Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Use a Tax Return

This week I ticked an annual milestone off of my to-do list. My taxes are completed and filed, thanks in no small part to the help of one acquaintance who does the hard work for me (and in the process significantly reduces my stress levels. Thanks, Don!) This year we will be getting a return, which has prompted some thinking on my part. What should I do with this returned money? I've already tithed on it, so in one sense my conscience can be clear if I use it on our own needs and desires. I do know that I will use part of it to eliminate some debt that we accumulated due to some funding shortfalls last year. But what to do with the remainder of it?

Part of me feels that I should be a wise steward and set it aside for future needs. I already can foresee several expenses coming up this year that it might be helpful to have some money set aside for, not to mention those unplanned expenses that inevitably arise. Perhaps I should even put it into a longer-term account for retirement or long-term needs. That might be what a financial manager would tell me. These may both be very legitimate choices.

Or I could use the money to buy some things that would be nice for our family, things that we don't necessarily need but which we've been dreaming of. Would it be wrong to treat ourselves to something special? Or I could simply use it for something that would be helpful, but not essential, like replacing my 4-year-old computer.

Or what if we took this money and used it for something greater, something that would serve the purposes of God's kingdom? Some friends of ours are hosting an event on Facebook called The Barnabas Offering, encouraging people to give their tax returns to people serving God cross-culturally. I think that's a great idea. I know many such people who have really struggled recently with their funding decreasing due to the economic challenges in the US and globally. Or I could give it to an organization like Compassion or World Vision and help make a difference in the lives of poor families and children around the world. I could give it to families and individuals I know personally who face real financial need (not need induced by living beyond their means.) The reality is there are so many good possibilities that it's hard to choose.

It seems clear that the choice between spending it on unnecessary items for myself or my family or investing it in God's kingdom is a clear and easy one. But what about setting it aside as a wise steward for future needs? Is that a better choice than investing it now in real needs around the world? Part of me says that the wise steward should prepare for the future and, having some surplus now, I should set it aside for the future. But does this demonstrate a lack of faith in God's ability and willingness to supply my future needs? By doing this am I saying that I'd better take care of myself because I don't know if God will do it?

The truth is I don't know what the future holds. Maybe I would put this money in the bank only to see the bank fail and my money be lost (well, there's FDIC and all that, so theoretically I wouldn't lose it) or I could invest it, but then the investment might lose value rather than gain it. It seems secure to set it aside for the future, but that security is in fact very elusive and fragile. I might invest it for my retirement only to find that I never reach that age due to Christ's return or His calling me home sooner.

As we draw near to the Lenten season, this question weighs quite strongly on my mind. What would Jesus have me do? How would he have me use this resource? While I am waiting for the IRS to process my return, I'm going to be praying about this and asking Him to direct me and give me clarity and wisdom. And I'd be glad to hear your thoughts as well.