Which is more important: tithing or paying off my $13,000 credit-card debt?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Aug. 12 2009 9:44 AM

Thou Shalt Be Debt Free

Which is more important: tithing or paying off my $13,000 credit-card debt?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

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I'm not a preachy Christian, but I do think it's important to follow the tenets set forth in the Bible. Right up there at the top is tithing. My husband feels that you tithe once you get out of debt and only if you have something left over at the end of the month. This theory is quite self-serving, if you ask me.
 
We have just decided to streamline our spending for the next six months, cutting out almost all luxuries, big and small, in order to pay down our $13,000 in credit-card debt once and for all. So should I not tithe, keep my hubby happy, and increase the amount we can put toward the credit-card debt, thus making us debt-free sooner and better able to tithe? Or should I follow the 10 percent rule, taking longer to pay off the debt and greatly annoying my hubby, but at least holding to my beliefs and easing my conscience?
 
—Debbie

Sandy:

Credit Cards.
Credit-card debt can get in the way of charitable contributions

Unfortunately, debt isn't a new problem. I'd guess that debt is referred to almost as often in the Bible as tithing. (I know there are vigorous debates about whether giving one-tenth of your income to the church accurately reflects what the Bible means by tithing, but I am not going to wade into any theological and scholarly fights.)

Even facing foreclosure, some devout Christians believe that tithing is non-negotiable. And, by passing the Hatch-Obama bill in 2006, the U.S. government agreed, stating that those in consumer bankruptcy can continue to make reasonable charitable contributions, including tithing. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, explained, "This bill clarifies the law so that those who tithe can continue to live their faith while in bankruptcy." Luckily, your case isn't so dire.

Though tithing may be the best-known religious tradition of giving, all major religions have some version: In Judaism, it's called tzedakah, in Islam, zakat. Regardless of where your sense of obligation comes from, it is wonderful to have a giving plan you're so committed to.

That being said, I think giving is something you should do out of desire, not obligation. And it would seem that the New Testament agrees: "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." Personally, I can't imagine a higher being that wouldn't understand your need to alter your giving for six months in order to pay off your debt and strengthen your marriage. In fact, while many may believe that tithing is dictated in the Bible, only five percent of Americans (77 percent of whom identify as Christian) tithed in 2007.

Though some surely disagree, I think that a calculated decision to stop tithing (or any charitable giving, religiously encouraged or otherwise) in order to escape credit-card debt is perfectly acceptable and possibly even recommended, as long as you follow a few basic guidelines: First, have a plan with a clear beginning and end. Otherwise it will be easy to stop giving and never start again. Second, spend some time thinking about what landed you in credit-card debt. Redefine living within your means to a point where tithing is included, since that seems to be a nearly non-negotiable part of your life. Third, consider substituting your monetary tithing with "time tithing," a concept mentioned in The Power of Giving. Tithe your time by volunteering at your church. While 10 percent of your week (16.8 hours) may seem hefty, 10 percent of waking nonworking hours may be more manageable (approximately 7.2 hours).

Finally, remember that 7 percent, or 5 percent, or 2 percent is better than nothing. So decide together what feels right, and congratulate yourselves on taking the first step to get out of debt. Shoring up your own finances will help you help others in the future.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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