My 600lb Life – 8 financial observations

600lb-lifeMy wife and I fell into a rabbit hole mini-binge watch of TLC’s “My 600lb Life”. Besides being very motivating, the show is a fantastic look into human behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that many financial teachers have used weight loss as a picture of getting our personal finances under control.

As I watched these episodes, I noted a couple observations:

  1. Real change takes two years

The show follows a subject’s story over an extended period of time, generally about 2 years. It’s obviously not easy to lose 300-400lbs, but it’s easy to forget that a huge change can take a long time. For people in large amounts of debt, I’ve also noticed it takes about 2 years to get out of a massive financial hole. This could be discouraging – but I choose to think of it as encouraging. No matter how big your problem, there is a decent chance that two years from now you could have a completely different life.

  1. Surgery doesn’t fix it

The people on the show are there because they’re seeking to get a lap band surgery to help them lose weight. It’s interesting that the doctor doesn’t let them get the surgery unless they lose a significant amount of weight first. He understands that surgery isn’t the solution – the patient has to be willing to change first. The first step is always a change of the heart and mind. It’s helpful to remember that there isn’t any financial fix (more money, better job, lower interest rate, rich uncle) that will ‘fix’ your life. Instead…..

  1. It always starts with a choice

Any big life change will always be initiated by being ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. It’s being ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore’.

  1. Caused by trauma

It’s heartbreaking to hear the back story of the people on this show. Nearly all of them can trace their physical problems back to a major trauma – often being abused (physically, sexually) in some fashion. It seems obvious to this amateur physiologist that there is a direct connection between an event that caused the victim to hate their body and the ensuing weight gain. Finances aren’t always like this, but often we can trace our attitudes and behaviors back to the way we were raised to understand money. Often students I counsel will start our conversation with some version of “My parents weren’t very good with money”.

  1. A million small choices

Nobody gains 400lbs in a day, week, month, or year. Similarly, most of us got into debt over a period of time through a lot of small choices.

  1. This will change your life

Losing 400lbs over 2 years will change your life. The show’s participants are always so grateful to have made the journey. Nobody loses that much weight and says “You know, my life is pretty much the same just with smaller jeans.” When I’ve felt the crushing burden of too much debt, it expands into my mental and spiritual spaces. I’ve found myself thinking about money throughout the day, or trying not to think about it and feeling guilty about ignoring my problems. Getting out of debt will change your life. Once you’re out of debt, your life won’t be “pretty much the same just without any payments”. No, I think you’ll find it affects lots of decisions and emotions that you never considered.

  1. Takes a team

The story of the show isn’t just the main character, it’s always the supporting cast.  There is usually a massive enabler or two that helped the protagonist get to their current state. Once they are ready to change, a team of doctors, nurses, personal trainers, nutritionist, friends, and family all come along side the person and help them toward their goal. Finances are similar – if you can build a team of encouragers around you it is wildly helpful. Here’s some more info on working toward a goal with a team.

  1. A persistent spark of Hope

When things are dark, we need to remember that it will be worth it. In “The Pilgrims Progress”, Christian is helped in his darkest times by his companion Hopeful. When we’re ready to quit, what we really need is Hope. Hope that all the sacrifice will ultimately be worth it. Watching the TV show I’m reminded what Paul taught:

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Conversation with Josh Collier

josh-cI got to know Josh last year when we were stuck at the Pittsburgh airport together. He was kind enough to buy me lunch and I can confirm he pays with cash! He is a graduate of Denver Seminary currently working with Dave Ramsey’s organization teaching financial principles. He is uniquely understanding to the real life financial stress of being a graduate student.

 What years were you at Denver Seminary, what was your focus, and what are you doing now?

My family and I were at Denver Seminary beginning in August of 2007 and graduated in May of 2012. Yes, we were able to cram a two-year degree into five years. As any economist can tell you- this was a booming time in our national economy 🙂 A little backstory, my wife (Christina) and I started with one child and, before moving off-campus in 2013 for a job back in the South, when I graduated we had four children under the age of six. So we went through seminary at a slower pace – at the speed of cash.

I initially was accepted into the counseling program, but at the last minute, I changed to a MA in Leadership and studied leadership with a self-designed emphasis on community development.

