Dealing with social pressure to spend money

TL;DR:  I simply unfriend people

Typing as someone who is proud to be a Nigerian, and grateful to be a Christian, I am neither proud nor grateful to state that Nigerian Christians are often so status conscious! Prosperity Gospel has so infiltrated the church, because this plays to our natural Nigerian tendencies anyway, and people can, do and will judge you very publicly for the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the mobile phone you carry.  It can be subtle, but also not subtle, like implying that you haven’t achieved anything, because you are not visibly walking in the trappings of material success. Or earnestly promising you that “Don’t worry, (Tosin) God has not forgotten you!” with this being preceded by the following unspoken phrase: “Despite the simplicity of your appearance”. The first suggestion being that the place that you are currently at, as indicated by your dressing, is visibly, obviously “not good enough”, and you must be desperately trying to escape it. The second suggestion always seems to be that this is what everyone must be aspiring to. Also *everybody’s* testimonies, without fail, are always about material success and progress. Never about growing in Christlike maturity, for instance, or learning how to forgive people who hurt us, or a restored relationship with a loved one. Always money money money money. OK, admittedly health too, and having babies. For people who do not know, testimonies are when you publicly give credit to God for something that He has done in your life. Perhaps this might be something that you specifically prayed for, or something that He just did.

As Christians we give testimonies to encourage one another about what God can do. They are especially helpful if someone else might for instance be going through a hard time, or struggling in their faith. It helps us all to remember that God is good and He truly loves us. However, when people focus on material blessings:  new jobs, new houses, new cars etc, it can sometimes end up sounding like bragging. Not as much as you’d imagine, actually, the wonder is that people are actually quite humble about this. One glaring exception though that sticks out in my mind when I did perceive bragging is when a particular individual, who I was already unimpressed by, invited people to pray for his new …. [big material blessing] And to me it was such a transparent attempt at bragging, but maybe I only saw that because I was already unimpressed with his character.  I mean it definitely was bragging, but it may not have been so obvious to other people who had not had the same unedifying experience with him that I had.

This judging people for their financial status, real or perceived, thing is a habit that people learn from one another. When people act like that, it does not mean that as individuals they are inherently, irredeemably status-driven. It could just be a habit that they have learned from hanging around in that status-preoccupied group.  I know that this is true because I also used to judge people for their simplicity of dressing, until I started understanding the dynamics of money and saving etc etc.

What inspired this post was an article I just read about social pressure to spend money, or to keep up appearances, to act as if you are highly solvent when actually you are deeply broke. I’ve been in that situation when I have been practically praying that the group I am with will choose to go to the cheapest restaurant, or praying that the group will not decide to split the bill when they have been ordering everything, including alcohol, and my strictly teetotal self has ordered no starter (never a starter!) and the second least expensive main course, and once again no dessert (never a dessert) and also never, ever a drink, even a soft drink. Or even pre-eating altogether before the restaurant to save money. Man, those days though!  The irony is that now I actually could afford to go out and perhaps order the third least expensive main course, but still never a starter though, (OK, sometimes a starter to share!) -but definitely still never a dessert, or a drink. Seriously, no matter how much money I have I don’t think I will ever order a restaurant dessert, or drink. I remember someone who told me this saying, that if a man is taking you out to a restaurant, you should always order a dessert. I don’t get the sense in that saying.  What is it implying, that ordering a dessert shows that you know your worth?! The truth is that I cannot order a dessert, and I would not do it, even if someone else was paying – I’d be more likely to just order a more expensive main course. But yeah, anyway!

I look back on those kind of days, and they seem so distant. However, the true reason they feel so different from my current state is not because of the improvement in my financial situation, but rather because I have grown more secure in myself, and ironically that in itself has also positively impacted my financial status. My mind is in a completely different place. it is like when you find yourself looking at someone that you used to know a very long time ago, and you recognise them, but only barely. And in terms of time it has not even been that long. We’re talking what? Eight years or so? It all boils down to the same thing that I always talk about. I always talk about this, but it has been so far reaching in my life.

