Moral Money Tips for Newlyweds, Avoiding Activist Burnout: The Leftist Ethicist

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December 26, 2013

My wife and I have been married for three months. Previous to marriage, we were together for seven years. We lived and shopped together. We always split our bills down the middle and never opened a joint bank account. Until now. Together, we’ve decided to open a joint account (we’re still keeping our separate accounts, too) so that we can build our financial lives together. We’ve always dealt with money in an individualistic way. We pay our bills separately. We both have anxiety about student debt. We think about our income individually, but not collectively. At least not yet. However, we are now at a point where we want to treat our finances more collaboratively. What advice can you give to two young people who want to change the way they use and view money?

Some say “money is the root of all evil” and in many forms of Christianity, vows of poverty are the ultimate form of religiosity. The thing is, trade and some form of money are part of every culture. So, to find peace in sharing money with your wife, you gotta go back BCE. Large chunks of the Old Testament are basically Ethical Business for Dummies. The holiest people don’t avoid money. They figure out how to use it ethically.

I had the opportunity to talk about your question with Sean Mallin, Taylor Nelms and Hannah Appel, economic anthropologists at the University of California. They say people worry that when money comes into an intimate relationship or friendship, it automatically has an eroding effect. Hannah says, “especially on the left, people worry that money has an evil essence, often conflating it with profit motive, for instance. But money has no essential character. It can be used to strengthen or weaken relationships. Where couples should be vigilant is in the ways that money can become a proxy for power dynamics that are already present.”

Now is the time to get real about how power works in your relationship. Think of this new project of shared resources as a task that can bring you closer together. How did your families interact with money? Does one of you earn more? Are race or gender a factor in how you deal with money in your relationship? Be honest about where you want full discretion in your spending or saving. If you aren’t great at saving, be real and talk through ideas to track spending together. Get clear on exactly when a discussion needs to happen before you spend a large amount (and how is large defined?). Commit to trying a method of joint budgeting for a month, then check in at the end. Your decisions don’t need to be permanent, and none of it makes you greedy or bad if it doesn’t work. You will find your rhythm.

Taylor also recommends reading “Take Back the Economy”, a “how-to guide to transforming one’s economic life around concerns about living socially with others, consuming sustainably and taking care of the planet.” It includes checklists and exercises that teach budgeting, investing and sharing.

My friend spends a lot of time on a volunteer-based organizing project. Recently, the project appears to be triggering mental health problems for her. I think she is at a breaking point. As a friend, should I encourage her to stay away from the activism, when I know this project is what gives her purpose in this life?

Anyone who’s been around activism for a few years knows movement folks struggling with either depression, hopelessness or addictions to work, drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, we’re caught up in our daily grind to get to meetings on time, plan events or even pay our own bills. We don’t always notice – or don’t want to notice – when someone is at a breaking point. It is confusing and scary to be with someone on the borders of a possible breakdown. The closer you get, the more all-consuming offering support feels.

That said, if your friends continues intense activism without a pause, she is likely to become another victim in the long legacy of activist burnout. Sascha Altman DuBrul, co-director of the Icarus Project, suggests naming the risks of your friend’s passion for her work to convince her to take a step back. Let her know that “prioritizing her own health will make her that much more useful to the struggle,” he says. “People who care about issues burn out because they aren’t taking care of themselves and no one is taking care of them.”

For many activists, dealing with emotional distress or extreme states of consciousness isn’t a one-time event, but a lifetime labor of self-love. Sascha says that many people drawn to social justice work are sensitive and wrestling to resolve their own internal conflicts.

“Political activists don’t have the kind of emotional vocabulary to talk about their personal stuff,” he says, “and they can project it onto the larger-world situation.”

This can be good, because the world needs a lot of healing, and people like your friend are passionate enough to take it on. Remind your friend that a few weeks of enough sleep, healthy meals and exercise can make a world of difference for herself and for the long-term success of her project. Seek out a local Icarus group that she can get involved with or send her to the Community Care section of Organizing Upgrade.

The Leftist Ethicist is an advice column for Zeek readers who envision a more just world and act to create it. With a commitment to justice and progressive Jewish teaching (and a loving nod to the Bintel Brief), the Leftist Ethicist provides a space to raise questions, without judgment, and receive sensible solutions. The Leftist Ethicist is not intended as a replacement or substitute for financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. It’s just my opinion! What’s yours? Talk back in the comments! Send questions about ethical dilemmas to

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