I have never really understood why people blog, but two weeks ago I had some things I wanted to share with the missionaries we work with and it seemed to be the most convenient format so I decided to try this blogging thing. I did not realize when I sat at down at my computer what I was getting myself into. I was taken aback to see my observations on the obscure topic of missionary support circulate around the world within hours. I thought the visitor stats must be wrong as it racked up 50,000 readers in the first week.
It has been fascinating to see the range of reactions and emotions that this topic elicits. I viewed the subject as budgeting 101 based on common sense and dull math computations. I quickly realized that I had stepped into a mine field with some looking to my words as validation of their reality, while others saw my suggestions as a damaging form of American imperialism, advocating comfort and privilege. There were several missionary families thanking me for saying what they couldn’t, lay people and pastors challenging me to rethink assumptions about how a missionary should live, and my favorite, the young single missionaries rebuking me (yes they used the word, rebuke) as a comfort seeking charlatan in it for the money. Even when I emphasized I was advocating for others, that we had nothing personal to gain as we do not raise personal support, they refused to believe it. What really stood out to me is that when people think about what it should cost to send out a missionary, they generally think in terms of a single person. They take this amount and add another 25-50% if the missionary happened to have a family.
Most of the comments on the blog missed the very point I was writing about. It was to help educate people on how cheap things are in the US compared to the rest of the world. It is hard for people to make decisions or understand missionaries’ budgets if they don’t understand the cost structure missionaries have to contend with. My point of comparing things to the cost in San Diego was not to suggest that missionaries need to replicate their American lifestyle. It was to show that things in most poor countries are even more expensive than San Diego, a city most Americans view as an expensive place to live.
Productivity not Comfort
There are always tradeoffs when it comes to the family budget, but I think it is important to understand the opportunity cost of sending missionaries on a bare bones budget. Even on the tightest budget it is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, so as good stewards we need to make sure that missionaries are equipped to have the greatest impact possible. It makes no sense to cut 20% from their budget if it is going to make them 50% less effective. This is not about comfort, but wise stewardship.
To those who think missionaries should not have cars or smart phones, you need to at least acknowledge the opportunity cost of your recommendation. You are saying we want the missionaries, that need thousands of dollars a month just to be in the country, to waste a lot of time riding a bus and looking for internet cafes. (Internet cafes are going the way of the pay phone, even in the developing world smart phones are everywhere). I bought a truck for my local helper here, not because I am worried about his comfort level, but because I want him to be productive. I also pay the monthly bill for him to have a smart phone so he can send me documents and pictures. Even though his salary is a fraction of what it takes to send a missionary to the field, it still does not make sense to have him try to manage projects using the bus and not being able to communicate with me.
I was surprised that the strongest rebuke to my advocated budget came from young single missionaries. I quickly realized that their objections were directed more towards the economics of raising a family than they were to the standard of living I was advocating for. I know this because their own budgets that they thought were reasonable and austere, were usually higher on a per person basis than the one I was advocating for. Though many of them were blind to it, the disagreement was not due to deep theological or missiological issues, but the fact that they have never had to provide for a family. I totally understand why they see things so differently. I spent time working with missionaries throughout the developing world right after I finished college. (http://www.amazon.com/Four-Souls-adventure-purpose-world-wide-ebook/dp/B003X271MW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1455419645&sr=8-2&keywords=four+souls Had to throw in a shameless plug) I know that at that time my views were pretty similar to many of the young single commenters. When I replied to some of them, I felt like I was debating a 22 year old version of myself.
“But I was told there would be no math.”
I went through the painstaking process of breaking the budget down for them. Yes, a family of 4 will have the same housing expenses as 4 single missionaries sharing a home. I showed that health care costs and insurance for a family of 4 is about 4x that of a young single missionary. Kids need to be driven a lot of places, increasing car expenses. It costs just as much for a family of 4 with two cars as it would for 4 single missionaries sharing 2 cars.
