Activism and Financial Sustainability

I wrote this post earlier this year when I was about to start full-time well-paid work. Since writing it, I have left that employment to volunteer full-time. So, this post is a snapshot of how I was feeling and thinking then. My deliberate change in circumstance also reveals to me a point I only allude to herein: that one benefit of scrupulous saving is it gives you the freedom to temporarily give up any income in order to follow your heart.


Soon I will be earning more money than I ever have before. I’m feeling trepidation, a mixture of excitement and mild alarm.

There are obvious benefits to this situation: on my new salary, I need not experience want. My tastes are simple and my needs will be met. I’m a frugal guy and have learnt sometimes to accept and endure, in the interests of thrift, a nagging but submissive hunger or thirst. But this can suck a bit. Now I won’t have to endure. I will probably thus have a better time being out, doing things with friends. Money itself doesn’t cause this, but it means things can be that bit nicer, that (some!) unfulfilled desires can be banished. It’s the simple delightful difference made by dessert at the end of a lovely meal.

I’m also really looking forward to spending more money on people I care about. I don’t tend to express love with gifts, which is both an idiosyncrasy and an economic measure. But I’ve been trying it out recently and I enjoy it: a spontaneous, apt gift can be a wondrous thing to share. I won’t go out of my way to spend money on this, but now I’ll feel comfortable taking advantage of opportunities when they arise.

a picture of a delicious meal in a lovely restaurant

It’s nice being able to afford things that are worth it.

Here’s my worry though: I don’t want to become profligate. A salary can be like internet bandwidth – you’ll tend to use up what you have. And, as George Monbiot writes, security lies not in having a great income but in having minimal expenditure, “If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by.” I’m concerned that I may form habits of unconsidered, imprudent, or wasteful spending. Partly I reject such habits as a matter of principle. Too, such habits jeopardise my independence and security. Finally, consumption of most material goods has negative social, economic, or environmental impacts. Bad friggin’ times.

The obvious alternative? Save all this surplus income. Squirrel it away. Be the ant, not the grasshopper.

Silly me, I struggled with this concept. Hitherto I have saved pretty competently: I currently have a comfortable emergency fund that could tide me over for even a protracted period of unemployment (although I’d have to stop buying desserts when out!). But somehow I balked at the idea of saving even more money, of passing certain thresholds. I guess I asked myself: when is enough enough? Given that so many great causes need more money, could I ethically justify sitting on tens of thousands of dollars while more deserving parties had to go around, hat in hand?

As it happens, I now feel better about it all. I was lunching with a friend who revealed that she had more than $50,000 saved up. Jeepers! We discussed this and a great point came up: sustainable activism includes financial sustainability. This means looking after your finances, making sure that money (or a lack thereof) doesn’t come between you and the pursuit of social change. As activists we should look after our own selves: our health (physical and mental), our relationships, our spiritual growth, our learning. Also, our finances. Activists who can afford to financially support others are privileged and should offer such support. And they can also support activism by supporting themselves.

So I am pumped for the new job. There’s excitement about so much of it: the role, the responsibility, the employer, my future colleagues. Too, there is excitement about the salary. It’s going to be good to be able to pay for the cherry on the experiential cake when eating or going out, to surprise my friends with material symbols of love. It’s also going to be good, to save, to add to my sense of security, so that, whatever cruel fortuna sends my way, I’ll have a little somethin’ somethin’ to help me meet it.

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