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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 four personal finance books that were published by NavPress, including Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples and The Grad’s Guide to Money (written for high school seniors and college freshmen). He does some outside speaking as well at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats throughout the country. Matt has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990 when he began serving in the Good $ense ministry at Willowcreek Community Church.

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

A Position of Financial Strength

The New York Times recently ran a series of charts designed to sum up 2020 economically. They showed how the pandemic has impacted employment, wages, home prices, and more.

But one of the most striking charts about what happened in 2020 was missing from the NYT’s collection. It was the Federal Reserve’s tracking of the personal savings rate.

After plodding along within a relatively tight range for decades, suddenly the savings rate rocketed to nearly 34% in April 2020. As we all grappled with the early days of the pandemic, our spending on restaurant meals, movies in theaters, gasoline to get to the office, and so much more hit the brakes hard.

That dramatic increase raises some questions and points to some opportunities.

What is savings? In a funny Saturday Night Live skit from 2006, a husband and wife, played by Steve Martin and Amy Poehler, sit in their kitchen fretting over their bills. Suddenly, an infomercial announcer appears, promoting a one-page book called “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford.” The idea, he explained, was to only buy things with money that had been saved. Looking perplexed, Martin’s character asks, “And where would you get this saved money?”

In similar fashion, we might look at the Federal Reserve chart and ask, “And what exactly is savings?” The Fed defines it as “personal income less personal outlays.” That doesn’t necessarily mean people are putting the money into a savings or investment account, only that they aren’t spending it — yet.

Generalities mask realities. Of course, the savings rate is an average. That means some households are saving (or not spending) much more than they were before the pandemic whereas some are saving much less. The dividing line generally runs between those who have kept their jobs and those who haven’t.

Will it last? As the recession of 2008 dragged on, frugality came into vogue, and many commentators believed a new and lasting way of life had begun. The savings rate went up, people held onto their cars longer, and second-hand stores became all the rage.

In 2010, 63% of people said the recession had “forever changed” the way they spend and save, according to a Citigroup survey. One year later, Citigroup re-ran its survey. This time, the percentage of people who said the recession had “forever changed” the way they spend and save fell to just 52%. Apparently “forever” doesn’t last as long as it used to last.

This sort of thing happens a lot. Economic times get tough and people tighten the belt. Things get better and they spend more. When gas prices are low, SUVs fly off car dealer lots. When the price goes up, small cars gain popularity. I call it binge/purge money management. As you can see in the graphic, after the April spike, the savings rate quickly fell back, although not all the way back to where it had been.

When the worst of the pandemic is over, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the savings rate among those whose finances have grown stronger will go all the way back to its earlier level. My sense is that there’s tremendous pent-up desire to get back to traveling, enjoying restaurant meals, seeing movies in theaters, and generally getting back to our former way of life.

However, within these forced changes there are some short- and long-term opportunities.

In the short-term, those of us who are in an especially strong financial position because of less spending have the opportunity to make use of a wonderfully phrased idea contained in the equally wonderful book, Practicing the King’s Economy: “bending our economic lives” toward those in need.

One small way my family did this last year was by becoming customers of a home-based business run by a woman whose husband lost his job for several months. We certainly didn’t single-handedly provide for that family’s needs, but hopefully, we helped by bending our economic lives a little bit in their direction.

I know other families have bought take-out food more than they might have as they bent some of their underutilized entertainment budget toward struggling local restaurants. Others bought food for depleted food pantries, bought meals for front-line workers, or helped those who’ve been hurting in countless other ways.

Longer-term, my hope is that some aspects of our money management truly will be forever changed by the pandemic, perhaps taking the amounts that we give, save, or invest up a notch, and keeping those changes in place even after life returns to some semblance of normalcy.

I remember interviewing someone who went on a year-long spending fast, buying only what was truly necessary. She wanted to see how much more she could give. When the fast was over, she went back to spending on things she had done without for the past year, but not to the same degree. There was something about the fast that permanently reset how much she spends.

I had allowed my sense of normal to be shaped by the behaviors of people around me. People think they don’t have any margin, but it’s because their ‘normal’ is so out of whack. From the food we consume, to the clothes we wear, to our choices of entertainment, to the frequency with which we buy shoes or pillows or winter coats. Who said that we need new stuff every year?

How have your financial habits and practices changed during the pandemic? In what ways can you envision the pandemic forever changing how you manage money?

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Money Roundup: A Tale of Two Economies, Scripture in a Financial Chart, 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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How Well Did You Navigate 2020?

The longer I’ve been an investor, the more I’ve seen the importance of managing expectations. Looking at annual returns gives you one impression of the market. You see that a certain year generated a solid return and imagine that the path toward that positive end was smooth and easy.

