Count the cost of Living Generously this budget season

Budget season is upon us.

If you’re looking to play ‘Budget Bingo’ right up there with the phrase ‘electricity bill’ you’ll find the now clichéd ‘cost of living’ bandied about by politicians and pundits.

This budget season we’re going to hear lots about ‘cost of living,’ but Jesus asks a different question of our budget and our way of life, and the cost of living that way – he asks if we’re prepared to count the cost of a different way of living… in a way that totally changes the equation (and our own budgets)… The price of getting cost of living solutions wrong for the government is clear; they’ll lose office. Jesus says the price of getting ‘cost of living’ questions wrong in your life is even higher; it is your life.

The stakes are high when it comes to ‘cost of living’ questions.

They consume us… and so they should. They matter. When it comes to the budget Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg promised:

“Average families can expect out of this budget that their cost-of-living pressures will be eased, that there will be more money in their pocket…”

He says the government has a commitment to the prosperity of each an every Australian – that ‘cost of living’ pressures aren’t so much eased by having us spend less, instead they’re relieved by having us earn more.

“The coalition believes that every Australian should earn more, and that every Australian should keep more of what they earn, and that will be reflected in this budget tonight.”

Flat wage growth in Australia is something that has many economists concerned because so much of our system is geared around perpetual economic growth, both for individuals and the economy as a whole.

Living Wage vs Minimum Wage

The Opposition will release a budget reply shortly after the budget is published – because that’s how budget season works, and their reply is likely, based on what they’ve said before the fact (also part of budget season) to focus on the idea of a ‘living wage’.

The ‘living wage’ is different to the ‘minimum wage’ (it would involve increasing the minimum wage), but the definition of the ‘minimum wage’ that the government works to is one that meets the “normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilised community.” At the moment that’s defined, by the law, as $18.93 an hour, or $37,398 for a year of working a 38 hour week (assuming paid holiday leave, or that you take no holidays).  A living wage is more in line with ‘cost of living’ pressures that Aussies face (so is likely to involve setting the minimum wage higher).

The two major parties have different views about how to achieve the outcome of more money in our pockets – where one wants to boost wages by increasing productivity and the other by changing the law – but both are seeking to address the same problem – cost of living pressures – with the same goal – more money in our pockets. That’s going to be the goal this budget season; more money means less cost of living pressure.

Who’s responsibility is it?

What’s really interesting is that the government has to take responsibility for tackling cost of living because we, the electorate, make it their responsibility not our own…

In research conducted in 2013, McCrindle Research conducted a study that found “cost of living” is the number one concern for every generation; at the time, 88% of Australians believed that “cost of living pressures are greater today than 5 years ago” (one can only imagine this statistic has continued to increase in the last 5 years).

That’s 9 in 10 Aussies. 4 in 10 Aussies (39%) blame the Federal Government, with 1 in 10 (12%) blaming the State Government (and a small 1% group blaming local government). More than half of us think the Government is responsible for the cost of living problems we face, and say it’s our number one issue. No wonder it dominates budget season…

What’s also interesting (I think, but I like budget season), is that 25% blame utility companies – whose prices tend to be regulated or affected by policy decisions, so really it’s something like 3 in 4 Aussies who see ‘cost of living’ as the Government’s responsibility.

But what if our spending and our idea of ‘cost of living’ increases proportionately (or sometimes disproportionately) with our wages? What if ‘more money’ leads not just to ‘more spending’ but also ‘more borrowing’? What if it’s not the government’s fault – but ours?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has a report on ‘over-indebtedness’ in Australia which says that in 2015, 29% of Australian households were ‘over-indebted,’ compared to 21% in 2004.

We might like to think that more money in our pockets will solve our cost of living issues, and that it’s the government’s job to create an economy where that happens – but perhaps, like any budget exercise, we might also count the cost of the way we live and ask if there’s a better way of life that changes the equation.

Household budgeting in the face of growing costs of living is challenging – especially when such a significant chunk of our budget seems to go towards housing and feeding our families.

The ‘minimum wage’ is not necessarily a ‘living wage’ in Australia, and cost of living is a real issue facing many households when it comes to just the basics. Where the definition of ‘minimum wage’ was set to ‘what is normal’, we’re increasingly re-defining normal based on what we see as ‘civilised’ living. Our ‘cost of living’ depends very much on our vision of the ‘normal’ life style.

