Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Power of Negative Thinking

This article kind of flies in the face of the popular feel good ‘positive thinking’ philosophy, but before you jump to any conclusions, read on. Also, this has many ramifications to personal finances, which I will get to at the end of the article.

The Power of Positive Thinking made popular by the Dr. Reverend Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, 60 years later has spread to many aspects of society, including teachings in business and religion, and adopted by many people in the ‘self-help’ movement of motivational books, tapes and CDs. You have probably heard statements like “your attitude determines your altitude.” This system of belief runs through much of our thinking and society, however, do we  take the time to dissect this, or do we just seem to accept it as truth? Coaches, teachers, preachers and counselors teach people all the time to think more positively, and that will lead to greater success, blessings and happiness- but will it, has it for you?

I hear people all of the time being labeled as negative or positive, especially in the business world. It is true, it doesn’t make healthy thinking and living to be like negative Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, and only look at the negative possibilities – all the time. And we do limit ourselves from taking risks, trying new ideas, and living out religious faith- if we are consumed by negative thoughts, however positive thinking is being proven by research doesn’t lead to happiness and success either.

Maybe negative thinking has been given a bad wrap though.  Wandering through the library a few months back, I came upon an interesting book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. Reading this book has given me some new perspectives, although I don’t buy into all of its points of view, a little which come from eastern religion.  Nevertheless, it makes a convincing argument that devotion to the positive thinking cult as a path to happiness has failed; the following are some excerpts from an interview of Burkeman:

“I think the premise from which I start is this idea that we have become fixated on the idea that relentless positivity and optimism is exactly the same thing as happiness; that the only way to achieve anything worthy of the name of happiness is to try to make all our thoughts and feelings as positive as possible, to set incredibly ambitious goals, to visualize success, which you get in a million different self-help books.

Whereas, actually, there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so, what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling the negative path to happiness, which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.”

I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite.”

Embracing fears and failures, moving through insecurities, though actually leads people beyond themselves and to a state better than happiness. Happiness is fleeting; it will not come through retirement, after enduring miserable years at a job you hate. Thinking accurately, truthfully, honestly and sincerely with yourself can help us on our paths, to more clearer thinking about what gives us something better than happiness; flourishing in our faith.

How does this apply to financial planning? Big picture: financial planning is outcome based. It often looks forward to retirement and the rewards and happiness it promises. On one end, some people avoid planning, because if they saw the actual numbers and really became aware of reality of not being able to retire comfortably, they fear how this will make them feel. They may have to embrace what that means now. It may mean change, or looking at life totally different. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, when people I sit down to counsel in their 50’s and 60’s who have no idea of their expenses and income. Often they are shocked to see how much negative cash flow they have each month. Embracing the reality now, instead of avoidance or positive thinking (a lot of people falsely believe inheritance will save them), can actually lead people to more a more flourishing life, now and later.  If they have to adjust lifestyles down, living simpler and search out that more meaningful abundant life Christ promises, whatever their age or financial status, they will be overall happier as they flourish in a new more realistic path, that is aligned with their gifts, talents and beliefs.

On the other end, those that have a solid retirement plan, and are enduring a job they hate now, positively thinking a lifestyle of leisure is going to lead to a more happy existence would be well advised to think this through. Have you ever taken some time to really imagine what daily life would be like in retirement? Really go there, and imagine the routine, thoughts and feelings. I used to ride the bus with dozens of corporate workers in a state of mild depression. I see them today at local coffee shops, and they seem lost, sometimes they are angry grouches focused on cable TV news.  I enjoy being around those in retirement that found meaning and value outside themselves, and contributed time, talent and money to things and people that will improve the world around. This starts before retirement. It makes better life now and later, whether you can retire in your 60’s or must keep working to save into your 70’s.

