Emotional reaction to financial risk

Recently while driving I glanced back in the rear-view mirror to see the familiar sight of a police car merging behind me in traffic. Police rearviewEven though I was pretty sure I was breaking the speed limit by the socially acceptable amount, my heart still raced.

Why does that happen? Why does our “fight or flight” kick in at the prospect of a very affordable traffic ticket?

The bigger question: Why doesn’t our heart race the same way when faced with a financial risk over 100x greater – taking out a car loan or $40k in student loan debt?

The short answer is that we are very poorly designed to properly calculate risk.

FOQ: I want to serve in a low paying, justice based career. How much debt is ok?

10-28-15Reviewing the finances of hundreds of folks over the years I’ve developed a little rule of thumb or suggested guideline that you might find helpful:

Keep your total accumulated student loan debt below the anticipated annual income of your first job out of school.

So for example, if you anticipate getting a job as a youth pastor out of seminary, keep your total debt (between undergrad and grad school) under $35,000.
The larger your debt, the larger the compound interest working against you – it’s like the snowball effect except its rolling toward you not away from you.

Why do I like this? It scales – there should be different levels of acceptable debt risk based on your projected income. It’s easy to remember. It isn’t as draconian as ‘no debt ever’ feels to those who have already borrowed. It is attainable. If you’ve already or are anticipating borrowing more than that, you need to know that’s a big red flag.

This doesn’t mean getting debt free will be easy – you’re going to have to make dramatic sacrifices to get out of the way of that snowball rolling toward you. But your percentages of winning are much higher.

WAIT UNTIL I’M DEBT FREE?

debt-freeOne question I hear regularly: Should I wait to do X until I’ve paid off this debt?

Dave Ramsey has weighed in on this on a number of occasions. His answer: When it comes to getting married or having kids, generally there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ time. These life changes are more important than your financial goals, so they move up the priority ladder of your life. Here are two examples of his advice on that:

http://www.daveramsey.com/index.cfm?event=askdave/&intContentItemId=120070

http://www.daveramsey.com/index.cfm?event=askdave/&intContentItemId=128732

I consider this an extension of Jesus parable of serving God OR money. You can’t serve both. Getting married or having children is in a very real sense “laying down your life” – it is the life of a servant that Jesus calls all his followers toward. Your personal financial goals aren’t as important as the life of your future child.

For that reason I advise continuing to pursue financial objectives while life changes happen.

The other context for this question usually involves a large purchase.

“Should I pay off all my debt (or car, or student loans) before buying a house?”

That’s a very different question. That question is a disguise for “Can I increase my lifestyle?” Ramsey has a pretty strong opinion on this one: Pay it all off first. Examples of that:

http://www.daveramsey.com/index.cfm?event=askdave/&intContentItemId=8340

http://www.daveramsey.com/blog/make-it-happen-dream-house

http://www.daveramsey.com/davesays/column/column/dave_says_2012-05-22/

Dave Ramsey isn’t alone in this opinion. In America we are experts at creating necessities from what are truly lifestyle upgrades. I have really heard sensible people in my social circle use the following:

“I need a safe reliable car for my new child.”

“We need a 4th bedroom – our family just doesn’t fit in this house anymore.”

“We needed to be in this school district for our kids.”

“I need this (gigantic gas sucking manhood ensuring) truck for work.”

There are unlimited varieties of these statements, but if you’ve traveled anywhere outside the USA you know this is crap. Millions of people live without these silly luxuries every day. It really is justification of the lifestyle choices we want to make.

If you want a bigger house in a different school district with a nicer car in the garage – I encourage you to go for it. It isn’t immoral to own these things. But there is an appropriate time to acquire them: When you can afford to pay for them.

Going back to our original question: Should I wait to do X until we’ve paid off this debt?

It may be helpful to think through your scenario with the following question: Does this decision demonstrate my servant-hood toward myself/you/us? “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant.”

