87: Broke

87: Broke

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Broke

Faith is a practical attitude of the will.

~John MacMurray

A few weeks after our daughter was born, I tried to write a family budget. My wife and I had taken a finance class at church a few years earlier, so I felt confident in my ability to write what our workbook called a “Bare Bones” budget—a plan that covers basic expenses like housing, food, clothing, and nothing else. There was little to no planning for the future or emergencies, like a flat tire, a stomach bug, or Christmas.

When I finished writing the plan, I estimated that we would be living above our means by more than one thousand dollars each month. Ten months later, we sold our home and moved our son and baby daughter into a two-bedroom apartment.

The move from the house to the apartment was a difficult adjustment. Our new home had fewer square feet, a smaller pantry, smaller cabinets, and fewer closets. The baby had grown into a toddler and now would have to share a room with her big brother.

Once we’d been in the apartment a few months, we settled into a regular spending routine and I attempted a new budget. Yet, despite our sacrifices, downsizing, and the second job I’d taken, I calculated we were still living above our income by several hundred dollars. To make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out why.

I let this go on for months with the blind hope it would work itself out. One day, I got three automated e-mails from my bank with “Overdrawn” in the subject line. I quickly logged onto my account and saw three separate “Not Sufficient Funds” charges adding up to more than one hundred dollars in fees. I grabbed the checkbook, and felt a rush of blood to my face when I saw one of the charges included the monthly rent check. The other two were from the debit card—each for a fast food restaurant and each less than $5.

After calming down from what must have been a panic attack, I called in sick to my second job and told my wife what had happened.

“How much do we owe?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Who can we ask for help?”

“Someone who can help us make a long-term plan, because I can’t do it. The only place I can think of that has the resources and the willingness to help is the church.”

Together, we checked our church’s website and found a ministry for financial planning. Prepared to beg for their services, we received our first bit of good news from a nice lady who put us in touch with their financial counselor, Jim, a retired businessman who offered financial counseling as a free service. Within a few hours, we had spoken to Jim on the phone and had a meeting set up. “Just bring your bills and a Bible,” he told us.

Two days later, my wife and I met Jim at a coffee shop. “We can’t figure out how to pay our bills and have money left over for the basics like food and clothes,” I told him. “We just can’t do the math.”

“When money comes in, we either don’t know or can’t agree how to spend it the right way,” my wife added.

Jim nodded. “Let me see your stuff.” After studying our bills for a few minutes, he said, “Let me explain what I do. I teach from a workbook written by Crown Ministries that teaches the practical management of money and the spiritual attitude the Bible directs us to have toward money. If you get nothing else from our meetings, get this: that the latter is more important than the former. If you don’t have the right mindset, then your behavior won’t really change. You might be successful for a short time, but you’ll ultimately fall back on doing what you’ve done in the past. However, if you listen to and follow God’s Word, then He will bless that. Is that something you are interested in?” I didn’t even have to think about it or check with my wife.

Over the next few months, we brought Jim our bills and completed the workbook. We memorized verses like, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains” and “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” He helped us fill out a monthly expense worksheet which forecasted how much we spent each month in different categories, like food, savings, debt, etc. We also filled out an income allocation worksheet which had us divvy each paycheck forty-five days in advance.

While planning the budget was a lot of work, living by our new budget was even more difficult. The first few weeks had been exciting but, like a diet or a New Year’s resolution, the initial enthusiasm wore off quickly. By the third day of the second month, my wife had to spend the entire clothing budget, which wasn’t that much to begin with, on the baby. “I don’t know what to do,” she told me. “I still need to get our son new Sunday school shoes.” A few months ago, she would have used a credit card and not bothered telling me.

“They’ll have to wait until next month,” I said.

“But he doesn’t have anything to wear until then.”

We started to fight. A few hours later, we cooled off and tried again to work it out. I changed a couple of things in the budget and came up with the money for shoes. Then I made a note for the following month to allocate more money for clothing.

God began to bless our efforts and, over time, we got the hang of it. We became more patient with each other and the monthly budget became easier and less time-consuming. The allocation and expense sheets became our salvation. When something unexpected came up, we learned to deal with it calmly and logically. My wife even commented that she felt like we had more money.

In the past few months, we’ve stuck diligently to our budget. The great thing is that it’s better than the bare bones budget I wrote a year and a half ago. Each month we put cash in envelopes for food, gas, co-pays for the doctors, even Christmas.

Best of all, we’ve stopped using our credit cards and building up more debt. So far, we’ve paid $500 per month to creditors. By my calculations, at this rate we should be debt-free in about four years. This seems almost insurmountable at times, particularly when I remember that it took us less than two years to get into this mess. But considering our current standard of living, everything we’ve sacrificed and sold, and the blessings God has given us, we’re doing far better now than we were two years ago.

~Billy Cuchens

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