Long story short, back then, I was still coming out of the place where I was so eager for friendship that I would accept whatever reasonable offers were made to me. It had not yet occurred to me that I could actually have criteria for my friends, even though I was already writing impossibly long criteria lists for my husband! It took me a while to see that the same values in my husband were what I should also actively value in my friends too, and lacking these values would disqualify people from close friendship as surely as they would disqualify potential husbands. Because I was often seeking to win other people’s approval, I was often really sensitive to what other people thought. Within reason, of course, the people we are talking about here were generally other Christians, and people from university. Anyway, I never wanted to come out and admit that I was broke, which I always was, so I would suggest that we did not have to go to Starbucks, we could make coffee at home! Or I would try to diplomatically sway my friends away from their more “spenny” suggestions.  Now though my mind is just different in so many ways.

Firstly, these days I deliberately choose friends rather than just accept any offers of friendship given to me. Secondly, I deliberately choose close friends based on who they are, rather than any other criteria. So a consequence of this is that my friends, even though they might have money, are naturally frugal. I mean that they are not the kind of people who spend money to impress.  Thirdly, because I trust them and I trust in their character, if it ever came to the crunch, I could easily, comfortably say “You know what, I just don’t have the money for that!” And that would be the end of it! And I would not have to worry about losing their approval or their respect for me. Because they don’t expect me to subscribe to the unwritten rules of spending money to maintain a certain standard of lifestyle to achieve social acceptance or to be  deemed worthy.

Ironically, these days I am more likely to turn something down for financial reasons than I ever was when I was living in greater financial anxiety. Not just because I am more confident in my friends, but because I now understand about saving. Why throw away money for no reason, when you could be saving it for your future?  The only people who are going to benefit in that instance are the restaurants or whichever other venue you might be patronising for your social events!

One added advantage of all this is that I can go around in my inexpensive but good-quality clothing, without having to fear the slightest judgement from my friends, or having to face the slightest pressure to spend money to “look the part”. (That said, sometimes, even when you are sitting with a group of Nigerian Christians whom you have chosen for excellent character, the inherent status-consciousness of Nigerian Christianity still quietly seeps through.) And you know, this thing can be so insidious! Even if you are working to be immune to it, as I am. Sometimes to make life easier it just seems more straightforward to give in to it, which is what I found myself doing when I found myself in a church not too long ago. The pastor was subtly (and not so subtly) making insinuations about my financial status, and it was easier to just go along and start dressing rich, or slightly more rich, until I finally spoke to my feet and walked out from that church altogether. I should have walked out a lot earlier. In fact, I should never have stayed in the first place. However, even though the pastor and his methods were unquestionably “off”, to be candid, the congregation was lovely and I experienced true Christian love while I was there, which is what made me stay so long – in all it was still less than a year. The point though is that this whole incident was so recent, while I have known these lessons for some time now, and even so I still found myself giving in. I cannot state it enough that the easiest thing is to just keep yourself away from these churches and social groups with these expectations of “looking blessed”, and quietly save the money in your pocket.

Ooh, that reminds me – this will identify the pastor I am talking about. However, when he said the following I was simply appalled. He said: “When people see you, they should be able to smell wealth.”  And he literally used that exact sentence. And remember that he was saying this to a congregation of Christians, who are supposed to emulate Christ. Is that what people are supposed to smell, or discern when they are around followers of Christ?  Wealth? Should it not instead be the grace, the kindness, the love, the honesty of Christ? Or other things that represent Christlikeness?  Also, what happened to humility, and Christian simplicity? And yet, so many other pastors that I have encountered are like this. So many other pastors would say exactly the same thing. I urge you, dear Christian brother or sister, who want to walk in sincere Bible truth, when you find yourself in a church like this, when you are being urged to “prove the level of blessing in your life” through your appearance, or your car, or the money you give to the church, you have to walk away. No matter how much you have invested, no matter what friendships you have built up.  It might hurt, those friendships will almost invariably die, but ultimately your faith and your wallet will both thank you.