Serious Issues require serious solutions

Hot DogsThis might be the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said, but….I had a dream last night about how we’re teaching personal finance. Aside from how Ridiculous that is, I woke up with a very clear impression. Here is the dream and impression:

I had a dream about a prep-style rally encouraging students to save money and knock out debt. It culminated with a white middle age lady in a pant suit going into a freestyle rap on the importance of fiscal prudence.

I’m sure that scene bubbled up from the recesses of my subconscious as a result of this article I read a couple weeks ago in which Indiana University representatives will at random times jump on a bus (painted with a caricature of a pig swinging on a wrecking ball a la Miley Cyrus) and hand out gift cards as rewards for correct answers to personal finance questions.

Here is (in my opinion) the problem with the strategy that Indiana University’s and other institutions who try to address financial issues with frivolity and merriment. Financial issues aren’t a light matter. While we can use humor to bring humanity to serious matters, the solutions aren’t any lighter than the core issues. This is my favorite clip of 2015. A hot dog eating contest is the perfect stage for outrageousness, but I fear that if you try to draw people into a heavy issue with a light hearted entree, they won’t stick.

I understand this makes me sound incredibly boring and old – believe me when I tell you nobody loves irreverent humor more than I do. But from my experience working in financial services for 15 years: You want your financial planner to take your money seriously. Your Realtor can wear flip flops (looking at houses is fun), but you want your mortgage banker to wear a blazer. I want my CPA to be so introverted he gets nervous looking at my shoes when we talk.

We respect ourselves more when we make respectable decisions. I want to be the type of person who takes my financial future seriously. Serious problems require serious solutions.

15 Risks and Understanding Layers of Risk

ball-and-chainA couple recently came to me to seek financial counseling, and as I met with them I struggled in the moment to properly communicate the financial risks they were encountering. Dave Ramsey has a saying: Personal Finance is 80% Personal and 20% Finance. What he’s communicating is that this thing called LIFE isn’t a math equation or a formula – it’s a very personal journey.

This couple had taken on an enormous amount of risk, but they didn’t see it because unlike one large risk (50k in credit card debt for example) they had layered lots of smaller risks on top of one another.

Our brain is really ill-equipped to understand risk at all, much less how lots of different risks interact with each other. One of the main points author Michael Lewis made in his book “The Big Short” was that Wall Street investment banks – who’s only job was to understand and mitigate risk- didn’t understand how all their risks layered onto each other.

We’ve developed a lot of tools to help us mitigate risk in the 20% ‘math/finance’ portion of “Personal Finance”, but there isn’t a lot of understanding and tools around the 80% ‘personal’ side.

What is personal risk?

We understand from Jesus parable of the talents that we can’t go through life without taking any risks. Taking no risks in life is actually cowardly and a big risk in itself. We take both eternal and temporal risks – a great teacher once told me that we take risks in the direction of our hope.

Financially, we also take a lot of risks, calculated on a hoped for return. We put money in the markets with the hope of it returning to meet a future need. We also are born into and voluntarily take on a variety of financial risks. The couple I counseled had six of these risks at the same time. To help us understand this idea I’ve compiled an incomplete list here:

BIG RISKS:

These are risks of which any singular one of them can make life very challenging.

  1. Lower income: A lifetime of low income (as much of the 3rd world faces) makes meeting life needs very difficult.
  2. Debt: The Bible warns about debt being bondage – and “It was for freedom that Christ set us free”.
  3. Lower education: Wisdom is knowledge rightly applied. Without knowledge, there it’s hard to succeed in life.
  4. Substance abuses:
    1. Gambling
    2. Alcohol and drugs
    3. Pornography
  5. Dumb Friends: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”

LIFE HAPPENS:

These are risks (often by no choice of our own) that we encounter that add a layer of complexity to our financial picture.

  1. Having children very young: See the statistics on teen moms
  2. Being a Minority
  3. Come from a poor/broken family

These circumstances all permanently change our worldviews and relationships with money.

ATTITUDES

There are also a variety of ‘mindsets’, worldviews, or attitudes that can have a dramatic effect on our ability to navigate life’s financial complexities.