I worked my way through the budget showing the impact of additional family members on every line item. Yes, feeding a family of 4 costs almost 4x as much. Yes, it costs 4 times as much to go out to eat. Yes, your emergency savings will be needed 4x as often. There were only 3 real exceptions. Two expenses that kids do not incur, cell phones and retirement contributions combined for $280 per adult in my budget. The third item is school tuition which the adults do not incur at $450 per kid. For my efforts, I was rebuked for the fact that I was using math in my budget instead of purely using scripture. Though I am guided by scripture there is a biblical basis for the valid use of math. Even Jesus used it.
I am a visual person so I thought it might be helpful to see side by side what a budget that provides a similar standard of living would look like for different size families. That way we can compare apples to apples. If you think my budget is too high for singles and large families, then we can have a productive conversation about it. If you think that the family budget is ridiculous, but think the budget for singles is reasonable then maybe we have found a blind spot. Those of you who read the first blog may notice that the budget below for a family of 4 is about 10% less than the one I advocated for in my original budget. (For those of you who were all geared up to rebuke me don’t worry, it still reaches 6 figures). The below budget reflects the bare minimum required without sacrificing health, effectiveness, and wise long- term planning for most families in El Salvador. The one I previously advocated for, provided for more complete health insurance and a little more flexibility, but since this seemed to distract from the points I was trying to get across, I have cut out all the “luxury”.
Keep in mind that these include all costs, as if the missionary had to pay them. If a supporter provides housing and a car when missionaries are on furlough than you know that part of the budget expense is covered. If you plan on being in the field for less than 5 years than you might not need to put away for retirement. If your sending org raises money separately to cover overhead, than you may not have org fees to pay directly. If a supporter buys you a car than they are covering part of that expense directly. The point is to accurately portray what the real costs are so you can make informed decisions about the wisdom of certain actions. Just because somebody pays for an expense, it does not take that out of the calculation of what your family needs to live on. Too often in ministry we pretend that costs don’t exist if another person or ministry outside our budget is picking up the tab. This causes most missionaries to severely underestimate their true costs and skews proper analysis of the effectiveness and productivity in their ministry. If you would not spend your own budget on something, than you should be just as careful before encouraging somebody else to spend their money on it. This is true not just for projects and personal overhead, but also staff. If you invite a missionary nanny to come down so you can homeschool and she has to raise $14,000 to cover her expense, then the cost to support your family did not go down $10,800 it went up $3,200 (14,000 raised for nanny – $10,800 saved in school tuition). We need to be honest and address the numbers straight on with full disclosure since it is all God’s and He has entrusted us to be good stewards. The downside of this is that when we are completely transparent and honest the numbers can look scary, especially when it comes to sending missionary families. People often react emotionally instead of logically saying things like “that is more than I make”. It is much easier to split off half the expenses into other categories and say it costs $50,000 to send a family than it is to include them all in a transparent way and tell people a missionary needs 6 figures. I am a firm believer that any time you play with the numbers to justify an action, it leads to poorly made decisions.
All that said, here are the real numbers and the reason it costs 3-5x as much to send a family of 4 to the field as it does a single. The knee jerk reaction is to say well we just should only send singles. We should always look at all the factors involved, and cost is definitely one of them. We do need to remember that families offer life experience and stability that is often different from what singles bring to the field. These considerations are not much different in the corporate world where it cost several times as much to send an employee with a family than it does a single. Companies usually consider this, but they often still choose to send those with families because they see the value in their experience and stability.
|Total Housing Expenses- “Living the Chinese dream”- I could not find any stats for El Salvador, but in China the average urban home provides 215 square feet per inhabitant. My above budget provides 212 square feet per person (based on family of 4). The average in the US is 828 square feet per person. In homes with more people, shared space can be used effectively which is why a family of 4 does not need twice as much as a couple. Families benefit from this economy of scale, but so do non-family members who chose to live together as roommates. This is why the budget expects that a young single choose the economical option of renting a room from a family. I have allocated a bigger budget to allow an older single to rent their own place. This takes into account that an older single is more likely to remain on the mission field (as a single). Many young singles are trying out missions after they finish school and are much less likely to remain long term. Plus they are at a stage in life where there are a lot of benefits to living with others. We feel it is reasonable to allow older singles the budget to find housing that allows for privacy and, for lack of a better term, the ability to live like an adult. Also note that drinking water has to be purchased, as tap water is not drinkable. http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/how-big-is-a-house
Transportation- We assume that a car is the most efficient way to get around, because it is in El Salvador. There may be some who serve in places with decent public transport and their budget may be less. For reasons similar to our housing explanation we think it is practical for young single missionaries to share a car, but it is reasonable for established singles to have their own vehicle. This is in part because the older singles usually have a lot more ministry responsibilities and less flexibility to coordinate schedules with another person. It would be ideal for a couple to each have a car but it is easier for them to coordinate schedules so most can get by with one. Once you throw kids into the picture, especially if they are going to school, sharing becomes much more inefficient. As families get larger, there are some economies of scale on a per person basis, but they often need to buy larger more expensive vehicles. Kids at different ages often have different schedules so bigger families drive more miles.
