Last week, we talked about what a financial finish line looks like and why it can be such a powerful force in our lives. You may be wondering the next logical question, “Where do I start?”
Selecting a financial finish line is a personal process that is ultimately between you and your Creator. My brother, Kealan, and I set financial finish lines for our families before launching our website and podcast to help others do the same. But we each went about the process a little differently. Let’s start with Kealan’s story.
Kealan’s story: Planning for a unique financial path
Kealan is a surgeon. Doctors have a unique financial path through life. While most people start their career after college and slowly, steadily move up through the ranks, doctors wait longer to earn higher-level salaries.
For most physicians, it’s four years of undergrad, four years of medical school, and often a lot of student loans. After med school comes residency for another three to six years, making a modest salary of $50,000-$60,000. During that time, doctors have to start paying off those loans. And some residents’ loans are upwards of $400,000! Needless to say, med students and residents usually learn to live on very little at first.
As Kealan neared the end of medical school, he and his wife, Alison, wanted to avoid the roller coaster of lifestyle inflation that would inevitably come with all of those phases. They knew they were happy already and didn’t want to rapidly expand their lifestyle as their income increased. Thus began their search for some sort of a guardrail – what we now recognize as a financial finish line.
As Kealan moved from medical school to residency, he and his wife began to consider more deeply the question, “How much do we really need?” With tuition payments behind them, they wanted to begin giving more. To prevent the slow (or rapid) creep of lifestyle inflation, they looked for some sort of benchmark to measure their spending. They focused on trying to live at the median.
At first, they used a couple of websites and calculators made for tracking income data. But nothing quite seemed to account for the right factors. That’s how Kealan ended up creating the system we use now at the Finish Line Pledge, based on U.S. census data and adjusting for family size.
They chose the 50th percentile (the median) as their benchmark and even in residency were able to start giving from their margin. And because the system accounts for family size, they’ve been able to adjust their line accordingly as their family has grown (they’re now a family of six!). You can find more of their story here.
My story: Looking for a different angle
I resisted the idea of a financial finish line at first. I still had student loans, and I didn’t think my income was high enough to justify it. However, God kept chipping away at the barriers in my heart. In early 2020, my wife and I committed to a finish line, which has significantly changed our outlook on money.
For months, we struggled. It was difficult narrowing in on a line. We wanted to be sure we had enough to cover the things that were important to us, but we also wanted a line that would keep us focused on eternity.
We live in Maryland, which happens to host the second highest average income in the country (just behind Washington DC.). As a result, a number of my living expenses, most notably housing, were appreciably higher than other parts of the country.
One of the nice things about the system we use at the Finish Line Pledge is that it’s adjustable. Eventually, we were encouraged to go with our best instinct after laying everything before God in prayer. We would try it for six months and see what happened. We haven’t looked back.
Accounting for debt
One of the questions we get often (which was particularly relevant to my own story) is how to account for debt. Our student loans were a significant barrier initially, preventing us from diving deeper into generosity. However, as I started to see our debt as a major hindrance to us being able to give as we wanted, I realized a finish line could actually help us get out of debt.
When selecting our finish line, we actually ignored our debt in the equation (except for our mortgage). Our finish line created margin in our finances, which we used for tithing and paying down debt sooner than we thought possible. This step allowed us to get used to having a finish line while also getting rid of the barrier that debt imposed. Once our debt was paid off, that margin above our finish line was freed up for use in God’s kingdom as he led us. You can read more about our approach to debt here and here, though certainly others have used different approaches.
As we leaned into rapidly paying down debt, we started gaining momentum. That was also around the time we started the Finish Line Podcast, and I was hearing story after story of people doing amazing things for God’s kingdom through generosity. In order to get out of debt faster and move on to the exciting part of the story, my wife and I implemented what we called a “soft” finish line, a temporary finish line that was a bit more constrictive than what we would later use. It allowed us to have greater margin faster to pay off debt and begin to give at a greater level. We knew we couldn’t maintain it indefinitely, but it helped us in that season.
The finish line is the starting line
Setting a financial finish line isn’t the ultimate goal. At first, I thought it was. But I learned that it’s a simply the opening chapter of a much bigger story.
A financial finish line provides the structure for building financial margin into your life. As that margin accumulates and is set aside, you will start to become aware of all sorts of opportunities. Because you’re looking, you’ll see God inviting you into his story, the only true story.
Our financial margin has allowed Kealan and me to get creative. We created Compound Impact, a non-profit real estate fund of residential properties, which we rent to incoming refugee families who have difficulty meeting typical tenant qualifications. Each property generates a significant profit, 100 percent of which goes into church-planting ministries in areas where there are unreached people groups.
People frequently ask us why we wouldn’t keep some of the profit, or at least ownership of the properties. But with a finish line in place, the answer is easy. It was never ours to begin with!
Tools for your journey
So, what’s your story? Could a finish line open the door to the next chapter of your God story? If you want to get started, here are some resources we’ve found helpful.
- The Finish Line Pledge is our website. There, in addition to podcasts and stories, you’ll find a calculator to help you explore how different finish lines compare to the rest of the country (using census income data). You can scale your finish line by family size and plan for some expected life events.
- The SPRINT program is a small-group experience. It’s free, and it’ll help walk you through the process of setting your own financial finish line.
- John Cortines’ and Greg Baumer’s book, God and Money, looks at data and examines people’s experiences in order to provide some guidelines. Many have found this book really helpful.
- Accountability groups (or as Cortines and Baumer call it, a “board of directors for life”). In the American church, we’re far more likely to share with others about deep addictions, lust, or pride than we are about our finances. John and Greg recommend finding a small group of trusted friends to whom you are regularly accountable with your entire financial life. This breaks the stigma of secrecy with money and helps you to stay on track with your finish line.
- And if, after all of this, you still feel a little lost, then I recommend you check out one of our favorite podcast episodes, featuring Todd Harper, the co-founder of Generous Giving. He calls the financial finish line one of the most powerful tools of generosity there is. When we asked him where to start, he said, “Keep it simple.” Start with whatever you live on now and commit to living on that same amount for the next 6 months; then see what happens. As long as we’ve been on this journey, we’ve never seen someone turn back.
- Once you have a finish line, you may want to follow it up with a Journey of Generosity. These in-person or online groups help you discuss with a small group of peers what generosity looks like in the Bible and what it could look like in your life too. (There’s no cost, and you will never be asked for money.)
Are you ready to stop the endless race for more? Without intentional boundaries, the drive for money and success can consume all of the energy and resources God has given you to build his kingdom. But with a financial finish line, we hope you will find more freedom, more purpose, and more of God.
________Read the other two stories in this three-part series:
Photo: Kealan and Alison Hobelmann and family.