Searching the soul to save money

The Sacramento BeeMarch 9, 2014 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Trina Bradley, a medical secretary and single mom of two kids, showed up because she was “tired of living in (financial) crisis.” Maureen McEvilly, a widow and retired nurse, wants to get better at budgeting so she won’t be tempted to dip into her savings each month. Chris Buckman, a New Folsom Prison nurse whose oldest daughter heads off to college this fall, says, “I make too much to not be on top of my money.”

And for Shelley Scott, 57, a state worker adjusting to a single income after her 25-year marriage ended, “This was an answer to my prayers.”

On a recent Thursday night, they were among 30 or so parishioners gathered in pews and at tables in the sanctuary of Impact Community Church in Elk Grove, Calif., one of about 45 Sacramento-area congregations that use a church-based curriculum to preach financial well-being.

Known as Financial Peace University, it’s one of the biggest financial self-help-at-church programs, a nine-week, video-and-workbook program created by Nashville, Tenn.-based personal-finance expert Dave Ramsey. Appearing on giant video screens at hosting churches, Ramsey peppers his weekly lessons with motivational lines such as “Learn to manage money or it will always manage you.”

Afterward, armed with books and worksheets that come with their $109 fee, participants break into small groups, with a church facilitator at each table, to discuss the details of creating a spending plan and working their way out of debt.

Churches have always been about more than saving souls. Many offer group classes or counseling for singles, new parents, those dealing with divorce or those struggling with alcohol and other addictions. Personal finances — how to better manage your money — is yet another addition to that list.

The approaches are as varied as the ministries.

At First United Methodist, St. John’s Lutheran and Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Sacramento, parishioners volunteer to teach personal-finance skills to homeless women and families. Among the Mormon faithful, money-management lessons start as young as age 3, when kids are shown how to count out 10 pennies, then set aside the first penny for the church. Churches such as Elk Grove’s Impact Community offer Financial Peace lessons to their congregations, but also to anyone who’s not a church member.

Using his own financial turnaround as a motivational pep talk, Ramsey offers a curriculum that sprinkles biblical verses into his overall get-out-of-debt message. He encourages using cash, “so you feel your money.” He also advocates the “envelope system,” where you set aside cash each month in separate envelopes marked “Housing,” “Groceries,” “Utilities” and for what he calls “blow” money, which can be spent on anything you want.

What it’s not about is asking God to shower you with financial blessings. In one of his video talks, Ramsey jokingly tells his audience: “Don’t be prayin’: ‘Send me more money, Lord.’ He’s going, ‘Uh, uh,’ because he knows how you’ll spend it.”

Tithing — giving at least 10 percent of your gross income to the church — is understood. At the top of Financial Peace’s sample budgets, the first spending category is “Charity,” with tithes and offerings already filled in. In one example, the tithe was $410 for the pay period, about 13 percent of the $3,188 in income.

Ramsey, 53, whose goateed face appears on billboards advertising his syndicated weekday radio show, has built his religion-based empire of books, podcasts and nationwide radio show based on a compelling story of his personal money downfall. He reportedly amassed — and lost — a multimillion-dollar real estate fortune while still in his 20s. After digging his way out of bankruptcy, he launched a new career teaching a debt-free lifestyle.

But he’s certainly not the sole preacher of church-based personal-finance coursework. Others — such as Crown Financial Ministries, based in Knoxville, Tenn. — are also used by churches nationwide.

“People are receptive to getting this message at church. They are looking for tools, for inspiration and practical (advice) … and they want it from a trusted source,” said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a New Jersey-based personal-finance author and speaker who runs AskTheMoneyCoach.com.

But coming out of the recession, as Khalfani-Cox noted, churches have a self-interest in helping their members get back on their financial feet, given the drop-off in tithes and offerings by cash-strapped parishioners.

“It behooves the church to help impart practical money-management lessons,” she said, so their members can continue to support the church’s missions, whether it’s helping the homeless, overseas missionary work or other causes.

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