What God says about your money

Once you've figured out what Christianity, Judaism or Islam preach about making and spending money, teach your kids early and often.

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By Abby Ellin

Faiths usually offer parents very clear direction on child-rearing. Premarital sex, for instance? That's pretty much a no-no, no matter what deity you worship. Dietary rules can also be pretty straightforward -- no pork for Muslims and Jews, no beef for Hindus.

But when it comes to money, the picture is cloudier. What does the Bible or the Koran actually say about money? Does God want us to own a fleet of yachts? Or does he (or she) think suffering and hardship is noble? Does God want your kid to be rich?

Happily, the consensus among most religious leaders seems to be that the Almighty does not want you to live off food stamps and is quite happy for you to drive a Porsche. But Scriptures say that a portion of your earnings should be returned through gifts to charity and offerings to the church -- what some denominations call tithing.

Cantor Erik L. Contzius, of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., is trying to instill these lessons in his 6-year-old son. Whenever the boy goes to Hebrew school, Contzius hands him a dollar to put in the tzedakah box for charity. Thou shalt not hoard your money

"If we teach it at a very young age to give, hopefully it will stick," Contzius says.

Carolyn Castleberry, a writer in Virginia Beach, Va., talks about this idea in her series of financial-empowerment books for women, based on Biblical principles.

"Proverbs 31 has been held up as a standard," says Castleberry, a mother of two who also writes a newsletter called "The Proverbs 31 Investor." The Old Testament passage -- which describes a virtuous woman as having a price "above rubies" -- is "about a woman who is a businessperson, a wife, she has a family, but she became an investor," Castleberry explains. What the Bible teaches

"She knew how to create passive income, she was a real-estate investor -- so she was providing for her family and also for generations, so she's a role model."

According to Castleberry, the Bible addresses the topic of money more than any other issue -- more than 2,000 passages discuss it. The No. 1 rule? "To tithe or give back," she says, quoting Malachi 3:10: "Bring to me the first of your possessions and I'll open up the skies of heaven."

The Bible also admonishes us to be good stewards of money (although here Christianity and Judaism differ from Islam, which forbids interest accrual).

A parable from Matthew discusses a boss who gave his three employees a certain amount of money.

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Two of them invested it, while the third took his portion and buried it. When the boss returned, he was dismayed by the third man's actions.

"It wasn't enough," says Castleberry. "It's the whole 'use it or lose it' philosophy. So we need to learn to make money on our money."

But even if we've figured out what our God wants from us, how do we teach our kids? 9-year-old's money tips

"The Bible teaches us to train a child early, and when they are older they won't forget," Castleberry says. "I try to get kids focused on creating goals early, which comes from Proverbs 4:26: 'Know where you're headed and you'll sit on solid ground.'"

Steve Maxwell, 45, a commercial-real-estate investor, business owner and "financial fluency" teacher in Windsor, Colo., feels the same.

Maxwell's 15-year-daughter, Natalie, recently asked her father, a self-made millionaire and devout Christian, to teach a course on business and financial fluency for her and her friends. The group meets weekly and Maxwell gives them assignments: to start working on their financial statements, say, or to read a book on money and then teach the rest of the class.

He has encouraged each of his three kids to acquire a major asset, such as a business or property, while they are still in their teens. He, too, emphasizes the importance of giving back, mentioning a tenet from Proverbs 11:25: "A generous man will prosper, and he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed."

"My belief of that is that's not just talking about money -- you can be generous in lots of ways -- but it also does apply to money," Maxwell says.

Islam offers a slightly different perspective on finances, says Sohaib Sultan, 27, the Muslim chaplain at both Wesleyan University and Trinity College in Connecticut.

In addition to the prohibition on accumulating interest, he says, "the key teaching in Islam about money and finances is the idea of moderation -- the idea of balance, of maintaining a good livelihood for yourself but at the same time not being exuberant."

Sultan works with young children at the Muslim community center in Berlin, Conn., where he tries to teach them the importance of budgeting every month. "I want them to be very conscious of how they're spending their wealth," he says. "We try to instill the idea that we'll be held accountable to God for how we spend every penny."

Judaism sees spending as a way to share with others, says Allan M. Gonsher, an ordained rabbi in Kansas City.

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"If you simply talk about money as dollars and quarters, then you really limit what money means in Judaism," says Gonsher, who devotes a chapter of his book -- "Allowance is Not a Bribe (And Other Helpful Hints for Raising Responsible Jewish Children)" -- to teaching children about money.

He recalls his grandmother always setting an extra plate at the dinner table so that there was room for a guest. "Money for us means bringing people into the family, helping people who don't have," he says. "That's a phenomenal concept that's related to money: Add another chicken to the chicken soup. Set up another plate. Pick up your clothes and take them to the Salvation Army."

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Published March 14, 2008

Produced by Elizabeth Daza/Graphics by Joe Farro