Now, I am part of a team of stewardship/church advisors at Ramsey Solutions or better known as Dave Ramsey’s office in Brentwood, TN. Together we serve pastors, church leaders, community developers, and seminarians as they are building and/or remodeling their financial discipleship ministries in their churches/communities.

Draw a connection between personal finances and your ministry training. Why are you doing what you do now?

Personal finances played a large part in “How?” we went through seminary. We went through seminary as we could afford (at the speed of cash) and did not take out any student loans, or any loans for that matter pre/post seminary for living expenses before, during or after seminary… nor did we have to take out any loans for relocation expenses post seminary. Which meant I took classes part-time (a lot of night classes) and worked full-time down in Colorado Springs. We lived on campus in Littleton so that we could literally have a built-in community for my family through our seminary years. During my seminary years I truly embraced a concept that Dr. Larry Lindquist noted at my new student orientation, “Learn from, embrace and take note of the time and experiences spent outside of the class and library as much as the time inside the class and library.” In other words, pay attention and be aware of the experiences and interactions that God orchestrates during your seminary years both inside and outside the structured learning environment.

A big part of “Why?” I am doing what I am doing now is because of our experience of going through seminary debt free without loans and how God surprised and transformed my family and I with His lavish provision which came in many forms- literal hard work, redemptive financial gifts from churches back home, anonymous envelopes of cash on our doorstep, care packages from friends and families, support from our neighbors and peers on and off campus, and lavish support from ministries in the Denver metro area (e.g. Manna ministries, bread drop and food closet at Denver Seminary, odd jobs for my mentors, and support/encouragement from Colorado Community Church, etc.). Through this transformational process known as the “seminary years” we were able to graduate seminary debt free and go when God said, “Go” via a job opening at Ramsey Solutions.

Now at Ramsey Solutions, I have the opportunity and privilege to minster and walk with men and women who are leaders in their community and looking for ways to equip families, marrieds and singles who are struggling or in need of a tune up financially. It still surprises me each day how finances are many times a gateway to how someone is really doing. Billy Graham was spot on when he said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook (or online bank account these days), and I will tell you where their heart is.”

In your personal story, what did you have to do to graduate without a big debt burden?

Decide that going into debt and taking out loans was not an option from the beginning. Again, it is important to note that my personal story turned into a family and community story. When my family and I graduated from seminary it was a team success. Yes, I had to do literally whatever it took to graduate debt free, which many times required me working and traveling a whopping 70-80+ hours for a five-year period… but God was so lavish in His provision of not only work but wages, health, a steady stream of prayers and encouragement from friends and families across the country.

What do you think are the biggest FINANCIAL challenges facing future ministers?

Pride, pride and… pride. Be open and ask for help. We all need help, so put your pride aside, humble yourself and let others know how they can help you- the sooner the better. The world does not need perfect leaders, but humble leaders who can ask, be filled and receive help from God and through His means. My mentor Pastor Brad Strait said it best, when personally I hit a VERY low point midway through seminary, “Joshua, allow others to minister to you. One day, I know this may not be encouraging right now…,” he laughed and continued, “… you will be on the other side of the equation and serving others. So do not forget the struggles, thoughts and challenges you are experiencing right now and use them to better serve others.”

If you could give one piece of advice to a student just starting seminary now, what would that be?

“Slow down and go outside.”  A smile comes to my face as I reflect on my seminary years and the wisdom that was poured into me from one man in particular- the late Dr. Vernon Grounds. I can think of at least three different encounters in the Denver Seminary library in which he would stop by my desk and say, “Son, what’s the rush? Go outside… its beautiful out there. Don’t spend all your time cramped up in this library!”

Or said another way, don’t believe the myth that the pace of the seminary years will slow down once you graduate. I would argue that the pace only increases after you leave, and you need to be intentional NOW about building in times “outside” with friends, families and enemies for that matter… before, during and after your seminary years.

 How is it even possible to go to graduate school without going into debt?