The Blame Game

The McCrindle Research linked above made some interesting observations about how we respond to ‘cost of living’ pressures at our end (and some interesting suggestions for dealing with the pressure).

Their report found that despite 9 in 10 Aussies feeling ‘cost of living pressure’, and despite 5 in 10 Aussies believing it’s the government’s job to fix it – around 4 in 10 of us made changes to holiday plans to reduce cost of living, 6 in 10 of us made changes to what we eat and where we buy groceries, almost 3 in 10 of us dropped expenses around gym or sports club memberships, and 1 in 10 made changes around the cost of educating our kids… we do take action and ‘count the cost’ of some of our modern living. Or, at least, some of us do – it’s interesting what happens when we flip this.

You see, in the McCrindle report, when it came to blame – to ‘who is most responsible’ for cost of living pressures – 52% blamed the government, 24% blamed utility companies, 19% blamed companies (including the supermarkets and petrol companies)… only 4 in 100 Aussies blamed some unspecified ‘other’ so we’re left wondering how many of those were able to articulate that “I” the consumer might bear some responsibility. That I am responsible for my own cost of living and my consumer decisions, and that these decisions about what my ‘living’ looks like might have some impact – and so it’s interesting when we flip the script on those cost cutting exercises so that almost 6 in 10 Aussies did not change holiday plans, while seeing cost of living as the biggest problem we face… 4 in 10 made no change in food consumption patterns (including eating out), 7 in 10 of us didn’t change costs associated with exercise, while 9 in 10 of us made no changes to the cost of educating our children…

But… What if…

What if at least some of the ‘cost of living’ pressure we face is tied up with the vision of the good life we are pursuing?

What if some of the pressure is tied up with our modern ‘life style’ – a view of civilisation that is built on luxury and greed?

What if more money in our pocket doesn’t reduce the ‘cost of living’ but rather, increases our opportunity to borrow and spend in pursuit of a particular way of life?

What if the solution is not for the government to fix the problem so that we have more money, or lower costs, but for us to change our way of life – for us to build a different picture of the good life?

What if more money in our pockets won’t solve the pressure we face?

What if more money will burn a hole through our pockets and deep into our hearts?

What if solving our problems by throwing more money at them is the problem because our problem is our relationship with money? Or rather, that our relationship with money is coming at the cost of our living?

Living Generously

In the third part of our series “The Way Home”, looking at Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been talking about what it might take for us to start living generously; feeling the weight of ‘cost of living pressures’ is a guaranteed barrier to generosity, but what if we flip the script again – so that our spending isn’t built around other people, or the government, being responsible for a ‘living wage’ for all, but a rich community of people who care for one another, and our neighbours, with a totally different way of living.

It sounds far-fetched, but in Luke 14, the passage we read together as a church on Sunday Jesus talks about ‘counting the cost’ – about what it looks like to follow him. He says that following him involves being prepared to give up everything (Luke 14:33), to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 14:27), because this is what is required to truly live – this way of ‘living generously’ – pouring yourself out for others is what comes from a different, compelling, vision of the good life.

The life we find in Jesus and his kingdom; in Jesus and his generosity. To follow Jesus brings with it a whole different ‘cost of living’ pressure – and an entirely different way of budgeting – because it has a greater and more expansive picture of how to deliver life to families than our governments can muster, and a different understanding of what to treasure.

In the passages immediately before the call to ‘take up our cross and follow me,’ Jesus says life in his kingdom is like an eternal feast with God. He says life following him is not about carrying ‘cost of living pressure’ as individuals, but living together in an abundant picture of God’s goodness; that it will be a life marked by generosity. He says that as we live generously this will look like a new sort of ‘life together’ and life together with a new sort of family. We eat at the dining table – we party – with family and friends – and Jesus says:

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they might invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Counter Cultural Cost of Living

In a world where our politicians want to help ease cost of living by boosting productivity and paying better wages, and where we want the government to fix things for us; to ease the pressure on our bottom line… Jesus says it’s precisely those people pushed to the margins by the pursuit of economic growth that we should be bringing in.

