Margin, Faith, Personal Growth, and Personal Finance

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marginA few weeks ago, I read a fascinating book by Richard Swenson called Margin. Subtitled Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, it was an amazing book that really made me think deeply about the fundamental choices I make about how I choose to spend my time. It left me with a lot of thoughts in my head, a lot of notes in my notebook, and a deep desire to read the book again (which I have).

In a nutshell, Margin argues that the biggest factor for modern exhaustion and melancholy is that our lives lack margin. Most people are pushing every aspect of their lives to capacity – spending as much as they bring in (or more), working absurd hours to fuel their spending and their concept of a career, rushing through things in their life just so they can rush through more things. Then, when something bad happens (a job loss, etc.), we don’t have that extra gear – we have no margin. The book offers a ton of great advice on how to restore that margin, advice that couples well with the material found in the best personal finance book I’ve ever read (and one of my favorite books ever), Your Money or Your Life.

At first glance, this seems like a great book to review on The Simple Dollar, and I actually began writing a review of the book for the site. Yet there was something nagging at me as I wrote that review that kept me from finishing it – one big factor that held me back from going through this book in detail.

It was written for a Christian audience and is integrated with a huge dose of Christian theology and teachings.

Faith is an issue that I try hard not to deal with on The Simple Dollar. I know from a lot of social experience that religion is on that short list of things you don’t talk about in polite company and, especially since The Simple Dollar pushes hard on personal finance (a very intimate topic that people have a hard time talking to others about), I usually try to avoid opening up another topic (religion) that generates similar feelings.

That being said, many people out there, from all political and personal stripes, find personal growth from their faith. It drives them on to great things in life. I’m not referring to any specific faith at all: Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and many other members of various faiths are led to great things by the tenets of their religion.

For me, at least, one verse from the Bible actually inspired me quite a bit to turn my financial life around: Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” – Luke 12:15. That’s a profound piece of advice, no matter what your religious orientation.

At the same time, I am also quite aware that faith can be a double-edged sword. It can lead to narrow attitudes, closedmindedness, radical behaviors, a loss of social propriety, and sometimes it leads to behaviors that can destroy lives and tear communities apart.

I’ve witnessed both sides of this coin in my own life. I’ve watched a religion run roughshod over a community. I’ve seen blind, religious-fueled anger grow out of control. I’ve also witnessed people turn their lives around thanks to faith, and I’ve seen people reach new heights because of it.

After some reflection, my take is this: if something inspires you to make a positive change in your life, whether it be faith-based or secular, jump on it. Use that inspiration to bring yourself to some positive life choices. I’ve found inspiration in a pile of personal finance books, in my son, and even in religious works (not just the Bible, either).

The only danger is to shut yourself off from something that can really help you because of your preconceptions. A Christian who refuses to listen to advice from a secular source because it’s secular is foolish. Similarly, an atheist/agnostic or a person of a different faith who ignores something compelling from a Christian writer simply because that writer is a Christian is also foolish. Find answers for yourself, and don’t close yourself off from great advice just because of your own preconceptions. Trust yourself, be open to new ideas, and the answers will come.

Given that, I’m probably going to give a proper review to Margin in the near future, and I’m going to be more open to exploring books that speak to the topics of The Simple Dollar, even if they touch on faiths and other perspectives that I don’t necessarily agree with. I hope you’ll be open to those ideas, too.

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41 thoughts on “Margin, Faith, Personal Growth, and Personal Finance

  1. Trent,
    As an avid reader and Buddhist, I applaud you brave choice to present personal finance advice that is supported by faith. I think that it was a good idea to post this article explaining that you are not pushing the religion, but rather admitting that creating balance in your life requires synergy in all aspects of self: culture, finance, values and faith. I promise not to be in the least be offended; as long as you promise to pass on the best advise you can find, regardless of the faith, upbringing, color or creed of the person who originally presented it.

  2. I really appreciate your being upfront about the religious tone. I generally prefer to avoid that sort of thing, and I have several times felt blind-sided by finance writers who focus heavily on religion in their publications (Ramsey being the most prevalant example).

    Since you’re really sold on this book, I’ll be adding it to my PaperBackSwap wish list.

