By Seth Busetti
As we help more and more families with their finances, I have come to believe the hardest part for most people is not the numbers, but rather adopting the practice of financial transparency. This includes opening up, not just about what they earn and what they spend, but how they organize their lives. A husband tells his wife his salary, but won’t disclose the details of their tax return (and she’s okay not knowing). A wife pays the bills and makes sure everything is paid on time, but won’t tell the husband how much she spends on groceries or other shopping (and he’s okay not knowing). A single person tells their church friends and pastor “they are doing okay” but always speaks about finances in generalities. Saying “God is good, He always provides” does not counteract concealing that “I’m sometimes late on my mortgage payment and last month I had to borrow money to pay my taxes.”
Why is it so hard to be financially transparent?
I wish I had a nickel for every uplifting sermon I’ve heard that is centered around the positivity message that if you’d just pay your tithe, God will sort out every bad thing that happens to you financially. If you’d just give generously (“sow some seeds”) God will grant a promotion, send a windfall, erase your medical bill, pardon your past debt, and give you a new car.
Folks, God can do these things. No doubt. And sometimes he does! However, that message is incomplete. Biblical financial stewardship is about more than that. Here’s three things positivity and tithing cannot fix in your personal finances:
- Lack of transparency between a husband and wife. Sometimes referred to as the “as long as he/she pays the electricity bill on time, I don’t care what else happens” syndrome (ALHSPEBTIDCWEH). Do you know the details of how your spouse is killing it on their new side hustle? Does your spouse know what games you are playing to juggle the bills and to make things work each month?
- Lack of transparency with other family or outsiders. You’ve heard this said: “this is family business” or “finances are private” or “what I spend my money on is none of their concern.” Sure, in many cases your salary should stay private. Do think twice before posting the details of your investment portfolio on Facebook. And yeah, nobody needs to know how much you spend on hemorrhoid cream, fertility treatments, or marriage counseling. But if you are a Believer, your lifestyle is not supposed to be opaque. Read 1 Timothy. Now there’s a whole bunch of the Apostle Paul getting into people’s “private” business, and instructing Timothy to do the same!
- Lack of transparency between financial cause and effect. Remember the medieval practice of indulgences? The belief that you could purchase a pardon from the Church, in effect using money to offset the consequences of sin? I’ll be bold and say some families treat their tithe as form of indulgence. The end result of that thinking looks something like, “I pay my tithe so that bad things won’t to happen to me financially.” As in, tithes and offerings cover a multitude of financial sins, mistakes, or unwise decisions. Or perhaps twist that a little: “as long as I pay my tithe, it is nobody’s business what the rest of my finances look like, that’s between me and God.” The problem with this mindset is it assumes we are not accountable to anybody but God, which is clearly not a Biblical position.
The greatest financial growth happens in a family when the transparency switch is turned on. When people are willing to face their situation in all its glorious or gory details. You’ve got killer style! How much do you spend on hair product? Alcohol? Diapers? Highway tolls? Did you get a good deal on your car? How good? What year is it and how many miles does it have? What did you pay? What percentage of your take home pay goes to retirement? Do you tithe? Pre-tax or post-tax? Why? How much do you spend buying gifts for your grandchildren? How much money does your father-in-law give you each year to essentially “subsidize” your lifestyle to a level he thinks is more suitable for his daughter? How much do you receive in alimony? Do you pay child support? You got it, this isn’t just numbers, these are details about your life.
I’ll make a tough statement. If you’re cringing at the thought of someone else knowing this information, you’re not ready for a financial transformation. Please hear me when I say I am not suggesting to go filet yourself to everybody. Sister Sue at church doesn’t need to know everything, neither does your mother-in-law. But couples need to be transparent with each other, for one, and both couples and singles need to have some sort of accountability: it could be a close friend, a pastor or mentor, or a paid professional. We have seen in our own lives and in so many other families with financial turnaround success stories that once they got honest, got transparent, and got accountable, then and only then did the magic started to happen.
A few years ago I read the outstanding book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. It documents the rise and fall of the Houston-based company and several of its key leaders. At the top of the company sat the late Kenneth Lay, an active church attender, Sunday school teacher, and world-class philanthropist. In the end, CEO Lay and his COO Jeffrey Skilling were indicted by a grand jury for securities and wire fraud and making false statements. If you read the story, you’ll find out the Enron problems didn’t start out with Lay trying to mislead people or get ahead from willful corruption. His company was growing rapidly and seeing unprecedented success. Years later, when certain divisions of the company were underperforming, the leadership, feeling fully justified, tried to cover up the losses and report only successful results. They played the game of shuffling around profits and losses to capitalize on apparent loopholes in reporting and taxes. They worked the system so that it always appeared that Enron was doing well (resulting in share prices rising), even when major parts of the company were significantly losing. The company grew more and more comfortable overstating earnings on financial reports for many years. You know the end of the story. Even though leadership had convinced themselves the “game” was perfectly ethical and absolutely legal, the courts disagreed. The bottom fell out, people went to jail, and the company collapsed.
I doubt most of us would connect our family’s financial story to what happened at Enron, but think about some key elements surrounding the collapse.
- A runaway culture of positive, results-oriented thinking drove leadership to reject negative realities and dismiss naysayers. The leaders were okay with not following up when whistle blowers would speak out, and they were unresponsive to warnings and red flags. And it was not just at work. Did Ken Lay’s wife know the funny business that was happening at work? Did she care to know?
- At the top, Kenneth Lay was, by most reckoning, “a good Christian man.” He truly led a generous, charitable company. Many of the leaders and big-time shareholders were mega-philanthropists. This unprecedented ability for “good” caused them to turn a blind eye to all the “bad” that was happening.
- The philosophy that the “ends justify the means” surrounded the leadership. Taking shortcuts, playing legal games, and burying failures was necessary, so long as the end looked good. This however, was self-deception as much as it was deceiving others.
I’m sharing that anecdote analog to try and reinforce the point that whether you are an hourly worker or a CEO, you should be accountable on a detailed level. We commonly say that a budget is a fence, a safeguard within which there is freedom. When you get your finances down on paper, and do it in detail, you start the process of working towards freedom. A big part of freedom comes from having confidence that you are doing the right things.
We have some excellent resources available to help you. If want to try a self-paced or guided study on building a healthy relationship with money, check out our 90-day workbook Entrusted with Money. Alexis is a fantastic personal coach and can help you design a financial strategy. She’ll also help you with the accountability you need to grow. Just drop us a note and we’ll get back with you.
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