Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

Can I be interested in money and finance and still be a lefty?

Bruce GillespieWebsite

Illustration by Evan MundayAs a recent university graduate, I finally have a full-time job and am making a decent living and paying more attention to how I spend and invest my money, to the jeers of many friends who say I’ve turned into a capitalist now that I have a regular pay cheque. But can’t lefties be interested in money, too?

It’s true in some circles that taking an active interest in one’s finances is considered anathema to being truly left-leaning, that it’s a distasteful, bourgeois hobby. And if you’re making millions off investments in tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers, it probably is. But that isn’t always the case. The flipside of that argument is that taking control of one’s finances is the ultimate expression of self-determination.

Learning about personal finance should be of most interest to those who don’t have much of it—and in that category we can safely include the many people who work for low-paying NGOs, non-profits and charities. After all, do you think Belinda Stronach reads personal finance magazines? Hardly—she can pay someone to manage her money for her, whereas the rest of us need to learn to do it ourselves.

It’s easy to understand why many lefties find personal finance literature so odious, as much of it is written with the same underlying conservative philosophy—that you need to master your finances in order to pay the least amount of tax possible. Most lefties naturally, and rightfully, disagree with such a position. As supporters of a social welfare state, we realize that if we didn’t pay taxes there would be no such thing as universal health care.

My take is a little different: I think you should bone up on personal finance in order to pay the least amount of money possible to the multinational corporations that control your life. According to the latest information from Statistics Canada, the average Canadian family carries a rather astounding $12,300 in credit card and “other” debts, to say nothing of what we owe on mortgages ($82,800), student loans ($10,400), lines of credit ($13,500) and car loans ($11,200). That means big bucks in interest payments for banks and credit card companies. But why are so many of us giving them more money than we have to?

What’s your interest in keeping the big banks profitable, the same ones that shutter small-town branches they deem not profitable enough and charge increasingly higher service fees for fewer services? Or what about credit card companies that charge interest rates that are more than 15 percent higher than the Bank of Canada’s prime lending rate and insist on giving consumers more credit to spend than they can ever hope to pay off? Surely if the money you shell out in unnecessary interest payments stayed in your hands, you could find better ways to spend it than bolstering the bottom line of these multinational money-making machines.

The same thinking applies to investing. Yes, most of the literature you’ll find is couched in terms of making RRSP contributions as a way to reduce your so-called tax burden. But try to look past that. Because if you don’t learn how to invest properly, and simply pour money into an ethical fund, you may end up more philosophically compromised than if you’d just bought a regular mutual fund. The fund manager’s idea of what is ethical may be quite different from yours. If you don’t learn what to look for, you won’t know what your money supports.

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