  3. Well done. Compared to the more defensive posts on the same subject by your peers, this is well written.
    (I’ll still probably be skipping any religion-posts though, and I’m a Catholic).

  4. I’m glad you’ve decided to review books that you don’t fully agree with….that will help others to objectively view books and see the pros & cons.

  5. Trent,

    I have to agree with the other two posters, and also thank you for the great advice.

    I am an atheist, and living in Texas it feels like Christianity is being constantly shoved down my throat. It’s easy to just shut down and reject it all because of the source and the delivery, but you are absolutely right that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t listen and integrate wisdom into your life, no matter where it comes from.

    I too have been turned off by Ramsey’s church-as-restorative-cure-all advice both on his radio show and in his books, but am following the Total Money Makeover plan nonetheless.

    In my opinion, more religious leaders, particularly Christian ones, should be showing leadership on financial matters, and not the sort of “pray for money and god will give it” advice that Joel Osteen gives.

  6. The understanding of “faith” here seems to be cosmopolitan and welcoming, but I worry that there is some basic violence in it. For people of faith, they often do not think of their faith as a means to “personal growth,” or an inspiration for making “positive change” and doing “great things.” Rather, faith–for many–is being sure of what they hope for and certain of what they do not see. As such, it aims to concern them with something other than themselves, their life, their desires, their goals, and their finances. This is not to say that these things are rendered irrelevant, but faith–for many–aims to diminish their relevance before things deemed more significant.

    I see no trouble in The Simple Dollar describing how persons of faith interpret their life and finances. You can describe without endorsing. If The Simple Dollar wants to endorse a particular faith, that seems honest, courageous, and fine. Some may appreciate it; others may not.

    However, I do object to talking about “faith” as if it were primarily a source of inspiration for doing what one has already chosen he wants to do. This doesn’t accurately represent what faith is for many.

  7. Trent, it’s your blog. Who cares what others think about what your review. Do what you want and who cares about what others think — our society is too politically-correct anyway and it needs to stop.

  8. Trent, this is your blog, presenting your point of view on personal finance. I’m an agnostic, but if your views on the subject are informed by your religion, you don’t need to hide that. It would probably limit your audience if you interwove religion into all your posts, but I don’t think you need to shy away from book reviews just because the point of view is Christian.

  9. I don’t understand the offense taken when someone mentions religion. Doesn’t every religion tell it’s believers to be good? Whatever the package, good is GOOD!

  10. Trent, I really appreciated the tone of this post. As a non-Christian, little bells go off in my head whenever faith is mentioned. I guess it puts me on alert. But I have come to respect your point of view and think it’s admirable to take the best of what religion has to offer and apply it to your life. I look forward to your review of this book and will be reading no matter what the subject of your posts. I have the choice to make up my own mind afterwards, so getting a wide range of ideas can only be a good thing. Thanks again!

  11. I heard a speech by Richard Swenson given to his fellow physicians on the topic of Margin. At the end, he summarized his viewpoint with a scene from the book, War and Peace. I tear up every time I think of it, as did he. The rich of Moscow are loading their carts with their precious possessions to flee from Napolean’s army, leaving their wounded soldiers lying the streets. The count’s daughter implores her father to help them and he has all his possessions unloaded from 30 carts in order to save these wounded men from certain death.

    People matter more than things.

  12. ….religion is on that short list of things you don’t talk about in polite company…”

    Oh, how I wish that was true in the South!

    I don’t think a personal finance book is any place for a religious agenda. It’s a deal-breaker for me.

  13. I take no offense to your reference to a religious-themed book. In fact, I am a Christian, but I appreciate the thoughts from other religions on topics of mutual interest, such as personal productivity, money, etc.

  14. Interesting thoughts…A lot of the ideas that have gone over so well on your site regarding finances, etc., may not outright be labeled as Christian but are based on principles of the faith. It’s not secret that we are all created mind, body and spirit, to leave out one of these deeply intertwined parts while attempting to balance one’s life is not possible.

    Needless to say, I think faith and finances go hand-in-hand. Otherwise, what would it matter how one spends their finances. Even for those who are non-religious, being such requires faith.

