KAYSVILLE — David and Nicole Saunders have two sons on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brian Saunders is in Tallahassee, Fla. and Daniel Saunders is serving in Washington, D.C. All the finances were worked out. All the timelines were set in place.
But that was before LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced in October an age change for missionaries. Instead of males having to wait until they were 19 years old to qualify for missionary service, they could now apply to serve at 18 — if they will have graduated from high school. The age requirement for women was lowered from 21 to 19.
The Saunders family was watching the announcement at their home in Kaysville, Utah. Before David Saunders even thought of all the implications, his high school-age son Ammon had already texted, "Great. Now I don't have to go to college (right away). I can go on my mission after high school."
This meant there would be three sons out on missions at the same time.
The Saunders are not alone in having their schedules and finances scrambled by this announcement. But for many parents contemplating how their children's missions would impact them financially, Scott C. Marsh has good news: Sending kids on missions is cheaper than having them at home.
Marsh, the owner of Scott Marsh Financial, a registered investment advisory firm based in Salt Lake City, and a professor of personal finance at BYU, recently asked young women in a large class if they were planning on serving missions before the announcement. He says 39 percent indicated they had planned on going. He then asked how many young women had changed their plans and decided to serve a mission after the announcement. An additional 39 percent had decided to serve.
Financial health first
Bryan Sudweeks, an associate teaching professor of finance at BYU, ties financial mission preparation into the overall financial health of a family.
Sudweeks recommends the website personalfinance.byu.edu for sound financial advice.
"It is important to get our financial houses in order to be an example for our kids," he says.
Jason Palmer, a financial planner with One Financial Advisors in Highland, recommends getting an emergency fund in place with 3 to 6 months worth of living expenses. He also says to begin living as if you have an extra $500 expense in the budget now — which will make it easier to save the money and make sending the money out less jarring when the time comes.
Marsh says having savings for a mission is a good idea because, like an emergency fund, it can prevent obstacles and financial surprises from getting in the way of accepting a call to serve.
He also says saving is good for the potential missionary because it leads them toward supporting themselves on the mission.
"There's just something to being able to say to someone you are teaching, 'I paid my own way here.'" Palmer says. "Parents need to not overlook the value of that and the value of having the potential missionary tapping into his or her own savings."
But even though saving for a mission is a wise way to be prepared for financial surprises and to build a young person's self-esteem, having him or her away on a mission may not be the burden people expect it to be.
Saving souls and dollars
"If you actually do the numbers," Marsh says, "it is less expensive to have a kid on a mission than to have them at home."
In November 1990, the LDS Church announced the standardization of mission costs which, at the time, could vary from $150 to $750 a month. The current standardized cost is $400 for missionaries from the U.S.
On top of this are non service-related expenses that are paid with personal funds, says church spokesman Scott Trotter.
"These expenses may include clothing, bicycles, medical costs not paid by the mission, phone calls home and other personal expenses," Trotter says.
But how do these expenses all add up against having a child at home?
Marsh takes conservative estimates of average income from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Cost of Raising a Child Calculator."
For a family making $58,000 a year or less:
— Transportation costs for a child are about $2,150
— Clothing is about $988
— Education is about $1,150
— Other expenses are about $900
This is a total of about $5,188 a year saved in expenses by not having a child at home.
With tax advantages added in and the cost of the mission taken out, Marsh says it is about $1,348 a year cheaper to have a kid out on a mission.
To outfit a missionary, however, can cost anywhere from $800 to $2,000. Marsh says this could be paid for by the money saved by having the missionary out serving. He also says in some areas a missionary may receive close to $1,500 in cash donations from relatives and ward members.
Marsh jokes that when he has shown these numbers to faculty and staff at BYU, some parents have suggested that the church's next big missionary announcement could be that missionaries could serve twice as long.
But these numbers are averages and not every missionary has the support of family to this extent. Others want to pay for their mission as much as they are able.
A great problem
Sarah Martin in Highland is a junior who has been going to Utah State University for two years. The way her life's schedule had been going, she was not planning on going on a mission.
"Now, with the age change, it seems like it is the perfect time," she says.
Martin has been working two jobs — only the money she was saving for college is now going toward her mission.
"My parents are awesome and support me 100 percent," she says. "They would pay for it, but they would like me to pay for as much as I can so I would value it more."
Martin says she just finished filling out the paperwork and was planning on meeting with her bishop to move the process forward.
The opportunity to serve a mission has opened up for many who didn't plan to go or to go so soon. For Palmer, this is a great problem to have.
"There are some financial challenges that are not pleasant," he says. "Often my clients are dealing with an unexpected illness or a disability something bordering on the tragic. These things are why we have emergency funds and are prepared. But a 'problem' such as not knowing how you are going to come up with the money so your child can go do spiritual voluntary service? That's pretty awesome. It is great for people to come up with solutions for things that are positive."