First of all, going to graduate school is a want not a need and is a choice. I literally made a deal with God before going to seminary. I told him, “God, if this is your idea, you are going to have to provide and show me how to make this work financially each semester.” Remember, with God all things are possible, and  this may require one to rethink his or her current way of going through seminary and to evaluate their previous, present and future standard of living. We made a ton of small changes and pivots to live more intentionally and frugally. For example, prior to attending seminary and as a family of three, my wife, daughter and I lived in a 240 sq. ft. apartment. We also worked two jobs and saved up an entire full year before moving out West to begin seminary. Once in school, we took full advantage of bread drops for seminarians, became a one car family, very very rarely ate out, had family style meals with neighbors, refrained from getting a TV and our entertainment was enjoying the great outdoors. Chances are, if your story is like ours it will also require more than just the work of one’s two hands and will involve a community of support, gifts, pep talks from mentors, days of repentance and journaling, telling others “Sorry, I was wrong!”, forgiveness, letters of encouragement and prayers to get you through as well.

Remember, I wish someone would have told us this: It costs money to move to that new job after you graduate. So start saving for moving expenses if your next job requires you to move across the country.

 What word of advice do you have for someone that isn’t good at budgets? How do I start doing a regular budget?

Join the club! Like the Apostle Paul, when it comes to doing a budget, “I am the chief of sinners!” Kind of joking, kind of not, but seriously- it takes practice. My wife Christina and I, when we were first married took 3 months to just get started doing a budget (this is what happens when your marriage consists of two oldest children who are recovering perfectionists). We attended financial seminars, read budgeting books, used online forms and sought out advice from those that we wanted to mimic financially as we grew up together; however, it was not until we went through a Financial Peace University class (that was hosted by our Senior Pastor at our home church in South Carolina) that we actually did and lived on a budget on a consistent regular monthly basis. Are we perfect now, “No!” Some months we do not start until the month is almost halfway over, but we now build grace into our budgeting lives, remind ourselves to push pause, start where you are and face the reality of where you are in the month and what remains.

Make doing a budget simple. I have heard it said that budgeting is like a marathon. As a runner, this is ridiculous –  a marathon only lasts 26.2 miles and is one day. Budgeting is more like an Ultra Race that lasts your entire life! All kidding aside, find a basic budgeting spreadsheet or plan that works for you and your family and KEEP IT SIMPLE.  With time you can add more depth, but first you will need to pace yourself for the many miles of budgeting yet to go. If you really want to make a budget stick and see lasting results, ask for help from a budgeting coach. This needs to be someone who has a track record of helping others, the heart of a teacher AND can help keep you accountable, no matter how much you whine or try to make up an air tight, theological excuse of, “Why?” your situation is different especially as a seminary student (pointing a finger at myself here). As Dave Ramsey is fond of saying about a young, novice baker who is frustrated that his vanilla cake keeps turning out chocolate, “If you are not happy with the results you are getting, change the recipe.”

You can touch base with Josh at joshuathecollier@gmail.com. If your church would like to host a Financial Peace University class, he would also be a good contact for you. Thanks for reading! Sorry for any abuses of the king’s English – this is a transcript of a recorded conversation.

Financial Peace Classes

fpuTen years ago exactly this month, Noelle and I opened the credit card statements from Christmas and realized we owed over $7,000 on those two charge cards. We also owned a condo that wasn’t rented, had a car loan on a sweet Mustang GT convertible, and one more student loan for old times sake.

That week I was playing basketball on a Monday night at Smoky Hill Vineyard church and saw a sign there for a class: Financial Peace University. We had missed week one, but the next night – week two of the class on a Tuesday in January, we were there.

It didn’t happen overnight, but we sold the condo, sold the mustang, lived on “beans and rice”, and paid off all of that within the year.

It isn’t a coincidence that these classes start this time of year. January is a time of new year resolutions and new beginnings. If you’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, now is a great time to push the reset button.

You can find a class at a local church. CLICK HERE FOR LIST OF LOCAL CLASSES.  

Feel free to reach out to me for more on our experiences and what we’ve done in the 10 years since.

Loan Forgiveness and PSLF

Tnythis article surfaced in The New York Times a couple weeks ago:

They Thought They Qualified for Student Loan Forgiveness. Years Later, the Government Changes Its Mind.

I’ve written several times including this long post in September of 2015 that I thought the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was risky and I did not think it was wise to plan on the PSLF program to be your primary loan repayment strategy.

The risk that the government could change the rules at any time was one of the original reasons I wrote that I didn’t like the program. That is exactly what happened to the subjects of that NY Times article and we’ll see how the pending litigation plays out.

There are other alternatives. If you’d like some help working through those then hit me up.

