According to a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, one-third of all American workers have a measly $1,000 saved for their retirement years. It says that 43% of Boomers and “Generation Xers” are at risk of running out of money in retirement. Among the poorest 25%, EBRI estimates a stunning 83% are at risk. Even more alarming, even these bleak numbers are based on the most optimistic financial scenarios!
This savings crisis happens against the backdrop of a stagnant average U.S. household income, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has barely grown in real terms since the late 1990s. In a culture where the lure of material comfort, pleasure, and status is tantalizing, it is little wonder that excessive consumption reigns as norm, resulting in historically low personal savings rates (of below 4%).
For Christians, it is clear the Scripture touts the virtue of savings. But it needs to be put into proper perspective. Since God is the rightful owner of all we have, our role is faithful steward and not hoarder of resources. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19 (“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”) and the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:15-21) make the point quite clear. To further the emphasis of trusting God in all circumstances, the Apostle Paul was quick to point out that “if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Likewise the writer of Hebrews reminds us: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). What then, would be the objectives of savings given these Scriptural teachings on contentment and trusting in God?
- Savings induce disciplined living – The overflowing abundance in our society often overwhelms our senses of living within our means, even if we sincerely desire so. In Proverbs 21:20, (“There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man swallows it up”) the contrast between the wise and the fool is not so telling in what they ended up as in how they got there – the act of squandering or devouring the resources entrusted to our care by God sets apart the foolish from the wise. Planned saving forces us to live responsibly. It is simply an act of wisdom in a materialistic world.
- Savings minimize our reliance on debt – As a financial economist I recognize the productive purposes of lending and borrowing in the modern economy. Even in personal finance, borrowing to acquire big-ticket assets (such as a home) that grow in value makes good economic sense as long as the debt service fits into a well thought-out budget with planned savings. Savings, however, keeps us out of unwarranted indebtedness which, after all, is enslaving and markedly inflates the total cost of a good or service (a form of “swallowing up” according to Proverbs 21:20). Saving is making provision for tomorrow, while debt is presumption upon tomorrow. Habitual indebtedness is both poor testimony and unfaithful stewardship. This is why Paul admonishes thus “let no debt remain outstanding…” (Romans 13:8) and Proverbs 22:7 cautions, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.”
- Savings answer to times of need – While life’s uncertainties are enough reason for prudent saving practices, what Joseph did in Genesis 41 speaks to the necessity of careful planning for needs foreseen. Chief among these anticipated needs is the maintenance of a decent quality of life after we retire, when our income abilities diminish and our health inevitably deteriorates. Moreover, our withdrawal from the active workforce does not obviate our continued obligation to provide financially for our loved ones, which include not only our spouses but perhaps also our elderly parents and grown children should circumstances demand it. Paul is unequivocal in stressing the importance of a family safety net when he writes: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
- Savings offer the freedom for ministry – Throughout Scripture the teaching on wealth has been remarkably consistent – it is a blessing in God’s sovereignty towards those who are faithful and obedient, and it is a curse towards those who are “not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Therein lies the difference between saving and hoarding. Hoarding is wealth building for self-glorification, and saving is wealth building for fulfilling our witness to God’s loving kindness. Not only is saving good stewardship because we can give to God’s work (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:2), but it is also our responsible answer to the Lord’s command about “not to worry about our lives” (Luke 12:22) – so that we can devote ourselves “worry free” to worthwhile ministries. While retirement is almost obligatory in modern secular work, it is not a known practice in the Scriptures. As we labor for the Kingdom in our advanced years, adequate savings would provide the freedom and means we need to be generous towards God.
- Savings bring a legacy of stewardship – Bequeathing an inheritance of material possessions is a virtue just as much as good character if it is built with integrity, discipline, and an eye towards nourishing our grandchildren to become good citizens of the Kingdom. Proverbs 13:22 appears to affirm this with the proclamation: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, and the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.” The wisdom of this, however, is balanced on the understanding that the beneficiaries must be ready, wise stewards themselves. Proverbs 20:21 thus cautions: “An inheritance gained hurriedly at the beginning will not be blessed in the end.” Andrew Carnegie was correct when he suggested that “the almighty dollar bequeathed to a child is an almighty curse.” Even for the trained child, it would perhaps be prudent to leave enough to help fund worthwhile education and head starts on business. Anything in excess could easily be turned into a curse.
Larry Burkett said, “You can tell more about the spiritual lives of a couple by looking at their check book than by anything else.” Savings, planned with the express intent of giving for the glory of God, is a practice that enriches spiritual lives, a discipline of faithful stewardship. It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that both savings and salvation stem from the same root word.
Ernest P. Liang teaches finance and economics and directs the Center for Christianity in Business at Houston Baptist University. Before HBU, he spent 25 years as economic consultant and senior financial executive with Fortune 100 and investment advisory firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.