  15. Trent, all I ask is that you not be apologetic for your faith in God. If there is ever *anything* that one should be proud of and firm about, it is one’s belief in God. It is not something to be ashamed about or make apologies for. :) You shouldn’t have to explain yourself, as it is your blog.

    As for the Joel Osteen comment, please, I BEG of you, do not view him as a representative of the Christian faith.

    I look forward to your review. Margin is definitely something I could use a little more of. :)

    -Vic

  16. I would welcome your review of the book; in fact, if you want to review a book on Shari’a law and its aspects of personal finance, that’s fine too. I’m a Lutheran (ECLA variety, or “the liberal kind”), and we certainly don’t have the market on wise advice :)

    I loved your paragraph about seeing both sides of the effects of religion. I think much of the concept of faith really is (and should be) individual; when whole swaths of populations subscribe to group-think about God’s will, that’s where the trouble comes in.

    Keep the wonderful posts coming. And thanks for giving voice to questioning and doubts–it’s a refreshing change from the people who think they have all the answers, and who feel that they are mandated somehow.

  17. As far as your faith, I think you hit good points and just want to illustrate religion has its place in society, despite anyone’s personal beliefs. But you should express your beliefs here, we’re coming her to read about -your- experience and how you got to where you are. If that includes being a Christian, so be it.

    As far as the book, sounds interesting and more or less up my alley. For the last year or so, I’ve been pushing to create a more peaceful life. I went from being a commercial video editor working from 9am – 8pm most nights, frequently worked overtime until 1-2am, and even worked 32 hour shifts straight at some points. I had clients who were abusive, workaholics, some even cried, and others who had no business ethics. So I put a major focus on slowing down, finding writing work, and getting to know my true goals and happiness. So far, it’s been great.

    http://www.theinnovativetraveler.com

  18. I look forward to hearing about it.

    Honestly as a Christian I hate most Christian living books.

    I often feel like they put too much pressure on people to be a particular way, they simplify complex issues and make people feel left out (Christians, I mean), etc. They act as if being a Christian solves all your problems…forgetting so many people with strong faith who have battled depression and feelings of abandonment even by God. There you have it..

    The reason I look forward to reading about this on your blog is a) Life balance is definitely an issue for me. b) I think you’ll be presenting the best parts of the book and not in the fashion which drives me away.

  19. Very interesting review, Trent. Faith cuts across through so many parts of our lives. I think most religions (at least the major ones) also advise against greed. What has made people debt-leaden is greed, envy, deception (where they refuse to accept that they cannot afford something). They deceive themselves saying they will be able to pay later and before they know it debt builds up. even obesity has a strong correlation with greed (over-eating). Then come the big houses, big cars, colelsting ‘stuff’ etc.

    No matter what faith or no faith, like you said, one would be follish not to draw wisdom where it is available. You are doing great, keep it up.

  20. Very interesting review, Trent. Faith cuts across through so many parts of our lives. I think most religions (at least the major ones) also advise against greed. What has made people debt-leaden is greed, envy, deception (where they refuse to accept that they cannot afford something). They deceive themselves saying they will be able to pay later and before they know it debt builds up. even obesity has a strong correlation with greed (over-eating). Then come the big houses, big cars, collecting ‘stuff’ etc.

    No matter what faith or no faith, like you said, one would be foolish not to draw wisdom where it is available. You are doing great, keep it up.

  21. Reading through this post and all the comments was rather interesting. First of all, Trent, don’t be ashamed of your faith. I too am very non-confrontational, but I believe in a lot of things, and I’m willing to share these beliefs with others. I believe in a particular candidate for president. I believe in several principles regarding finances and money. I believe in various political policies. I have a faith in God. People are allowed to believe in something and even share their excitement about this with others!

