Money and the Menno millennials

Twenty-somethings talk budgeting, donating and relationships with money

September 11, 2019 | Feature | Volume 23 Issue 16
Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe | Manitoba Correspondent
Maya Janzen.

As a kid, I grew up with the ritual of walking to the front of my church and dropping a few coins in the donation box every Sunday. But as I was sitting in church several months ago, a hymn playing on the piano and the offering basket passing through my hands, I realized that I don’t donate to my church.

I’ve been out of school for a year now and I have a steady income, yet I still haven’t adopted the practice. Why is that? Other than feeling guilty, I started getting curious about how other people in their 20s manage their money. Not just in terms of giving, but also how they feel about money, whether they budget and how they choose to spend it.

When I start asking Maya Janzen about her relationship with money, she stops me and explains that she is having major déjà vu. “I ask these exact questions to other people,” she says with a laugh.

Janzen, 23, worked this summer as a research assistant for the Canadian Financial Diaries Project conducted by Jerry Buckland, a professor at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg. She regularly talked with people with low to moderate incomes about their methods of spending, to gather data to improve policy and financial services, and to create financial empowerment for low-income people.

Living in Winnipeg, Janzen attends Charleswood Mennonite Church. Her relationship with money is shaped by her instinct to save it, which she was raised to see as its primary goal. While saving is still a priority, her idea of money has since expanded. She now sees it as the way we do transactions in our world, a necessity of life.

Janzen has been budgeting for the last five years. She tracks her daily spending with a good old-fashioned pen and paper, marking down things like eating out, concert tickets and other “unnecessary” purchases. Since she was a student until this past spring, when she graduated from university, she still thinks about money in four-month chunks.

Claire Hanson.

Claire Hanson, 21, is entering her fourth year of studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and is connected to Rosthern (Sask.) Mennonite Church. As a returning student, she has some of the same thoughts as Janzen, but her experience has a key difference. Hanson grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries.

Using the renminbi, the Chinese currency, for most of her life, has made it difficult for her to judge how much things cost here. In the age of credit cards and online payments, she says money also feels theoretical. “I don’t really put the numbers together when I pay for something. You tap your card and your money just disappears out of your bank account,” she observes.

She has a general sense of how much she spends per month but doesn’t really budget. She has a couple long-term savings accounts in which she’s saving money to put towards her education.

Ben Borne.

Ben Borne, in contrast, makes a detailed budget. The 29-year-old from Saskatoon, who attends Wildwood Mennonite Church there, has been working for years in the public-relations field and is currently the director of strategy at SalonScale Technologies Inc.

Borne puts together a monthly budget and forecasts about two to three months ahead, using an app to track his spending. “I find money to be a bit stressful from time to time because of the rising costs,” he says. “It’s a constant balancing act that . . . I need to be paying attention to quite regularly.”

But he also recognizes that he has a well-paying job and the privilege that comes with that.

In fact, all three young people acknowledge the significant financial privilege they have. 

Hearing about different people’s experiences with money has reminded Janzen that she has many advantages, including the ability to live rent-free or get an interest-free loan from her parents if she needed to. “In general, I don’t think about money a lot and I think that goes to show I have enough money to live,” she says. “If I was experiencing poverty, I don’t think that would be the case.”

Hanson has had a lot of support throughout her university education, both from scholarships and money her parents set aside for her. They could save money for her education because living in China meant certain living costs, like food, were cheaper, and they didn’t own a house, so they had no mortgage to pay. “I feel like I’m really lucky that way, that I don’t have to constantly worry about saving enough money for the school year,” she says.

Generally, though, young people today face financial pressure. “They’re graduating with more student debt than previous generations. They’re often buying homes and cars later than previous generations. I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems like it’s getting more unattainable,” says Mike Duerksen, who does fundraising and donor relations as executive director of Generation Rising, an organization that builds schools in Latin America for children born into poverty.

So do young people donate?

In the big picture, they give barely enough to even mention, says Duerksen. Older people, especially over 70 years old, are still doing the lion’s share of donating. “But that in itself is not particularly different, because we know that really predictably, like for generations now, young people have never given a lot in terms of monetary amounts,” he says, adding that, at about 50 years old, once people establish their careers and their kids grow up and move out, they become predictably more generous with their donations.

It’s not that young people aren’t giving at all, they’re just giving differently, says Gayle Goossen, creative director of Barefoot Creative, an agency that helps businesses and organizations with their branding, digital presence and fundraising. 

She says that Statistics Canada gets its information from donations that people have claimed on their income taxes. But some of the biggest donation media don’t give donation receipts, so donations through them can’t be claimed. For example, donors may give a toonie to the Children’s Hospital at the grocery checkout, tweet a certain hashtag to donate a loonie to replant a forest, or contribute to online campaigns like GoFundMe and Kickstarter that raise money for everything from a person’s surgery to a musician’s first album.