  1. ‘Love of money’: Paul warned “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
  2. Dreamer, serial entrepreneur: There are a lot of unemployed musicians, screenwriters and artists of all kinds that are waiting ‘to be discovered’. Success virtually never happens this way. If you’re wired this way, there are a number of amazing books like “The War of Art” that detail the path from dreaming to working.
  3. Aversion to Authority: This is me. If you have a strong aversion to authority, it is very difficult to have a boss, work inside a team, and generally succeed in most forms of employment.
  4. Materialism/Spending: Thomas Stanley’s life work (Stop Acting Rich, Millionaire Next Door) was dedicated to proving through statistics that the average millionaire didn’t care about material status symbols and instead focused on Needs versus Wants. In fact, he pointed out, a high status symbol job (doctors or attorney for example) was actually a hindrance toward long term financial success.
  5. Entitlement: Thinking the world owes you anything is a wonderful way to be disappointed the rest of your life.
  6. Being Lazy: Proverbs 10:4 “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.”
  7. Assuming on the future: Jesus told a parable about someone that grew rich and assumed on the future. Paul and Solomon warned against it. The reality is we don’t know our future health, the political or economic conditions that the future holds.

It’s important to note that none of these fifteen risks are a death knell in and of themselves. They are all addressable through well documented strategies. The point of this article is that we often layer several of these risks on top of each other and we don’t have any clue about the combined risk they play together. In fact, ‘layers’ gives the image that they add up one by one. Risk’s actually multiply together.

Skye Jethani on CALLING

skyeA biblical theology of work is critical to understand why you’re going into ministry vs the work place. One of the most important perspectives I’ve read on this is Skye Jethani’s explanation of a Christian’s three callings. You can find all his writings here:

www.skyejethani.com

and this particular post here:

http://skyejethani.com/calling-all-christians/

I’ve re-posted it fully here because of it’s relevance and importance. Enjoy:

For years I served as a teaching pastor at my church, but then left the pastoral team to pursue a calling outside the institutional church. For the first time since graduating from seminary, I found myself in the pews more often than in the pulpit. It changed my perspective. Working as a writer and editor, traveling more often, and juggling a young family left very little discretionary time in my schedule. There was simply no way I could participate in everything the church was asking me to do while also fulfilling the calling God had given me to pursue outside the church.

Within a few months, I understood how most of my congregation felt. And I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world.

I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the “sacred” calling of the church was pitted against their “secular” callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.

Later I was invited to preach again. This time my message included an apology for my failure to understand the value of their work outside the church. The sermon was met with shouts of “Amen!”—not a common occurrence in our predominantly Anglo suburban congregation. Why did it take me so long to see my error, and why did I have to leave pastoral ministry to recognize it? Part of the problem is history.

Centuries ago the word vocation, meaning literally “a calling,” applied only to bishops, priests, and monks—those occupying offices within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was believed that the clergy had been called by God. They alone had a vocation while everyone else merely worked.

The idea dates back to Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century. He wrote that Christ had established two ways of life, the “perfect life” and the “permitted life.” The perfect life was the one God called the clergy to—a life of prayer, worship, and service to Christ through the church. Other occupations, while necessary, carried less dignity. The labor of farmers, artists, merchants, and homemakers was not evil, but neither was it blessed, nor were these roles callings from God. After all, they were concerned with the things of earth, while the clergy were occupied with the things of heaven.

This hierarchy of labor went largely unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation. Leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin called Christians back to the authority of Scripture, and there they found no justification for the exaltation of the clergy or the abasement of other labor. They read in the New Testament that everyone should work and do “something with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28). This was more than a rebuke of laziness; it was an affirmation of work, including physical labor, as a way of blessing others and manifesting Christian love. The Reformers also recognized that worship of God was not limited to one’s time in a cathedral. God received glory in the ordinary activities of life, including work.