Applying this in a practical way to our personal finances is important too. If we have fear about our real budget, the return on the rate of return we are getting, the concern about a planner’s advice, or underperforming investments- it makes great sense to call it all into question. Dig deep to learn more, ask a lot of questions, assume a negative posture, and don’t stop until you get good answers. Sometimes you have to press through fears of insecurity looking stupid asking bad questions, or looking at our bad decisions, or finding a new advisor who we were afraid to confront, but glad we did.

Applying this our Christian walk is vital. We have all heard ‘financial prosperity’ and ‘word of faith’ preachers, but often they emphasize ‘faith in our faith,’ and faith in positive thinking, moving us away from faith in God.  It is very healthy to examine failures and success, and learn from both. However, it is important to not dwell there, and overly focus not on our circumstances, but on God’s promises and goodness.

In conclusion, I think there is value in a ‘both-and’ approach to this. We don’t have to entirely choose one or the other: I think it is possible to smartly combine or switch between both negative and positive thinking, on our paths to a more flourishing faith-filled life.

You May Have Financial Difficulty

How encouraging is that title?  I talk to people all of the time who are struggling with finances. Its hard to go through financial difficulty, when you remember prosperity and abundance Bible verses, and while we live in the great land of the American Dream; a glittery  Disney Land like consumerism driven world.

Maybe they have done all the right things, pursuing education, working hard, but they are stuck in a seemingly dead-end job of low income, and increasing costs for groceries, gasoline and health-care. Sometimes there is blame on a bad economy, or disadvantaged education- situations, or maybe bad financial and career decisions.

People cry out; “Why am I going through financial difficulty. Is God picking on me, is he testing me, or punishing me for bad decisions? Of all the hundreds of Bible verses, maybe I missed a key one, that if I followed it, things would be much better.  I see people all around me, seemingly doing much better than me financially, yet they are no smarter, and made the same bad decisions- maybe much worse, why me God?”

Thinking this way is not uncommon, it’s maybe that you need make changes and learn and practice better money habits. However this perspective leaves out some key things: God is sovereign, and doesn’t follow our Biblical mathematical formulas; rarely is he in our debt, except for Proverbs 19:17. It forgets that God is just, kind and he abundantly blesses us all throughout the day, ways that we don’t see, or avail ourselves to take in, like spiritual peace and joy. It forgets that we follow God’s financial principles, because it is right and of integrity, following his heart, because we love him. It is not for what we get out financially, but showing him our gratefulness for all that he has done, and promises in eternity.

Lastly, it forgets the promises of Jesus, that we will suffer. My pastor recently wrote a wonderful letter to the congregation, part of which hits on this issue better than I could word it:

Jesus said, “I’ve told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Why don’t we paste that on our bathroom mirrors as a promise for each day? “In this world you will have trouble.”

Likewise, the apostle Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).”

Peter puts it plainly when he says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).”

I like the way The Message version of the Bible puts it, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process with glory just around the corner.”

What I observe in America, however, is alongside of this extraordinarily unBiblical and unrealistic idea that life is supposed to be pain free is an incredible fragility in most people that I meet. People today are exceptionally fragile. We’ve become the eggshell generation.

I hope that you will prosper financially, today and or in the future. I encourage you to be of a thankful mind, for God is lavishing much on you- stop and take time to spend time with him, listing it out, thanking him. Living this way has so many benefits to us practically and spiritually, and in time often financially too.

The Greatest Commandments and Money

This week’s money and stewardship devotional from the four Gospels* is from Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:36-40 is about what we are to love.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The most important words ever spoken by Christ to all of mankind effecting one’s behavior are probably those words. Of the over 31,000 verses and 750,000 words in the entire Bible; these 5 verses made up of 58 words are the very most important of all: they communicate to man that in all things we should always put God’s concern first, and that of our neighbor second in tandem, and often before our own. These verses should be burned into our hearts and minds. When we wake in the morning, it is easy to automatically think about the day, and all of the things that we have to do, and how it will affect us. However, before all of that, maybe we should ask Lord how can I love you with all my heart, soul and mind today, and how can I love my neighbor as intensely as myself?

