Have you ever noticed how often personal finance advice is about what not to do? Many are the stories about our lack of savings, high debt loads, and short-term thinking. We are constantly warned that we shouldn't spend so much, shouldn't take on so much debt, and shouldn't focus on today with no regard for tomorrow. "Stop, stop, stop" is what the advice boils down to. It isn't very inspiring, and it isn't very productive.

This reality was driven home when I read about the well-intentioned efforts of a university career counselor. Disturbed at seeing so many students spending so much money on coffee, she took one of the most well-worn bits of personal finance "stop" advice to the next level, helping to create an online calculator called "Stop Buying Expensive Coffee and Save" (http://www.hughchou.org/calc/coffee.cgi). The calculator compares the impact of buying pricey coffee shop coffee vs. making your own. 

Has the calculator shuttered all the coffee shops in town?  Have student finances suddenly taken a turn for the better?  Not exactly.  In fact, the counselor acknowledged that "no one pays attention."

It isn't that her calculator is difficult to use or that her assumptions are off base.  Little things, like that daily decaf tall non-fat cappuccino habit, certainly do add up.  The problem is that "stop" doesn't move the needle on the motivation meter.

Marketers don't take a "stop" approach. Their's is a "go" world in which we're encouraged to go for the promised pleasures of that new car, coat, or cup of coffee. 

But marketers don't have the exclusive rights to "go." It's available to us as well, and it can be used very powerfully in motivating ourselves toward wise, God-honoring money management.

When I teach workshops I always ask participants how many are excited about the idea of using a budget.  On a good day as many as two or three hands go up.  Mostly, people slouch a bit lower in their chairs at the mere mention of the word.  The corners of their mouths turn downward.  Eyes stare blankly ahead.

When I ask what comes to mind when they think of a budget, the most frequent responses are "restricting," "constraining," and "inhibiting."  In other words, a budget is perceived as being all about "stop."  

I do my best to convince people that a budget is not about obsessive frugality where you try to spend the absolute minimum in every spending category.  It's not about less; It's actually about more - having more knowledge about where our money is going, so we can be more effective in our spending, so we can say "yes" to the things that really matter.  I can't say people immediately jump to their feet after my budget stump speech and beg me to teach them how to use one, but a noticeable number do sit up straighter; a few even begin to lean forward in their chairs.

And when we go further with the idea of using money for what really matters, that's when the mood really starts to improve.  No one wakes up in the morning motivated to put together a budget.  But lots of people would like to live with a greater sense of financial freedom, and a budget is a great means to that great end.

What do you feel called to "go" for in the New Year? What financial goals has God put on your heart?  Want to get out of debt?  That's a great goal.  Just be sure to consider what the goal is really about.  Is it to improve an important relationship that's been strained by all those bills?  Is it to follow a new vocational path?  Now those goals will motivate you to do what it takes to get out of debt.

Sure, you probably will need to spend less in some areas in order to get out of debt, but keeping the reason for the goal in mind and then using a budget, or as I prefer, a "cash flow plan," will give you the best possible chance of accomplishing your goal.  You'll be motivated to find inexpensive entertainment options.  You might organize a clothing swap in order to get some new clothing for free. 

Such choices are not about suffering or deprivation.  They're about creatively moving toward a better life.  And the occasional double-shot vanilla latte?  That becomes a very justifiable, relatively inexpensive reward.

December 25. 2009


If you'd like some help learning how to put together a cash flow plan for 2010, I'm leading a free webinar on that topic on January 19th at noon central time.  Click here (http://bit.ly/7TRyoG) to sign up.


Matt Bell teaches his "Managing Money by the Book" and other workshops at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  He is the author of "Money, Purpose, Joy" (September 2008) and "Money Strategies for Tough Times" (April 2009), both published by NavPress.  To learn more about his work, visit his web site at www.mattaboutmoney.com.