What factors determine how you earn, spend, invest, and give away your money? The answer reflects your cultural background, your values, your ideals, and even your perspective on democracy. Bringing thoughtful awareness to your relationship with money can lead to a fulfilling life and deepened civic commitment. Here are suggestions for approaching your finances in ways that promote democratic values like equality, freedom, and justice, as well as democratic virtues like fairness, integrity, and consideration of others.

1. Cultivate Financial Literacy

Which core values of American democracy show up in how you spend your money? Making sure that you have basic financial literacy helps you align your values with your personal spending and government spending.

Understanding Personal Spending:

  • Develop an income and spending plan, even if the income is only a weekly allowance. Consider including savings and charitable giving as part of your plan.
  • Think of what you spend in relation to your overall income. For example, think of the percentage of your income you spend on housing, the percentage you spend on entertainment, the percentage you give to charities, etc. Evaluate if you are spending your money on needs (something you must have, like sufficient food and water, shelter, basic health care) before you are spending it on wants (something you would like to have, like a new car, name-brand clothes, dining at a restaurant).
  • When making a purchase, consider the cost of the item and what other item(s) its purchase will keep you from buying. For instance, budget only a certain amount for snacks each month. If you spend the budgeted amount during the first half of the month, you may need to skip snacks during the second half.
  • Take the time to comparison shop and make informed choices.
  • Keep records of your purchases.
  • Learn your lesson when you make a bad spending decision. If you make an impulse decision and later regret it, use it as a reminder to make a budget and stick to it, even if it means delaying a purchase.
  • Practice not buying something until you have enough to pay for it in cash.
  • Remember that credit is borrowing money from someone and that they charge you for it. Take advantage of free online debt calculators to get a better idea of how interest accrues.
  • Remember that money needs to be set aside consistently for your savings to grow over time, and that it may take both investing and time to see substantial growth.

Understanding Government Spending:

  • Pie charts showing the percentages of government spending in key categories are available from several sites, including this one. Review the chart to see if you agree with the allocation of government resources. Express your opinions to your representatives in Congress and/or your local newspaper.
  • When you purchase an item that is taxed, say a prayer of gratitude for your ability to make the purchase. Then add a prayer that government leaders will make wise and responsible use of tax revenues.
  • When you pay your taxes, take a moment to be thankful for some of the benefits they bring like freedom of the press, paved roads, public schools and libraries, national parks, and Medicare coverage for elders. Commit to learn about one tax-funded program and the people who benefit from the program. This Tax Day Ritual for individuals and families includes expressions of gratitude and sorrows and a prayer to be said before you submit or mail in your taxes.

2. Be Thrifty

As you work on your financial literacy, you may discover that some words that refer to how money is used have gone out of vogue in contemporary America. "Thrift" is one of them. It is associated with hard work, regular savings, and careful stewardship of resources. In Franklin's Thrift, David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and Sorcha Brophy-Warren make the connection between thrift and democracy: "Thrift is broadly democratic in its ambition and reach. It aims to create mass prosperity. Toward that end, it seeks to bring new people, often immigrants and the working poor, into its compass and to unite such people in cooperative institutions. Thrift is also democratic in its faith in the power of education. Thrift leaders and institutions have consistently made it a priority to teach children about saving, conserving, and being generous to others." Reflect upon your associations with the word "thrifty." Then identify some ways that you can embrace this broadly democratic virtue in your money practices. Share your ideas with your partner, family, or friends.

3. Practice Socially Responsible Economics

In Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological and Economical Transformation, Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, a professor of Christian ethics, expresses her view that economic oppression, racism, and gender-based oppression are "inextricably intertwined." She calls upon those who are economically privileged (those able to make economic choices that promote economic justice and ecological health without endangering themselves or their dependents) to follow God’s call to love neighbor as self. Moe-Lobeda offers multiple practices for honoring each other and the Earth that promote the common good, equality, and justice for all:

  • When it comes to transportation and space, ask yourself if you need a new car or larger house. What would it mean to spend that money on public transportation or supporting local housing initiatives?
  • Petition your legislators at the local, state, and national levels to fund aid programs.
  • Support community-organizing campaigns, such as a living-wage campaign or a Jubilee Campaign to cancel debt.
  • Buy goods at alternative venues like co-ops and worker-owned businesses.
  • Consider using municipality-owned services like cable, phone, or internet services; local or regional banks; community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets for your needs.

