I find it fascinating that in the story of feeding the 5,000, Jesus—someone who has power to create food out of thin air to feed thousands—asks His disciples to gather up the leftovers. Why did He do that when He clearly didn’t need to? We are told in Adventist Home, page 381 (emphasis added):
Christ once gave His disciples a lesson upon economy which is worthy of careful attention. He wrought a miracle to feed the hungry thousands who had listened to His teachings; yet after all had eaten and were satisfied, He did not permit the fragments to be wasted. He who could, in their necessity, feed the vast multitude by His divine power bade His disciples gather up the fragments, that nothing might be lost. This lesson was given as much for our benefit as for those living in Christ’s day. The Son of God has a care for the necessities of temporal life. He did not neglect the broken fragments after the feast, although He could make such a feast whenever He chose. The lessons of Jesus Christ are to be carried into every phase of practical life. Economy is to be practiced in all things. Gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost.
Christ’s simple lesson can be summed up in different ways:
- Do not be wasteful.
- Learn to be resourceful and economical.
- Develop habits of thriftiness and frugality.
- It’s good to save, no matter how little or insignificant it may seem.
That’s nice, but how do we square His counsel with our daily lives in the modern world? Because after all, isn’t it expensive to live nowadays?
A Consumer Culture
In this day and age, particularly in the developed world, consumption is the name of the game. We are told incessantly that consumer spending is good for the economy. The media encourages a constant sense of discontentedness with what we already have. The societal narrative is that our goal in the rat race is to earn as much as we can so we can buy as much as we can, because this is the path to happiness and fulfillment. Dave Ramsey sums it up well:
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
What’s remarkable is that in the midst of all this “plenty,” there’s often a sense of financial victimhood even from those who by most measures earn decent money. Somehow it’s always someone else’s fault that we are in financial duress. Whether it be high taxes from the government, deceptive practices by greedy corporations, or obscenely high tuition at colleges, there always seems to be some scapegoat somewhere that is responsible for our sad financial state.
For many in these circumstances, it seems the solution to all of their problems is to simply have more money.
“If only I had more money, then I would be able to pay off my debts.”
“If only I had more money, then I would be able to afford that vacation I need to de-stress.”
“If only I had more money, then I would be happy.”
The reality is that for most people living in the developed world, a lack of money is rarely the real problem. Almost always, it is simply too much waste.
Too Much Waste
A Bloomberg article discussing the financial health of US households, entitled, “Even the Upper Middle Class Struggles to Save Money,” quoted the following statistics for households with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000:
- Just 45% of upper-middle-class households saved anything in 2012. Meaning a full 55% saved NOTHING.
- 16% spent more than they earned and went further into debt.
- Only half of these households had enough savings to finance three months of living expenses if they lost their job or couldn’t work.
- 20% would go into months of debt if there was a $400 emergency.
Most people would agree that a household income of $75,000 to $100,000 should be more than enough to live comfortably, so why are so many Americans in this income bracket living hand-to-mouth each month? Clearly it can’t be a problem with too little money; it must be too much waste.
Here is just one statistic to make this point. According to a market research report entitled, “Taking Stock With Teens: A Collaborative Consumer Insights Project. Fall 2015,” investment firm Piper Jaffray notes that teens who live in an average or upper income household spend about 40% of their budget on fashion. Now where do you suppose these kids learned how to spend money? Perhaps most alarming is what this portends for the financial health of the upcoming future generations.
No matter what we hear in the media or what our neighbor says, the honest truth is simply this: We are the wealthiest yet most wasteful generation that ever walked the earth.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that in our race to keep up with the Joneses, God’s cause frequently gets short-changed. How often do we push off a generous contribution to a needy cause because we have too many financial issues? Or how often are young people prevented from serving the Lord in various capacities because of their debt load? How much of God’s means are going to the creditors instead of His treasury? Perhaps it’s time to take heed to Christ’s admonition to gather up the fragments!
Net Worth vs. Income
I believe one of the greatest underlying reasons why even God’s people fall prey to wasteful spending is that we have accepted society’s definition of financial success. Financial success or wealth in the world is defined as how much we earn which then is demonstrated by how much we buy and consume. Alarmingly, with the ease of obtaining credit, we often skip straight to buying and consuming so we can masquerade behind the trappings of financial success without even having to earn it first!