“My sense . . . would be that young people probably are giving, but they’re probably not doing it through what would be the official donation channels,” says Rick Braun-Janzen, director of finance at Abundance Canada, which assists people in gift planning. 

Whereas this generation’s parents and grandparents gave loyally to their church and one or two specific organizations, young people today don’t have the same sense of loyalty to one entity. “The allegiance to denominations, like where you put money into a pool and the denomination decides what gets done with it . . . is starting to become frayed,” he says.

Young people want to be in control of their money and make their own decisions. They know their values and want to ensure that where they’re donating aligns with them. “They’re probably the most savvy consumers that we’ve ever experienced,” says Duerksen. “The same applies to their giving.”

“As the next generation of donors come along, they’re wanting to see a much more direct correlation between the money they’re donating and the positive effects those dollars are accomplishing,” says Braun-Janzen. Charities aren’t doomed, he believes; they just need to figure out how to stay relevant into the future.

This generation also sees giving differently. “They see some of their purchases as being an act of philanthropy, the whole conscious consumerism [movement] they see as part of their effort to make the world a better place,” says Duerksen. “Volunteering . . . even things like sharing petitions or getting involved in advocacy, those all rank as giving. There’s no distinction between monetary giving or being involved in other ways.”

Janzen, Hanson and Borne all consider volunteering time as an equal and important form of donating.

During her first two years living in Canada, Hanson tithed, giving 10 percent of her income to her church, something she hadn’t thought about until coming to Canada. She liked that her church supported Mennonite Church Canada Witness projects. “I thought it would be nice to support people in the field now that I wasn’t,” she says. Although she doesn’t tithe regularly anymore, she still contributes annually with her extended family to a service project.

Other than occasional small donations or giving some change to someone in need after her class downtown, Janzen doesn’t donate regularly either. Recently finishing school and hunting for a job bring a lot of uncertainty and financial instability, so she currently feels more protective of her money. She rarely donates to her church and she’s more likely to donate to other causes, like online fundraisers, that aren’t necessarily official charities.

“This logic is probably flawed,” she says, “but I think it’s my perception that the costs at my church will inevitably be covered by people that I assume are wealthier in the congregation.” She wants to change that and donate to her faith community when her income is stable.

Borne has an annual budget for donating to charity and makes monthly donations to his church and the organizations he cares about through online e-transfers. He gives to his church because it aligns with Mennonite and Christian values, and he views giving money as an act of service and humility. “As long as you’re giving something and supporting in some way, whether it’s time or money, then really that’s all that matters,” he says. “It’s God’s time, it’s God’s money, and it’s all important and valuable.”

Borne just finished a three-year term as his church’s treasurer. He found it humbling to see the generous gifts that people gave so regularly. At first, though, he caught himself comparing his contributions to other people’s donations. But that’s not the right mindset, he says, adding, “I guess I don’t like to live in comparison. I think that’s the wrong message. It’s about supporting what you believe in, and every little bit counts.”

Statistics show that “people who are linked to some kind of a faith community, who have seen generosity in play in their formative years . . . are more likely to continue that pattern as they move into the years where they can start to donate money,” Braun-Janzen says.

As people of faith, we are people of generosity, and that’s not limited by age. This generation is not less compassionate than previous ones. It’s just a matter of navigating a changing financial landscape, says Goossen. 

“I have great hopes for the next generation,” she says. “I’m not going to predict whether [they] give more or less . . . but they will give generously, because we’re created with a heart of compassion and generosity, and that does not change with generations.” 

For discussion

1. Do you give to your church or other charities through electronic methods? Why or why not? How is your giving tied to your worship in your congregation? As a disciple of Jesus, where do you get inspiration to be generous?

2. How does your congregation make it easy for people to give, whether in the worship service or in other practical ways? What practices in your church might inhibit giving? How are children and youth in your church acquiring a habit of giving? 

3. How do you respond to Lori Guenther Reesor’s statement: “Silence around money doesn’t help. Jesus talks about money and so we can too”? Do people in your congregation experience unease around money conversations? If so, how might that be lessened? What attitudes and practices might make that conversation possible?

4. Consider the unique financial challenges faced by both the younger and the older generations. What might the generations teach each other about their relationship to money, generosity and giving? 

5. What message does your church give to congregants who consider themselves poor? Can you identify with the assumption that the wealthier members will be responsible for the congregational budget? What problems might this create?

—By Virginia A. Hostetler

Related stories:
The zucchini principle
Giving in the digital age
Mixing friendships with fundraising
Why your church needs to talk about money

Maya Janzen.

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