Danny Mortensen and Liz Schmitt are a thirty-something couple residing in Washington, D.C., where they attend Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. Schmitt grew up in upstate New York and has lived in D.C. since 2009. She’s a self-proclaimed budget nerd who is working on investing locally. Outside of her day job in environmental policy, she has been getting back into teaching piano and enjoys good books, the outdoors, and being extroverted. Mortensen grew up in Colombia and Panama as a missionary kid and has lived in D.C. since 2013. He works at a global nonprofit providing services for people with intellectual disabilities. Big on saving and living minimally, he loves thoughtful sci-fi and fantasy, planning hypothetical travel itineraries, and being able to use Spanish in community service when possible. Together, they spoke with Christina Colón about their personal relationships to budgets, their frustrations with greenwashing, and the future of their investments.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Christina Colón, Faith & Money Network: We’re sitting down to have a conversation about money: What we do with it and how we relate to it. How does that make you feel? Personally, I’ve found it’s hard to have conversations about money, particularly with millennials. How do you feel talking about money?
Mortensen: That’s an interesting question. I guess there’s some element of privilege in it because if you’re talking about how you do money, it assumes you’re in some situation other than just trying to get by, day-to-day or paycheck-to-paycheck. I guess it’s a little squirmy in some respects.
Schmitt: We talked about money as a couple pretty early on. I’ve always been nerdy about budgeting for some reason. It’s something I enjoy doing. I think that culturally, it should be less taboo to talk about money – especially as a woman in the workplace, silence about salaries is a huge part of the problem. But talking about it with friends is a little different and definitely kind of uncomfortable because what might feel like not enough to me, is probably wealthy by many other people’s standards.
Colón: Well, you just answered one of my questions, which was how long you waited to bring up the topic of money in your relationship. But knowing that it was brought up pretty early, I’m curious if you had different ideas of what the most important thing was to talk about?
Mortensen: We were in different places because I’m a little bit younger than Liz and my M.O early in my adult life was basically, “don’t spend anything.” It’s not like I didn’t have any income, it was more just that I didn’t have that tool to categorize things and understand how far my money could stretch. And then Liz, as she explained, loved budgeting. There were a lot of early times where I was squeamish about certain things we were spending money on. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet where I was like, “we have a budget and it’s okay to use what’s in that budget and you earn money so you can spend it.” Other than that, I feel like we were on the same page with giving and saving and not being super extravagant.
Schmitt: And I mean, this wasn’t on our third date or anything like that. We had to fill out a budget during our premarital counseling. I came in knowing exactly what I spend in every category. But we also came in with our separate commitments to church-related giving and charity and things like that. It was just knowing what are non-negotiables. Like when we were apartment shopping, I have asthma, so we have to spend the money on central air, things like that. But it was pretty easy to talk about.
Colón: And you especially came in with a strong relationship to your budget. How did that budget change through your relationship?
Schmitt: I would say that just like anything with being in a committed relationship, you can’t just make frivolous decisions that only affect you anymore. I remember getting the advice of having personal budgets, which we still do. So, this much money a month is free for each of us to spend on whatever we feel like, judgment free. But we also had to talk about what our long-term goals were, and I know Danny is a little more savings-minded than I am. So, trying to maximize the savings budget was maybe a little bit of a compromise, but a smart one.
Colón: And you mentioned that you had to do a budget as part of your premarital counseling. Were there any other resources, guides, or teachers that informed how you were going to approach finances as a couple?
Schmitt: Just talking to friends. It just kind of was part of the whole, “how do you do marriage? How does that all work? We don’t know what we’re doing.” And there were some things that we both arrived at the same conclusion about like, do you share bank accounts or not – things that are hard decisions to make for whatever reason.
Colón: I’m curious how your faith informs your financial decision making.