Luther wrote: “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”

With this recalibration of the doctrine of vocation, many came to view their labor differently, not as menial labor to be endured but as a God-ordained calling to be pursued with religious zeal. It resulted in a new devotion to work that historians refer to as “the Protestant work ethic,” and it was coupled with a vision that Christ was actively engaged in every part of the world—not just the church.

This new understanding meant things suddenly mattered that the church had long ago abandoned. Commerce, agriculture, government, and the home became honored and even holy arenas in which to serve God. And a person determined where to serve the same way clergy did—by listening for Christ’s call upon his life.

Later the Puritans gave added nuance and dimension to this theology of vocation. There are three levels of calling:

First, a Christian’s highest calling is to abide in communion with Christ.

Second, all Christians also share a set of common callings. These are the many commands of Scripture that apply to all of God’s children in every time and place. These include instructions to love one another, pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who wrong you, give to those in need, honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not covet, do not commit adultery, be prepared to share about your hope in Christ, and hundreds of other commands.

Third, each Christian will also have a specific calling that God directs him or her to accomplish.

The second level, our common callings, are what most churches focus upon today. The reason is simple—common callings are easy to discover. One simply opens the Bible and reads them. Having read Ephesians, Pastor Brian can stand before his congregation on Sunday with divine authority and say, “Husbands, love your wives.” This is the common calling of all married Christians, but Pastor Brian cannot cite chapter and verse to proclaim a specific calling, like, “Sally, go to law school.”

A specific calling, which is what we often mean when we use the word vocation, requires Sally to live in communion with God and discern his call directly. While her specific calling may be blessed and confirmed by members of her community, as Paul and Barnabas experienced in Acts 13, it cannot be discovered without the illuminating role of God’s Spirit in her life.

Herein lies the problem. In many of our Christian communities, we may affirm the Spirit as a doctrinal truth, but the reality of his presence is often ignored.

As a result Christians are not equipped to engage either their highest calling (communion with God), or discern their specific calling (vocation). What remains is the one thing the church can access without the Spirit’s presence—Scripture.

While God-given and certainly good, our common callings as captured in the Bible constitute only one facet of our Christian life, and without the presence of the Spirit, we remain powerless to follow these commands as well.

For this reason if Christians do not grasp their highest calling to live in vibrant, continual communion with God through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, then neither our common nor specific callings can be properly engaged. If we get our highest calling right, however, and welcome the reality of the Spirit into our lives, then in most cases the other dimensions of our calling take care of themselves.

By neglecting the doctrines of our highest and specific callings, the contemporary church has also found itself employing a leadership model that looks more like a corporation in which a centralized organization determines everyone’s role. Drawn by the efficiency and success of corporations, many pastors have been told to think of themselves as CEOs. They articulate a mission, set goals, rally people and resources, and align them all to accomplish a single task.

In this model the senior leader is the individual hearing from God, and the work of the institutional church is what ultimately gets all the attention. Whether a person is a nurse, farmer, architect, or shopkeeper is irrelevant, as long as she or he is supporting the church’s vision with finances and volunteer time. A person’s value, in this model, is determined by how closely she or he aligns with the institutional church’s vision.

Often the mission articulated in this model is rooted in Scripture and part of our common calling, such as the call to “make disciples” or to “serve the least of these.” Who would disagree with the importance of these works?

Still, when these callings are untethered from our highest call (commune with God) or the specific call Christ has given to each of his followers, it can do great damage. When this happens the institutional church’s work soon becomes all-consuming and many Christians develop a suspicion that the church’s leaders really care only about advancing their institution’s agenda. They begin to feel like the church is using them rather than loving them.

Resistance to the sacred/secular divide and to the expectation that one’s first commitment should be to the institutional church is especially evident among the younger adults I have engaged. While earlier generations may have valued the idea of surrendering their lives and fortunes to an institution, the young today do not. In fact, they are increasingly suspicious of large organizations. According to Gallup, forty years ago 68 percent of Americans reported having a strong or high confidence in the church. Today it is down to 44 percent, and among the young it is even lower.

