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.

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

Payment Calculator Link

payment-calcThe two most common financial questions students have are “How much will my income be once I graduate?” AND “What will the payments be on my student loans?“.

We’ve looked at different income questions before (here, here, here, here), and we’ve looked at some of the payment questions (like is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) a good option?), but as a regular reminder you can go to this link and run your future payments for yourself:

STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT CALCULATOR

DEBT AS SOCIAL JUSTICE

words on justice.jpg Articles like this make me angry when they use a college education as the “carrot on a stick” that makes student loans a good thing:

“Student loan debt is also an investment in your future. Simply put, you will be more employable and earn more with a college degree.”

I believe this is a straw man. The argument for or against a college degree is irrelevant to the structural problems that student debt brings. I believe that student loan debt is a social problem, a social justice problem even, because it is most egregiously harmful to very specific segments of our society.

  • 1 out of 3 student loan borrowers don’t graduate. This immediate invalidates the ‘college is worth the debt’ argument. If as many as a third of borrowers aren’t graduating, they are stuck with debt they can’t get out of and no increased earning potential. There is myriad of reasons they might not be graduating, including being poorly trained for college, health, financial, family instability, substance abuse (yo Madison!), and more. More on that here.
  • If I default, the government will withhold low-income benefits. Because the government is the debt collector, if I default on my student loan debt the government will withhold my tax returns (including Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security benefits). These social safety nets aren’t a big deal if I’m wealthy, but it’s devastating if I’m poor. Between the socio-economic classes (rich and poor), who is more likely to default?
  • The highly indebted are borrowing even more. We’ve discussed before that there is a bifurcation of healthy borrowers and unhealthy borrowers. The healthy borrowers borrowing is remaining level, but the unhealthy borrowers are borrowing even more than before. Some estimates put these borrowers at around 17% of all borrowers. In my experience, this sounds about right. We know that if you are female, of color, or an older student you are significantly more likely to be a highly indebted borrower.
  • Borrowing to make an “Investment” is extremely dangerous. Quoting a 15% financial rate of return is just lying if it doesn’t take into account borrowers who don’t graduate and the higher interest rates and fees on defaulted student loans. If you can’t bankrupt out of a ‘bad investment’, it can cause decades of pain for defaulted borrowers. High returns don’t mitigate risk. This is why the lottery is a bad investment. A potential 15% ROI doesn’t offset the inherent risks of student loan borrowing.

So to summarize, “it’s okay to have student loan debt!” as long as you’re intelligent (with an aptitude for intellectual studies, healthy family structures, and safety nets that allow you to graduate), are not poor, and are not a woman or minority.

There are a variety of potential improvements that could be made on the legislative level (realistic hard cap on borrowing, lower interest rates, larger Pell grants, allowing bankruptcy), but these are out of our ability to change right now.

Instead, let’s focus on personal behaviors I can change RIGHT NOW to reduce my risk of being a statistic. These include borrowing as little as possible, fully understanding my current situation and risks, and building healthy personal financial habits.

Debt Reduces Academic Performance

Scrabble LoanDaniel Pink  pointed to this research paper which suggests:

Those paying for college with loans perform significantly worse than students receiving other forms of aid.

Why is this? It may be because of increased financial pressures, or stress about the future, perhaps debt is a trailing indicator of some other instability, or it may be caused by many factors.

We don’t need to know the ‘why’ to understand that if we’re headed toward large volumes of debt we need to pump the breaks and really calculate if it is worth it. As educational institutions, we need to dig deeper to provide alternatives to debt.

Debt and risk taking – article reflection

AtlanticDoes debt influence risk taking? In this article on Millennial entrepreneurs, that is one of the propositions:

The answer begins with more debt and less risk-taking. The number of student borrowers rose 89 percent between 2004 and 2014, as Lettieri said in his testimony. During that time, the average debt held by student borrowers grew by 77 percent. Even when student debt is bearable, it can still shape a life, nudging young people toward jobs that guarantee a steady salary. Entrepreneurship, however, is a perilous undertaking that doesn’t offer such stability. There is also some evidence that young people’s appetite for risk-taking has declined at the same time that their student debt has grown. More than 40 percent of 25-to-34-year old Americans said a fear of failure kept them from starting a company in 2014; it 2001, just 24 percent said so.

Assuming that hypothesis is true, what risks are required for those going into Occupation Ministry?

Are church planters inherent risk takers? Does a candidate need a willingness to relocate? Do financial constrains restrict a pastors ability to start with a small congregation? Are church staff less likely to stand up to improprieties in leadership if they are financially stressed?

“I ruined my life”

Lives on Hold“Step by step, one law after another has been enacted by Congress to make student debt the worst kind of debt for Americans”

One of the things I informally track is overall attitudes toward borrowing, student loans, and higher education debt. I think this is important, because if there is a ‘bubble’ and the landscape of higher education (and paying for that education) dramatically changes, one of the major reasons will be because of a very public backlash.

We may not have a full fire, but there is a lot of smoke around this subject. The latest example:

http://www.consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis/lives-on-hold/

That article puts some of the blame on the private collection agencies, but I don’t think that is a real problem or a real solution.

Larry Burkett used to say ‘Debt isn’t a problem, its a symptom of a problem’. Collection agencies aren’t the problem, but a symptom of a larger institutional problem.

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.

Article

Here is a long article published last week in the Boston Globe:Capture

LINK: The College Debt Crisis is Even Worse Than You Think.

 

It raises a lot of tough questions about the role college plays in escaping poverty. It’s a tough subject. I’m speaking tomorrow to 25 students on the risks minority students face when taking out student loan debt. In my talk I highlight ‘Layers of Risk‘, including the graph you see here. When you combine layers of risk, the stakes change. For example in the graph, you’re slightly more financially healthy as a black male then a white female – primarily because of the Gender Pay Gap. But when you add an additional layer of risk – being a black female, the numbers jump. Add additional layers of risk like being born into poverty and the numbers jump further.

Email me with thoughts or questions.