When Karen and Scott got married, Karen had nearly $50,000 of non-mortgage debt. Scott, who was a Chicago firefighter at the time, jokingly referred to it as "a reverse dowry."
Several years before meeting Scott, Karen had been through the breakup of a relationship she thought was headed toward marriage. "I decided that if I'm not getting married, at least I'm going to have a nice apartment. I can remember standing at the counter of a furniture store unrepentantly handing over my credit card. I thought, I deserve this couch; I'm going to get it. It didn't bother me one bit that I didn't have the money for it."
Making matters worse, Karen's freelance work made her income inconsistent.
Telling Scott the full extent of her financial problems marked the beginning of her turnaround. "He was incredibly supportive. He said, ‘I'm not the guy who can rescue you, but I can walk through this with you.'"
Karen developed a personal budget, cut up her credit cards, accepted a full-time job with one of her clients, and started putting as much money as possible toward her debts.
Once Karen and Scott got married, they began tackling the debt together. Karen remembers, "I kept referring to it as ‘my debt,' but Scott would correct me and say, ‘It's our debt.'"
One other notable part of their story is that they gave away 10 percent of their income throughout their journey of getting out of debt. Their experience provides powerful lessons for anyone wondering how they can give generously while paying down debt.
Make a Commitment: Instead of letting their circumstances dictate their financial priorities, Karen and Scott followed their commitments. As important as getting out of debt was to them, they understood the biblical teaching on "firstfruits" generosity (Proverbs 3:9), so they arranged their budget to make that a higher priority.
Get Serious: They longed to buy a house, but they couldn't afford to do so while giving generously and paying off their debt. So they rented for nine long years, all the while watching friends buy with no money down and thinking they were missing out.
Karen and Scott's approach brings to mind Proverbs 3:27-28: "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I'll give it to you tomorrow' — when you now have it with you."
Karen and Scott had the ability to give generously while getting out of debt. It required something of them, to be sure, and it wasn't easy. But they knew their priorities, had "the power to act" on them, and did so.
If you're struggling with debt, what radical, uncomfortable step could you take to free up money so you could give generously while paying off debt? Sell your house? Take in a roommate? Go from a two-car household to a one-car household? Take on a part-time job? Cut the cable or Internet?
At the Very Least, Give a Choice Gift: In Genesis 4:3-5, the Bible tells the story of brothers Cain and Abel. When they were young adults they brought gifts to the Lord. Cain brought "some of the fruits of the soil," which scholars have explained means he gave a portion of his crops, but not the best portion. By contrast, Abel brought "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." In other words, he gave a choice gift.
Their gifts revealed much about their hearts, and the Bible says, "The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor."
If you've gotten truly serious about cutting expenses and still can't seem to give at the tithe level, at the very least give what for you constitutes a choice gift. For Karen and Scott, that meant tithing off their net income. Their mantra at the time was, "10 percent of net until we're out of debt." Then they moved up to 10 percent of gross income.
Look for God's Blessings, in His Perfect Timing: While the Bible never teaches a give-to-get approach to generosity (see Romans 11:35), a consistent message throughout Scripture is there are blessings that flow from living the generous lives we were designed to live.
It gave Karen hope that God was going to bless them in some special way. "I'd hear people's stories of unexpected blessings they felt came about because of their giving," Karen said. "I started wondering, where's my cool story?
But the Bible doesn't say God works according to our agenda or on our schedule. For Karen and Scott, there was no dramatic financial rescue. Just month after month of writing big checks to creditors, all the while being faithful to give generously.
"Once we were through it, though, I realized there were lessons I needed to learn. My attitude about money has changed in many, many ways. If it hadn't been that hard, I don't think I would have learned the lessons."
Six and a half years after getting married, Karen and Scott made their final debt payment. "That was an awesome day," Karen said with tears in her eyes. "It felt like a huge weight had been lifted. It was a hard road we had traveled, but we did it, and we did it in a God-honoring way."
A few years ago, Scott retired with a full pension at a much younger age than most people, having put in more than 20 years at the Chicago Fire Department.
He and Karen also finally bought a home — a beautiful Victorian, the style they had long dreamed of owning. Buying at a time when home prices were still battered by the recession, the home was priced well below what it would have sold for years earlier when Karen and Scott were diligently paying down debt while giving sacrificially.
Worth the wait
Looking back, Karen acknowledges that she didn't always want to tithe, especially as she thought about how much more quickly they could have been paying off their debt. However, she realizes now that had they been putting their tithe money toward their debts, they would have gotten out of debt right at the start of the recession. If they had bought a house then, they might owe more on it today than it's worth.
But the blessings didn't end there. Along with dreaming of one day owning a Victorian home, Karen hoped they could eventually buy a Victorian piano. On the day they closed on their home, they met a neighbor who had just such a piano for sale. However, instead of selling it to Karen and Scott, she insisted on giving it to them, even arranging to have it waiting for them inside their home on the day they moved in.
"We got our cool story, after all," Karen said, "and then some."
Matt Bell is managing editor at Sound Mind Investing, publisher of America's best-selling investment newsletter written from a biblical perspective. Through its newsletter, website, and the small-group study http://multiplystudy.com/ >"Multiply," SMI helps people manage money effectively so they can truly live well and give generously.