This generation’s lack of response to the institutional church’s call has left many pastors flummoxed. They mistakenly believe it is a matter of style. “If we just change our music, add some candles, and turn up the ‘cool’ factor, more young people will engage,” they assume. Others blame it on immaturity. One pastor asked me, “How do I get a generation that doesn’t believe in commitment to commit to the church?” Maybe the problem is the object of the commitment.

I do not believe the problem is style or immaturity; it is a church that has lost a theology of vocation. We fail to see beyond our common callings to either the believer’s highest call (God) or specific call (vocation).

Younger people today, perhaps more than previous generations, have a strong sense of their specific calling. They believe God has called them into business, the arts, government, the household, education, the media, the social sector, or health care, and they are often very committed to these venues of cultural engagement. But when their specific callings are never acknowledged by the church, and instead only our common callings or the goal of the institutional church is extolled, the young feel like something important is missing.

Rather than embracing the fullness of the Christian life comprising multiple facets—highest, common, and specific callings—the church unknowingly communicates that following Christ is a tension between sacred callings and secular work. Often the message is: “You must sacrifice your specific, secular calling to do more of the sacred work that’s important to the institutional church,” this guilt-laden message is one a young, jaded generation is much less likely to tolerate. It is seen as a self-serving power play by church leaders even if, like me, they never intended it to be. The ancient error of Eusebius is alive and well in the evangelical church today.

Does this mean the institutional church should stop emphasizing our common callings or its evangelistic work? Absolutely not! Rather, it is vital that the church rediscover the God-given dignity of all callings and how they fit together.

It is not the pastor’s task to wrestle more people away from “secular” engagements in order to help him accomplish his “sacred” work, but to erase these categories in the lives of those he leads in order that Christ might come to reign over all parts of their lives and world.

Echoing the Protestant reformers and the Puritans, Dallas Willard recognizes the danger of dividing our work into departments and the destructive illusion it fosters. He says: “There truly is no division between sacred and secular except what we have created. And that is why the division of the legitimate roles and functions of human life into the sacred and secular does incalculable damage to our individual lives and the cause of Christ. Holy people must stop going into ‘church work’ as their natural course of action and take up holy orders in farming, industry, law, education, banking, and journalism with the same zeal previously given to evangelism or to pastoral and missionary work.”

If we are to embrace this united view then we must advance a new vision for Christian engagement in the world, employ a new model of leadership, and create a new spirit of affirmation that values each person’s specific, Christ-given call within our churches.

That is what I set out to accomplish in my upcoming book, Futureville. Stay tuned for more information about the book and how you can get an advanced copy.

From:  SkyeJethani.com

PAYSTUB: $52K A YEAR

READING AND UNDERSTANDING YOUR EARNINGS STATEMENTPAYSTUB ART

In all their survey’s, ATS tells us that students with education debt in seminary have two main questions:

  • What will my future income be?
  • What will my future student loan payments be?

I have been meeting with students for the past month for one-on-one financial counseling and in each meeting we make a point of addressing these two questions before they leave. Recently as I was walking through a future student loan payment and discussing how much this student would be comfortable paying, the student asked: “What will my take home pay be?”

I realized many graduate students haven’t had a full time employment position yet, so it may be helpful to break down what a future paystub might look like.

I connected with payroll and I have a really good example: An earnings statement for a $52k income – $1,000 per week. Obviously your income might be higher or lower, but this is a great introduction to help you understand where all your money actually goes. Let’s walk through this. Here is a full Earnings Statement:

revised original

and another similar statement for comparison with a key attached:

Earnings Statement

In the example we’re using, the employee is making $52,000 a year, or $4,333.34 a month ($52k divided by 12). Each month they receive an actual cash deposit of $3,303.81:

Total Monthly Income for $52k

Total Take Home Income

The difference between their total pay and take home pay is $1,029.53. Where does that money go? Well, its divided on the earnings statement into two different categories: Taxes and Payroll Deductions:

Total deductions from paycheck

Key Abbreviations:

TAXES:

FICA – Federal Insurance Contributions Act

Med – 2.9% of income goes to Medicare – half of which is paid by employer.

