Money Matters

Finances + faith add up to true wealth

When newlyweds Laura (Clark) ’08 and Dave Helman ’07 graduated from Messiah, they faced almost $100,000 in student loan debt, plus a credit card balance. It wasn’t an ideal start to their life together, but they set a joint goal to refrain from big purchases, keep their older cars running, live on Dave’s entry-level salary and use most of Laura’s pay to whittle away at what they owed.

Within five years, they’d paid it all off.

“We made it a priority,” said Laura Helman matter-of-factly. “Even our wedding money we put toward the student loans.”

The Helmans’ story represents a level of fiscal responsibility that seems impossible to many. But they are proof that with a plan, anything is possible. And when God is at the forefront of that plan, words that used to cause anxiety and fear – “budget,” “debt,” “money,” “savings” – become mere stepping stones along the path of doing God’s work.

“Jesus reframes us ‘stewards’ rather than owners of money and possessions. For me, that’s been transformational for decades,” said Michael Zigarelli, professor of leadership and strategy at Messiah. “If it’s God’s stuff, then in faith I need to manage it with integrity and excellence.”

We asked Messiah alumni and faculty at varying stages of life and financial means what they’ve learned about managing their money with a faithful focus.

Put God first

Though the Helmans made an intentional lifestyle choice to keep their purse strings tight, they did not view the offering basket as an extra.

“We’ve tithed through the entire time, even when we were paying off the debt,” Dave Helman said.

While giving to the church first allows people at all socioeconomic levels to spread God’s blessings, Zigarelli says keeping God in mind as the true owner of one’s wealth has the added benefit of keeping one’s budget on track.

“There are forces everywhere trying to separate us from our money,” said Zigarelli, whose single-income family includes his wife and four children – two of whom are students at Messiah. “But if I keep in the forefront that I’m a ‘steward,’ I’m less likely to succumb to those temptations.”

And coming to God with an idea in mind for your finances helps to align your plan with His vision.

“Stewardship should be rooted in prayer and transformation,” said Sarah Wade ’99, Messiah’s associate vice president for enrollment management, who has taken a mindful approach to saving and investing. “You don’t just get there because you wake up and do it all at once. It is hundreds of small decisions informed by my faith.”

Stay alert

Establishing a concrete financial goal that you really believe in, whether it’s to pay off a loan or to save for a down payment on a house, will keep you tuned in to your monthly expenses and extra spending.

“Where we’ve seen people get into trouble is not really paying attention to their money,” Dave Helman said, “and then stuff comes up.” 

Wade says she financially coasted through her early adult life before the realization that making deliberate financial choices in the short term might set one up to be financially independent—with the ability to travel or  switch careers—well before the age of 65.

“It’s completely changed my life and how I think about money,” she said.

Maxing out her Messiah 403b, a tax-deferred retirement account, is just one of her savvy financial decisions.

“Every time I receive a cost of living adjustment or raise, I put it toward savings,” explained Wade. “For example, if you receive a 2 percent raise, change your contribution amount from 7.5 to 9.5 percent and so on, until you have maxed out the 403b.”

Wade says she’s looking forward to the day when she can choose to work rather than have to work. “I’m fascinated by the idea of financial freedom,” she said.

Hold debt in check

The Helmans recognized from the start that working toward a healthy financial future is impossible if you’re constantly paying down what you owe from the past. Accounting major Regan Hershey ’17 is learning this lesson in real time.

When Hershey graduates in December, he estimates he’ll have about $65,000 in student loans – a deliberate choice by his parents, who are providing for his living expenses and food but relying on him to pay his tuition.

“They definitely have the means to pay for all of it, but my dad is a banker by trade and has said that he thinks it’s important for us to learn how to pay off debt,” said the 22-year-old, “which, although I might not like, is a really good thing.”

That type of forced responsibility, when taken seriously, can jump-start a life of careful budgeting and spending. Hershey says he saved half his summer internship salary to put toward his loans and plans to continue that level of commitment in the future.

Keep a healthy perspective

Working toward a financial goal can sometimes feel like a slog, as you make sacrifices while watching others enjoy lavish vacations or new cars. It’s important to stop and honor how far you’ve come, instead of focusing on how far you’ve yet to go.

“Once we were done (paying off the loans) we looked back and said, ‘Wow, that was kind of a big deal,’” said Dave Helman.

Zigarelli says, to stay grounded, focus on those who are less fortunate.

“Go on a mission trip periodically to a destitute area. It will change everything, whether it’s to Africa or Allison Hill. My trips to Sao Paulo and Panama City illuminated for me about how lavishly I’m blessed,” Zigarelli said. “Prudence and stewardship are the natural outgrowths of that fresh perspective.” 

Finally, keep in mind that just as your money isn’t truly yours alone, neither is your financial journey. Remembering that God is actively giving you, this day, your daily bread, can help you to recognize and reach for the dreams He has laid out for you.

“(Working toward financial independence) has transformed my faith because I feel like all these things that seemed out of reach—God-sized dreams that I could never accomplish on my own—suddenly somehow seem more possible,” Wade said. “I have a new vision for how God might be able to use my gifts and skills in the future.” 

-Robyn Passante

Frugal habits to live by infographic