Jennifer writes in with a beautiful question:
I am a married 24 year old Christian woman. I attended college at a Christian school majoring in marketing, fell in love there, and got married shortly after college. I worked for a year immediately after college, but my husband and I agree that I would be a stay at home mom when we had a child and we started trying immediately after getting married.
I’m now a stay-at-home mom with a one year old and a three month old. While I love having the opportunity to do this and take care of my babies, I also struggle with the impact that this choice has on our family’s future.
My husband makes about $60,000 a year as the IT director for a fairly small local company. He has two people who work under him. I’m not sure he has anywhere to move up in his career without switching employers. We tithe 10% of our income to the church which is an automated $120 a week. This is something we are called to do by our faith and it comes first for us.
I feel like my faith and my family are pushing me in one direction and my desire to have a career of my own and to have a stronger family financial situation is pushing me in the other, but the push of faith and family is much stronger. I am still left with some difficult thoughts sometimes. I hope that you can provide some wise guidance on how to balance faith, family, career, and finances.
There’s really a lot to unpack here in Jennifer’s question. I’m going to do my best to walk through the major issues that I see in Jennifer’s email.
First of all, Jennifer and her family are Christians, but there are many aspects of what she writes about that apply to people of other religious traditions and faiths as well as to people who are not particularly religious. She’s speaking of balancing strongly-held values against financial and professional success when they pull in opposite directions, and I know that a lot of people struggle with that across countless different religions and social beliefs.
I’m going to specifically address Jennifer throughout this article, but if you don’t feel as though those beliefs apply to you, take a moment and think about beliefs in your own life that point in a direction that isn’t a straight route to financial success. Perhaps you have your own particular moral or ethical views that restrict you in your career, such as an unwillingness to cut certain corners, or in your financial life, such as some specific causes that you support.
Let’s start digging in.
Figuring Out Your Values
Jennifer’s question revolves around the tug-of-war between some of her deeply held values and her desire for financial and professional success. Before we go on, let’s see if we can extract some of her values – implied and directly stated – from this article.
She’s very family-oriented and wants to have multiple children. Her choice to have children very quickly after marriage and become a stay-at-home mother makes this very clear. This value trumps most other values, particularly those related to continuing her career at the time being.
She tithes 10% of the family income to their church. Jennifer’s faith is a major part of her life and this involves participation in a church. Part of that commitment is to tithe 10% of their income, right off the top, to this church.
Her husband has chosen a career path that earns a solid income right now, but may have some obstacles with regard to bumping up his earnings going forward. It’s hard to say whether values are connected to this career choice or not, as we don’t have enough information about the community they live in, but it is worth noting that this appears to be a more hands-on technical position rather than a management position. Although he has two people working under him, I’ve yet to meet an IT worker in that small of a group that wasn’t incredibly hands-on, too. This is much more “technical” than “manangement.”
She has a degree in marketing and has at least some desire to put it to work. Although she has prioritized staying at home, she does have a marketing background and, at least at some point, was putting it to work. She’s not actively in that career path, but does seem to voice some desire to return to it in the future.
She wants her family to achieve a greater level of financial success than they currently have. Her primary struggle is in figuring out how to achieve that with the above constraints.
What follows are several suggestions on how to maximize your financial standing with those constraints.
Talk About the Future
This might seem like a strange place to start, but I think it’s where you need to start when you’re trying to figure out how to balance your life going forward. It needs to center around conversation with the core people in your life – in this case, Jennifer and her husband.
Part of what’s going on under the surface of Jennifer’s note is an uncertainty about the future. She correctly has a sense that they need to be building toward something together, but she’s unsure what that is. It’s really hard to work for the future if you have no idea what that future looks like.
You need to solidify that future as much as you can, and that starts with conversation.
Talk with your husband about where you’ll both be in five years, ten years, twenty years down the road. What do you want your life to look like at each of those points? How many children will you have? What kind of job does your husband strive to have at those points? Will you return to the workplace at some point?
The answers to those questions need to be figured out between Jennifer and her husband. Not only will those answers provide them with some goals to work toward, it will also help them clarify some of their values and get on the same page on a lot of things. It will also help them see a few differences between them, areas where deeper conversation is needed.
