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What I learned about financial independence as a Mormon missionary

By Ben Luthi

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 23 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

As a missionary, my visa didn’t allow me to get a job or open a bank account. That also meant I didn’t have access to take out loans. I had to do with the money allotted to me each month. So if I wanted to gorge myself on German pastries (which I did every day) or street bratwursts, I had to budget and save.

Ben Luthi

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Editor's note: A version of this post originally ran on the personal finance blog The Wealth Gospel. It has been reprinted here with permission.

My experience as a Mormon missionary in Germany was unforgettable. In addition to the spiritual experiences I had and the people I served, I had the pleasure of meeting a self-proclaimed vampire (complete with filed teeth) and a man who was convinced he was Jesus. I was spat on, yelled at and received death threats. So overall, it was a pretty warm welcome to the real world for someone who grew up in a tightly knit religious community.

Mormon missionaries don’t get paid for what they do. In fact, my parents paid for much of my two-year mission. The local mission office took care of the apartment and travel expenses, and I received a monthly stipend to cover groceries and whatever other expenses came up. As a 19-year-old dude fresh out of high school, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, so there were a lot of things I had to learn the hard way.

Debt was not an option

As a missionary, my visa didn’t allow me to get a job or open a bank account. That also meant I didn’t have access to take out loans. I had to do with the money allotted to me each month. So if I wanted to gorge myself on German pastries (which I did every day) or street bratwursts, I had to budget and save.

One month, my companion and I didn’t budget very well and we ran out of money before the end of the month. Our meals the last few days of the month consisted of rice, butter cheese, sour cream and some nasty, old Doritos. We weren’t starving, but for 19-year-olds used to having solid three meals a day, it sure felt like we were.

Because of that experience, I learned it’s possible to live without debt. My wife and I still have debt, but it’s now a last resort, not just an attractive alternative.

You reap what you sow.

As part of our proselyting efforts, we would go from door to door and talk to people on the street. And it was hard. It was much more fun to have appointments with people who were actually interested in what we had to say. But it didn’t take long to realize that we weren’t going to get appointments without going from door to door or talking to people on the street. That realization was particularly poignant one night when it was 30 below zero outside and we had no appointments. I wasn’t about to be a pansy and stay in our warm apartment, so we spent a few hours enjoying the sensation of my tears and snot freezing to our faces, which I’m sure was very appealing to the people we were talking to.

That night I learned that you reap what you sow. If I wanted to spend more time in people’s apartments having conversations with them about God, I had to do the work to get there, even though I hated doing it. The same goes for now. If I want to be financially secure, no one else is going to give that to me. I need to work for it. Sometimes, it’s really hard. Sometimes, I’m ridiculously impatient. Sometimes, I feel like a failure. But in the end, I know I’ll reach my goal because I’m putting the work in now.

The faster you become fluent, the easier it becomes.

When I arrived in Germany, I had only been studying the language for two months and had a pitiful vocabulary. When I got my first haircut, I didn’t know what to tell the barber, so I just said “shorter everywhere.” She said something that I didn’t understand and I was already terrified, so I just said yes.

My haircut was not what I was expecting. After that, I worked feverishly and ended up reaching fluency within about six months. From then on out, I felt more comfortable and had more fun. It became second nature to me. With your finances, “fluency” means your nature has been changed. You’re no longer stumbling around trying to grasp what’s going on and getting frustrated with your lack of control. You have solid goals and you’re working toward them like a well-oiled machine. You no longer stay awake at night worrying about your debt and your future.

There are more important things in this life than money.

One of the best things about my experience as a missionary was I only had one thing to focus on the entire time — serve others and try to help them come closer to God. We did a lot of random service, and were advised to never take money for it. One time we were talking with an elderly woman who said she had a hard time getting around her garden anymore, so we offered to come and pull weeds for her. Another time we met with a guy who had a large cherry tree that needed to be pruned. We spent an entire afternoon helping him, then sitting back and eating cherries and talking about life.

My brother, who served a mission in South Dakota, chopped up bloated cows to feed a lion at a wildlife refuge. A friend who served in Mongolia helped gather frozen dogs after winter ended to give to needy families to eat. We worked our hearts out for two years and never received a cent, and it was so worth it. We established lasting relationships with amazing people and had experiences that prepared us for life. It taught me that when you serve others, you serve yourself more than you could by doing anything else.

What are some unique experiences you’ve had that have taught you valuable lessons?

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