I was using the envelope system before it was cool. As a matter of fact, I thought I invented it, although noted financial counselors would disagree. Whoever came up with the idea isn’t important. The fact that it worked effectively in my family is. It helped to give me a visual on exactly how much money I had and how I could shape it, sort it and stretch it to meet our needs without having to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
I would like to interject a word here about tithing.
Once you do it, you will wonder why you ever hesitated. It is a biblical directive. It increases your income and decreases your outgo. It makes no sense to the worldly checkbook. It is a biblical directive. And did I mention that it is a biblical directive? It honors God.
Tithing will set you free financially. That doesn’t mean the water heater won’t break down, or the car, or the air conditioning. It does mean that God is aware of all these things. Trust Him to meet your every need … and a lot of your wants. We entrust Him with our souls for all eternity. Why should it be so difficult to trust Him for the house payment?
My envelope system would never have been as successful as it was if I had not first committed it, and the first fruits of my increase, to God. It combined basic financial principles with a willingness to sacrifice and a willingness to show some restraint. Being a bit creative, I tweaked mine, of course.
Getting started was easy because I already had a box of envelopes. I made out a list of everything I paid the year before, assigned categories and specifics, divided by 12 and started stuffing.
My children outgrew, blew out, or mangled a pair of tennis shoes every three months. Let’s see … 3 kids times 1 pair of shoes times 4 quarters in the year times $30.00 for sneakers (they were cheaper in 1985) equals $30 in the shoe replacement envelope each month. Here is where the creativity came into play.
I decided to stagger the start of the first buying cycle so we would always have money in the sneaker pipeline. That way we could take advantage of sales, close-outs or other discounts. Of course, this meant that I became the shoe judge. I had to determine whose shoes were in the worst shape, how much super glue to apply to the flapping soles and toes, and how to camouflage the stains and holes.
This process was made a whole lot easier because the children were involved in it, too. They liked the idea of the envelope system. As an added bonus they agreed to let me be the shoe judge or jeans judge or whatever was needed.
Once the envelopes were in place, I didn’t have nearly as many surprises or crises. Every month I stuffed enough in to cover that month plus a little. Quarterly insurance premiums were planned for on a monthly basis. The same strategy was applied to yearly registration fees. I even had an entertainment envelope.
This was a luxury for us, but I insisted on it. One month I added $20, the next $15, the next $10; then I restarted the cycle. We started off the first three months with free entertainment so that we had a reserve to draw on. Each of us participated in selecting the entertainment. Usually it was a meal after church or ordering in pizza.
One of my favorite things to do was to dine out. “Dining” connotes linen tablecloths, floral vases, soft music, attentive servers and food prepared by a chef who is steeped in the culinary arts. For us that translated into Red Lobster. Close enough.
I used these elegant nights out to teach my children which fork to use, how to order, what to order (for instance, you cannot drink a shrimp cocktail) and how to behave. The boys learned to be gentlemen by opening doors, helping my daughter and me with our chairs, summoning the waiter for more water, and paying the bill. Learning a few social graces helped them to be more comfortable in formal settings in the years to come.
Since so many of our expenses were fixed, I improvised in the areas where I could. The big one, of course, was groceries. My kids still tell their friends they were raised on Spam. I guess they forgot about the fried bologna and the hamburger. Did you know you can stretch hamburger by adding oatmeal and stretch chili by adding spaghetti? In truth, we did count meat. They were allowed so many slices of bacon, so many pork chops, one hamburger, two hot dogs. This quickly turned my growing sons into hoverers. They hovered over the plate of their younger sister who was a much daintier eater.
“Are you gonna eat that? Can I have it?”
“You don’t want the rest of those fries, do you? I’ll just put ‘em on my plate.”
My next financial innovation was coupons. We learned to coupon as a family. This was not just an exercise in comparison shopping. The children learned math, the layout of the grocery store, and how to carry heavy bags.
It went something like this: I made out the list and clipped the coupons. I divided the list four ways and divvied up the corresponding coupons. Armed with coupons and a mental calculator, they flew around the store to find the best bargains. They sorted through generic brands, name brands, add-ons (you know, if you buy this ham, you will receive a five-pound bag of potatoes for a penny). They climbed shelves, asked questions, priced and compared, then proudly returned to the shopping cart with their treasures.
This was in the era of double and triple coupon days, so we racked up on the savings. One time we purchased enough groceries to last us for two weeks for less than $10. The store almost had to pay us! We had a whole lot of fun and learned a little bit as well. It wasn’t just another day at the grocery store. It was an adventure!
The other area of savings was clothes. One year in late spring I realized there was no money for summer clothes for the children. Exploring every avenue led to a lot of dead end avenues. I decided to trust God instead. That was the summer my older son didn’t change sizes, so he wore clothes from the summer before. His brother, who was three years younger, got his brother’s hand-me downs. My daughter received her wardrobe from an exchange with the girls of our church. This practice became quite a tradition. The girls were always excited to see their last year’s dresses being worn by one of the younger girls on Easter Sunday. They really looked forward to getting new/old clothes.
As our financial situation brightened, I used the envelopes less and less. It’s a lot easier to manage money when you have some. But sometimes I miss it.
“What do you want to do this weekend?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see how much money we have left in the entertainment envelope. Wow! There’s enough for Cracker Barrel if we share the sampler plate.”
“Yeah, I get it. And if we drink water with our meal, we’ll have enough left over to get dessert.”
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.
“I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the LORD Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.” — Malachi 3:8-12