When we think about money and possessions though, do we think of God, neighbor and love first ? It always bugs me, when I pick up a Christian personal finance book, or read an article online, and the main underlying premise seems to be if I a practice some type of good financial behavior, that in return I will get something out of it for myself. For example, it is common hear that if we are good stewards, then God will bless me a certain way. There is even the generosity gospel that promises we will blessed with a lot of money if we tithe a lot, or help the poor, quoting Mark 10:30, Proverbs 22:9, 2 Corinthians 9:6-7. This kind of thinking illustrates the heart of the author, and sometimes sadly mine too.

Almost every secular book on finances starts out that way, “If you do this, then you will have a lot of money!” Doesn’t Jesus preach a different message? I can’t find any verses about Jesus preaching about financial security and abundance. If anything he pushes that our of minds by declaring we are to love God intensely with all of our effort. Jesus doesn’t preach self-hate or total self-denial, but Jesus says we are to love others with as much concern as we do ourselves. This really takes the focus of of myself.

I know that when I am self absorbed, I’m not as happy; the more I am self consumed, I find myself down and more distant from God. It is easy to fall into the trap to think I have to provide for myself, and when I have done that quite well, then I will have time and money for God and others. However, some of the greatest ways I have been blessed is from those who didn’t have much. I still recall a dinner meal from friends in their home, and they were struggling to make ends meet. I remember this even though it happened in about 1981, when my wife (girl friend at that time) and I shared a great simple low cost meal of homemade bread and gazpacho with some friends, in their little apartment, and they loved us. It still makes me smile me to think about the fun we had and the warmth of God there.

A few days ago I stumbled upon 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, I like the wording in the NLT version: But let me say this, dear brothers and sisters: The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. 30 Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. 31 Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away. This really spoke to me, Paul was teaching the early church then, and us now, not to be absorbed by and attached to either our good and bad times and possessions, but by the good things in loving God and others.

*A chronological examination of any verse that involves money and stewardship, attempting to see the new light that Jesus shines on money in His ‘for-us’ but selfless, grace filled, Holy Spirit empowered, and Kingdom oriented positions. This is the thirty seventh post in this series.

The Mega Millions Lottery Is a Suicidal Craze

Found this great article on John Piper’s blog:

(Posted March 2012) Tonight a ticket will be chosen worth over half a billion dollars. Lottery agents in New York were selling 1.3 million Mega Millions tickets per hour Thursday.

Officials were expecting to sell about 1.2 billion tickets total before the drawing.

“Americans spend about $60 billion on the lottery every year,” says Stephen Dubner, co-author of “Freakonomics.” “More than $500 per American household goes to playing the lottery.” (CBS This Morning)

There are at least seven reasons you should not gamble with your money in this way — and should tell your congressmen not to support it.

1. It is spiritually suicidal.

“Those who desire to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. . . They have pierced themselves with many a pang” (1 Timothy 6:7–10).

2. It is a kind of embezzlement.

Managers don’t gamble with their Master’s money. All you have belongs to God. All of it. Faithful trustees may not gamble with a trust fund. They have no right. The parable of the talents says Jesus will take account of how we handled his money. “They went and worked” (Matthew 25:16). That is how we seek to provide for ourselves (1 Corinthians 4:121 Thessalonians 4:11Ephesians 4:28)

3. It’s a fool’s errand.

The odds of winning are nearly 176 million-to-one. You take real money and buy with it a chance. That chance is so infinitesimally small that the dollar is virtually lost. 175,999,999 times. The smaller amounts paid out more often are like a fog to keep you from seeing what is happening.

