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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Managing Editor

Matt joined SMI in 2012. He leads SMI’s content strategy — managing the company’s monthly editorial calendar, writing many of the articles, sourcing content from outside the company, and either writing or overseeing much of what appears on our website. He also represents SMI in various radio guest appearances.

Prior to joining SMI, Matt was an independent biblical money management writer and speaker. He is the author of five biblical money management books, including Trusted: Preparing Your Kids for a Lifetime of God-Honoring Money Management, which will be published by Focus on the Family and its publishing partner, Tyndale House, in April 2023. He has spoken at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats throughout the country. Matt has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990.

Matt earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University and a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from DePaul University, where he wrote a thesis about the history and influence of our consumer culture.

Matt and his wife Jude have three children at home. 

Most Recent Articles

Money Roundup: What to Make of the Market’s Rally, What Investors Can’t Do, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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What’s Your Money Mindset?

When I used to teach biblical money management workshops on a regular basis, I would often use an exercise designed to help people see what money-related assumptions they had.

I would tell participants to imagine that they had an upcoming interview for their dream job and that they were in serious need of a new suit or outfit to wear to the interview. Then I would ask how much they would expect to spend on such clothing. (Without fail, a woman would ask whether that included accessories. Sure, throw in the accessories!)

There were several questions like that, from how many miles a car should have before being replaced to how much it costs to feed a family of four for a month.

The answers were always all over the map. I would tell people there aren’t necessarily right answers or wrong answers to those questions, good answers or bad answers. The point was that we all have answers. We all have certain assumptions that live for us like the truth and they guide all manner of financial decisions large and small. The problem is that we rarely stop to consider what money-related assumptions we have, and that leaves us living at the effect of them.

So, it was interesting to read the results of a recent Money Mindset study commissioned by Fidelity that sought to understand some of the money-related attitudes held by 18 to 44-year-olds.

Too much work

While nearly half (49%) of respondents acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, most seemed to assume that the tradeoffs necessary in order to build savings would require too much of them. Some 83% said it’s important to spend money on things that make them happy, and 76% noted that saving money would require cutting back on such spending. One in four said they’d rather run a 5k on Thanksgiving morning than cut back on spending.

The thought of using a budget was also unappealing, with 57% saying they dreaded the idea. In fact, one in four divorced respondents said they’d rather spend an hour with their ex-spouse than create a budget.

A perspective reset

Budgets have long topped people’s lists of most disliked financial tools. In my workshops, I would often ask people, “If a budget were a person, who would it be?” Common answers included Scrooge, the Grinch, and even the devil. One young man in a money & marriage workshop named his mother-in-law. Clearly, budgets have an image problem.

But it’s mostly that — an attitude, a mindset. Research I once commissioned found that people who don’t use a budget would describe it as “restrictive,” “inhibiting,” and “a burden.” But people who do use one would describe it as “freeing” and “helpful.”

I like to encourage people to see that a budget isn’t about less — as in less spending, less freedom, or less fun. It’s actually about more — more knowledge about what’s happening with our cash flow, so we can be more intentional in our use of money, so we end up having more for what matters most.

Some will have to take all that on faith, but when people begin to use a budget (or as I prefer, a “cash flow plan”), that’s usually what they find.

Of course, this exercise takes on a whole new dimension when we bring faith into it. When it comes to building savings, it would help to memorize and meditate on the truth that, “The wise man saves for the future, but the foolish man spends whatever he gets” (Proverbs 21:20, TLB). And when it comes to using a budget, it would help to memorize and meditate on the truth that, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Proverbs 21:20, NIV).

What about you?

Think about a purchase you're considering right now. What assumptions do you have? Do you absolutely need to make that purchase right now? Is the amount you assume you’ll have to pay accurate? What or who is influencing your assumptions?

Have you prayed over the decision? Do you have peace about it? Would it be beneficial to your most important relationships? Would it be glorifying to God?

The study also highlights what an opportunity parents have to raise their kids with biblical financial perspectives and practices. It will be a lot easier to sort through life’s many financial decisions having grown up with it being an “of course” that we give to God the first portion of what He brings into our life, that we save or invest the next portion, and that we then build our lifestyle on what remains, all the while avoiding the bondage of debt.

Like I said, we all have lots of money-related assumptions running through our heads. We can either live at the effect of them or we can try to identify them, prayerfully consider whether they’re true, and be intentional about cultivating healthy, God-honoring attitudes. It won’t ever be a perfect science, but we’ll make better decisions for having questioned some of our assumptions about money.

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Bear Markets Are a Grind

You have to envy investors who somehow ignored all the market news beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, and didn’t check in again until Dec. 31. In their eyes, the market had a great year, generating a tidy gain of more than +18%. They would have completely missed the breathtaking –34% plunge from mid-February to mid-March.

Of course, most investors can’t help but hear how the market is doing. News comes at us from all angles, and when the market isn’t doing well, that news inflicts two types of pain on investors. First, there’s the obvious pain of loss. As we have highlighted many times over the years, it’s human nature to feel the pain of loss much more acutely than the pleasure of a comparable gain. Never mind that investors haven’t actually “lost” money unless they sold when their investment was down. Tallying the “paper losses” as your portfolio declines in value can be an unpleasant experience.