SS – Social Security is 12.4% of total income – half of which is paid by employer.

Federal – Federal Income taxes withheld

THIS EXAMPLE:

The employee portion of ½ of the 15.3% of required FICA taxes is $292.86. This employee has no money withheld at all for Federal or State Income taxes. That doesn’t mean they won’t owe any taxes, just that they don’t anticipate having a federal tax liability so they aren’t withholding any taxes throughout the year. If this seems unusual, you may want to consider doing it yourself by changing your W9. Somewhere around 47% of Americans don’t pay any federal income taxes at all, so any ‘refund’ you receive after filing your taxes is really just the return of an interest free loan you gave to the government throughout the year.

PAYROLL DEDUCTIONS:

1EF – Health Insurance Payment

GS – Retirement (401k or 403b)

HSA – Health Savings Account

THIS EXAMPLE:

This employee is saving 5.0% of their income toward retirement. Their employer is matching that 5% dollar for dollar so this is a wise investment (100% return!). Their monthly health insurance is $420 ($5,040 year) and they are setting aside another $100 a month ($1,200 year) in a Health Savings Account. If you are a single person, your health insurance premium will be quite a bit lower (About $100 a month). If you are married and your spouse is on your insurance, it will be a little less expensive (about $280 a month) – this example is for a family coverage. This health insurance premium is for a High Deductible plan, meaning that the employee will cover 100% of their medical expenses for the first $5,000 or so. Obviously health insurance premiums vary between providers and they are also going up at a pretty significant rate – these figures are from last year (2014).

PAYROLL BENEFITS:

This category isn’t pay at all, but rather these are benefits paid by the employer to the employees benefit. Here is what they mean:Benefits Paid by Employer

1EF – Employer portion of Heath Insurance paid

GS – Employer retirement match paid into retirement account

LIEE00 – Life Insurance premium paid by employer

LIE50 – Additional life insurance premium

LTD – Employer paid toward Long Term Disability

STD – Employer paid toward Short Term Disability

A FEW OBSERVATIONS:

  1. Even with no federal OR state income tax withheld you’re only bringing home around 75% of your total income.
  2. Employers pay around 25-30% above and beyond your salary to have you on staff.
  3. Self Employed people are required to pay the additional taxes that your employer pays.
  4. Clergy are allowed to opt out of Social Security if they have moral objections to the system. If you opt out, you are not allowed to opt back in ever so research this option if you’re leaning in that direction.

Hopefully this has been a helpful primer in understanding and reading your current or future paycheck. Please hit me up with questions and I’ll add to this post. Thanks!

Personal Finance Lessons

slideAdam Nash is an active member in Silicon Valley’s tech scene. He has given this presentation to a number of major tech firms – specifically addressing engineers.

While you might be thinking ‘I’m wired as differently as possible from an engineer’, I believe you’ll find great value in this simple walk through personal finance.

One of the most important things to take away: Always understand and remember your personal bias. In other words, know what you don’t know. Nash points out that engineers are at greater risk because they think they are rational but in reality they are not. His talk focuses on these main areas:

  • You Are Not Rational (Behavioral Finance)
  • Liquidity is Undervalued (Emergency Fund)
  • Cash Flow Matters (Spend less than you Earn)
  • The Magic of Compounding (Investment Returns & Debt Disasters)
  • Good Investing is Boring (Asset Allocation)

Nash spends over half the time talking through the first subject – Behavioral Finance. I strongly believe this is the right balance – personal finance theory and strategies are very simple – changing personal behavior is not.

LINK:

http://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance-lessons-adam-nash-2015-5?op=1

HOUSING for Grad Students

Dollar houseFor the majority of human beings, housing is our biggest expense. On the hierarchy of needs, shelter is one of the essentials and where/how we live truly shapes our lives. Unfortunately, for a graduate student living in an inexpensive one bedroom apartment in Denver, rental rates have climbed over $800 a month, or around $10,000 a year.

