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 group of Nazis (who were actually quite nice), a self-proclaimed vampire (complete with filed teeth), and a guy who was convinced he was Jesus Christ. I was spit 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, I my parents ponied up $10,000 for my 2-year mission. The rest was subsidized by the church through tithing donations. The local mission office took care of the apartment and travel expenses and I received a monthly stipend of 185 Euros 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.
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 roommate 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 a 19-year old used to having a solid three meals a day, it sure felt like we were.
Because of that experience, I learned that it’s possible to live without debt. We still have debt, but it’s now a last resort, not just another 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 sucked. 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° 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 our 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 sucks. 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.
There are more important things in this life than money
One of the best things about my experience as a missionary was that 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 lady who said she had a hard time getting around her garden anymore, so we offered to come and pull her 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 2 years and never received a cent, and it was so worth it. The built 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.
The faster you become fluent, the easier it becomes
When I arrived in Germany, I had only been studying the language for 2 months and had a pitiful vocabulary. When I got my first haircut, I didn’t know what to tell the lady, so I just said “shorter everywhere”. She said something that I didn’t understand and I was already terrified, so I just said yes. The next thing I knew, I looked like this.
Yeah, not what I was expecting. After that, I worked feverishly and ended up reaching fluency within about 6 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. You basically rock.
What are some unique experiences you’ve had that have taught you valuable lessons?