Schmitt: Well, giving for sure is an important use of our money – thinking of it not as all belonging to us. We’ve had conversations about, “should we increase our vacation budget so we can save up to go to this really cool place, but in proportion, shouldn’t our giving also be up?” We shouldn’t be spending three times more on travel than giving to other people, especially because it gets back to privilege. And I have the privilege of not having student loans, which gives me an unfair advantage right from the start.
Mortensen: My parents were missionaries and they oftentimes relied on monthly support from churches and what have you. But they themselves are also really generous even though they weren’t loaded. So that theme of, “you can trust God to provide, and you shouldn’t be afraid to give to some person or cause, even if you feel a little tight, because some way or another, you’re always going to have enough.” Now, I’m not a missionary and we have two jobs, two incomes, and we’re stable but still trying to apply that – just kind of always being open to that and remembering that everything is not just about how big can I make my balance and what can I buy for myself.
Colón: I remember being a kid and my parents had three envelopes they taped to my door for categorizing my allowance. One was for spending, one was for saving, and one was for tithing. It was always expected that some of my money went to some cause or to the church. I’m curious, how do you decide where to give?
Mortensen: Since the pandemic, I want to say we’ve been focused pretty locally. We’ll follow a lot of mutual aid groups or Black Lives Matter groups – groups that are like, “here’s an immediate need.” There are tons of people out of work, excluded from stimulus benefits, and in danger of deportation and this seems like a very obvious thing to share our resources for.
Schmitt: And I really like being able to give to our church because we know exactly what the budget is and what’s happening with it, and we have relationships there and want to keep supporting the good work that our church does on Capitol Hill. I think another way of saying what Danny was saying is that I feel like I’ve been trending toward mutual aid. The more I learned about the nonprofit industrial complex, the less I want to give to it, even though I work for it, which is a whole other way of feeling conflicted … but if somebody is raising money for a bail fund, I can contribute to that bail fund and that person is that much closer to freedom, you know? Or this food justice group in our neighborhood feeding people we can meet and that is so much more meaningful to me than a foundation with a huge endowment and plenty of wealthy people already giving. Smaller and less overhead has kind of been the trend and we’re local too, for sure.
Colón: Ched Myers defines Sabbath Economics as this idea of mammon versus manna. I’m curious how you might see that playing out around you? I’m thinking about this idea of access and deprivation versus abundance and provision. There’s a ton of biblical references to how that looks – the classic story of not gathering too much or it spoils. But I’m wondering how would you say that plays out in your city and community around you?
Mortensen: Lately I’ve really liked thinking about, sort of like Liz mentioned, the nonprofit industry and I’ve been enjoying reading and analyzing that whole world and how we can use our money to make change happen. What are the holdups? Do we really need ultra-rich people to do all this stuff for us? Just the recent stimulus bills and seeing that like, oh shoot, we just like got rid of child poverty for the next however many years with direct payments and you can do that kind of thing. That’s what comes to mind when I think Sabbath Economics and mutual aid; realizing I have resources. What if we collectively decided it’s unacceptable for people to not have housing or food to eat? I’m hardly the first person to say this, but what does that look like for our neighbors or the federal government?
Schmitt: Another thing is who’s in charge of deciding how money should be spent. Our church has this really cool breakfast program. They serve breakfast to folks who are unhoused or just come by because they’re hungry. It started because a guy who got monthly social security disability checks and had been asking to come in and use the bathroom, showed up on the first day of the month, right after he’d cashed his check, with bags full of groceries and said, “we should be serving breakfast.” He’s not the pastor. He was living on the streets. He was not someone you would expect to lead a ministry, but he knew what people needed because he was one of the people that needed it. People know what they need and if they tell us, we can meet the need. I think that’s a much more, to use the technical term, Jesus-y way of doing things.
Colón: Those who practice Sabbath economics commit themselves to seven household practices centered around saving, debt, giving, environmental sustainability, consumption, solidarity, work, and rest. Thinking about those practices, are there any you feel have been easy to apply to your life? Any that strike you as especially challenging?
