The idea of keeping up with the Joneses is very much alive today. It’s a phenomenon that crosses all socioeconomic boundaries and generally results in people living beyond their means. Yet people who live beyond their means are living in a false sense of reality. They’re doing a juggling act, often taking cash advances to pay off other lines of credit and making only minimum payments on their credit cards. That is a warning sign of impending financial disaster. Another warning sign is increased consumer debt. If an individual’s or family’s consumer debt is higher this year than it was last year, then they are heading in the wrong direction.
Perhaps you’re not in that place; perhaps you’re doing pretty well. For you, the question might not be “Are you heading for a looming financial crisis?” but “Are you making the most of everything that you have, or do you find yourself being wasteful here or there because you can afford to?”
In either case, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. A large part of the problem is that we live in a time of excessive materialism. Many people today are on a treadmill of consumerism, and that treadmill just keeps going faster and faster. But the day will come when either we are going to break down or the treadmill is going to break down, because we cannot continue to go faster and faster in our passion to consume.
The Prodigal in Each of Us
Let us begin with one of the primary struggles we face: Many of us have a bit of the prodigal son in us. The prodigal son, who was the younger of two sons, demanded his share of his father’s inheritance, left home, and squandered everything. This parable of Jesus, which is found in Luke 15, is a story about the love of God—about how God takes us back even when we’ve squandered everything we have. Even when we’ve wandered from the fold, God’s mercy is abundant and God joyfully welcomes us home. This is the aspect of the story we typically focus on, but there is another important element of the story.
As the parable begins, Jesus describes the prodigal son’s habits of squandering and spending — habits that many of us emulate today. The word prodigal does not mean someone who wanders away or is lost. The word prodigal literally means “one who wastes money.” A prodigal wastes money and is a spendthrift. Many of us struggle with that habit as well.
The prodigal son wanted his inheritance from his father, and he wanted it now. The inheritance was a piece of property that would have been used to supply an income for this young man for the rest of his life. He probably would have grown crops or kept flocks on the property, and that would have provided a livelihood for the rest of his days. But the prodigal son couldn’t see it that way. All he wanted was pleasure — instant gratification. He wasn’t interested in tomorrow. He was living in the now.
The prodigal son thought his life was about pleasure and wild living. So he took what was his and left his father. I can imagine the father saying, “Please don’t do this. If you sell the property, you’re going to have nothing. I’ve saved this for you.” But his son wouldn’t listen. He was only interested in what he could experience right then. He sold his entire future for what he could have in the moment.
The problem with that kind of thinking is that, for most of us, the famine eventually comes. It comes when we have spent everything we have and even a little bit of next year’s income—or perhaps quite a lot of next year’s income—and we have nothing left. We’ve squandered it all. Then the car breaks down, or there are medical needs, or the air conditioning or heating system breaks down, and we find we have no money to pay for those things because we’ve already leveraged our future. So we use the credit card and charge it, and we go a little further into debt. Finally, we come to a place where we “find ourselves.” We have nothing left, not even any credit, and we can’t figure out how we are we going to make it. We long for the “pods” that someone else is eating because we simply can’t make it on our own anymore.
Others of us do not find ourselves broke. We are not abusing our credit cards. There are no creditors calling and asking for payments. We simply have become wasteful and extravagant, throwing our money away. We burn money on things we neither need nor derive value from—almost recklessly, as if we just need to spend for the sake of spending.
My wife, LaVon, and I are not in financial hardship. We don’t abuse our credit cards. We save and we give. We’re doing okay. But I’ve noticed that the more money we make, the more money we waste. It seems that the more financially secure we become, the less we worry about spending money here and there.
When we were starting out together, we struggled to make ends meet. We had to account for every dollar. But today, twenty dollars here and forty dollars there is not a big deal. We waste a dollar on this or that, and we forget where it went. Money just seems to flow through our fingers. And by the end of the year, I’m asking myself, Where did it all go? The reason for this is that we’re not as careful with our money as we should be. Every dollar we choose to waste is a dollar that could be used for something more meaningful—something that would have lasting impact. It could be saved or invested for retirement or given to help others and support God’s kingdom work. When I remember this, I realize that being a good steward of what I have is a matter of great importance.