    Second, reading through these comments, there is a lot of close-mindedness and bigotry here. Comments like “I don’t think a personal finance book is any place for a religious agenda.” and “As a non-Christian, little bells go off in my head whenever faith is mentioned.” This just shows preconceived notions and judgements about people without even listening to them. People need to be very open-minded, and yet very firm in their beliefs. If someone mentions God or atheism to me, no alarm bells go off in my head. And the simple mention is religion does not indicate a religious agenda. People need to listen to others, understand where others are coming from, and understand what other people believe in. There’s a huge different between being open-minded and wishy-washy. We don’t need to be the latter. We have the right — and even the responsibility — to be firm in our beliefs. We need to debate our beliefs politely with others, and work with each other towards the betterment of society and ourselves. This might involve incorporating religious beliefs, and it might involve incorporating non-religious philosophical beliefs. But please don’t be judgemental and bigoted towards others simply because they hold a belief you don’t.

  22. Rick, beautifully stated! And in such an articulate manner.

    “This just shows preconceived notions and judgements about people without even listening to them.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

  23. Trent, I look forward to your review, as should others. My wife just returned from her Cardiologist 3 weeks ago with a “Prescription” fro her Dr. to read this very book. The book will save many over-stressed lives from a pre-mature death. Religious or not — the book carries very timely advice for our overly high-tech, multi-tasking, efficiency obsessed culture we live in.

  24. Religion kept me from reading Dave Ramsey’s books for a long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I became a practicing Catholic that I read his books, and loved them. He did include his religion in them, because it had inspired him. Thanks for noting why you hesitated on this particular book, and please do bring us a full review in the future!

  25. Rick and Vic – regarding your statement and agreement of
    “Second, reading through these comments, there is a lot of close-mindedness and bigotry here. Comments like “I don’t think a personal finance book is any place for a religious agenda.” and “As a non-Christian, little bells go off in my head whenever faith is mentioned.” This just shows preconceived notions and judgements about people without even listening to them.”

    I’m sorry to disagree with you, but I couldn’t agree less with that statement.

    Most of the close-mindedness and bigotry I encounter comes from Christians beating me over the head (usually metaphorically) with their religious diatribe. Your comment that ‘no alarm bells go off in your head’ simply indicates that you are part of the vocal majority religion held in this land. What to you is ‘preconceived notions and judgements’ is to myself and other people simply experience.

    I do look forward to both Trent’s review of and my own reading of Margin and I am grateful when Trent mentiones his faith in his posts – they add to a more complete view of his personality and present more of a context in what he says. I don’t see him as ashamed of his faith (your words) but as considerate of his readers — not all of whom share his religious faith, but do share many of his experiences and goals in the financial matters of their life.

    “You are correct when you say that a simple mention of religion is NOT a religious agenda. But it rarely stops at a simple mention and, sadly, usually develops into a heated agenda-laden argument rather than a wonderful discussion of philosophical differences and religious similarities.

  26. I look forward to the review. I may have to search this one out at our biweekly library visit tomorrow.

    While I understand your reasons for not doing it so far, I applaud your willingness to open the discussion up to matters of faith as it relates to financial management. And I would still applaud even if I did not share your beliefs.

  27. I look at it this way:

    This blog is a personal finance blog. If you were to decide to not review a personal finance book because it contains Christian theology and teachings, then you are moving your blog from personal finance to something else entirely. Instead of making a statement on personal finance (which is the whole reason I come here), you are making a statement on the value of Christian content.

    I’m glad you’re going to review this book. And I think it’s worth pointing out that you seemed to have no problem reviewing “Your Money or Your Life” despite it’s “New Age-y” themes. I doubt there could be any good arguments for including New Age thinking in personal finance while excluding Christian thinking.

  28. It’s sad that we have come to this point. We live in fear of offending someone. Even in AA, where the program is centered around a higher power…using God as a generic name for this higher power now offends people. So now they are starting to say that GOD stands for Group Of Drunks. How pathetic is that? We are a bunch of whinney little cry-babies! I know that religion is a touchy subject but, if something compells you than don;t deny it. You don’t have to “shove religion down someone’s throat” but you shouldn’t compromise your beliefs or pretend to be someone/thing your not because you’re worried that it will make you less popular. Take Judas for example. He denied even knowing Christ!

  29. I am a Muslim and I like reading about what other faiths say about PF.

    Like one of the earlier commenters said, a good idea is good, irrespective of where it originated.