The other pain associated with bear markets is the emotional fatigue created by the numerous short-term rallies that mark the typical bear’s longer-term slide. The chart below highlights six bear market rallies during the Great Financial Crisis of late 2007 to early 2009. During the market’s long downward journey of more than –50%, these bear market bounces generated soon-to-evaporate gains ranging from +8% to over +27%.

Each time there was a bounce, investors hoped the worst was over. Some probably were eager to capitalize on the “great buying opportunity” at what appeared to be the start of the next bull market, intent on making up lost ground.

Feeling such hope after experiencing such pain, only to have that hope repeatedly dashed by the next leg down, adds insult to injury. Indeed, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12).

(Click Chart to Enlarge)

What’s an investor to do, especially as we are now in the throes of this current bear market?

First, do not abandon hope. Eventually, all bear markets end. And take solace from history’s clear lessons: bear markets tend to be shorter in duration than bull markets and they tend to take away less value than bull markets add.

Second, don’t stress over recognizing the market’s final bottom in an effort to perfectly time the start of the next bull. Remember, SMI’s approach relies on a rules-based system to determine when a rally is likely to be sustained.

As Mark illustrated in his article, How SMI’s Process Helps Investors Buy Low and Sell High, our momentum signals don’t attempt to identify the ultimate pivot in market trend from bear to bull at the moment it occurs. Instead, SMI’s process is designed to act only once the new bullish trend has had time to establish itself. That’s plenty early enough to capture most of the new bull market’s upward climb, while helping us avoid getting sucked prematurely into these painful bear market rallies.

Yes, bear markets are a grind. But you know what to do. Stay patient and keep following the system — it’s watching the market closely so you don’t have to.

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When Helping (Adult Children Financially) Hurts

Countless headlines warn that people are not saving enough for retirement. If you’re a parent, one factor that might be holding you back on the savings front is providing too much financial support for your adult children. As ironic as it might seem, that could hurt more than your own financial security; it could hurt theirs.

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What Does it Mean to Be a Christian Money Manager?

I was listening to a Christian financial writer and speaker recently and was disappointed to hear him criticize just about every well-known biblical money management teacher by name. Some had the wrong view of the economy, some gave self-serving advice, pretty much all of them lacked sufficient theological training. Or so he believed.

It was painful to listen to. Seemed completely inappropriate.

Just when I was about to stop listening, he referenced a Wall Street Journal article from a number of years ago that caught my attention. He said it pointed out that the recommendations of Christian financial planners are often little different from those of secular planners.

For a Christian financial writer/speaker to criticize other Christian financial writers/speakers seemed completely wrong. If he has a different view of how God’s Word is to play out in our finances, he should boldly teach without criticizing others. Or, he should describe the teaching that he believes is wrong and present biblical teaching that sets it right.

But if the secular press doesn’t see any difference between Christian and secular financial professionals, something does seem to be wrong there. 

It all made me think about what really does distinguish Christians in our approach to money — or what should distinguish us. I mean, shouldn’t our use of money mark us in some truly unique ways?

Behavioral indicators

C.S. Lewis thought so, especially in the realm of generosity.

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.

“If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

Wow. Read that a few times and see what it does to your understanding of firstfruits generosity (Proverbs 3:9) and Paul’s challenge to “excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7).

The Bible also warns us against becoming enslaved to creditors (Proverbs 22:7), and one of the most popular church-based financial workshops today is known mostly for helping people get out of debt. But being cautious in our use of debt — while very important and helpful — isn’t the highest financial expression of our faith, is it?

Attitudinal indicators

I’m sure many people would suggest that the central characteristic of a Christian money manager is recognizing God’s ownership over everything and our role as stewards of what has been temporarily entrusted to us. Of course, that perspective is absolutely true, and it stands in stark contrast to cultural teachings on money.

However, it seems to have lost some of its power and influence; for some, “God owns it all” has become a phrase that easily rolls off the lips but doesn’t have a very significant daily impact. Maybe it’s become too familiar.

Home is where the wallet is

A related truth was brought home to me through my family’s move from Chicago to Louisville in 2012. I’m very glad to have joined SMI and to have made the move. My wife and I strongly believe it was a God-given, God-directed opportunity. But it wasn’t easy.

For the most part, what made it tough was leaving family and friends. Another challenge for me was the fact that I really like Chicago and strongly identify with the city.

On a short visit to Chicago a year after we moved, I had a very powerful experience. One evening, while beginning to drive out of the city, I was completely swept up in all that I love about Chicago — the lakefront, the architecture, the history. But that euphoric state was soon harshly interrupted by the realization that I didn’t live there anymore. Chicago was no longer my home. In an instant, a happy moment turned deeply sad.

A few minutes later, as the city I love became smaller in my rearview mirror, I sensed God gently reminding me that whether I live in Chicago, or Louisville, or Timbuktu, this is not my home. The Bible tells us our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). 

Ultimately, our move to Louisville has helped me on my journey of holding the things of this world with open hands. 

