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How to Make Lifestyle Choices as a Married Couple

In our culture, the pull of materialism often leads to decisions which limit future choices.

By Dennis Rainey

For many reasons I’m really glad my mom and dad were my parents. Oh, they weren’t perfect, but they modeled a lifestyle that honored God and valued family, modest living, and generous giving.

Mom and Dad grew up in families that were “dirt poor.” When I was a child we took trips to visit their parents. Their homes were modestly appointed and humble. They weren’t rich in terms of money, but they enjoyed the vast wealth of family relationships.

Mom and Dad owned the same small home they started their marriage in, which was built for less than $3,500 during the Depression. I never heard Mom complain about their home even though it was very small. I grew up there and really didn’t think about it because our home was adequate. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either.

Every Friday night Dad would splurge and take the family 15 miles north to their favorite restaurant in Springfield, Missouri, “The Cat and The Fiddle.”

As I recall, we only went on one true vacation as a family.

They were content with what they had.

I was content as well. They didn’t train me to be a materialist.

In 1970, when my dad turned 60, he applied for a credit card and was turned down. The reason? He had never borrowed money. He had no credit rating!

To this day, I wonder what their financial model saved Barbara and me from as newlyweds and beyond. When Barbara and I married in 1972, we made $560 a month. We knew it wasn’t a lot to live on. But it was enough.

And when we started having children, six of ‘em in 10 years, we didn’t run the numbers and estimate how much it would cost for us to raise them. We just received them gifts from God and somehow got the job done with what we had.

We took God at His Word. He provided.

Over the past 50 years, Barbara and I have talked with a lot of young couples just getting started in their marriages. Many of whom made lifestyle choices we knew would impact them later on.

Lifestyle choices, such as:

What kind of home do you want to live in? What neighborhood?

What kind of vehicle(s) do you want to drive?

Where do you want to send your children to school?

Where will you go on vacation?

If your income increases over the years, how will your lifestyle change?

Ultimately, a lifestyle represents a series of choices driven by underlying values: the way we choose to use our financial resources … how we spend our time … the importance we place on marriage and parenting … our worldview and the causes we consider important. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on our financial decisions.

In this materialistic culture, couples often fail to understand the long-term consequences of their lifestyle choices.

For most couples, questions related to lifestyle surface early in marriage about whose tastes will determine the appearance and furnishings of the new love nest. Barbara and I were no exception as our differing tastes became apparent even before our wedding.

Barbara chose a silver pattern called Old Master. I visited the silver department at a department store where I walked up to a distinguished elderly clerk and said, “I’d like to see Old Master by Towle.”

“Of course, sir,” said the woman. She showed me a setting of Old Master. It was pretty.

“Ah, that’s really interesting. How much is it?”

“It’s $59.95,” she replied.

“That’s not bad for eight place settings of silver.”

The woman pushed her glasses back, looked at me a bit condescendingly, and said, “Son, that’s for one place setting.”

“You mean $59.95 for one place setting! Lady, do you realize how many plastic knives, forks, and spoons that will buy?” (My reaction was to 1972 prices. Today I probably would have a stroke on the spot!)

Later I called Barbara. I tried to be tactful, but I was actually trying to discover if she was losing her mind. She assured me that the silver was a bargain. So out of my love for her, I embraced the decision. We registered for Old Master and have enjoyed that sterling silverware for nearly five decades. No regrets.

This searching for common ground in a new marriage can be humorous. The question for every couple is: How should you go about deciding the values in your marriage and family related to financial lifestyle?

The pull of materialism

For followers of Christ, the spiritual should be more important than the physical. If couples do not make a point of defining what’s important to them, the culture, peers, advertising, and a host of other influences will rush in to inform and accomplish the task. Three powerful influences work together to drive many couples over the financial cliff.

First, we live in a culture that worships material things. Every day we are bombarded by advertising and other materialistic messages that shout:

  • “You can have it all!”,

  • “You are what you own!” and

  • “You haven’t lived until you’ve taken this trip or had this experience!”

As we surf the web we marvel at sun-drenched promotions for European river cruises. On HGTV we watch enviously as a couple pours $120,000 into renovating their home—tearing out walls, replacing carpets with hand-scraped wood flooring, and installing the latest in “high-end finishes.” Running through all of these shows is the quiet, continual philosophical viewpoint that what we have and what we’ve experienced is definitely not enough! We should aspire to bigger and better things.