Trust me, the most valuable thing you can achieve in a marriage is being on the same page with things. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you should be able to find ways to compromise so that you’re working together rather than against each other. Jennifer should get “her way” on a few things regarding the future, and her husband should get “his way” on a few things, too.
Work to build some concrete plans that will help you get to those visions of the future. Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, work together to come up with a plan to get there. What do you need to do to get from here to there?
Again, this is all about conversation. Where are you now? What’s different between here and there? What do you need to do to get there? What can you start doing right away to make it happen? What are some of the major initiatives you’ll need to take on?
Those thoughts will give you a lot of useful direction going forward. The key is to start actually doing those things as soon as possible.
Keep revisiting those conversations and plans. On a very regular basis – my wife and I do this about once a week – talk a bit about how you’re each moving forward on your plans. You won’t necessarily be moving forward each week, and that’s okay. Just give each other encouragement and be positive.
Once a month or so, talk in general about your goals and plans. Are they still ones that seem powerful to you? Do the plans make sense? I’ve found that a goal you’re not excited to work toward is generally not a great long term goal, so if you find that you’re not making much progress toward that goal, be critical about the goal and the plan.
Don’t judge, though. Don’t be negative. The goal is the best life possible for the two of you, and that involves working toward things that you’re both excited about. If that’s not happening, then it’s the goals and plans that need a fresh look.
Make Saving for Big Goals Much Like a Tithe
Jennifer and her husband have a clear commitment toward tithing. That’s not only a useful strategy for giving connected to your faith, but also for broader financial success.
Automate your savings goals, much like you do with your tithe. It sounds like Jennifer and her husband automate their tithing through some mechanism. The truth is that automating your savings in a very similar way is a powerful way to save for bigger goals.
It’s easy. Just instruct your bank to peel a little bit of money out of your checking account each month and put it in a separate savings account, one you’re not going to look at regularly.
At first, treat that money as a pure emergency fund. Later on, you may want to start additional funds with multiple savings accounts, each with their own automatic transfers. That’s a great way to save for a car or for a house down payment or for a child’s college education.
Figure out your family budget after the money from those savings goals are removed. This is the core of the idea of “paying yourself first.” You put aside money for your big goals first and then figure out how to make ends meet with what’s left over.
That means that your family budget becomes a bit tighter than before, something we’ll address in a little bit, but it also means that you’re planting a lot of seeds right now that will grow into beautiful trees in the future.
I find that the concept of scattering seeds that will grow into wheat is something that tends to strike home for many Christians. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re saving for the future. You’re scattering seeds now that will grow into wheat when you need it later on. Make it a priority and figure out the day-to-day life after that.
Make the elimination of debt a top priority. If you still have debt in your life from school or from a car loan or from a mortgage, make it a priority to eliminate that debt. It needs to go.
I strongly encourage you to find room in your family budget to make a double payment on your highest interest debt, whatever that might be. If it’s too large to pull that off, just make an extra half-payment.
The reason for this is that the elimination of debt payments from your budget is one of the most powerful ways to free up space in your budget for other things, like saving for the future. It also gives you some breathing room for handling unexpected life changes, like a loss of work for your husband.
Become a Highly Efficient Home Economist
So, how will Jennifer make this compressed budget work? The most powerful tool she has at her disposal is her time at home, which she can use to become much more efficient in terms of frugality and home economy.
Focus on strategies that save both money and time, like making meals in advance and using a slow cooker. One of the big drawbacks of many frugal strategies is that they can suck up a lot of time, time that working professionals have to devote to their jobs and time that stay-at-home parents need to devote to their children. That’s why I believe the best frugal strategies save both money and time.
I’m a big fan of things like preparing four copies of a casserole or soup at once and freezing the three extras for future use. I’m a big fan of making meals in the slow cooker so that family time in the evening is minimally interrupted by the need to prepare meals. I’m a big fan of making a grocery list before you ever go to the store so that you spend far less time in the store.