TOOLS

hand-sawI have a friend who works in the construction trade. He confessed that sometimes he puts off or just forgets to make his truck payment for a month or two. He always catches up and pays it back current, it’s just hard to keep track of all of his bills and pay them on time. Now he was worried his low credit score wouldn’t let him expand or buy a house in the future.

I know this friend is really skilled at his job. I also know he is meticulous about cleaning his tools at the end of the day. Why I asked him? Because, he told me, “If you take care of your tools they will take care of you.”

These are the wise words of a skilled craftsman.

The following word picture occurred to me and we talked through it:

One of the many reasons we all work and is to secure our unknown financial future. Good credit is a symptom of someone that takes care of their personal business. I want you to think of your credit as a tool in the toolbox of your financial future. Take care of this tool with the same diligence you bring to your physical tools.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to think and work outside the area of our expertise. If we’re working long hours, in graduate school writing papers into the night, feeding and changing small children, or feeling the weight of ministry demands it can be difficult to remember the importance of the other ‘tools’ in our life.

Our physical body might be our most important tool. We can’t do anything without it. Let’s take care of that tool. Everyday.

Success in life is impossible without healthy relationships – to God and others. Is there some rust building there?

When Noelle and I were really motivated to get out of debt, we spent a few minutes each day thinking and taking a small action. We understood that meeting this financial goal would be a valuable tool that would enable us to be able to do ministry, provide a stable home for our children, and be generous givers.

Take care of your tools and they will take care of you.

Year End – Goal Setting

smart-goalsDo not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; lover her, and she will watch over you.

For several years around this time of year, one of the most important activities I’ve done is set my goals for the upcoming year. This morning I awoke with the following idea:

Wisdom is the intersection of the Intellectual and Spiritual.

It isn’t enough for me to know something. It also isn’t enough for me to just believe it. Wisdom is applying what I intellectually know through an act of my will.

What goals should I set? I have goals in four areas of my life. Those four areas are taken from the following verse:

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

This verse says there were four areas that Jesus himself developed:

1.) Relationship with God

2.) Relationship with other people

3.) Wisdom on how to live well (financial, intellectual, career, etc.)

4.) Physical health

I figure if I can win in those four areas that life will turn out ok. I recommend keeping it very simple. I carry my goals in writing with me all the time. Pull me over sometime if you’d like to see them!

Vampire Problems

draculaWhat kind of problems require faith?

David Brooks has highlighted a problem he calls a Vampire Problem. Say you are thinking about becoming a vampire, but you’re on the fence. The drinking blood, sleeping in a coffin, no playing golf during the day…it’s a tough decision. Adding to the problem, once you become a vampire there isn’t any going back. Brook’s point is that the most important decisions in life, who to marry, when and how many kids to have, what job to take, these types of problems are ‘vampire problems’ – they have two main characteristics:

1.) There isn’t any way to fully know what life will be like if you make that decision.

2.) Once you make the decision, you can’t go back.

These type of problems can’t be solved with logic, knowledge, analytics, research, or education. As the article points out: “’You shouldn’t fool yourself…You have no idea what you are getting into.’” These type of problems require faith.

Following Jesus is certainly this type of problem. He promises that (1.) You’re spiritually dead right now and you can’t know what it’s like to be alive but (2.) you can be alive with a life that’s better than you can ever imagine and once you are alive you won’t ever be the same.

A lot of financial problems are like this as well. There isn’t any way to fully know the outcome of a decision you need to make. Can I afford to have a child right now? If I take this 2nd job, will I have enough time and energy for my friends and family? If I commit to paying off debt will I still be able to have fun? Will this investment pan out? Which of these two jobs should I take? Is it worth it to move to a new city to go to grad school? Should I fix this old car or buy a new one?

The good news is that faith isn’t blind. It’s an action in the direction of my hope. That’s why all my financial (and life) choices need to start with an act of the will. I need to have hope in my heart that I can be debt free and that it will be worth it before I can start taking actions in that direction.

Faith is the action toward the thing I’m hopeful for. What are your financial hopes for 2017? How about 5 years and 10 years from now? Let’s write those down as we head into a new year. Do you hope to be debt free? To pay off your student loans? To have a fully funded emergency fund? To pay for graduate school? To land a specific job? To start a business?

