Sunday, March 4, 2007

Simplicity as a Practical Discipline (Part 1)

According to the Washington Post, the consumer debt in America exceeded 2 trillion dollars in 2004, rising from 1 trillion in 1994. According to the College Board, the average college student accumulated roughly $2,700 of credit card debts by graduation in addition to $20,000+ of school loans. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, the credit card debts for low to middle income Americans show an average of $8,650 in 2005 as compared with Australians of the same level at only $2,500.

Many Americans, including Vietnamese-Americans, are living beyond their income levels. The American dream of a small house with a white picket fence has evolved into a 3000+ square feet house in a gated community, an SUV and several luxury sedans.

In my practice and ministry, I have been seeing an increase in individual and family stress for the past 10+ years, largely due to the desire for more material things. Unfortunately, this occurs at similar rates even among Christians. Sometimes a person strives to keep up with the Jones’ without even realizing it. In an age of consumerism, society makes it easy to borrow money. Instead of buying what we can afford now, we charge it with the confidence that it will be paid next month. However, next month comes and years go by, and we find that the credit card really hasn’t decreased that much.

In the desire to have a bigger and nicer house, many people take out a much larger loan then they can realistically afford. What is the responsible standard for taking out a home loan? While there are many views, my own is to only take out a loan based on what you can afford on your average income for the past three years—and for a working couple, base that on the highest income. This way, in the event of a loss or change of employment (for the working couple) by one person, the remaining income may be tight, but will not cause the stress of a foreclosure during the time that the unemployed person looks for alternate employment.

In an age of consumerism and easy loans, it is not easy to refrain from taking out a home loan based on the maximum combined income of both you and your spouse. It is not easy to refrain from using your credit card as a loan source for the family vacation, home furnishing or other enjoyments. Though the quick gratification will provide satisfaction for a time, the potential ramifications from the stress that it produces is far beyond its temporary worth.

In his book, Celebrations of Discipline, Richard Foster states that simplicity is freedom. Would you like to reduce stress in your life, your marriage? Consider learning to practice the discipline of simplicity. Whereas materialism and consumerism often brings bondage and stress, simplicity brings balance and freedom.

The discipline of simplicity involves both an inward acceptance as well as an outward lifestyle. In the coming months, we’ll briefly consider how the discipline of simplicity can reduce stress and bring more happiness to family relationships.

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