Any situation in which you can spend less money and less time is almost always a winner. Strategies that involves spending less money with no time cost, like buying store brand items, are also great ideas.
Start a garden and make it your “calm place.” Stay-at-home parents need a place to “escape” to sometimes, but there’s often little opportunity for that. My best suggestion for finding that kind of breathing room and calmness in life is to start a simple vegetable garden and spend some time each week or even each day tending it.
Gardening might not seem like your kind of thing, but I encourage you to give it a try. Make a little garden in the spring, then spend a little slice of time each day out there weeding or watering or seeding. Let the kids play in the yard for a bit while you do it, or do it when they’re napping, or spend an hour there on the weekend when your husband is handling primary child care.
Not only is gardening a great way to just focus on something else for a while, it puts you outside in a natural environment and it grows incredibly cheap and incredibly healthy food for your family without costing a lot of money for you to find a place to “escape” to. I highly recommend it.
Make energy improvements to your home so that your energy bills drop over the long term. There are many little energy tweaks you can make to your home so that your monthly energy bill is permanently lowered.
You can do things like switching to LED light bulbs at home or weatherstripping your doors or putting caulk around your windows to block air drafts; each of those things can really decrease your energy bill.
The truth is that there are many strategies for cutting back on your family budget, from shopping around for insurance to cutting out your cable or satellite bill and from cutting your children’s hair yourself to airing up the tires on your cars to the maximum level. The goal is to find things you can do under the constraint of having two young children at home, so things you can easily pull off with a toddler running around are at a premium.
Keep Your Career Skills Sharp
Jennifer’s long term goal seems to be to return to her field of expertise, which is marketing. Although she’s a stay-at-home mother right now, that won’t always be true, and thus she needs to keep at least a little bit of an eye on the field.
Subscribe to periodicals related to your career path, and stay aware of people in your career path on social media. Stay-at-home parents often don’t have much free time, but I strongly encourage you to block off at least a few chunks of time for yourself, and at least a little of that time should be spent on keeping tabs on your old career.
Be involved on social media with things that are related to your profession. Maintain a “professional” social media account on various sites – Twitter is a popular place for marketing people – and have conversations about your career with people still in the field.
Also, stay up to date with your field through reading. Know what’s changing in your field and try to stay in touch with what you need to know if you were to return.
Help with marketing your church or other civic organizations in your spare time. This is all about finding ways in your life as it is right now to ply your skills, hopefully in a way that provides something that you can note when you try to get a new job.
Almost every church and every civic organization has some need for marketing expertise to attract new members and keep current members interested in the various programs available. Use some of your marketing skills there to transform some of the programs into something exciting and engaging both for new and old members.
You can very much control how much time and effort you put into this. Don’t take on too much, but find ways to actually use your skills and keep them fresh.
Look for situations to take on simple freelancing work in your community. You may also find that there are occasional opportunities to use your marketing skills in freelance work in the community, perhaps even freelance work that’s opened up through your efforts with the church or with other community groups.
Maybe a local business wants an overhaul of how they attract customers or someone wants to launch a new business and needs some startup marketing help. Since you’re already involved in your church community, you probably have some connections, and if you’re showing off your skills in the church and in community organizations, you’re probably primed to make those connections.
Again, keep it simple. Take on little things that you can handle in your relatively few spare hours, and remember that the goal is to keep your skills fresh and earn a few dollars.
In the end, I feel as though you need to prioritize your personal beliefs in everything that you do in life. If you sacrifice your personal beliefs in the name of short term financial success, you’ll quickly find yourself adrift in many areas in life. Stick to your beliefs (but don’t be afraid to let those beliefs grow and be questioned sometimes).
However, even as you’re doing that, you can still keep the windows open to opportunity. Don’t bend your beliefs to match what you think is needed; instead, bend the situation to your beliefs to the best of your ability. Don’t look at your beliefs as constraints but as powerful filters for only the best opportunities.
You have a strong family, a strong set of values, and a community of supportive people around you. That’s a valuable thing. Keep them at the core of who you are and what you do and use them as a lens for your money and career choices and you’ll end up making choices that just feel right.