4. Give to Charities

As the needs for government support collide with demands from some politicians to cut government spending, charitable organizations are called upon to provide a safety net for poor and disadvantaged citizens; they are addressing everything from food insecurity to housing shortages to insufficient medical care. When you read the mission statements of many nonprofits, you will see they are committed to such democratic values as equality, freedom, independence, and justice for all. Their programs encourage such democratic virtues as caring, dignity, fairness, respect, and social conscience. An Internet search will yield names and contact information for many charities, and you can read about their programs on their websites. To get into the habit of charitable giving, try one of these simple practices suggested by Rabbi David Cooper in God Is a Verb.

  • Take one dollar and fold it a few times. Put a paper clip on it and keep it handy in your pocket or purse. The next time you see a stranger who is asking for charity, no matter what he or she looks like, give away this dollar. Try to have a dollar in your pocket all the time to give away.
  • Write a check for five or ten dollars, leaving the name black. Put it on your fridge with a magnet so that you will be constantly reminded of it. The next letter or advertisement you see asking for charity, fill in the name and send this check. Try to do this at least once a month.

5. Build a Relationship Economy

Many Americans seem to be buying less and making and sharing more as they establish and grow their communities. Customer reviews of products are more important than ever, making the relationship between the companies and their customers of primary importance. Rather than focusing on transactions, many American businesses are shifting to relationship building with their customers, employees, and other business partners. Some governmental agencies seem to be gaining awareness of their relationships with the public, becoming more transparent with their budgets and other information of public interest.

Use the following prompts to reflect on how you can become more engaged in the relationship economy:

  • Who are your neighbors at home and at work? How can you build a sharing economy with them?
  • How can you change your spending to reflect your appreciation of having a good relationship with those who provide goods and services?
  • If you are run a business, how can you focus on building a relationship between the company and customer? How can you have authentic, mutually beneficial conversations with customers about your product/service?

6. Participate in a Co-op

A cooperative (co-op) is a great place to practice democratic values of equality, the common good, and popular sovereignty while also getting to know those in your community. A co-op is an association of people who join to meet a shared need or goal, whether economic or social, through joint-ownership. Co-op members control the direction of business democratically, usually with one vote per member and an elected board of directors. Also, co-ops return their financial gain to their members in some form, such as discounts or refunds. Common types of co-ops include housing or building co-ops, public utility co-ops, agricultural co-ops, co-op banks or credit unions, and retail co-ops (like a food co-op).

A counterbalance to the concentration of wealth and power in government, cooperatives are an example of a way to accumulate common assets. Co-ops offer not only ownership, but also a community with opportunities to belong and to serve. Of course, you also enjoy the use of the co-op’s product/service.

Like any democracy, you need to give it some of your time to make a co-op work well. Since co-ops are like mini-democracies, practice your democratic values and virtues by not only joining but also by actively participating in the co-op of your choice.

7. Go Interest-Free

In The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence, theology professor Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty writes that Islamic financial institutions "do not consider money to be a commodity or capital. Rather, money is understood to be 'potential capital' that can only be put into productive use through the labor and services of a human being."

Islam prohibits charging interest (riba) on money loaned. Not only do Islamic banks not charge interest on loans, they only invest in real assets, and they do not invest in drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, weapons or military equipment, or pork.

The Islamic finance system is an equity system in which the creditor and borrower are more like shareholders, sharing both in the benefits and in the losses in accordance with their level of participation in the service or labor performed. Take a moment to consider the merits of this perspective. What do you think of the idea that money isn’t capital until it has been put to productive use by someone? Do you think a lender should be a person who sees that money is used productively? What are the benefits of such a system? Are there any ways you can modify your purchasing to be interest-free?

