For the first three years of our marriage my wife and I didn’t have any outstanding credit card debt. Then the crap hit the fan. Between some unnecessary purchases, not making enough money, hospital bills, and a string of car repairs, we amassed ourselves some significant credit card debt.

Over the last two years we’ve been trying to be more conscious of how we spend and how we save. We’re finally starting to show some signs of progress. Of course, our adoption set us back this past year and we’re in the midst of paying that down. But the good news is that this week we finally paid off my outstanding seminary bill and due to the kindness of some friend we made some significant progress on that adoption debt.

I have become convinced that being in debt is not a necessary “part of being American.” At least, it shouldn’t be. I have talked with a number of people who have pretty much resigned themselves to always being the debt. This is too bad. While I think you could argue that in some instances, its unavoidable, its certainly not something we should settle on. In fact, we’ve got to get aggressive after debt! It’s a terrible thing that so many people in the church are strapped financially by debt payments that we can’t give our money away like we really want to.

If you didn’t make any credit card, debt payments each month, how much would you be able to give away to those in need? Kind of depressing isn’t it? Of course, this number should also be motivating! Imagine those you could help and the good you could do if you got serious (or kept on being serious) about paying down your debt?

But how?

For Melanie and I we’ve made progress but we’ve not done it alone. We’ve actually been meeting with two friends (another married couple in our church) for the past year. They’ve been holding us accountable in our finances and we’ve been doing the same for them. The problem with most accountability however is that its easy to lie and keep things back. This is always tempting. Especially with your finances, its really hard to be fully transparent. Not only is it hard to admit when you don’t spend your money well, but its just hard to keep track of and show someone else.

Opening your checkbook

I am a big, big fan of opening your checkbook to someone you trust. I mean literally. This means that they would have full access to every penny you spend. I’m convinced that one of the greatest lies that our culture teaches us is that money is a totally private matter that is between me and God. Jesus didn’t talk about money that way. For something that can be so threatening to the Christian faith, we need to be intentionally counter-cultural and “open our checkbook” to someone that we trust and give them the freedom to speak into this area of our lives.

Enter Mint.

Mint is a described as “fresh, intelligent online money management.” Basically, you pull all your accounts (including credit cards!) into your secure account and it gives you up to date balances on all these accounts.

That’s nice. But, the best part is that you categorize your transactions and it gives you a beautiful pie chart of your spending per category for a time period of your choosing. The categories are really “smart” so that once you use it for a few weeks the program gets really good at auto categorizing your transactions for you. So, you can easily get a quick glance of how much money you spent on coffee, how much you overspent on fast food and if you have any more money left in your budget to go out to the movies.

The best part about Mint is that you can access it from anywhere. This means that you can give your accountability partner your username and password and they can go on anytime and see where all your money has been going. Scary eh? Yes, its scary. But I’m convinced that is what it just might take for some of us to become better at managing our money.

Now, like any accountability situation, we can’t get legalistic about every penny and spend all our time trying to catch each other doing something wrong. The idea isn’t to control each other and second guess every single purchase. Rather the goal is to have someone to speak grace and encouragement and be able to ask you honest questions about the way you are spending your money.

I think the best accountability asks questions like, “was that a good decision?” and “are you happy you made that purchase” and “do you regret anything here?” Its not about keeping record of wrongs, its about helping us live more and more free.

So, open up your checkbook. One good way is to use Mint.

Why? So you can live in freedom. When we live in freedom, we’re not strapped to a job we hate because we have to pay our bills. When we live in freedom we are not giving all our money to debtors instead of those in need.

  • http://redpointchurch.com Matt Jones

    I absolutely love this post. Thanks for your example of opening up your finances. I really think this is a huge part of our church life that many (but not everyone) need. I too am testing out mint.com and think it is a great solution for people trying to get a handle on their finances, but if I were to recommend it to others, I wish I could show them it was safe. Now I know that everything online can “technically” be hacked, but the more mint grows, doesn’t it become a target? Do you know what measures they have taken to keep it secure?

  • http://toddhiestand.com Todd

    Matt, hey yeah you touch on something here I forgot to write about. The big question has been security and whether they were legitimate. The bigger they get the safer i feel. In my mind it means they have more money to toss at security. I saw them featured in Wired Magazine a few months back so at least they aren’t a mom and pop shop. Of course, I can’t guarantee its security either (any more than I can guarantee the online banking at my bank. Not that you are looking for me to but I figured I would cover my butt. :)

  • http://blog.thewriterbee.com Deb

    Of course you’ve probably gathered that I agree wholeheartedly with this mindset. I looked at using Mint.com, but ended up with another program called Mvelopes. It’s not a free service, but I’m cool with paying for something that helps me so much. If anyone’s interested, I wrote a couple of posts about how finding Dave Ramsey and dedicating myself to being debt-free (and hence more Christ-like in my personal money managment) has really shaken things up and changed my life. Amoung other things, I’ve found that God is smarter than I am at managing money – go figure. :)

  • http://unfinishedwork.blogspot.com Dianne

    Hi there – been reading your blog for a while and really enjoying it. Just had to say thanks for this post – really thought-provoking and challenging. I’ve always had the idea that your finances are private but maybe you’re on to something here.

  • http://www.greenfieldsbeyond.blogspot.com Justin

    Todd,
    Thanks for blogging about this, and for sharing what’s been helpful for you and your family. My wife and i have been on a path similar to yours (though it sounds like you’re a few steps ahead of us, so thanks for the practical suggestions). Mint is nice, but in addition to (or as an alternative to) it, I’d suggest a program called Pearbudget (http://www.pearbudget.com), which my wife and I have found really helpful in this area. I recently blogged about it at http://greenfieldsbeyond.blogspot.com/2008/04/save-our-money.html.
    As with Mint, you can access Pearbudget from anywhere and could give your password to your “accountability partner” if you wanted to.
    Anyway, thanks for posts like this, and for pushing us all to rethink our assumptions…

  • http://toddhiestand.com Todd

    Everyone, thanks for your feedback on this. I’m going to check out some of your suggestions and see how those tools are. It’s great to see so many people bucking the system and trying to get free from debt!

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