Thinking Out Loud

December 10, 2011

Living in Two Financial Worlds

The large piece of Styrofoam has been put into position in the master bedroom for another winter. 

Measuring about 28 inches across and eight feet tall, it is placed so that it is propped tight against the wall by a dresser, a second-hand dresser manufactured in the 1940s. The two-inch thick giant surfboard’s purpose is to keep this particular section of wall, which has a chimney running behind it, from icing up in the winter.  Our belief is that there was a chimney fire in the house before we purchased it, and the effort of putting out the fire destroyed the insulation at that point. Or perhaps there just never was insulation.

The first winter we noticed that the wall was a large vertical skating rink was disappointing to say the least.  But through years of painting the kids’ rooms, replacing shower tiles, doing retrofit windows in seven rooms, and all the general maintenance homeowners do, we’ve never really attended to our own room.

Most people reading this will never see one of these -- or its equivalent in your country -- in their lifetime

We live a very ‘geared to income’ lifestyle which is complicated by the fact that we have no fixed income. And haven’t for about sixteen years now, which was the time I left the comfort of mixing part-time employment as Worship and Outreach Director for the local Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, with other part-time employment teaching grades seven and eight at the local Christian school, with part-time employment writing a weekly column for two local newspapers, with part-time employment running a mail-order book and music business.

Ah yes, I decided to leave the riches of all those part-time jobs behind and step out in faith, as if we weren’t already living rather hand-to-mouth. No the $35 weekly from the newspapers — as much as it bought all our groceries back then — and the stipend from the school and the honorariums from speaking and leading worship at other churches; all that was too secure and I decided what we really needed to do was open a storefront ministry that would augment the work of local churches, self supporting through the sale of Christian books and music.

I was nuts.

It had all the financial scope of a child’s newspaper route. I’ve seen better profit-and-loss statements from lemonade stands.

But it was my calling, and it became our lifestyle.  With my wife tied up with our then special needs child, we had one income stream, and we tried to keep that income from becoming a negative number.

If one partner wants to do something that is a ministry first and a business second; it helps if the other has something really good going on career wise. We still don’t. We were the subject of a federal audit a few years back because they couldn’t figure out how we were surviving without either under-reporting or doing something illegal. Fortunately, we got an auditor that understood the dynamics of walking by faith in response to a ministry calling.

A few years back my mom sold her home in Toronto and decided to give us some of the proceeds to see if we could learn a thing or two about money from the perspective of actually having some.  I decided that we were going to be good stewards, and reward the faith and trust she put in us by keeping it safe. 

Now we had a miniscule interest income, but we were still afraid to spend it.  The needs of our special needs child had diminished over time, and my wife started doing volunteer work among the poorest of the poor in our community. In many ways, we could relate to their economic condition. Every six months the bank calls to renew an investment, but beyond those phone calls our lives haven’t really changed all that much.

We discovered that money as a concept was something somewhat foreign to us. We could do poverty better than we could do investments and fund management. It’s actually more relaxing being poor, though we don’t want to be like the servant who buried his master’s money in the ground, which, in today’s economy is a fairly good description of what the banks have to offer. So we know we need to step up at some point and get financially creative. I think we’re both watching for the right opportunity that reflects both an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in Christian mission. So far, we haven’t found it. 

I also have an understanding as to how it is that people of modest means can win millions in a lottery one year and have burned through it all a couple of years later. You tend to school yourself in the relationship to finance that you know from experience. The guy asking you if you’d “like fries with that” rarely knows what the Dow Jones Index doing that week.

In the meantime, the piece of Styrofoam shifts when there’s movement in the room and it can wake you up in the middle of the night. It’s a reminder that at least we have a roof over our heads, which is more than some people have. And that roof is located in what is probably the top 2% of the world’s wealthiest communities, given the state of the world right now.

It does look really ugly, though.

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