Our nation’s budget does less than ever to contribute to Foreign Aid, and there are reports of a plan to dip into the National Disability Insurance Scheme surplus in the pursuit of surpluses and tax breaks, rather than directing that money into fixing the roll out of the program. Jesus has an utterly different picture of budget priorities and where our living expenses should be directed.

Where do you store your wealth?

Earlier in Luke, Jesus talked about what is required to ease ‘cost of living pressure’; an utterly different way of life built from treasuring something entirely different to the world. The problem, according to his diagnosis, is with us, not the government. Jesus tells a story of a man who had a surplus and looked to store up treasure for a rainy day; to eat, drink, and be merry because his future was secure – the Australian dream. The man in this story was said to be a fool in the face of death. He wasn’t budgeting for that reality. Jesus said:

“And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.” (Luke 12:29-30)

It’s like he’s talking about the budget, and cost of living pressure.

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:31-34

Here’s Jesus making the point that more money — or seeing money as a solution to our ‘needs’ for living — will burn a hole through our purse and into our hearts.

For Jesus, so much of our ‘cost of living pressure’ – our biggest political issue, according to us – comes from being consumed by the wrong things. We put pressure on ourselves because of the types of lives we are trying to lead to keep up with modern civilisation – the world Jesus describes as ‘running after all such things’ – and so running away from the God who gives life, and provides.

The Real Cost of Living

The cost of  treasuring the wrong thing — the cost of living life the way the federal budget and our political leaders want us to live in order to feel secure and comfortable  — is death. Later in the New Testament Paul says the ‘wages of sin’ — our decision to treasure things other than God — is ‘death’ but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus. And when it says ‘through Jesus’ it means through his death in our place; the true cost of living.

The question is whether it’s our death that pays the cost, or Jesus’ death for us.

The story of the Gospel is that our ‘cost of living’ is the price Jesus paid for us — his life; that this is the cost paid to welcome us in to the family, and into a radical new way of living. A radically generous approach to life together.

The federal budget has its priorities wrong, we have the problems all wrong, and so the solution the government offers us – more money in a temporary purse – is wrong. We’re made to feast in heaven and find our satisfaction there; to enjoy joyful tastes of heaven as we share the cost of living, and providing for, one another now in acts of generosity freed from the pressure of fear and anxiety about tomorrow… this is not to say that the government should not be thinking about tomorrow, or that we get rid of wisdom and prudence, but it might say something about not crippling ourselves and future generations with debt that brings pressure, or about hoarding our surplus for ourselves now so that we might live our version of the good life alone.

There’s a real risk that when we read these words and add all our modern caveats though that we rob them totally of their subversive power; that we end up not just pressured by the ‘cost of living’ according to the world’s story, but some burden we add trying to live both that story and the story of the Gospel. But this sort of radical overhaul and different, less-pressured, way of life is absolutely possible, in fact, it’s the story of the early church. In the book of Acts, Luke describes those who took up their cross to follow Jesus selling their possessions including their houses; to give to the poor, and other people keeping their houses but using them to share meals and life together, with others. Luke says, of the first disciples of Jesus:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:44-47

This is the ‘cost of living’ with Jesus as king; letting go of those other things that seek to own us, and that pressure us – the vision of the good life caught up with amassing treasure for yourself, or more money in your pockets. Letting go of living for yourself, and so living with Jesus as Lord and living together with your new family. Sharing the cost. Giving generously.

When we look at our cost of living, and follow advice for cutting back costs like the advice found in the McCrindle Research report, it’s a great chance to reconsider what we treasure; and what sort of good life we are budgeting for. Is there room in your budget to be inviting people to the heavenly banquet you’ve been brought into by Jesus – this would look like giving to the shared mission of our church, but also budgeting for the sort of hospitality that shares the cost of living burden with others, as you make room at your table for them. When all this talk about ‘cost of living’ is happening this budget season, why not use this as a chance to think about the price paid for your life, and how the ‘cost of living’ starts to be about life-giving generosity, rather than about more money in your pocket. The upside is that this sort of life is a taste of the eternal; a satisfying entrée of life together at the ‘feast in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 14:15).