You know what?  After initially writing this post, giving it an initial edit and turning off my laptop, I have actually turned my laptop back on and logged back in for the sake of making this point: from the last two churches I’ve seriously attended I have realised that I have only been able to save money when I have not actively been going to church. Otherwise, it is like these churches are so determined to suck up every last spare penny from your pocket and even your existing savings that they will invent countless reasons why they desperately need money, and you need to give it to them.  So from henceforth, that is it, if money is a big aspect of church life, if they are constantly making financial requests I know that that is not the church for me.  Even the mere fact of requesting, not demanding, but merely requesting a tithe, is going to be enough to stop me from going to a church throwing myself into active commitment. I no longer care how much money they need for their bills, I no longer care that “no church is perfect” – these were the considerations I allowed to sway me in my last church.  I mean I do of course care how much money they need for their bills, but they should choose a church premises that they can comfortably afford based on how much money they reliably have coming in. At the very worst, they can meet in someone’s house for free, just like in the First Century church as described in the Bible.

In a previous church I went to, the church met in a space that was rented 24-7 on an ongoing basis, and the money it cost to rent was far more than the money than the church was reliably, predictably bringing in. So the pastor kept pressurising the congregation to give more money to at least cover the cost of the rent.  What he did not emphasise was that he was also using those same premises to run his various businesses, so in effect he was using the church income to subsidise the premises rent on his various businesses. In fact, he made it out that he was running at least one of those businesses to “help out the church”, to bring in money to help cover the rent. But the church only used the premises twice a week for eg 12 hours in total, whereas the other business used the premises 5 times a week for eg 40 hours. And there is absolutely no reason why a church needs to rent a building 24-7 if they are only going to be using it for 12 hours per week, but there was definitely a reason why those other businesses needed to be based in the same place all through the week. So which entity was truly using the space, and should have been most responsible for paying the rent? And which entity was really “helping out” whom via its payments? Because you know, Christlike integrity.  What is that you ask?  Is this pastor the same as the other pastor I have spoken of in this post?! And this particular pastor hated the idea that people might talk about him negatively behind his back, because it was a mark of disrespect, and “No-one’s perfect”, as all pastors hate this. Yeah but if the values that you live out are so different from the Bible, if you refuse to humble yourself before the truth of the Bible when people point out your mistakes, if you refuse to repent, and change your behaviour, all the more so when you claim to be a pastor, then I think that people are justified in calling that out. That said I chose to leave. I have not actually called him out except in largely cryptic posts on this blog, and to a single person from the church but only because they categorically and pointedly asked me about possible issues in the church, and I thought, given that they had asked me so pointedly, it was unfair to not share what I could see and what I had seen.

I don’t know what it is about us church folk that we can be so naïve and trusting. Because apparently absolutely no-one else seemed to join these dots, but this issue about the premises struck me the very first week I went to that church. Which is precisely why I should not have kept going there, but I was just too lazy to drag myself to any other church that would likely have been further away.  And then his character was revealed in so many other ways until I literally could not in any conscience stay there a second longer. You see everyone has character, but it can be good, or it can be poor, or it can be average.  Good character takes time, effort and intent. If you have not worked on it, then the likelihood is that it will not be good. It does not matter what high-falutin’ (old fashioned term there!) title you give to yourself, or other people give to you.  If you want to have good character, you have to invest solid, ongoing work. As a Christian, and moreso a pastor, you should definitely want to have good character because this amongst other things is what Christ calls us to. This is an essential aspect of being a Christian, not a “nice-to-have”.

