As you're developing a budget with your family, I encourage you to make it your number one priority to pay the Lord first. I once heard Bob Benson, a beloved Christian author, talk about a vest he had worn to a speaking engagement. He was very concerned about his message and wanted to make a good impression, but when he got home, he realized his vest had been buttoned wrong. It had been cockeyed during his entire speech. He was humiliated. "You know, it is so easy to button your vest wrong," he later said. "You only have to get the first button wrong, and then all the others follow suit."
The same is true with our priorities. If we get the first one wrong, all the others are going to be out of place. But if we get this first priority right, each step thereafter is much easier. At the top of our list should be our planned giving to the church. God makes it clear he is to receive the firstfruits of our income, not the leftovers: "Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops" (Proverbs 3:9, emphasis added).
How much of our income is to be given to God as the firstfruits? My personal conviction is that I should give the first 10 percent of my income to my local church. Whatever your conviction, decide to give God what you consider to be the "firstfruits" of your income, to show God you understand it's not your money you're managing, but his.
We're tempted to think that if we give God 10 percent, then we're giving him his part. After that, once we pay our bills, we're free to do whatever we wish with the remainder. But God is not concerned with only the first 10 percent. Just as we can't say, "I went to church on Sunday and I've done my part; now I may live as I wish," neither can we claim the right to do what we want with the remaining 90 percent of our income. God owns all of it and cares how we manage it all.
The key to honoring God with our finances is remembering that our money is really not our money. Psalm 24:1 says, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it." God owns it all and gives to us as he pleases. No matter how much we like to think we earned it, we don't have anything that God didn't give us. The first job Adam and Eve were given — even before they fell into sin — was management. They were put in charge of the Garden of Eden. They were to tend it, but they did not own it. In the same way, we are only tending what is in our possession. Nothing we have will be ours for eternity. Whatever we have came from God and will return to God.
In the meantime we are to be stewards — managers or trustees — of God's resources, and God takes a steward's task seriously. The Bible has more than two thousand verses on money and possessions, exhorting us to be wise stewards of God's resources. Some day he will demand an accounting of that which he has entrusted to us. The Bible says, "It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful" (1 Corinthians 4:2). God has entrusted us with quite a lot of his resources. If you average an annual net income of just $25,000 over a 40-year period, you will manage more than a million dollars in your lifetime!
Should you tithe even if you can't pay your bills? If you can't afford the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, I would say no. But make it your goal to tithe as soon as possible. Not being able to pay your bills should be only a short-term excuse for the new Christian or for someone who has just come to understand his need to give at this level. Get out of debt as soon as possible. In the meantime, immediately begin giving whatever you can to God every week — even if it seems minuscule — to show your obedience and your intention. I believe you will begin to see the blessings of God.
Determine that within three years you will be a tither. (Longer-term you can undertake a plan of "exponential generosity" as explained in The Eternity Portfolio.) Keep a journal of how God blesses you once you begin giving more, so that your faith will be reinforced. Then examine your budget and expenses each month to determine what you can do without so you can tithe. If someone claims he cannot tithe, but he has a smartphone, a DVR, cable television, a boat, or a sizable savings account, he needs to reevaluate his priorities.
I've been asked, "Should I tithe if my spouse is against it?" No. Tithing should not cause a wedge in your marriage relationship. Talk it over with your spouse and come to an agreement. See if you can compromise. Give an agreed upon gift each week for a year, and journal all of God's blessings during that time. When the year is up, look at the journal and see if you can increase your giving the next year.
Jesus said that where your treasure is, that is where your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). A track coach once encouraged his pole vaulter, "Son, throw your heart over the bar and the rest of you will follow." Throw your heart into the kingdom of God, and your money will follow.