when we celebrate the great generosity of God’s gift, we need to remain generous and faithful in giving to God.
Why is this so critical? It’s because we have a lust for money. Money holds the allure of personal sovereignty. Money gives us a reason to think we can become our own little gods. Let me show you how this works. Imagine for a moment that you are God. Everything is yours. (If this comes easy for you we should all be worried.) How does it feel to be God? Powerful, secure, independent, free, influential, in control. That’s what it would be like to be God. Now, imagine if you won $100M lottery. Would you feel powerful, secure, independent, free, more in control? Money holds the allure of god-like status. We have a legitimate need for a degreee of security, influence, and management of life, but it gets dangerous when we say we want more and more, so I don’t have to be vulnerable to anyone or please anyone--when I’m not dependent on anyone--even God. And we call it financial independence. It’s a great American value. It’s spiritually dangerous to make money our source of identity and security. When we give God the first and best, we say, “You are God, not me.”
You can exchange the stuff of this world for the stuff of the next world. It’s a spiritual growth tool. You can get more of God in your life by trusting this promise and by putting it into practice. Give God what belongs to Him and keep Him at the top of your financial list all the time.
Talk about these principles with others
"Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed." [Proverbs 15:22, NIV]
It’s swimming upstream for all of us to do these things--staying out of debt, being generous to the needy, faithfully giving God 10%. The world around us encourages us to be sure to take care of ourselves first and tells us we deserve it. We who desire to live for God need to stick together and support each other in honoring Him. If you are going to succeed in cleaning up ChristMess financially, you’re going to have to talk with your spouse. You’ve got to be on the same page or one or the other will be off shopping and overturn the whole plan. You’ve got to talk to your kids about these principles so they are successfully prepared for their financial future. And, we’ve got to talk with other Christians who have the same commitments we have to financially sound and spiritually responsible values. This is why we have cell groups. We all need support. Who we become is is largely determined by what we read and who we associate with. The Bible says two are better than one. It provides accountability. In a group of people you know and trust, you can ask each other how you did on staying out of new debt. You can tell each other the stories of generosity and celebrate together. You can share how you are doing with faithfulness in giving to God.
This is not just about money. The #1 stated cause for divorce is financial. It’s not just about money. Money issues are always about relationship and ways we mess up our lives. The reason we need our finances to be right and healthy is because we want our relationships to be right and healthy with our spouse, our families, our friends and most of all with God. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Invest your treasure with God and your heart and life with be with Him forever.