There are creative ways to reduce this expense, and they can dramatically change your financial future. I’ve put some thought into it – asked around – and gathered some alternatives to traditional housing that can save significant amounts of money.

NON-PROFIT OPTIONS

There are a number of great non-profits around Denver that offer free housing for young adults who are willing to donate some of their time in service. Here are a few that I’m aware of:

  • Open Door Ministries. ODM owns 7 homes that offer long term transitional housing for folks moving toward long term sustainability. There are a couple of options (when open) to live in one of the houses and provide leadership.
  • Providence Network. Similar model to ODM, they offer reduced or no cost housing for leaders willing to lead a home.
  • Young Life. I believe Young Life in the greater Denver area has had several homes donated to them that they use for staff. I believe this is an option for staff only, but it may be worth looking into.
  • Denver Rescue Mission. This organization offers room and board for those willing to donate a set number of hours each week.
  • Downing House. A really cool old property that houses 12 men and 12 women. Residents have to donate hours each week to ministry.

I’m sure that there are other options that are not on my radar – feel free to email those to me (dan.macleay@denverseminary.edu). These can be a fantastic way to both serve and meet your housing needs.

LIVING WITH AN OLDER COUPLE

Many people I know have used a variation of this model with fantastic results. Over and over I hear stories of people – on both sides of the relationship – who were blessed by this arrangement. Here are a couple of variations of this model:

  • Snow Birds. Homeowners may choose to live in a warm climate city for 4-6 months a year. They often pay someone to keep an eye on their house. A graduate student living in their home can be a fantastic blessing to both parties.
  • House Sitting. I know a friend who was able to live rent-free for a full year while her host family moved overseas for a period of time.
  • Empty Nesters. The average square feet of a single family home has grown dramatically over the past 50 years, and most of those homes are owned by families with the children transitioning out of the home. This is a ripe opportunity for ministry in both directions. Mature couples can speak into the lives of younger peoples about their life experiences, and young people bring life, energy, and excitement into a home.
  • There are many opportunities for live-in help with families of all sizes. A seminary student is a fantastic candidate because of their maturity, faith, and season of life.
  • Basement Apartments. Many homes have a ‘mother in-law suite’ or mini apartment. Sometimes these can be rented at a significant discount. I know of several of these that are built into a walkout basement and have their own entrance. Most people forget that living in this type of situation saves money on the other expenses that are attached to housing: Utilities, TV, WIFI, water, decorating, etc.

ROOMMATES

I spent my entire life between leaving home and getting married with roommates. I found this to be a really rewarding season of life. Even if you’re an introvert, living in community is a fantastic way to meet new people, be exposed to new ideas, and develop a support structure. There are a number of ways to meet new roommates, but here are some suggestions:

  • Connect with Incoming Students. About 55% of Denver Seminary students come from outside the Front Range. If you’re moving to Denver, this is a fantastic time to connect with someone similar.
  • This Facebook page Connecting Christian Roommates.
  • Network through your local church.. Your church community is the best context for many of these strategies. Check with a local young adult’s pastor to see if they know other people similar to you with whom you might connect.
  • Alumni Groups. I suggest connecting both with your undergraduate institution and through Denver Seminary’s Alumni These can be great starting points for connecting with a roommate or finding a church home. .
  • Off-campus housing. This web page lists many options for off-campus housing at reasonable rates.

ON CAMPUS

Denver Seminary has just over 90 housing units on campus, and they are priced about 20% under current market rates. You can choose to live with or without roommates. Living on campus is also a fantastic way to save money on transportation (most people’s second largest expense). Here is a link to that info: Denver Seminary Student Housing.

In conclusion, one of the most important things to remember is that this is for a season of life. One seminary graduate I know lived in a small studio apartment above a barn in the Midwest. She and her husband could hear the horses moving around at night, but the owner let them live there for under $100 a month including free WIFI! By living this lifestyle, they saved thousands of dollars over their time in school and now look back on that season of life with great fondness.

