Tuesday 27 January 2015

Retirement savings vs. feeding the hungry

This week I have been challenged by the story of Huon, a Christian woman living in Cambodia.  In the context of the food crisis in 2009, an Australian woman for whom she was working wrote:
For Huon, the cook for the InnerCHANGE team office, a single woman in her forties, who works seven hours a day five days a week, making twice what a factory worker would make for six full days of work, the inflation means that she is riding her motorbike less, eating less and choosing cheaper food. She is not saving at the moment despite the need for surgery in the near future and the fact that she has no one to take care of her when she is old. She says: 'I know that I should save some money in case things get worse, but then I see my neighbors who are hungry and I have to share, or how could I be a Christian? I just have to trust God for the future.'

Martin and I expect to pay off our mortgage in February next year.  After that, it is our intention to redirect that portion of our income to retirement savings.  We intend to save enough money to fully support ourselves in retirement (without a pension from the government) as that seems like the responsible thing for rich people like us to do.

And yet, like Huon, we have neighbours who are hungry (they just don't live next door); and we have plenty to share.  If we hold onto our surplus, can we, in her words, "be Christians"?

If we redirected that mortgage money to giving instead of saving, we could more than triple our monthly giving (not that all, or even most, of our charitable giving goes to feeding the hungry).  Is it right for us, as Christians, to keep all that for ourselves?  After all, we serve the God who "owns the cattle on a thousand hills" - shouldn't we trust Him for our future needs?

As things stand, we wouldn't even have to trust Him that much!  After all, the New Zealand government, unlike the Cambodian government, provides its citizens life-long free medical care and an adequate pension in old age.  We also have Kiwisaver savings that are likely to grow to the equivalent of $350k by the time Martin retires.  The leap we'd be taking is ever so much smaller than that taken by Huon.

So what should we do?  We still have a year to decide, but we're definitely talking and praying about whether to change our plans.


  1. The options you suggest are:

    (A) Don't give now, give later. This is your current plan.
    (B) Give now, don't give later. This is what you are considering.

    Furthermore, if government provision in your retirement is means-tested, then (A) means some of the government's finite resources go to other people, and (B) means they go to you.

    Does this way of looking at it help your planning?

    1. That is challenging, in that giving now may mean that I require more of the government's finite resources to go to me than otherwise.

      However, the need is there now, and I have the means now - can I ignore it in order to provide for a future that might not even come? I mean, even if Jesus doesn't return before we die, we're saving based on expected life-spans, but we could be run over by buses tomorrow!

    2. Also, in the case of Huon, she has made a choice that will one day (should she live beyond when she is able to work) in need of help from others. Maybe we should make such a choice, too. I think that interdependence is really important (and that the independence valued in the West is really harmful), so maybe it is right that we should give away our surplus now, and be dependent on others later?

      One concern that Martin has with this approach is - if everyone lived this way, who would provide capital for the productive sector. But maybe, if everyone lived this way, there'd be enough to meet both human needs and needs for economic development. I don't even know how to look into that one!

  2. I do think that if everyone used only what they needed right now - today - and lived in interdependent support systems, then we would all be looked after our whole lives. But we don't, and we don't! So what then? I don't know!

    What I do know is that these are great questions to be asking. We are going to do the Manna Matters Lenten Household Covenant resource this season to talk about exactly these types of issues: saving, giving, investing, consuming, and other areas of daily practical economics.

    Do you have a group to nut these things out with? The MM Lenten resource is very good - practical, small steps. The writer, Jonathan Cornford, has a PhD in political economy and international development i.e. economics and theology. I highly recommend it! It's available from their website as an ebook. You can do it together, or with a small group. It doesn't have 'the answers', just good theological and economic grounding, and interesting questions.

    1. My husband and I talk about these things a lot with each other and with our housemate (we share a house that we own 50:50 with a friend from university days). I also have a prayer partner with whom I discuss these things, and a few people from church (although most don't seem that interested). I've got the pdf of the Lenten Covenant thing - I'd hoped to get a group together to do it with, but just haven't had the energy, but my husband and I may do it together all the same.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks always for your thought-provoking blog posts, too!