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Saving grace ; Many area churches offer classes and counseling to help community members get on the right track financially

Mark and Dawnielle Matteson wanted to buy a house. But Mark was still in college. With Dawnielle the only earner to meet their other financial obligations, a home purchase didn't fit in their budget.

"We were starting from zero -- below zero," Dawnielle recalls. "We needed to lift ourselves out of that situation; we needed a plan, but it was hard for us to do one on our own."

So they went to church. Not just for spiritual guidance, but for practical, financial help.

The newlyweds enrolled in Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church's six-hour budgeting course, which armed them with a goal-oriented spending plan and effective ways to reduce expenses -- from shopping at discount supermarkets and embracing generic brands to buying a used car instead of a new one.

"The budgeting class laid out a game plan for us," said Mark, now 35. "It explained generally what's expected when buying a home -- putting aside money for a down payment and shopping around for the lowest interest rate. It was very beneficial."

The following year, the couple bought their Clarence home. And, when they adopted a child a few years later, Dawnielle became a stay-at-home mom and they again turned to Eastern Hills Wesleyan.

"Our income was cut in half, and our spending plan had been set up for two incomes," said Dawnielle, now 34, a Clarence school teacher. "We had to re-evaluate."

The Clarence church paired the Mattesons with a financial counselor who revised their original spending plan to accommodate the addition to the household and loss of income, plus recommended Mark increase his W-4 allowances to bring home more money and guided them toward purchasing life insurance and saving for their child's college education.

Eastern Hills Wesleyan has provided structured, affordable or free financial education to members for years and established its Good Sense Ministry in 2004. The church also welcomes the community at large to take advantage of the ministry's offerings.

"It's for everybody, not just church members -- anybody who could use some help managing their finances," said Anieta Hopper, the church's finance manager and coordinator of Good Sense Ministry. "We care about people, and the ministry is here to help them be better stewards of what God has given them; we want them to get a better handle on their finances."

Freed-Up Financial Living, the six-hour budgeting course, is $15 for individuals and $25 for couples. The ministry's debt-reduction workshop is free, and there's also no charge for its one-on-one financial counseling.

>Community service

The Clarence megachurch is one of many area churches with ongoing personal finance programs led by trained members or experts from local banks or financial planning firms. Many open the courses, which include lessons in retirement planning, insurance, investments and real estate, to the public.

"I feel more in control of my money now," said Agnes Johnson, a Buffalo resident who is not a member of the Amherst Baptist Church where she took financial education classes last year. "It helped me establish and stick to a budget, and I now know exactly how much is coming in and how much I have to spend on predetermined categories."

The Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo recently began operating a satellite office out of Bethel AME Church, and a counselor is available every other Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to help church members and area residents and business owners with an array of questions.

"We wanted to provide a service to the community that is needed," said the Rev. Richard Stenhouse, pastor of the Michigan Avenue church. "We wanted to give them access to that resource."

At St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street, its 38-year-old credit union holds quarterly personal finance management seminars. And at East Aurora's Immanuel Lutheran Church, the popular Financial Peace University course has been offered in the church basement the past four years, attracting more participants from the community than the congregation.

"As we read the Scriptures, they say Christians are to have their house in order, not simply for themselves, so they can be helpful to others," said the Rev. Robert Knepel, pastor of the Pine Street church. "Jesus said, 'Be as gentle as a dove and cunning as a serpent.' The whole idea of being in control of your finances relates to character and self-control."

Many families are deep in debt, he said, "and that puts pressure on their relationships, and Christianity is about relationships. Relationships are challenging enough without putting them in a pressure cooker with financial anxiety."

Hopper said money problems often impact a person's spiritual life, prompting the church's foray into financial education.

"We view a person as a total human being, and financial stress spills into other areas of their lives," she said. "And we want the total being to be more healthy."

>Preaching practicality

Some churches address the money issues in other ways. Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church's pastor, the Rev. Drew Ludwig, purposely weaves money matters into his sermons nearly every Sunday.

"You're already blessed. Fancy cars, expensive clothes and big nights out and all that other stuff are just distractions," he said. "In church, we talk about priorities, what's important in our lives, and what we do with our money demonstrates our priorities."

Ludwig practices what he preaches. He drives a 1999 Honda Civic, shops at thrift stores and recently put his Lexington Avenue home on the market to buy a less expensive house on the Lower West Side. He also integrates his cost-saving habits into his sermons.

Mark Kostrzewski, 57, and his wife were considering downsizing from their large brick home on Lincoln Parkway when Ludwig's Sunday financial lessons solidified their decision. The Buffalo couple sold their home two years ago and bought a condo that is less than half the size of their house.

"The savings is pretty dramatic -- about $1,500 to $2,000 a month," Kostrzewski said.

The extra cash allows the couple to be more generous with their donations.

"When you have your financial house in order, you're more apt to have your life in order, including your spiritual life," he said. "And it puts you in a better position to give to others. We have an obligation to the community."

>Biblical foundation

While many financial education programs at area churches are open to residents, regardless of their religious beliefs, their money-saving tips are sprinkled with biblical references, as might be expected. For example, setting aside 10 percent of one's income -- tithing -- is encouraged at some churches during their courses.

"We believe the Bible has the time-honored principle of how to manage your finances," said Hopper, of Eastern Hills Wesleyan. But while the courses have a biblical foundation, Hopper said their focus is universal.

"Spend less than you earn, give to others, don't squander what God has given you," is how she summarizes the message. Hopper added that Good Sense Ministry operates independently of the church and financial information provided by participants is confidential. She said the ministry is not used to actively recruit new church members.

Johnson, 39, said the $100, 13-week Financial Peace University course she took at Amherst Baptist Church "had a slight religious bent to it," and mentioned lessons in the book of Proverbs.

But Johnson, a Catholic who hasn't participated in a church service in months, didn't bother reading the book in the Old Testament.

"I was interested in the course; I wasn't interested in being converted," she said. "And it was a great course. I learned a lot about the way money and finances work -- money management, cash flow planning, investments -- and the human element and how people relate to them. And it's OK if you make mistakes, we're all going to, but learn from them and don't repeat them. The whole experience was very positive."

The course, created by radio host and financial author Dave Ramsey, is offered throughout the year at various area churches. Johnson said it put her on the right track, and she's remained there a year later. But when she occasionally slips off, Johnson refers to the course materials, including workbooks and an audio version of the 13 weeks of lessons.

It's been almost a decade since the Mattesons started their spending plan. The couple has had two more children, and no money problems by adhering to their plan during the years when either Mark or Dawnielle stayed home full time to care for their young children. Their kids are now school age and Dawnielle and Mark are both working full time, and the couple continues to stick with the plan and be unencumbered by financial struggles.

"We are in a great place, doing very well living within our means," said Mark, manager of Bender's Parable Christian Store in Williamsville. "We have an emergency fund and no credit card debt. We are saving for the kids and saving for ourselves."

Mark has gone a step further: He is now one of the ministry's financial counselors and recently taught a budgeting course -- the same course that initiated his family's financial transformation.

"I'm a product of the course," he said. "It's a way to give back, showing people how to get their spending plans together."

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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