Reducing housing expenses will likely require sacrifice – a long commute, a lack of privacy, small square footage, or hours given in service, but remember that these small sacrifices will create great memories. They are only for a season, and your financial rewards will be reaped for decades to come.

RISK

letter blocksUnderstanding financial risk is not a natural human process. When I’m jogging and see a dog running at me or when I see a police officer in the rear view mirror my heart races with a hard wired ‘fight or flight’ reaction to a real physical risk.

Perhaps it’s the abstractness of numbers on a page, but for reasons I don’t fully understand we don’t emotionally register financial risks that are far greater than a speeding ticket.

This point is made well in a story from Peter Drucker:

A year or two ago I attended a university symposium on entrepreneurship at which a number of psychologists spoke. Although their papers disagreed on everything else, they all talked of an “entrepreneurial personality,” which was characterized by a “propensity for risk-taking.”

A well-known and successful innovator and entrepreneur….was then asked to comment. He said: “I find myself baffled by your papers. I think I know as many successful innovators and entrepreneurs as anyone, beginning with myself. I have never come across an ‘entrepreneurial personality.’ The successful ones I know all have, however, one thing-and only one thing- in common: they are not ‘risk-takers.’ They try to define the risks they have to take and to minimize them as much as possible. Otherwise none of us could have succeeded.”

He then adds, “The innovators I know are successful to the extent to which they define risks and confine them”. I’ve seen this with the successful real estate investors I know personally. They will look at a project and before they invest they will try to figure out how many different ways they could get out of the project without losing money. These ‘exit strategies’ define the deal. They truly see, understand, and mitigate the risk better than most. While we would see these as ‘high risk ventures’, if they’ve done as Drucker said – defined and confined the risk- they don’t see them as all that risky.

A major point before we continue: This discussion has nothing to do with the upside or return. Greater return doesn’t mitigate risk. I strongly believe in the value of higher education, specifically my pastoral leader having a seminary education. This is value is unrelated to defining and confining the risks. This article also doesn’t address the cost risk of higher education. Generally I believe it to be a good value, but we are confining the scope of this conversation to just the risk of BORROWING to pay for that education.

When it comes to student loan debt, how do we ‘define the risk’? First, we need to admit that when it comes to seeing risk, we’re lousy. Our brain doesn’t do a good job of predicting what we will have to give up in the future to pay for debt we’re accumulating now. Second, we need to understand the time-value of money. Control of money earned in the future is extremely valuable. In addition, compounding interest makes makes today’s dollars more expensive. Third, student loans offer very limited ‘exit strategies’. Unlike virtually every other type of debt, defaulting and bankruptcy are not options.

So how do we ‘confine’ these risks? Here are a couple of thoughts:

  1. Don’t Borrow at all. Boom, risk confined.
  2. Borrow Less. The risk of borrowed money can be confined by borrowing an amount that is easily repaid. I would look at this primarily as a percentage of future income. It’s not a perfect formula, but in general I recommend TOTAL accumulated student loan balances of less than your first year’s starting salary.
  3. Do I have other ways of paying beside my income? You can confine the risk if you have other options beside your future income to pay the debt. These might include family money, savings, spouse income, other assets (i.e. your home) that could be sold, or other income sources. I strongly recommend selling stuff and earning extra income. These are the cornerstones of debt reduction.
  4. Get done fast. An ‘extra’ year of income can dramatically reduce your debt load moving forward.
  5. Cut your expenses to zero. The more expenses you can eliminate, the lower you reduce your risk. I can’t recommend enough – living with another family, bike instead of owning a car, ‘beans and rice’, no subscriptions to anything (Spotify, etc.), no eating out, limit your electronics purchases, etc. If anyone asks why you’re not going out, just tell them ‘risk mitigation’.
  6. All of the above.

Understanding and confining risk isn’t something that we’re good at doing, but it is a skill that can be learned. My hope is that this article is a first step in changing the way you see and limit financial risks – specifically those around student loan debt.

*Drucker quote from Innovation and Entrepreneurship (p139) quoted in Killing Sacred Cows by Gunderson (p152).