Monday, April 28, 2008

Living Lite

This title probably sounds like I'm proposing the latest new diet. Lord knows, we, as Americans NEED to do something about the girth we have been acquiring at an alarming pace. I just bought a new digital scale the other day, and while my actual weight it registers doesn't particularly concern me, its readout of my "percent body fat" does. I was surprised to see that I fall in the "high" side of the scale for a man my age, especially considering I lift weights and use weight training equipment two days a week at my local gym. Now, thanks to this marvel of modern weight science--my fancy digital scale--I've set a goal of losing ten pounds over the next year. Yes, I did say YEAR. My lovely wife--a registered, licensed dietitian with a certificate in adult weight loss management--suggests that weight lost more slowly is weight that will probably be easier to KEEP off. And while she says that my goal is pretty wimpy, I figure it should be easy to accomplish, and the adjustments in my eating habits necessary to make it happen should be simple to maintain. Ten pounds should do it, right? Only the scale knows...

This post is NOT about losing weight, however. What I want to suggest by the "Living Lite" title is that we westernized Americans would do well to live more SIMPLE, less stressful lives. We would be healthier for it, and less in debt. In listening to NPR the other day, I heard that we used to save about 11% of our income, as Americans. Now that is down to a little over 1%, and in 2007, our national savings rate actually ventured into the NEGATIVE numbers, meaning we corporately lived on MORE than we earned. Is it any wonder that people are losing their houses in the mortgage crisis or that our credit card debt has us tied up in knots? My friends, stress on the job is enough; why are we so bent on piling it on higher through our own actions and lifestyles?

Do you really NEED that big-screen TV? What about that $35,000 SUV? With the price of gasoline heading for the stratosphere, are we wise to drive gas guzzlers as some sort of status symbol? Our penchant for spending more than we can afford is what put us into the credit crisis that threatens to undo our whole economy in the first place. Unfortunately, our "feeding frenzy" led greedy banks, loan companies, and credit card issuers to offer "free credit" and mortgages far beyond our ability to pay. Many people I know are just one more bill from financial ruin, and some are already there. There is an answer: LIVE MORE SIMPLY!

My wife and I are seeking to do just that. We have less debt than the "average" American at this point, but it is still a lot for us, given that both of us work in human service jobs (she is a dietitian and I am a minister). We also put two kids through college, and are "stuck" with paying a few loans for a person we helped by co-signing for her, something I would not suggest you do, given my $11,000 lesson. Anyway, we are beginning to give prospective purchases and costly activities the "do we really need it?" test. You would be surprised how many things do NOT get bought after asking this simple question. I'm wearing my suits longer, we're buying things at second hand shops and rummage sales, and we NEVER buy hard goods that are not on sale, period. We are paying CASH for what we buy, and have been using almost every dime of my wife's paycheck--after our 10% benevolent giving--to pay down credit card debts. It is working. Lord willing, by the end of 2008, we will be OUT of credit card debt, and will have paid off two other loans. Each dollar freed up by the "pay offs," are immediately being applied to other debts, so the ability to pay each off more quickly is beginning to cascade in our favor.

I'm telling you, living more simply has more than just financial rewards. We have less STUFF to worry about, and are doing more things together with the money we do spend. Our future financial goals--after the majority of our debts are paid off--are simple. Here they are:

1. Save more money for retirement. We--and that is a corporate, American "we"--can't count on Social Security. Even the little report the Social Security folk sends us yearly has the disclaimer, "unless Congress changes the law, these benefits will not be paid at this projected rate..." I'm fortunate to have a decent pension, but even that may not be enough to do some of the simple things we want to do, like be able to travel to visit our children, especially with the cost of fuel.

2. GIVE MORE. I heard someone say recently that we should "live more simply, that others may simply live." I want to be a generous soul. My wife and I have been giving 10% of our income to our local church and to mission projects of our denomination forever. We give beyond the 10% to our colleges, to my seminary, and to our children's college. I want to do more. By getting out of debt, and living more simply, I want to give more to local charities, such as our food warehouse, that supplies local food pantries. I want to put money in "micro credit" programs in developing nations whereby folk can "borrow" money to create businesses and farms to care for their families. (Do a Google search on "micro credit" to read about this exciting way to help the world--you can actually "invest" in this, with a return on your money!) Giving is a really EXCITING thing to do, friends. It will change your life, and your gifts may change the lives of others! I heard a Hall of Fame quarterback giving the graduation speach at his alma mater. In his address, he suggested the student should "give back" to the community, but he said they didn't have to give money, but could just volunteer. His aim was admirable, but he missed the boat on the money thing. The world needs volunteers, but it needs FUNDS as well.

3. Have funds to enjoy simple pleasures such as dining out, going to the symphony, or traveling without incurring debt.

If you are reading this, and it sounds like a pipe dream, let me assure you, it is NOT. Start NOW to live more simply, reduce your debt, and redirect your financial futures. Set goals for yourself. This stuff will not happen by itself.

Well, "Living Lite" has turned into a term paper, hasn't it? Sorry for the length, but this stuff is fast becoming my life message--especially point 2 on giving. If EVERY American were to give 10% of his or her income to benevolent causes--church, charity, education, preserving the environment--you pick, we could change the world. Somebody's got to do it, or it won't be around for our grandchildren. Shalom for now.

What's Next?

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