To Save or Not to Save?
Feature by Dave Gemmell
The Perry family was crushed by a debt that was quickly growing to almost a quarter million dollars. Jay had taken a leave of absence from his job as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor to be the full-time caregiver for his terminally ill mom. The family planned on living off of his wife’s salary, but she sustained a disabling injury and was unable to work. How in the world could the family stay afloat with the absence of two salaries and health challenges all while raising their son.
In her early 30s, Tory Salo*, a lifelong Adventist, had a wake-up call. “What have I done?” she asked herself. She had just graduated from a university, leaving her with $50,000 in debt, and the income from her professional job was not enough to keep her head above water. She had run up a $15,000 credit card debt, and much of her income went to pay off exorbitant interest charges. Her living expenses and little luxuries like going out to eat were adding up. She felt trapped!
The Perrys and Salo are not alone in financial despair. Many Adventists struggle with debt, wondering if they will have enough money to retire, or for an emergency or to make contributions to their church. But not all Adventists struggle with finances.
As a young immigrant to this country, Ed Billingy began turning his small wages into a growing real estate portfolio. As his knowledge increased, he generously shared his savviness with others. Through the decades, Billingy has mentored hundreds and conducted dozens of financial seminars at Adventist churches in the Washington metropolitan area. “It’s the most exciting feeling in the world equipping people to turn around their finances,” he says.
This begs the question, what separates those who struggle financially from those who flourish? Is higher income the only factor, or are there factors outside of income that affect net worth?
Last spring, the North American Division (NAD) conducted a survey for Adventists with comparable incomes.** The results show a great diversity, ranging from an anticipated net worth at retirement below $200,000 to more than $5 million. Because of the wide distribution, the study gives great insight as to what factors correlate with net worth and provides clues for those who wish to turn around their finances. The study gleaned the following six practices that contribute to financial health, listed in ascending order of correlation strength.
6. Financial Mentorship
Although the Bible has much to say about money, many are reluctant to talk about it. Perhaps, it is too personal. If they are floundering, they are ashamed; if they are prospering, they don’t want to come across as arrogant. Unfortunately, silence can breed financial ineptitude. Financial mentorship requires matching humble learners with compassionate financial teachers.
In her wake-up call, Salo sought out people whose lives reflected wise financial decisions. She thought the conversations might be awkward, but instead her mentors were delighted to share their financial wisdom and overjoyed when she began to successfully incorporate their advice. She was off and running on the journey toward financial health.
In those dark times of debt, Perry saw an ad from a local church for a financial seminar. He deeply engaged in it, and using the skills he learned, crawled out from the crush of debt into the freedom of financial health. His passion for personal finance led to professional financial education and a career as a certified financial advisor.
“Most people don’t put it together on their own,” he says. “We need somebody who can give good money advice. Mentors should share our Christian values and not ridicule us for giving 15–20 percent of our income to charity. Church-based financial seminars are a great place to find a financial mentor.”
5. Deferred Gratification
Perry believes most people would much rather get a reward sooner than later. To reverse that bias, goal setting allows us to think about the well-being of our future self. “When we shave and save, we reap the reward! When we reach our goal, celebrate!” he says.
He finds budgeting to be a powerful tool: “Start by keeping track of expenses for a few months. Then put your goals into the budget. It may take a little trial and error to get it right. Once the categories are workable, find someone who can hold you accountable to sticking to that budget.”
Salo, who drives a 10-year-old car so she can save up for a new one someday, thought it would be fun to drive a newer, fun model, she says. Instead, she recently bumped up her retirement contributions when she realized that a modest increase in her contributions now raised her potential retirement net worth by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
4. Avoiding Consumer Debt
Perry says, “It’s easy to accidentally go into debt. It’s extremely difficult to accidentally get out of debt.” Quoting Charles Dickens, he says, “Income $20.00, expense $19.99, result happiness. Income $20.00, expense $20.06, result misery.” Compounded interest may be wonderful for the investor but devastating to the debtor. Perry remembers, “Once our family got out of debt, we felt we had lots of money for [us] and for the church.”
In her turnaround story, Salo prioritized paying down her high-interest debt as quickly as possible, allowing her to turn her cashflow from negative to positive and save for long-term goals.
3. Contributions to Charity
Salo effuses, “When I started getting serious about finances, I bumped my giving up, and I was able to save more. I’ve noticed the more I give, the more it flows back. I feel like I have more wiggle room. I never miss that money. It always comes back.”
Billingy shares how he led a nine-week financial health series at his church. “We taught adults, teenagers and even kids how to manage money in a more responsible way. The next quarter, the church giving went up 10 percent. Because people handled money better, they had more to give.”
Perry believes “generosity changes the way our brains think about money. We go from a victim mindset to a victor mindset. In order to give generously, you have to budget better. You think more clearly and more often about your funds and how to use them, not just the 15–20 percent contributions, but how you’re honoring God with the rest of your budget.”
2. Financial Literacy
Always looking for good financial resources, last year Perry read 30 books on finances. He says, “There’s lots of self-help books that are off-base or prioritize one high-risk tool. That’s where a trusted professional or mentor can help lead you to a favorite podcast, book or other resource.”
Salo uses her investigative skills to do solid research on investing and the real estate market by using multiple sources, avoiding things that “sound too good to be true,” and relying only on mainstream trusted resources.
Billingy cautions that financial literacy is not enough: “What’s really needed? Discipline. You would be amazed at some of the excuses people come up with on why they can’t do this or can’t do that. But when they eventually find that discipline, things begin to happen.”
1. Owning Your Own Home
Perry says, “Owning your own home is difficult: raising the down payment, having a good credit score, having the right debt-toincome ratio. Yet, if folks stick to a budget, it can happen. And when it does, there’s a huge inflation hedge, forced savings plan, asset, tax deduction, and eventually money when you liquidate it.”
Billingy, now a retired real estate broker, teaches clients to make a modest first home purchase with the intent of eventually turning it into an investment property. In time, individuals can purchase a second property as a primary residence with a lower interest rate and smaller down payment than an investment property. This approach can be repeated to build a modest real estate portfolio.
Salo stayed disciplined and paid off her credit card debt and car loan. Immediately, she felt empowered and soon saved up enough to purchase her first home. Now, after years of discipline, she’s upgraded to a home with a rental unit that helps pay her mortgage. “I feel so free,” she says. “If I want to give more money to my church, I can. If I want to go on a vacation, I can. If I want to put more into my retirement, I can. Because I saved money years ago, I can live a little bit more now.”
It took four years of hard work and a short sale on their house for the Perry family to crawl out from their crushing debt. But through faith in God and wise financial practices, things have turned around dramatically. Perry's wife recovered from her injury and is a full-time librarian in Hagerstown, Md. Their son is now a senior at Chesapeake Conference’s Highland View Academy, also located in Hagerstown. And Perry finds fulfillment in helping others discover the principles of faith and finances as a financial advisor with Turning Point Financial in Frederick, Md.
* Tory Salo is a pseudonuym.
** Download the preliminary findings of “Factors That Affect Adventist Financial Health” at columbiaunionvisitor.com/financialhealthtips, which was presented at the 2022 CALLED Pastors’ Family Convention in Lexington, Ky.
Dave Gemmell recently retired as an associate director at North American Division’s Ministerial Department. While writing this feature, he stretched his dollars by taking breaks to snowboard on a $197 Senior Season pass.