    You are a preacher of good PF habits and practices, and if you need to quote or relate to references which include religious texts, by all means.

  30. Good post Trent! I’m anxious for the review.

    I certainly don’t understand all the tip-toeing about on religion but I think the heads-up is a good courtesy to your readers.

    My question is this: why is this sort-of question generally so one-sided? In other words, why do so many of you think of religion shoving things down your throat and not think of anyone who holds to any position at all “shoving things down your throat?” How is writing on and exploring things from a faith-based point of view “shoving things down” anyone’s throat? Have we come so far that we must apologize anytime we invoke religion, faith, or God? Is that true tolerance? I don’t know of anybody that writes a post and says up-front: “Now be careful, I’m going to post from my secular, liberal point-of-view and I don’t want to offend those of you who do not hold that point-of-view.”

    The idea that we must apologize for what we believe, whether liberal or conservative, religious or non-religious, troubles me. We should be willing to consider the truth of another position and hear someone out from their perspective. Responding with “don’t shove that down my throat” to another person speaking forthrightly, firmly but considerately and clearly from their point-of-view is not true tolerance but shallow and lazy. If you’re truly open-minded and tolerant, then “put your money where your mouth is” and give an ear. Just a thought.

    Anyways, I think we all need to understand the significance of our own “worldviews” and recognize that none of us operate from a completely value-free, unstructured, frameless mindset. Nor do anyone of else really hold that all worldviews are equal and exchangable. Push all of us to the limit and we would like to think that our worldview is true or that we at least hold to some basic true beliefs, anyone who doesn’t is either willing to live in cartoon-land or has some serious angst issues. I recommend James Sires, “The Universe Next Door.”

    Keep up the great blogging!

  31. @daydreamr,

    Not to nitpick, but actually it was Peter who denied knowing Christ. Judas betrayed him to the chief priests which led to his arrest, his condemnation and his crucifixion.

  32. When I share my faith with someone, it is a sharing of my life experience. It is neither right nor wrong, it is my experience. I can absolutely state that as a Christian, my life is far from perfect. I have problems and issues, but as I have sought to follow the teachings of my faith, I have far fewer problems of my own creation than I see in the general populace. Again, this is my personal experience. There are very notable examples of professed Christians who have caused themselves significant personal problems due to poor choices. While this saddens me I do recognize that we’re all human and thus fallible.

    @Vic – +1 on your comment re: Joel Osteen and his prosperity gospel.

    @BigRed – I too am interested in Islamic law and finances, in particular it’s treatment of interest. No interest is an interesting concept :-)

  33. Christ Almighty! as my Dad used to say. Getting reasonable advice from any source makes sense but having that advice quoted dogmatically is what the whole upsettedness is about. Some Christians are like some smokers. They don’t even realize that there really are side effects to their addiction. So the smoker doesn’t notice he or she dropped a butt outside your door and still has ashes on his or her shirt, and the Christian doesn’t realize that his or her audience has heard the same old same old, like that fellow poster from Texas, ad nauseum.

  34. This is funny and sad at the same time. Everyone has a story and if you are defensive about anything it shows you lack love. I am fat because of a medical condition and in fact I can barely eat and yet some would judge me as a glutton and a sinner. But judge not lest ye be judged. To better ones self starts with the inside out. People spend money from an emotional stance just like a smoker or an overeater or gambler etc. These are the things that separate us from our money, and one up on our fellow humans, as it one was worse than the other. I believe in God and I also believe in cause and effect. Who cares what people think because it’s always about a perception and not based on reality. Reality is what brings us to the truth, if you can’t be honest with yourself, then how can you fix anything, either faith, debt, health etc… You have to be present for the truth and accept it fully. That is what I love about Trent he is honest about his use of temperance and makes a conscience effort not to overspend. God Bless Us all. We need all the help we can get.

  35. I feel that what you write about, wiether or not religion is blatanly spoken about, speak about your moral character. I don’t know what church you go to…etc, but I know that you have religion, I like to think Christian. That is why I can relate to your blog.

  36. Im trying to get my money on track my parents died when I was young and no one taught me the value of a dollar or how to mange my money need help what do you recommed?

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