8. Follow the Money

These days not only do our mailboxes get filled with paid political advertisements, so do our inboxes and newsfeeds. Identifying who funds these advertisements is critically important but not easy to do. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision designated corporations as persons, allowing corporate political contributions to be designated a form of free speech. This decision resulted in the establishment of hundreds of 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations through which political-action committees, special interests, and corporations can funnel unlimited political donations.

Because there is no donor transparency, these donations are referred to as "dark money," and dark money is funding smear campaigns in local, state, and national elections. This activity is not limited to one group or position on the political spectrum; Republicans, Democrats, and Independents may all find themselves supported by or attacked by groups with access to dark money. The intention behind an influx of dark money into an election is often to elect candidates who can be pressured into supporting these "anonymous" donors' agenda; often the donor is a corporation. The documentary Dark Money directed by Kimberly Reed reveals the impact of dark money on Republican primary elections in Montana.

Many Americans feel that the aftermath of Citizens United is an erosion of the democratic value of popular sovereignty. With the increasing prevalence of dark money, elections are being influenced — and thereby the government is being controlled by — corporations. Here are some actions you can take to move the country back in the direction of an electoral system that reflects the democratic value of one person, one vote:

  • When you receive a political advertisement, do as much research as you can about the group that funds the advertisement. You may find the website http://www.opensecrets.org helpful.
  • Make the issue of dark money in politics a top priority when you talk with associates or write to your representatives. Participate in grassroots movements that are working to challenge dark money's influence on elections.
  • Become a part of efforts to pass electoral system reform laws.
  • Vote for candidates who support overturning the Citizens United decision.

9. Bridge the Gap

Do you identify as a "have" or a "have not"? Are you a part of "the 1%" or "the 99%"? To truly have liberty and justice for all, , we must listen to people who have different financial resources than our own. The first step to bridging the gap between you and those in a different income group, whom you perceive as "other" may be to strive to see people as individuals — with their own stories, their own hearts, their own fears, their own longings — rather than to depersonalize them by labeling them or their group.

Consider the next time you see a person who is homeless. Your paths might have crossed before. She might have been your cashier when you ran errands a few months ago, but you didn’t notice her. What you didn’t know was that her hourly wage was insufficient to cover her living expenses. When she had medical issues that were not completely covered by her insurance, she stopped getting the treatment she needed, which affected her work performance. After not being able to meet her medical and other living expenses, and after being fired for being late or missing hours because of her medical condition, she became homeless. You have investments in the company that did not pay her a living wage.

Or, consider the next time you see a person who you consider to be wealthy. Perhaps what you don’t see is that this man is responsible for multiple charitable foundations that help many people in need. He may be single-handedly supporting more people, both directly and indirectly, than you can imagine.

The point is that we don’t know what another person’s story is until we get to know them. So, assume the best of those people you’re tempted to consider "other." Don't evaluate them based on whether they have money or not. Ask them questions about their likes and loves. Get to know their stories.

You might also try this suggestion from Dr. Mark Brady’s The Wisdom of Listening:

  • Author Christine Longaker suggests seeing the "other" as "another you." Longaker recommends letting go of the traditional role you assign to this other person and envisioning them as another you, with the same desires and the same fears. Imagine changing places with this person so that you're in their life with their history and with their present experience -- with the same feelings, insecurities, and longings. Then imagine seeing yourself through the other person's eyes and ask yourself: What would I most want from this person? What would I most need from them? Try this with someone you know, such as a boss or an employee; then broaden the exercise to a whole category of people, such as all rich people or all poor people. As you record your experience in a journal or report it to a friend, consider how this kind of spiritual work, putting yourself in another's shoes, supports the democratic value of E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many — One.

Additional Resources

More resources related to the Practicing Democracy Project.

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This Practicing Democracy Guide is copyright © 2019 by Spirituality & Practice (SpiritualityandPractice.com), a multifaith website presenting resources for spiritual journeys as part of the Practicing Democracy Project. The guide was researched and written by Kristin Ritzau and Habib Todd Boerger, Practicing Democracy Fellows. Democratic values, virtues, and spiritual practices chart researched and created by Habib Todd Boerger.

Photo credit: Nattanan Kanchanaprat at Pixabay.com

For more information on the Project, visit PracticingDemocracy.net.