Digging into the details of how the market actually achieved each year’s returns often shows a very different picture. Perhaps no graphic demonstrates this more clearly than the following one from JP Morgan Asset Management, which shows not just each year’s returns, but the lows the market experienced within each year.

While 2020 ended with a +16% gain, it suffered a -34% decline in March as investors grappled with the early days of the pandemic. Never before in the 40 years covered by this analysis has the market fallen so much within a given year and still ended the year with such a strong gain.

All of this has left us wondering how well you navigated 2020. Did you make any moves outside of the official recommendations within the strategy or strategies you follow, or did you stay the course? What helped you as an investor in such a tumultuous year?

If you're willing, we'd appreciate it if you would take a moment to complete the brief, anonymous survey we've created at this link. It should take less than five minutes. I’ll report back to share the aggregated results (individual replies are anonymous) in a few weeks.

The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). We trust that this survey will help us learn from and be an encouragement to each other. The more responses we get, the more helpful it will be. Thanks for your participation!

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Money Roundup: Forecasters at It Again, For Such a Time as This, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web — a day early this week since we assume you'll be focused on more important matters tomorrow. Merry Christmas.

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 Science of Habit Formation

The start of a new year is a common time to set goals or make resolutions. We have renewed energy to make this the year we finally drop those 10 pounds or get out of debt. For a while, we make progress. We know that if we can just maintain our enthusiasm and will power, this time will be different.

Unfortunately, it only takes until the third or fourth week in January for many of us to get off track and settle into a routine that looks much like it always has.

The problem, according to James Clear, isn’t that we tend to set the wrong goals, it’s that we go about their accomplishment in the wrong way. Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says we’re too focused on the end point and not nearly enough on a process that will get us there. As he puts it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Goals are helpful in setting the direction, but systems are how we get there, and systems are all about daily habits.

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The Risks and Advantages of Employer Stock in Your Retirement Account

Being able to invest your employer’s stock via a company plan is a nice perk, but holding too much of it is risky. Ask employees of General Electric. Four years ago, GE stock was priced at $30 per share. Today, it trades for roughly a third of that — about $10 per share. That’s a decline of more than 60%. Ouch.

To be sure, employees can prosper with company stock too. (Ask someone who works for Microsoft!) And there is another possible upside: Those who hold employer stock in a retirement plan can take advantage of a significant but little-known break, as we’ll explain below.

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Better Days Ahead and Other Points to Ponder

More than a shot in the arm

“I didn’t feel a thing…. I also believe that history will record that this week was the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.”

– U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination on 12/18/20. Earlier in the week, vaccinations began in all 50 states. Read more in this
CBS News article: cbsn.ws/2WrSmCb.

Better days ahead

We can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re thinking that this could be another long expansion.”

– Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, quoted by
Bloomberg on 12/16/20. Powell said he expects the economy to perform “strongly” in the second half of 2021 as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, although the first few months of the year will likely be “challenging.” Read more at bloom.bg/3gVyxNb.

Not a stretch

“…stock-market valuations may not be as absurd as some people think.”

– Yale economist Robert Shiller and two colleagues, in an 11/30/20
Project Syndicate piece they co-wrote. Despite many analysts calling today’s market “stretched” and fearing a correction or worse, Shiller et al. argued that stocks actually may be fairly valued, given historic low interest rates. Read more at bit.ly/3oY5FGD.

One risk you might be missing

“Don’t delay the conversation—if the problem exists, you will find out eventually. If you wait to find out, it could blow up your own financial plan.”

– Financial planner Justin Castelli, in a 12/11/20 post on his blog,
All About Your Benjamins. He said there’s a risk you’re probably not talking about—the risk that your parents might one day need financial help. Read more at bit.ly/3moPtMY.

Taking from the uninformed

“When describing how it made money...one of Robinhood’s selling points to customers was that trading was ‘commission free,’ but due in large part to its unusually high payment for order flow rates, Robinhood customers’ orders were executed at prices that were inferior to other brokers’ prices.”

– From a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint against the popular trading platform. The SEC found that, i
n aggregate, Robinhood customers overpaid by $34.1 million—even after taking into account the savings from not paying a commission. While neither acknowledging nor denying guilt, Robinhood agreed to pay a $65 million fine. The company said the settlement stems from historical practices no longer in use today. Read more at reut.rs/3akwp05.

Playing both sides

“The ease of underestimating how bad things can be in the short run and how good they can be in the longer run is a leading cause of bad forecasts, bad decisions, and confused people.”