You may be surprised to learn that wealth isn’t measured by how much we earn or how much we spend: in fact, it may have very little to do with either of those things. Rather, it is measured by net worth. Net worth can easily be calculated by taking all the assets that we own (i.e. cash, investments, property) and subtracting from them all the liabilities that we owe (i.e. credit cards, mortgage, student loans). In business parlance, the financial report that breaks down the assets, liabilities, and net worth is called the balance sheet.
This means a teacher earning only $40,000 with no debt and a paid-for home can have a much higher net worth than a doctor earning $150,000 if his debts are greater than the sum of his assets. It’s not the income that counts in the measurement of wealth; it is the net worth. In a blog post I’ve previously written on this point, I share the story of a secretary who never earned more than $15,000 per year her entire life but was able to leave an $18 million donation to a children’s hospital upon her death. She never had the income, but she certainly still had the wealth.
It’s not how much we earn, it’s not how much we spend, but it’s how much we keep that determines wealth.
For some of us, altering our relationship with money involves a complete revolution in our way of thinking and a total reformation in how we manage our financial affairs. So how do we do it? Where do we start?
- Stop playing the victim. It is easy to come up with excuses for why this or that can’t be done. It’s easier to blame someone else for our problems. But neither of those things will begin solving the problem. In order for there to be genuine financial reformation in our lives, we must first take personal responsibility for the matter. Recognize that it is our duty as stewards of the Lord’s means to bring about meaningful change. Only then can anything begin to get better.
- Find the leaks. Few people who struggle with money think that they are spending wastefully. Most of the time, they honestly don’t know where everything is going. So as mentioned in the previous part in this series, it is absolutely crucial to begin tracking every penny in our monthly expense. The leaks in our budget tend to reveal themselves rather readily once we start doing this.
- Trim the spending. Once we identify the leaks, we need to plug them! In the next part of this series we will address the creation of plans that help us manage our spending.
- Start saving. Just because we spend less doesn’t necessarily mean that we are now saving. Our saving needs to be intentional, and we need to have a plan for that too. We’ll take a look at this in more detail in our next article.
- Trust in divine power. Philippians 4:13 is a familiar Bible promise: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” However, did you realize that the specific context of the Bible promise has direct application to this topic?
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4:11-12, emphasis added)
If we ever struggle with getting control over our spending and feeling that the sacrifice is too great, let us remember that Philippians 4:13 was specifically spoken to help us learn to be content whether we abound or are in need. This promise is for us!
A Lifestyle in Balance
While a lifestyle of “gathering up the fragments” will certainly be a modest one, the Spirit of Prophecy offers some helpful balance to prevent us from going to extremes in this area:
We cannot make the heart purer or holier by clothing the body in sackcloth or depriving the home of all that ministers to comfort, taste, or convenience. God does not require that His people should deprive themselves of that which is really necessary for their health and comfort, but He does not approve of wantonness and extravagance and display. (Ellen White, Adventist Home, p. 379, emphasis added)
God doesn’t require us to live an ascetic life. It is appropriate to provide for the health, comfort, convenience and even taste of our families; however, we should not go to the extreme of extravagance and display.
Had you and your wife understood it to be a duty that God enjoined upon you, to deny your taste and your desires, and make provision for the future, instead of living merely for the present, you could now have had a competency, and your family have had the comforts of life. (Ellen White, Counsels on Stewardship, p. 250, emphasis added)
Again, we are admonished to make provision for the future by saving for the purpose of providing for our families’ comforts, but even in this there will be some self-denial involved. There is a healthy tension here for us to consider.
Saving the Crumbs: Our Financial Testimony
A couple of years ago, my wife and I started a blog called Saving the Crumbs, to chronicle our personal experience in applying Christ’s admonition to “gather up the fragments.” (That story was in fact an inspiration for the name we selected.) We’ve attempted to demonstrate through our own example that not only is frugal living possible, and is not the self-flagellation that we are often led to believe, but it can actually be kind of fun! We have shared quite openly our finances there, and you can start at our 2015 financial report to see how we’ve practically implemented the principles outlined in this article in our home.
As we build on this idea of saving intentionally, our next article will deal with some of the practical ways to manage our spending and saving.
 All Bible texts are from the KJV.