Cell Phones- younger singles can probably get by with cheaper prepaid phones as they generally have less ministry responsibility and no family to coordinate things with. Those with more responsibility generally are more effective if they have smart phones. Larger families mean more things to communicate about.
Household nonfood- This means soap, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, light bulbs, paper towels, toilet paper and the list goes on and on. Slight economies of scale in larger families who can buy bulk.
Groceries- Since food here in El Salvador is at least as expensive as it is in the US, I budgeted the amount people living in the US on food stamps are allotted. Many of you may have heard of the food stamp challenge (if you have not google it). Yep, we are challenging you to provide for missionaries at this luxurious level. Slight economies of scale for a larger family.
Eating out- Studies have shown that an average family of 4 in the US spends $225 a month eating out. This budget for family of 4 is $80 a month. Keep in mind many times for ministry the family must travel, and grabbing a meal is most practical. Not really any economies of scale when it comes to eating out.
Tuition- We feel that missionary kids should be able to get a decent education that is not significantly below what they would receive in the States from a public school. An accredited bilingual school is $450 a month. Yes, homeschooling works better for some families. We need to keep in mind the opportunity cost; if the wife is homeschooling it will greatly impact her ability to be a part of the ministry. Even if it cuts 15%-20% from the family budget, is it a wise choice if it cuts down on the hours available for ministry by 50%? Most schools give discounts if you have 3 or more students so there are some economies of scale. Obviously this is a huge expense that singles and couples with no kids do not have to contend with.
Entertainment- $20 per month per person. No economies of scale.
Misc. – This takes care of clothes, shoes, gifts, celebrations (MK’s have birthdays) books, printer paper, etc.
Retirement- Only applies to the adults. For young singles who are not going to be on the field long term it is probably ok to wait to start contributing to retirement. I would also say this is optional for people who plan on being on the field less than 5 years. Most people use the equity in their homes when they retire to help with their retirement. Missionaries rarely own their own home and must plan to pay either rent or a mortgage in their retirement. This makes planning ahead even more crucial. If a missionary put away $200 per month over a 30 year period their IRA account would provide them about $437 (in today’s dollars) a month during their retirement years. (Assumes money is invested earning a 7% return and 2% inflation. Withdrawals from the account, using the 4% rule that is the accepted norm among financial advisors). While I personally would suggest that missionaries will need more than that to supplement what they receive from Social Security, the reality is most are putting away nothing, so saving even at this level would be a huge improvement
Emergency savings- Bigger family means more emergencies. No real economies of scale.
Tithe- No economies of scale, based on income.
Payroll taxes (Social Security/ Medicare) – No economies of scale, based on income.
Healthcare- Slight economies of scale for families with 3 or more kids.
Furlough- Slight economies of scale for living expenses. No economies of scale on plane tickets.
Visa expense- Usually per person but some economies of scale for lawyer fees.
Org Fee- Based on percentage of total operating budget. No economies of scale unless sending org has a monthly cap in place.
If you disagree with some of my analysis or projections please specify the particular item and why you think it should be looked at differently. Statements such as “this is obscene” are easy to type but rarely lead to any sort of edifying discussion. I hope that this sheds some light on why families have to raise so much more than singles and that it helps people see that it is not about maintaining an American lifestyle or a life of luxury. It is about providing a budget that allows a family to function in an efficient and impactful manner.