Is Talking Personal Finance Like Religious Evangelism?

Brent sent me a great email earlier this week:

Have you ever noticed how a lot of the articles you write could easily appear on a religious website trying to convert nonbelievers? Just switch a few things around and you’d be there.

Instead of telling people to read Your Money or Your Life, you’d tell them to read Mere Christianity or something. Instead of telling them to save money, you’d tell them to save their own souls. Instead of life insurance, you’d talk about the afterlife.

Either way, you still talk in reverential tones about the wonderful life you’ve found after your transformative moment and encourage others to “convert.”

What you’re doing is basically evangelism.

Brent does a great job of pointing out the similarities between enthusiasm and evangelism, and he makes a few good points. However, I think there are a number of key differences between promoting good personal finance practices and religious conversion.

First, one can simply and empirically demonstrate the value of better financial choices.

If I go into a grocery store and show how you can buy the ingredients for a certain boxed meal separately for a much lower price, that’s a clear demonstration of the value of that financial choice.

If I can look at the history of various investment types and use those to conclude that index funds are a strong investment choice for people who don’t have time to do so, I can present that conclusion with data.

If a person can pay off a mortgage much faster by making half of a monthly payment every two weeks, then it makes sense to do that.

If one can go to the HR depertment of a large corporation and hear from them that a powerful portfolio of projects is likely to sway their attention, then it makes sense to recommend that new workers fresh out of college do this.

It is much more difficult to make such statements in the realm of the religious or spiritual. Such things rely heavily on faith, and regardless of how much a person might believe, you can’t force another person to share the faith you have. You can show them facts, but you can’t make them believe.

Second, financial success is not a black and white issue. With most religions, it is black and white. With Christianity, you either accept Christ or you do not, for one.

With personal finance, it’s much more about the thousands of behavioral choices you make each day. No one makes all of the best financial choices every day, but with some education and some forethought, people can reverse the course of enough of those decisions to make a real difference in their overall finances. Not only that, many of the individual decisions aren’t black or white themselves, such as choosing the right investment strategy or deciding whether to repay a debt or leave an emergency fund in place.

That’s not to say there isn’t some overlap – of course there is. There is overlap between religious evangelism and anything a person is proud enough or passionate enough about to tell others. All of these things have key books worth reading. All of them have best practices. All of them have big goals to shoot for. All of them can cause a person to gush passionately about it. Many of them can certainly contribute positive things to a person’s life.

I am absolutely certain that good personal finance practices have changed my life for the better. I can show you in great detail how little choices saved me money, how that saved money was channeled into debt repayment, and how a lack of debt drastically increased our household’s monthly cash flow. I can also tell you how those changes have reduced my personal stress level and introduced me to many new activities and things that I now hold dear in my life. To me, that’s something worth sharing.

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17 thoughts on “Is Talking Personal Finance Like Religious Evangelism?

  1. Jon says:

    I like the idea that you can empirically demonstrate financial success, but I think – much like religion – some people still refuse to believe.

  2. Johanna says:

    I think you’re comparing apples and oranges here. When you talk about demonstrating the value of financial choices, what you’re doing is demonstrating the *financial* value of financial choices, taking it as a given that financial value is something important. The equivalent thing in religion – demonstrating the spiritual value of certain choices to someone who already accepts the basic framework of your religion – is also easy, in principle: Just point to the place in the Bible where it says “Thou shalt not blah blah blah.”

    Where evangelism comes in is when you start trying to convince someone that they should care what the Bible says in the first place – or that financial success is something they *should* value. And although it’s not quite an exact parallel, you can’t force somebody to share your values if they don’t want to.

  3. TaJ says:

    Some aspects of personal finance do have an element of religion to them however. Just look at the credit-vs-debit card arguments. It’s rarely “these things are tools, you should use which one suits your situation best” and more often “touching a credit card sends you directly to hell” or “debit cards will lead you inexorably to the depths of your bank’s customer service runaround trying unsuccessfully to get fees and false charges reversed”.

  4. Maggie says:

    Um … ‘with most religions it’s black and white’ ??

    Well, perhaps it’s true that with most ‘monotheist’ religions it’s all about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the one true way etc. But I’m not sure even that’s true.

    Many Christian denominations are fine with other people believing other things and taking other actions, they just have some focus on ‘here’s what we believe and what we do’.

    Both the Jewish traditions and the Muslim traditions have explicit dogma supporting the right of peoples of other faiths to worship in their own way without interference from ‘us’.

    And those of us who are polytheist don’t even have ‘one right god’ never mind ‘one true way.’

    I really like your stuff on financial values and smart financial actions … but as a member of a minority religion in the US I need to register the difference between ‘evangelical religions’ and ‘most religions’.

    Thanks for listening.

  5. Mari says:

    Interesting post, but I do agree with Maggie’s point (#4). There are many religions that are not evangelical in nature, perhaps the original poster, Brent, simply forgot to consider these when drawing his parallel with “conversion” religions?

  6. Carole says:

    As a long time church member, I have noticed that almost all the other long time church members that I know have their financial affairs under control. Not necessarily rich, but living within their means. I think the discipline that goes along with being a christian carries over into their financial life.

  7. MichelleO says:

    I’d like to point out that the Bible discusses financial responsibility frequently. Actually, I think more than any other topic. So, good financial stewardship is often entwined with Christian beliefs. The same is true for Judaism. I’m not sure about other faiths. This may explain some of the evangelical tones of some bloggers/writers. However, sound money management practices lead to so many positive tangible results and can easily be approached in a secular manner. Trent manages to do this extremely well.

