Faith and money: Why it’s worth talking about

Carmen Wong Ulrich Nov 12, 2013

Wow. Want to get folks talking about money? Throw in some religion.

We recently asked some questions of Rabbi Dan Ain, of the 92nd St. Y, and Michelle Singletary, the “Color of Money” columnist for the Washington Post, including the big question: What place does faith have within finances? We were particularly interested in talking about how faith and religion plays out when it comes to debt.

Well, we got the message! Many of you were not at all pleased that we ended up talking about religion on a personal finance show.

Mark Fryer, from Springfield, Ore., wrote:

“If a person must give at the collection plate — so be it. But intelligent investing for the future or money management has nothing to do with religion. Remember; religion is ‘belief’ — money management has to do with analysis of facts and risks — managing money has nothing to do with the hereafter.”

Bob Ellis of Billings, Mont., added:

“If you knew biblical history, you’d understand the folly of bringing religion to a financial program.”

And we got a lot more where those came from. So why would we bring these spiritual leaders on to discuss your money?

Because though you may not let your faith go near your money, millions of Americans regularly allow one to effect the other. It falls into the idea of ‘value’: How we spend our money reveals much about what we value in life. Our values also play a role in other financial decisions we make, such as taking on debt to go to college, or using a credit card to take a vacation you sorely need.

For many Americans of faith — and particularly the thousands who flock to folks like Dave Ramsey, working directly with churches — financial decisions and motivations revolve around spiritual beliefs. A fantastic (if door-stopping) recent book by anthropologist David Graeber called, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” touches firmly on our long history of tying money and our financial practices to religion, all over the world.

This is why before I give one-on-one advice to someone about their money, I always make sure to ask: What’s important to you? Is it all about your kids going to the best school or that you get to retire early to do what you’ve always wanted to do? Is it about fulfillment or security? Or maybe, it’s about giving back.

To understand how and why people make the financial decisions they do, it’s vital to get at what makes someone tick. Sometimes it’s family, sometimes it’s fear.

And sometimes — many times — it’s about values and beliefs.

Even if you don’t practice a religion, what does your money and your decisions say about what you hold to be important?  

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