4. The system is built on the necessity of most people losing.

The Lottery is just another form of gambling (without any of the glamour and glitz of Las Vegas, of course). The “house” controls the action, the players will all eventually lose. (SeeInternational Business Times)

5. It preys on the poor.

It supports and encourages “yet another corrosive addiction that preys upon the greed and hopeless dreams of those trapped in poverty. . . The Consumerist suggested that poor people in the U.S. — those earning $13,000 or less — spend an astounding 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets. . . making this ‘harmless’ game a ‘deeply regressive tax.’” (International Business Times)

6. There is a better alternative.

A survey by Opinion Research Corporation for the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association revealed that one-fifth (21 percent) of people surveyed thought the lottery was a practical way to accumulate wealth. We are teaching people to be fools.

If the $500 a year that on average all American households throw away on the lottery (see above) were invested in an index fund each year for 20 years, each family would have $24,000. Not maybe. Really. And the taxes on these earnings would not only support government services, but would be built on sound and sustainable habits of economic life.

7. For the sake of quick money, government is undermining the virtue without which it cannot survive.

A government that raises money by encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses of its citizens escapes that democratic mechanism of accountability. As important, state-sponsored gambling undercuts the civic virtue upon which democratic governance depends. (First Things, Sept., 1991, 12)

So, if you win, don’t tithe your lottery winnings to our church. Christ does not build his church on the backs of the poor. Pray that Christ’s people will be so satisfied in him that they will be freed from the greed that makes us crave to get rich.

Does Less Money Mean More Happiness?

Rather than consider how much money we need to be happy, why not turn the question on its head and think about how too much money could make us unhappy. It may be a cliché, but there is truth in the saying, “money can’t buy happiness.”

In a recent study profiled on the New York Times, researchers found that above a comfortable standard (defined as an annual income of  $75,000), more money did not translate into greater happiness. While many of us think higher salaries can buy us the latest technology, a better house, and even an excellent education, it turns out the hard work and sacrifice we make to acquire that money could prevent us from having the time to really enjoy any of those things, or more importantly, our relationships with the people around us.

It is no surprise that people who make enough money to live comfortably are much happier than those who live in poverty. It seems that money impacts our happiness most when we don’t have enough to enable us to do the things we need and want to do to be fulfilled. If we’re worried about how to put the next meal on the table, there really is no time to ask the question, “Am I satisfied with my choice of career? Am I following God’s call?”

But too much money can also negatively impact our happiness. Continuously working extra long hours inevitably takes it toll after a while. Sacrificing a more flexible work schedule for a higher salary might not be the right choice in terms of happiness. And with more money also comes the stress of managing it well. In short, when we have too much money, we can easily desire more of it, until we lose track of our true priorities and become blind to life’s more abstract aspects.

Especially for those in comfortable financial situations, how we spend our money matters a lot more for our happiness than exactly how much of it we have.

As we already know from the Bible, and as this study reaffirms, there’s something to be said for under-indulgence, or occasionally depriving ourselves of small pleasures that we come to take for granted. It is through these small deprivations that we can get back in touch with the essence of our lives. Through under-indulgence, we become more aware of ourselves. If we eat ice cream every day, it becomes easy to think that we must eat it in order to be happy. Not eating the ice cream for a while gives us the opportunity to realize what in life actually does make us happy (or to deal with feelings of unhappiness, without burying them under spoonfuls of Ben and Jerry’s). Eventually, we can go back to that half-pint of Phish Food and appreciate it in all its fatty, sugary glory. It will taste even better if we’ve stayed away for a week or two.

It turns out that spending money on others brings us a level of happiness that we can’t even come close to when buying things for ourselves. This is part of the beauty of being made in the image of Jesus: we derive happiness from sharing our bounty with others, just as Jesus selflessly sacrificed for us. No matter what income bracket we fall into, maintaining this spirit of giving will increase our fulfillment with our lives and our sense of community with each other and God. Rather than lament the fact that we cannot make an annual contribution of thousands of dollars to charity, why not give time in the form of service, or even a smile or kind words to a stranger?

Deriving happiness from money is only possible when we realize that it’s all about what we make of what we have – and not about more, more, more.

Angie Picard is a writer for NerdWallet, a financial literacy website where you can find advice to better answer the question, “am I saving enough?”