  8. sashie says:

    Carole

    As a long time church goer, I can tell you that I cannot see any corollation between church attendance and keeping one’s financial health in order – there are lots of people I know who are skating on some seriously thin ice and they are at church every Sunday. While it would be nice to believe that faith = financial discipline/financial reward, I just haven’t seen any evidence to support that. :)

  9. “With Christianity, you either accept Christ or you do not, for one.”

    Minor quibble: I attend the United Church of Christ. Our services begin with a minister saying, “Whether you are a believer, a seeker or a doubter, we are glad you are here.”
    It doesn’t matter if you accept Christ or not. You are welcome.

  10. kristine says:

    Yes Maggie, I would like to also make note of the fact that most people mistakenly believe that all religions have a concept of “good” and “evil” usually referred to as Satan. Even that is not universal. Some religions recognize all aspects of humanity as intertwined, and something that must be kept in balance, much as nature balances destruction, decay and resurgence and rebirth. It always troubles me- the lack of well-rounded religious instruction that leaves our population fairly ignorant to others people’s faiths. So for me- this whole analogy relies on a Judaeo-Christian reference, and is therefore quite alien to me. My husband is a Quaker- Christian, but he would definitely not agree with the “believe or not” comment.

  11. tentaculistic says:

    I think it’s a good point, and thought provoking. I find that I get as fervent as a street-corner preacher when discussing my strong interests. Differences yes but still a parallel.

    Carole, I have been deep into Christian religious communities, and outside them. I have noticed as many people with good financial management as those who are desperately floundering (those often seem to assume that “all things work out for good for those who love Jesus”, meaning they don’t have to do anything responsible, without seeming to notice the verses about being good stewards etc).

    I think churches often reflect a certain socio-economic-cultural community, so perhaps your church reflects your community more than it does the effects of religion in general?

    That said, I suspect that habits of self-control do transfer nicely, wherever they originate.

  12. deRuiter says:

    Maggie #4 “…the Muslim traditions have explicit dogma supporting the right of peoples of other faiths to worship in their own way without interference from ‘us’.” Perhaps you have overlooked basic law for observant Muslims whose religion orders them to convert all infidels, and failing that to kill them. The Muslim Brotherhood’s stated aim is world domination by Muslims through the Caliphate. If you have not yet noticed that the Muslim religion is a political movement for world domination cloaked in the trappings of religion, you better notice it now. Ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt how the Muslim philoposphy toward THEM is working out. The Amish won’t kill you if you blaspheme, the Catholics suffer without violence if you make art by immersing a cricifix in urine or surround a picture of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung courtesy of funding from the National Endowment For The Arts. Hindus don’t mention anything about America being loaded with restaurant which serve burgers made of animals they hold sacred. Need I mention the often publicly stated desire of Muslims to kill all Jews and wipe Israel from the map? On the other hand, run a few cartoons, and you’ve got real death threats, murders, people having to go into hiding from the Muslims, world wide riots, and Muslims attempting to kill anyone involved with the artwork. The only “other” religions which are allowed to exist by Muslims are those in countries with a strong standing army or a country with a minority Muslim population.

  13. deRuiter says:

    Some Christian religions stress being a good steward of earthly things, it’s mentioned often in the bible. A lot of churches have Dave Ramsey materials or similar programs to help their members, and offer encouragement to their congregants to live within their means. If members of your church tend to be thrifty, sober, industrious and save a percentage of their earnings, you will tend to do the same, because of the support of your religious community. This doesn’t mean all church members are prosperous and thrifty, but it does mean that some congregations attempt to help their members to lead a successful financial as well as spiritual lives. If your church stresses living within one’s means, the members tend to live that way. It also varies by denomination. In America, churches of the Dutch Reformed persuasion tend to have thrifty, hard working, prosperous congregations, because that’s how the Dutch are. In Holland they say, “He’s VERY Dutch.” meaning the person is extremely thrifty / tight with money. A church full of Dutch Reformed worshipers tends to reflect this attitude with financial prosperity. Religion is a lot like the old story of the cotton buyer. When you get to the ginn with your load of cotton to sell, he doesn’t ask, “What route did you take to get here?”, he asks, “How good is your cotton?”

  14. Riki says:

    Comments like #12 and 13 bother me a lot. I’m not even sure how to respond . . . since when is making broad generalizations about entire groups of people ok?

    Comments like those about Muslim cultures in #12 serve only to propagate the “them” vs. “us” attitudes that are not serving anybody in the US very well. Let’s save religious debate for people who actually have an understanding of the cultures they are discussing. As passionate as the comment is, deRuiter does not have a good understanding of what it means to be Muslim.

    Trent, if you’re listening, I feel comment #12 should be removed. It is inflammatory, inaccurate, and does not contribute in any way to the discussion.

  15. Tracy says:

    I agree with Riki at #14 – that comment #12 is pretty awful, and ignorant about Islam. I wonder if he’s actually ever met a Muslim before?

  16. Interested Reader says:

    Just ignore him.

  17. Kai says:

    To Donna (#9)
    That means that the church is open to anyone coming to listen. that you don’t need to believe in christ or anything else or be a christian to attend the church.
    That doesn’t mean that you can not accept christ and logically call yourself a christian.

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