Post Author: Sarah Ross
I’ve never been much good at the whole New Year’s Resolution thing. It seems that for most of my adult life, every January I’ve made a half-hearted pledge to lose a bajillion pounds and clean up my house so it looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. And every December, I have the same pudgy thighs and a home that could be featured in Clutter and Dog Hair Quarterly.
A year ago, as 2015 began, I decided to try something a little different. I decided to make myself a budget.
I’d never had a lot of interest in budgeting. I didn’t have a particular problem with money—no credit card debt or out-of-control spending. I tend toward miserly frugality more than reckless spending—certain threadbare clothes in my closet can testify to that—so I assumed I didn’t really need a budget. Budgets are for people who overdraw their checking accounts. That wasn’t me. Or budgets are for married couples figuring out how to integrate their finances. That wasn’t me either. As a single person, all my money is mine. A budget would just restrict my freedom to do what I want with it. Or so I thought.
As I started a new call in the beginning of 2015, though, I wanted to keep better track of my moving expenses, professional reimbursements, and I needed a way to make sure that the last paycheck from the church I was leaving would stretch enough to cover me until the first paycheck from the new church came in. A couple of pastor friends recommended software called “You Need a Budget,” commonly known as YNAB. I decided to try it out.
Part of my struggle with budgeting in the past had been that I don’t really like being told what to do. As a single adult and a solo pastor, I’ve gotten pretty used to running the show. As Beyoncé says, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” so any system that tells me I have to put 30% of income toward housing, 15% toward savings, etc., is not going to work for me. YNAB was different in that it simply told me to “Give every dollar a job.” I got to decide what those jobs were and name my own categories, so I had some fun. I made a “Treat Yo Self” category for fun money in honor of my very favorite TV show, Parks and Recreation. I called my emergency savings “The Banana Stand,” because as every fan of Arrested Development knows, “There’s always money in the banana stand.”
So much of my work as a pastor lacks any kind of measurable outcome—it’s not easily quantified. I can count the number of people in the pews, but that’s not a true measure of successful ministry. It’s impossible to measure how much comfort I brought to a grieving family at a funeral. There’s no metric to determine how effectively I proclaimed the Word in my sermon this month, or how non-anxious my presence was at a conflicted meeting. With budgeting, though, the results were easy to measure. I could see concrete progress toward my goals each month as I saved and paid down debt. I felt like yelling “Ta-da!” when I clicked “submit” on the last payment of my car loan.
Money is an uncomfortable topic for most people, including pastors. Most clergy folks I know can discuss weighty topics like death or sexuality with grace and confidence, but will stammer and blush when finances come up in conversation. Yet Jesus spoke about money frequently, and financial struggles and confusion affect many people in our congregations and communities. We know we ought to preach a stewardship sermon every once in a while, but many of us don’t really know how to be good stewards of our own resources.
I consider this budgeting stuff to be a high level of adult achievement, one that I’m still working on fully unlocking. I’m certainly not an accountant or a financial advisor. But in the last year, I’ve gone from having no real idea where my money was going to making intentional financial choices and working toward concrete goals for my life. For me, this intentionality leads to greater faithfulness as I set priorities that reflect my faith. I have saved a lot this year, but I’ve also given more away than ever before. I thought a budget would be boring and confining, but it has actually freed and empowered me to live more authentically as the person God has called me to be.
This process has also enabled me to live with less anxiety. December is an expensive month for most of us, as we hurry around buying Christmas gifts and extra groceries for holiday goodies. Within the first two weeks of December, my dog needed veterinary care and my mechanic informed me that the car needed new tires. In previous years, these unexpected expenses in an already-stretched month would have sent me into a panic attack. This year, though, I sighed a sigh of relief, knowing that there was money in the “banana stand.” God didn’t provide for my needs with some flashy last-minute miracle, but God provided for my needs over the months that went before, slowly and steadily.
As a new year begins, I’m excited to see the fruits of this past year’s labors develop. I’ve spent a year squirreling away every spare penny into my down payment fund so that in the coming months, I can buy my very first house. I just can’t make any promises about the clutter and dog hair once I move in.
Sarah Ross is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serves as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Adrian, Michigan. She is currently serving on the board of The Young Clergy Women Project. Sarah lives in Adrian with her odd but lovable rescue dog, Molly.
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