Does Being More Religious Make You A Better Saver?


Are religious people better at saving money than atheists and agnostics?

This simple question led to quite a debate among LearnVest writers. To some, the answer seemed an intuitively obvious yes: Religious faith would make you more disciplined and thus better at saving money. Others recalled growing up in religious households and remarked that their families’ money skills seemed no better than anyone else’s. To get a more expert view, we asked Mark Waldman, author of A Spiritual Guide to Money, who teaches personal finance to both religious and non-religious people at American University.

“The short answer is no,” he says. “There’s no reason to assume religious people are more disciplined. People express their religion in many different ways. There are people who believe deeply and have no self-discipline at all, and there are people who are non-believers who are incredibly disciplined. I’ve taught personal finance for 25 years and I’ve never seen any link between religion and self-discipline in my students.”

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be one. As Waldman’s book title suggests, religious faith can help you set and keep money management goals. Even if you’re not religious, taking a look at your financial goals from a spiritual viewpoint can help you get a better grip on how those goals fit with your values and life plans. Here’s what faith has to teach us about better managing our money:

Look At The Big Picture.

The first step in financial planning for anyone, religious or not, is to be really clear about what you want in life, Waldman says. “If you were designing a life for yourself that connected to your most deeply held beliefs and values, what would that life be?”

Every religion dictates how its faithful should ideally live their lives, he notes. “Whatever your tradition is, financial planning offers a set of tools to help make that a reality.”

Proper financial planning can help you avoid living your life passively as most people do, Waldman says. “Over a lifetime, they go through a negative process. They try living one way for a while, that wasn’t it, so they try something else, and that doesn’t work. Eventually, be elimination, they may find what’s right for them, but often it turns out that they knew what it was all along and didn’t do it. Wouldn’t it be better to start out living the life you want? To plan your finances to support that goal from the beginning?”

Make Sure Your Values Match Your Financial Plan.

Saving and financial planning in itself is morally neutral and can support whatever goal you choose, Waldman points out. “If my goal is to party hearty, I can allocate money for that and do it consciously,” he says. “But if I’m a religious person, and my values are what my religion teaches, I need to ask if my financial goals are in line with those values.”

You may also want to choose investment options that are in line with your values and beliefs. (This can be especially challenging for Muslims, whose religion prohibits paying or receiving interest.) Fortunately there are many faith-based investment resources out there. Check out Christian Personal Finance, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and The Iman Fund, to name just a few.

Practice Generosity.

Giving is important in almost every faith and whether you’re religious or not, you’ll live a happier life if you budget some of your money for gift-giving. These can be small no-occasion gifts to your friends and loved ones or the big-ticket items that you know they’ve been dreaming about.

Some religious sites even recommend small gifts for the people you dislike the most—aggravating co-workers, critical family members, and noisy neighbors for example. A gift is likely to improve relations, but even if you give one anonymously, it will change your own feelings for the better or so the theory goes. (If you try this, let us know how it works out.)

Make The World Better.

If you’re part of a religious community, it’s likely you’re expected to tithe or otherwise donate regularly. But even if you’re not religious, there are literally thousands of good causes that badly need support and most have been hit hard by the recession during the last couple of years. Take the time to think about what’s most important to you and then select a charity or charities accordingly. The most painless way to donate is to set up a small automatic deduction, even as little as $5, from your bank account every week or month. By the end of the year you’ll see that those barely-noticeable sums add up to a real donation—and a real tax deduction.

Minda is vice president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and co-author of The Geek Gap.


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