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Chuck Bentley

Dear Chuck,

My husband and I are just got married and are realizing the severity of our debt problems. We both just graduated with student loans, car loans, and some credit card debt. Until this point, we honestly didn't know we should have been spending our money any differently. It was what everyone did and we figured it was "normal." Do you have any advice on next steps we should take?

In Debtors Prison

Dear Prisoner,

Thanks for writing. While I have some tips for you below, the scenario you describe is sadly the "normal" for many young people like yourself.

A recent article released findings of a 2018 study by Northwestern Mutual citing the age of Americans most deeply in debt. They surveyed over 2,000 adults, nearly a quarter of whom were millennials (18-34). Those between the ages of 25 and 34 were found to owe an average of $42,000. This is excluding home mortgages.

This is typically made up of student loans, car loans, credit card debt and store accounts.

What frightens me is that the rapid accumulation of debt at such a young age has become such a widely-adopted lifestyle. It has become "no big deal," even according to some experts! The article quoted a financial planner who believes most young people do not attain a positive net worth until their early to mid-30s. This kind of outlook is contrary to biblical stewardship and dangerous for young people who are struggling to get ahead.

How Debt is Accumulated

The world tells young people they can cover their loans based on job opportunities, future income, a growing stock market, the promises of politicians, on and on. It is easy to justify our desires and actions. I know. I've been there.

Even with good salaries, debt can quickly add up. An analysis of credit card and bank statements will reveal a common thread that reveals illiteracy in the realm of "needs versus wants." In day-to-day life, this illiteracy manifests itself as excessive charges for clothes, eating out, travel, cars, private school tuition, impulse purchases, mobile phones, entertainment, extravagant gifts, etc.

A misunderstanding of needs versus wants is also seen in the smaller, less extravagant expenses - running through the drive thru because you didn't have dinner planned, overbuying at the grocery store because you forgot your list, not looking for coupons because you're in a rush, going out to dinner with friends because you don't want to miss out. These "sneaky expenses" can put you in financial bondage just as easily as a designer handbag.

Without realizing it, many have enslaved themselves to a debtor's lifestyle, forsaking the freedom found in simple living. They blindly follow the crowd, are influenced by social media and everything the world throws at them, and are often guided by an internal fear of missing out.

Unknowingly, the trivial begins to dictate their life. When meaning is confused with minutia, thinking is numbed and energy wasted.

Lies People Believe

There are many false philosophies that Americans believe about debt but I will highlight two that I find to be particularly significant.

  1. Student Loans.

Many students (and parents) assume that student loans are necessary to get a college education, or at least an education worth having.

In many circumstances, there are options for students to obtain a college education without accumulating debt; dual enrollment in high school, CLEP tests, AP classes and tests, community colleges, state-sponsored programs, scholarships, and online courses can all significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to get an Associate's, Bachelor's, or Master's degree.

If a family does decide to take out student loans for college, it can be difficult deciding who the burden should fall on - students or parents. I would encourage all families to take a look at alternative options before signing any financing paperwork.

As you now know, graduating with a burden of debt can put a pause on your future plans and cause strain on your finances, relationship, and well-being.

  1. Credit Cards.

One of the most misunderstood and violated principles in God's Word is about credit.Many believe that you should never borrow money. Others miss all the warnings in Scripture about debt and borrow in excess.

Like many things, there is a balance when it comes to credit cards. The way the world uses them - to get more, bigger, better faster - will drive you into financial bondage and stress. A dependency on credit cards is promoted as the best way to increase your credit score. They are sold to young people like yourself with no responsibility to explain what's in the fine print.

God's Word never forbids us from being in debt or using credit cards. However, it strongly warns us against it because of the dangers that debt presents. I don't think there is anything wrong with using credit cards, as long as they're used responsibly.

I use one but strictly adhere to these guidelines:

  1. Credit should never be normal for God's people
  2. Credit should never be long-term
  3. Never sign surety – an obligation to pay without an absolutely certain way to pay.

Because our society is of the world, it naturally breaks the biblical principles about money that God has given to us for our well-being.. God intends for His people to be in the world but not of it (John 17). By working hard, planning for the future, living self-controlled, upright lives we can experience an abundant life.

How to Change Your Financial Future

Pay off your debt as soon as possible. Double up on payments if possible. The longer the terms, the more interest is charged and the greater the total debt. I suggest the snowball method. It has been verified by researchers who report, "...we tested the hypothesis that the one-account-at-a-time strategy led subjects to work harder and repay their debts more quickly because they feel they are making greater progress toward the ultimate goal of becoming debt free..."

If you have overwhelming credit card debt, get in touch with our partners at Christian Credit Counselors. Finding the extra cash in your budget to attack your debt can feel overwhelming. Here are some ideas to help:

  • Live below your means, set goals, and aim for no debt.
  • Adopt a "no cash – don't buy" mindset for everything possible.
  • Be patient, self-controlled, and stop all impulse buying.
  • Take a spending fast challenge: a weekend, month, quarter or a year.
  • Eat what you have in the pantry or refrigerator for a week.
  • Choose to buy used or sale items only if needed.
  • Take a mission trip to serve refugees or people living in impoverished communities.
  • Opt out of prescreened credit offers.
  • Rent until a sizable down payment is saved along with an emergency account.
  • If married, don't depend on both incomes. Get on the same financial page with your spouse and align your philosophy of money.
  • Confess, repent and seek accountability.

Income – Expenses = Freedom & Joy

A lifestyle free of debt is not one of deprivation but a reward for thoughtful living! This is possible when our identity is firmly rooted in Christ not things of this world. Make it your goal to be a lender and a giver, not a borrower and a hoarder. Then, you will experience true financial freedom.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, the largest Christian financial ministry in the world, founded by the late Larry Burkett. He is the host of a daily radio broadcast, My MoneyLife, featured on more than 1,000 Christian Music and Talk stations in the U.S., and author of his most recent book, Money Problems, Marriage Solutions. Be sure to follow Crown on Facebook.
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