– Morgan Housel, in a 12/3/20
Collaborative Fund blog post on why it’s best to be a “reasonable optimist,” someone who expects some bad news in the near term while believing things will be better in the future. Read more at bit.ly/2WiubWV.

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Money Roundup: Making Sense of Today’s Valuations, How to Invest When You Have Already Won, 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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SMI Members Helped Make #GivingTuesday a Great Success

On #GivingTuesday, December 1, we offered an opportunity for SMI members to come alongside the Jesus Film Project (JFP) to help reach parts of South Asia with the Gospel. As we noted, hundreds of millions in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives have not heard the gospel, even once.

Well, you came through with a wonderful response. According to our friends at the JFP, SMI members collectively gave over $9,700! As in years past, generous SMI members learned of a need and wanted to be part of the solution.

You helped make the overall campaign a great success, with the Jesus Film Project exceeding its $200,000 goal by raising more than $235,000. Overall, 469 people or families gave an average of more than $500 each.

The more than $235,000 raised on #GivingTuesday, along with a $200,000 challenge grant given by one generous couple, means Jesus Film Project teams will have more than enough to purchase the equipment they need to bring the Jesus Film to even the most remote parts of South Asia, plant new churches, and disciple new believers. That equipment includes backpack kits, with a small, highly portable solar-powered projector, speakers, and screen; solar-powered video tablet/speaker sets for small groups; and video tablets for private showings.

Each Jesus Film Project team that is equipped with a backpack kit will show JESUS at least 50 times a year (some show it up to 100 times each year). Over a kit’s useful life, an estimated 30,000 people will be reached with the Gospel and as many as 30 new churches will be planted.

When you consider that one backpack kit costs $3,240, the amount contributed by SMI members this year, along with the multiplying impact of the challenge grant, is enough to purchase six backpack kits, which will be used to reach an estimated 180,000 people with the Gospel and plant as many as 180 churches!

We’re grateful for the work being done by the Jesus Film Project, and we’re grateful to you for your role in helping to make this work possible.

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Today is #GivingTuesday — Join Us to Help Bring the Gospel to South Asia!

Welcome to #GivingTuesday where we are once again partnering with our friends at the Jesus Film Project to help bring the Gospel to thousands of people who have never heard it. And because of one generous couple, the impact of your gift will be multiplied.

#GivingTuesday is a global movement designed to launch the Christmas season with an emphasis on generosity, rather than material pursuits. It's a response to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, days focused on spending on self and loved ones.

This year’s campaign will help bring the Gospel to parts of South Asia! According to the Jesus Film Project team:

Hundreds of millions in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have not heard the gospel, even once. The name Jesus means nothing to them. They may view Him as the “god of the foreigners” or Christianity as nothing but a Western religion … of no value.

But when a film team arrives in their village and shows them JESUS, when they hear Him speak in the language of their hearts, when the Holy Spirit moves in their spirits, suddenly Jesus becomes “Emmanuel, God With Us.”

This is why film teams are ready to go deep into these nations, to tell millions of unreached people the good news. Teams just need the showing equipment, portable solar-powered projector sets or video tablets for more restricted areas.

This year, Jesus Film Project is hoping to raise enough money to buy:

  • 100 backpack kits, with a small, highly portable solar-powered projector, speakers, and screen ($3,240 each)
     
  • 110 solar-powered video tablet/speaker sets for small groups ($570 each)
     
  • 40 video tablets for private showings ($380 each)

As an example of the impact this equipment will enable, each Jesus Film Project team that is equipped with a backpack kit will show JESUS at least 50 times a year (some show it up to 100 times each year). Over a kit’s useful life, you can help reach up to 30,000 people with the Gospel and plant as many as 30 churches. The teams will also use this equipment to regularly follow up with and disciple new believers.

All told, the equipment listed above will cost about $400,000. However, a generous couple has led the way with the first gift, a $200,000 Challenge Grant. So, by raising $200,000, all of the $400,000-worth of equipment could be purchased.

Last year, the SMI family participated in the Jesus Film #GivingTuesday campaign, generously giving nearly $8,000. Perhaps this year, all SMI members together, each giving what he or she has a heart to give, could contribute $10,000. With the multiplying impact of the challenge grant, that would be enough to purchase six backpack kits, which means at least 180,000 people would be reached with the Gospel and as many as 180 churches would be planted! Working together, we can do something significant to "seek and save the lost" in that part of the world.

We hope you'll agree that this is a great way to begin your celebration of Advent and Christmas! After all, Christ came and loved a lost world (which includes us), and he has given us a similar mission: ”[Father,] as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18).

To learn more about this project and then give as the Lord leads, click here. Thank you!

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