Second, we compare what we have with what friends and family have accumulated. We want the latest smartphone. We want that new SUV we saw a friend driving to church last Sunday. We want a better vacation—the kids deserve it. This temptation to compare is so woven into the fabric of our lives we rarely even notice it.

Third, we are selfish. We want nice things. I’m reminded of Winston Churchill who once remarked, “I am easily satisfied with the very best.” And with instant credit available in abundance, couples are able to satisfy their latest cravings. Many have grown up having just about anything they wanted.

The gravitational pull of materialism affects us in every season of marriage. You feel pressure to purchase bigger and better homes as your family grows. You want your children to be dressed in the latest, most popular clothes. They need a new car at 16, just like their friends. You want them to attend expensive private schools or colleges. And of course, you want to enjoy a comfortable life when you retire.

Your choices will empower or hamper future options

Whether you’ve been married for six months or 60 years, please remember two critical truths:

First, your decisions are a reflection of your values. We value spiritual growth, our family and making memories together. It’s why we’ve taken our grandkids and our children to the Creation Museum and The Ark. And why we want to take them to The Museum of the Bible in the future. And perhaps even go to Israel with our adult children.

Second, decisions on how to invest resources will have a dramatic, ongoing impact on your family. I wish I could look you in the eye and ask, “Are you listening? This is really important. I’m warning you about a trap that is destroying many families today.”

A typical scenario is for one or both persons going into a marriage to bring along with them sizable debt. For many this deficit is a result of college loans. For others it may represent going into debt to buy a house, a car, computer equipment, vacations, or a long list of wants and desires.

The debt may not seem like a big deal with both husband and wife working. In fact, the dual-income situation may encourage adding even more debt, perhaps a bigger mortgage for a bigger house.

Everything may be going smoothly until the couple decides to add a little third person to enjoy the nice house and other things. But their ability to consider having a child, much less the possibility for mom to stay home to provide care, is limited because of debt load they carry and the cost of sustaining their lifestyle.

Before getting in this predicament, the wise couple must do what Jesus calls us to do as His followers. In Luke 14:28-30 He says:

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’”

Now insert the word lifestyle in place of the word tower, and then read the passage again.

Clarifying your values, counting the cost, setting financial boundaries (a budget) and staying within them ... these disciplines result in financial freedom. Choices about lifestyle often have significant spiritual ramifications, too. The couple burdened with debt and lifestyle expenses that threaten to break their budget may be unable to give generously to their church and other kingdom efforts. An opportunity for one or both to help with a short-term mission project, for example, may be denied because they can’t afford it.

What’s most important to you?

My intent here is not to imply that enjoying elegant things, living in a large home, and taking a nice vacation are wrong. My point is that each couple needs to revisit their values, examine their situation and decide whether their chosen lifestyle reflects what you embrace as important.

The best way I know for a couple to forge an agreement on lifestyle is to go through the process of determining your family values. (The "Determining Your Core Values Project" can be found here). Once the two of you have come to an agreement on what you really value in your marriage and family, lifestyle matters and decisions will be more obvious. This project is a life saver for couples of all ages.

I encourage you to also evaluate and discuss your attitude toward material possessions, your tendency to compare, and your ability to deny what your eyes see and want. Hold each other accountable for purchases by establishing a budget and being in agreement about what you will or will not buy.

Every marriage needs a clear understanding and practice of Jesus’ teachings about money and possessions. He commanded us not to worry about physical needs or material things but to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). He told His disciples to travel light and encouraged them to be ready to give away their coats if people asked for them. Jesus did not have a home and was definitely not encumbered by stuff. He is our model.

Finally, as a couple you need a godly mentor couple who can model budget management and impart to you God’s heart about money, possessions, and materialism. There’s nothing better than learning from someone who has already been through your season of life. A mentor couple can give you wisdom, hold you accountable, and help you make wise choices.

Over the years Barbara and I have had godly mentors who’ve spoken into our lives. I’ll never forget a meeting I had with one of my mentors, Bill Bright, co-founder of Cru. I was in my late 30s and Bill looked me in the eyes and gave me some very firm and memorable advice, “Dennis, materialism is choking far too many followers of Christ today.” He paused and then said with some emphasis, “Wear the cloak of materialism loosely. There are many who are so encumbered by material things that they cannot do what God is calling them to do.”

That advice has echoed in my soul as we have tried to fight off the temptation “You can have it all.”

Adapted from Starting Your Marriage Right, © Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers.


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