A Catholic look at family finances reveals surprises

It’s similar to pumping nontoxic smoke into a house to discover where the air leaks are.

The Catholic-based, financial planning course completed last month by eight parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels Church in New Orleans took a similar approach, only this time focusing on the participants’ wallets: How, why and where was their cash disappearing?

The results of working through the two-month program by Phil Lenahan, “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free,” were astounding. Lenahan’s course uses DVDs and workbooks to explain “the critical link” between faith and finance, the importance of setting financial goals, creating a financial plan, understanding and managing debt, and becoming stewards of God’s gifts.

“When I looked around the table, it just taught me to lean on God and be thankful for what I have and not look at the fact that I made a million mistakes growing up,” said Gale Armant, an insurance agent who is part of St. Mary of the Angels’ Justice and Charity ministry.

Armant, 66, makes a good living and worked hard to put two daughters through college. But by taking the course he discovered some of his biggest expenditures occurred on Friday nights after a long work week.

“No one in the world had more credit cards than me,” Armant said. “All my life, it was kind of like that song, ‘Livin’ for the Weekend.’ I always worked more than 40 hours a week, and I had a lot of friends who live uptown in the Irish Channel and on St. Charles Avenue. They had a little bit more money than me, and I used to go out to Commander’s and Antoine’s and this and that. This class taught me that, hey, you’ve got to let go of some of that stuff.”

One of the interesting dynamics of the course is that no one has to share any personal financial information. Each individual fills out a workbook privately. But over the six, two-hour sessions, the participants, who come from all walks of life, found the atmosphere safe enough to openly share their own difficulties in handling money and budgeting.

“My biggest revelation was the generosity of this group of people,” said Scott Steckler, the group moderator. “If they did something goofy with money at one point in their life, they were more than willing to share that as a learning experience. Once they started sharing, the bonding was incredible. You could say anything. It just didn’t matter.”

Peggy Williams honed in on her weakness. Twice a week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays – she would spend $17 on the lottery. That added up to $34 a week.

“I never looked at it as spending a lot of money – just a little bit here and there,” Williams said. “But that’s when I started charting down everything I spent every day – a smoothie, a candy bar, everything – and then totaled it up at the end of the week. Then I started asking, ‘What am I doing with this lottery?’ You multiply that by 12 weeks, and I said, ‘Oh no, indeed not. This money can be put on the side for an emergency because you never know when something’s going to happen.”

Armant was amazed by one fact: If a person at 24 years old can save $5,000 for two years and then not touch the money, a 6 or 7 percent return on that money would yield about $500,000 when the person is 60 years old.

“We need to start teaching that to youngsters, because it could change their whole lifestyle,” said Armant, who now feels compelled to share that message with a younger audience said. “God has taught me the gift of relating to people. If you have the gift, you have to use it. I’m the perfect one to educate people. But the thing is, you have to take baby steps. You can’t wake up tomorrow and undo 30 or 40 years. You can’t hit a button and it’s gone. You’ve got to rely on God to slowly, but surely, let you wake up and pull you out.”

Franciscan Father Dennis Bosse, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, said financial stress is one of the biggest problems he sees in counseling people with marriage problems. Differing views on how to spend money also can cause problems with engaged couples, he said. Before marriage, they fill out an evaluation about money matters.

“I always find it interesting that before a couple actually takes the test, they believe they have that all under control, but after they get done, it's like, ‘Well, maybe we need to talk about this a little bit more,” Father Bosse said.

Program may expand
Tom Costanza, a division director of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, gave St. Mary of the Angels a grant to offer the program free, with an eye toward evaluating its effectiveness and expanding it to other parishes throughout the archdiocese. Costanza said he likes the way Lenahan based the program on Scripture and Catholic teaching.

“It’s all about being stewards of providence and how your faith and finances are tied together,” Costanza said. “The appealing thing for me is that finances are a very important aspect of marriage and family life. If we could ever figure out a way to give some support to families when they look at their finances and have it be something that builds up a family rather than causes it to separate, then that would be good. This is something very practical that also has a real Catholic focus. I felt it would be powerful.”

St. Mary of the Angels hopes to offer another course in the near future. Costanza said he hopes to see if funding can be provided to help other parishes defray the cost of the program.

“What this is all about is what are you doing with God’s gifts to you – your financial gifts, your talent gifts, your time gifts,” Steckler said. “Once you think about it, you are the steward of the money that God has allowed you to have. Suddenly, you’re thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t need to have a selfie stick.’”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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