Actually, as a Christian you should aspire to have excellent character, and if you want to walk in Christian leadership then you should be working towards outstanding character. You’re definitely not supposed to just boldly present your poor character to the world, then say “No-one’s perfect!” So many people want the prestige of being fêted as leaders, but they don’t want to put in the work. This is not remotely controversial. Rather this is Bible 101. This is not written to condemn anyone. I myself have failed countless times. Most recently, I have struggled with my struggles with erotica, which along with all pornography is so deadly, that I would strongly urge everyone to physically run away from their own computers if they need to do so. I have also struggled with my ungracious, virulent anger towards other Christians, which is also a deadly habit. It has suddenly occurred to me that a sensible, Christ-oriented future husband might turn me down because of this anger so suddenly I have a very strong impetus to work on it.  In all this, it remains my determination to achieve and attain outstanding character and my ongoing desire is to bring myself before God, cleanse my heart before Him, receive His wisdom, His chastisement, His guidance and continue pressing forward by the grace and empowerment of God.

So yeah, on balance it has been worth it for me to turn my PC back on to type out all that!
[Added on a subsequent edit:  You know that pastor was not all bad. Actually he was kind and  considerate to everyone and certainly generous to me, in an “I’ll employ you but pay you less than minimum wage” kinda way. And as straightforward as anyone can reasonably be but with a weak and careless relationship with telling the truth. And yet there was at least once when he preached from the pulpit about not lying…and he would criticise other people for lying…Additionally he was walking in so much error regarding his understanding of faith, but he genuinely believed that he was walking in truth, power, and “anointing”. You know when someone is simply so deluded that you don’t know where to start?  I did not bother to even try. I simply walked away.]

Moving away from the perennially frustrating topic of church to think back on friends, when you are hanging around with the right sorts of people, they will not encourage you to frivolously spend money and definitely not for the sake of impressing other people. Rather, they will discourage you! “Tosin, did you not say that you were saving up for that house?  Why don’t we just make dinner for ourselves at home for now, and then we can save the restaurant visit for celebrating when you have closed on the house purchase!!!” And by the way, this is also what a prudent spouse would say in my opinion. Even as a woman but especially as a man I would be very wary of someone who might insist that you need to go out to spend big money to “prove how much you love them”. Or someone who expects you to spend money lavishly keeping up with the Joneses, because “What would my friends think?!”. I would suggest that you should run as far as you can from such a potential spouse before making the mistake of joining your life with theirs.

I think that there was more in my mind when I set out to write this post, but I can’t remember it now!  The basic point that I wanted to make was this: if you recognise the kind of anxiety that I have written of in this post, I would suggest that you need to do an audit of your friends, and look out for people who emphasise character over “proving that you are good enough to fit in (by constantly keeping up with the Joneses)”. That is just an unwinnable game. I finally looked at those people that I wanted to like me, and I thought to myself “How come you automatically get to decide the rules?  How come you get to decide if I am cool?!” and I realised that there was nothing stopping me from exercising my own “rules”.  I’ve just remembered the other crucial thing I wanted to say, and that is this: the irony in all this is that I am working hard to be financially successful. And yet even in that I have made a lifelong commitment to live simply.  I have actually made up my mind, a long time ago, that I don’t want people to be able to tell from my appearance how much money I have got or indeed that I have money at all.

The only exception to this will be dressing up for my job and to impress my husband, and going out to restaurants with him. And that is specifically about looking good rather than about trying to indicate my wealth. Also going on holiday with my husband, in short everything I identified in my recent post-wedding dating post. Even in that, I don’t plan to spend excessively.  With many things in my life, I have been dreaming of “When I have money”, however, with some things I now realise that I have, to my amazement, attained the level that I want to maintain for the rest of my life, no matter how much more money I might make.  So with those things, I am actually happy at this level, and anyone trying to pressurise me “to rise higher” is ultimately trying to twist me from who I am content to be in my life, who I feel called to be. And I know that I definitely don’t need those kinds of friends, even if you, dear Reader, are happy with such friends. And you know what? The final irony is that many of these people who are trying to pressurise you to look a certain way or to spend money you don’t have to “meet their standards” are actually in debt themselves. This kind of thinking is actually a hallmark of insecurity and financial inexperience.  When people start understanding about money, they start understanding that their priority is to invest their money into investments for the sake of their future and their family’s future, rather than, to amend the famous saying, spending money that they don’t have on things that they don’t need to impress people that they want to like them.

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