Living from this perspective has the power to impact all aspects of money management — from how much we give, to how much we save, to how we wrestle with the notion that “‘everything is permissible’ — but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). It has the power to make us less frantic to own certain things, less disappointed if it looks like we never will, and less prone to look to the things of this world to satisfy desires that will only be fully satisfied in heaven.

Author John Eldredge unpacked that last point well when he said we express our longing for God best when we “enjoy what there is now to enjoy, while waiting with eager anticipation for the feast to come.”

Guilty as charged?

If I were put on trial accused of being a Christian and the only evidence brought against me were my financial behaviors and attitudes, I would hope that if the judge looked at my checkbook, he’d see a level of generosity he found unusual. If he asked some questions, I would hope he’d hear an attitude of thankfulness and contentment that isn’t tied to how much money I have in the bank or anything I own. And as he went about his deliberations, I would hope he’d sense that it all flows from a worldview built on the truth that this is not my home.

What about you? What would you say are the primary financial indicators of your faith?

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Money Roundup: What Bear Markets Have in Common, The State of Generosity, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Retirement Planning Is Not a One-and-Done Activity

In the longest-running study of retirement preparedness, one of the most stubborn numbers over the years has been the percentage of current workers who have tried to figure out how much money they will need to have saved in order to live comfortably in retirement. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), that figure has stayed at or below 50% since 1993 with only one exception. The latest study found that just 47% of today’s workers have taken that step.

While financial planning is an imprecise science, it offers several important benefits. For one, estimating how much you may need to have accumulated by retirement will help you figure out how much you need to invest each month in order to achieve that goal. Knowing that number can be a motivator to find the money to invest. Another benefit is that planning can provide peace of mind. Moving through life not knowing how your day-to-day cash flow management may impact your future is stressful. On the other hand, taking proactive steps to manage how much you’re spending on groceries, vacations, and all the rest in order to free up money to invest for your future can be reassuring.

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Thrift Savings Plan Participants May Have New Access to SMI Strategies

The U.S. government recently introduced several new benefits for government employees who participate in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), including access to many new investment options. By opening up a so-called “mutual fund window,” eligible employees may now choose from more than 5,000 mutual funds. Previously, there were just 15 funds available to TSP participants, including 10 lifecycle (target-date) funds.

Until now, if you had wanted to utilize an SMI strategy to manage a TSP portfolio, you were mostly limited to Just-the-Basics, using the C Fund as an S&P 500 index fund, the S Fund as an extended market index fund, the I Fund as a total international stock index fund, and the F Fund as a total bond market index fund. (See How Federal Workers Can Make the Most of the Thrift Savings Plan.) Now, however, there may be some new ways to utilize SMI within a TSP account.

New options for using SMI

The TSP’s new mutual fund window comes with two significant caveats: limits as to how much money can be transferred to the window and fairly steep fees. Participants wanting to utilize the window must transfer at least $10,000 and the total amount cannot exceed 25 percent of their TSP balance. As for fees, there is a $55 annual administrative fee, a $95 annual maintenance fee, and a $28.75 per-trade fee.

That last fee especially could put a damper on someone’s enthusiasm for using the SMI newsletter to follow Dynamic Asset Allocation, Fund Upgrading, or 50/40/10. Plus, despite having access to so many new funds, TSP participants may still not always find suitable alternatives to SMI's official recommendations. This is particularly true in regards to Dynamic Asset Allocation, which relies on ETFs that can be hard to substitute for using traditional mutual funds (ETFs aren't available through the TSP plan).

However, those SMI strategies may now be available to TSP participants through the SMI Funds: SMIDX (Dynamic Asset Allocation), SMIFX (Fund Upgrading), and SMILX (50/40/10). All of these are managed by SMI Advisory Services, a separate but affiliated company. The SMI Multi-Strategy Fund (SMILX), in particular, would seem to be of interest to those wanting to get SMI strategy exposure in a "one-stop" type fashion, as buying SMILX and then supplementing it with the TSP bond option (F Fund) is a pretty easy way to mimic an SMI portfolio within the TSP plan. That's not been possible before. (We'd appreciate it if a TSP participant reading this article could verify the availability of the SMI Funds via the new mutual fund window.)

Better ways to manage volatility

The current market environment offers a clear example of why these options could be of benefit to SMI members who are TSP participants. Previously, the only way to manage downside risk within a TSP portfolio was to tilt the portfolio toward the F (bond) or G (money market) Funds. By contrast, DAA, Fund Upgrading, and the multi-strategy, 50/40/10 approach are designed to respond to changing market conditions more proactively, using rules-based processes to move money out of harm’s way and/or into asset classes that are growing during broad market declines. For SMI members who are enrolled in the TSP, these new plan options should be a welcome improvement.

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Money Roundup: Why We Probably Have Not Hit Bottom, The Mushy Middle, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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The Story of Generosity

At SMI, we’re marking our 32nd anniversary! As we have done in each July issue since 1990, we are focusing this month on generosity — this time highlighting the work of a ministry called Generous Giving.

We pray that learning about the organization’s unique founding, and its unique approach to opening up conversations about generosity, will encourage you.

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