How to Reset your Life

redditThis reddit thread came to my attention yesterday and it is fascinating. If you scan through the original post there are some good comments. In my judgement from reading, research, and exemplified by one person’s experiences on this thread, here is my formula for resetting your financial life:

  • Cut expenses to nothing

Dave Ramsey has said he can tell by the tone of callers voices if they are ready to change. It’s the “sick and tired of being sick and tired”. He calls it “Selling so much stuff the dog thinks its next”. Like the reddit poster, I need to be willing to cut cable, internet, eating out, Netflix, move residences, and anything else that is preventing me from paying off debt and building an emergency fund.

  • Create a plan for more income

There seems to be some direct connection between getting dramatically serious about cutting expenses and creating an income plan. Perhaps not having any entertainment options creates space in my life for more work and time to think about my work. How am I going to create more income? When I take the time to focus my will, my brain starts finding solutions to the problem. Praying is also deeply powerful. Prayer aligns my will with Gods. The Bible says we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The Psalmist says God’s direct favor can be seen by “establishing the work of our hands”.  Pray that God would reveal opportunities for us to “work as unto the Lord”. In my experience the most common way these opportunities are revealed is by working on what is available to me right now. “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

That’s the formula. It may be simple but it isn’t easy. I have a note in my office from Tony Robbins. If you want to change your life:

  • Decide what you want
  • Take MASSIVE action
  • Review results & make course corrections
  • Repeat steps 2 & 3

Two Causes of Poverty

powell-poverty-quoteWhat causes poverty? Thinking about this question can teach us a lot about how to create personal economic mobility. Those are big words for get out of debt, build an emergency fund, save for retirement, and create stability for our children.

In my post-election reading, I came across this long interview (actually made and posted before the election).  The author makes a case that endemic poverty is caused by two main factors:

  • Social Structures That Harm. These are cultural forces that are weighted against the poor and against upward mobility. These aren’t unique to our society, the author of Proverbs 22 points out as a matter of fact that the “The poor are always ruled over by the rich.” In the past I have used the term “Risks” to bring personal awareness to some of these structures. Examples of these cultural forces include redlining neighborhoods, the town factory closing, poor educational systems, payday lenders, having bad parents, and corrupt governments. You might call these “Things that happen to you.”
  • Personal Choices. The interviewee calls this “helping people make better moral choices.” This is the personal responsibility that is required to change your life. Proverbs also address this in a number of says such as “Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time.” Examples of “Things you do to yourself” include substance abuse, not living on a budget, spending on wants vs needs, not deferring gratification, a poor work ethic, and having a negative attitude.

Here are two personal questions to ponder:

Do my thoughts and beliefs lean one way or the other?

One of the points the interview makes is that Liberal leaning folks tend to over-emphasize the social structures and those that bend Conservative tend to over-emphasize the personal responsibility.* This makes me think that you and I probably overemphasize one side or the other in our thinking and beliefs:

Do I think poor people are lazy? Do I believe it’s impossible to get out of debt in today’s society? Do I tell people that there aren’t any good jobs out there? Do I complain about my lack of money while wearing these sick new Jordans? Do I define my employability by the time I was laid off? Do I believe that employer really isn’t looking for someone of my age, sex, or color?

The biases and beliefs I carry will dramatically affect my ability to change my story.

Where is my personal greatest return on investment?

If you are called to change the social structures, I encourage you to go for it. I believe these are evil institutions of oppression and that Jesus was directly addressing these when he said the Kingdom of Heaven is advancing and the “Gates of Hell” won’t prevent good from eventually breaking these down.

However, practically for us today complaining and worrying about these cultural forces isn’t helpful. To personally change, we need to First recognize the cultural forces so I can artfully navigate around those to the best of my ability and Second accept the moral responsibility for that which God has entrusted me, managing my life.

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*Footnote:  An interesting side note on this I heard this week. The fundamental difference between a liberal and conservative world view is the condition of mankind. A liberal worldview leans humanist, meaning that given the right circumstances humans will move toward goodness. A conservative worldview lends itself toward humans in their nature doing the wrong things.

As I understand it, the Biblical worldview is more centric, that humans are created good and to do good (“In the image of God”) but that because we are infected with the virus of sin we will inevitably do what we don’t want to do (Romans 7:15-20).