Reflect on financial mistakes, but recommit to goals this Lent

We used to have an old Labrador by the name of Sophie. In her advanced years, Sophie’s hearing was pretty bad, but she seemed to get along. In fact, she got along so well that one day when my two daughters were talking about her, one of them said, “I’ll bet Sophie’s got selective hearing.” My oldest son sitting at the computer with earphones on blurted out, “My hearing is just fine!” I got a laugh out of that. Can any parents of teens relate?  

I’ve often noted that managing money well is more about attitude than knowledge. Of course, both are important, but if we get our attitude right, many of the other pieces will fall into place. But to do that means we need to learn to listen to the Lord. 

How well we listen to the Lord often (but not always!) increases with age. I was reminded of this recently when I participated in a discussion group where the following question was posed: “If you could go back, what would you tell your 20-year-old self about money?” I found it to be an intriguing question, and I think it can be a useful exercise during this Lenten season. 

Lent is a time to reflect on Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. What does it mean to us? How should it change us? It’s a time to examine our conscience more deeply, so we can see more clearly how closely we are imitating Christ, and how we are falling short of imitating him. As a result of that reflection, we then recommit ourselves to becoming an even more faithful disciple. Taking a look back is a healthy part of that process. 

It’s interesting that one of the most frequent comments I hear from participants in the 7 Steps small-group study is that they wish they had learned the concepts 20 years earlier. Does that mean that all of them would have applied the 7 Steps principles effectively back then? Of course not. We might like to think we’d have acted smarter in our youth if we just knew better, but there’s that issue of selective hearing, isn’t there? Even if you didn’t always make great decisions in your younger years, the good news is you can start doing so today. 

Developing healthy habits

What are some of the things I heard people say they would have done differently if they could go back in time? Here are a few: 

“Wouldn’t have applied for the first credit card in college.” 

“Would have paid for own wedding. My poor folks.” 

“Be more generous.” 

“Don’t worry so much.” 

“Live below means.” 

“Stay as much out of debt as possible.” 

One person wondered what their 60-year-old self would say to their 40-year-old self 20 years from now. Another great question! 

Of course, the primary purpose of such an examination isn’t about the past, but about the future. Lent is a time of getting back to basics, and that can be comforting during this time of economic upheaval. While there will continue to be pain in the short run as we work through our excesses over the last several years, developing healthier attitudes toward debt (see Prv 22:7) and saving (see Gn 41) will bring long-term benefits to households and society at large. 

I’m pleased that as people considered what they would have done differently, they didn’t just think about getting out of debt and saving more, but also about being more generous. Remember, what we do with our resources is ultimately about demonstrating our love of God and neighbor. So be generous even during these difficult times. Almsgiving is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as one of the three forms of interior penance insisted on by Scripture and the Church Fathers, the other two being prayer and fasting (see No. 1434). Lent is an especially good time to live these practices out more faithfully. 

So, what financial suggestions would you have made to your 20-year-old self? God love you! 

Phil Lenahan is the president of Veritas Financial Ministries (VeritasFinancialMinistries.com) and the author of “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free” (OSV, $19.95). Submit questions for columns to askphil@osv.com.