Schmitt: Well, the debt one was always super easy for me because I have always belonged to a credit union. Credit unions actually put money into the community as opposed to just wealthy people’s pockets, and they treat you better too. Investing is a challenge. I’ve been languishing in my attempts to move my investment accounts that I have over to socially responsible funds. Sometimes it’s because I look at all the companies and it’s like, “okay, great, there’s no fossil fuels … oh, Israeli settlement money. Oh, there’s a weapons manufacturer. Oh, it’s just Google, great. Or Amazon.” And so, I just kind of get frustrated and then forget about it for another year or two.
Mortensen: For whatever reason, I find investing interesting. I found an actually useful tool online, fossilfreefunds.org. They measure seven different categories … like fossil fuels, deforestation, gender equality, prison industrial complex. I really wanted to find alternatives because the organization I work for, the standard options are not great ones. I was like, “oh, these are all getting Fs and Ds.” All that to say, it makes me feel slightly better about the weird qualms involved with investing.
Schmitt: We did once talk to somebody from Everence and learned we are not wealthy enough to be involved in the shareholder advocacy world. …. [When it comes to environment and green living,] I work in climate change and we just came into things eco-minded. Danny literally moved to Washington, D.C. with one suitcase. He’s the king of living simply. I mean, we still use air conditioning and all that, but …
Mortensen: Yeah, there’s companies where you can sign up with and they’ll switch over your energy source for your electric bill to wind or solar. We haven’t done that yet. It’s like, okay, that’ll make our bill go up, but it’s good for the planet. I think we’ve been good in spurts at being eco-conscious with our groceries … we’ll take all the reusable bags for produce or bulk spices. And then COVID-19 hits and you’re just like, “I just need food. I need to get out of here.” That’s how it’s been feeling lately with green living.
Schmitt: Personal action does matter. It changes your brain, and it changes your perspective, and makes a little bit of a difference. But people can spend all of their energy on things like recycling or badgering you to be vegan, and then they don’t have the energy to call their member of Congress. We compost. We eat mostly vegetarian. But those fit easily into our life. I have had times where I spent hours and hours that I could have spent on some meaningful political activism, researching plastic-free Tupperware. Was that really a good use of my time and energy? Or was that just buying into some greenwashing? Yes. Although sadly, I bought these silicone things. Guess what silicone is? Plastic. My prime example of greenwashing at its finest.
Mortensen: I mean, it’s a bendy see-through thing, so …
Schmitt: I really should have known.
Colón: As a young couple exploring your relationship to money independently and together, what guidance would you offer to others looking to do the same?
Schmitt: I think one thing that helped us when we first started out, since I’m a few years older and had more savings and had a higher salary was just saying, “you know, this may not work for every couple, but we’re a unit and we’re doing what works for us collectively.” Thinking of it as a team … and just trying to have a team-based approach to it, setting out a vision together and letting values drive all of the many subcategories and highly detailed budget.
Mortensen: I would say don’t be afraid, but you should feel empowered to understand how finances work.
Schmitt: I’ve learned if my friend asked me to loan them money, I might just give them money. Trusting that wherever you donate money knows what to do with it. And that you’re on the same page as a couple or as a community making a financial decision. Letting somebody else make a decision with [the money] because once you give it away, it’s not yours anymore. And that’s a good thing … The only other thing I’ll say that’s just kind of funny about our budget is that saving never really makes me feel wealthy. It’d be like, “oh, I’m just really tight,” but actually we have everything we need because we’ve been saving and because of privilege and luck and all that good stuff. But it never really feels like Scrooge McDuck swimming in money. It’s just helpful to actually try and be realistic about [that] we’re doing just fine. We have everything we need. Therefore, we can try to be generous. When we got married, friends who were still paying their student loans wrote us this check … seeing the generosity from people in our lives is always a big reminder to me to try and live up to that generosity with others.
Interview by Christina Colón | September 14, 2021
Christina Colón is a writer, editor and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in Sojourners and Global Press Journal.