Wallet Activism: Using Your Money for Good with Author Tanja Hester

“Do no harm” isn’t just for doctors anymore! When it comes to being a consumer, a member of society, we all should strive to do as little harm as possible. From reducing your carbon footprint to supporting ethical business and labor practices to eating environmentally sustainable food, the concept is generally known as “ethical consumption.” We cover some of these ideas here.

But what if we take it a step further? What if you incorporate ethics and doing-no-harm into every money decision you make in your life?

Well then, my Level 15 Social Justice Warrior, you’re talking about wallet activism.

Because I’ve recently developed an allergy to working too hard, I found an expert to explain the concept to y’all.

Wallet Activism: New book coming out next week

Enter Tanja Hester, author of the new book Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and save as a Force for Change, out November 16th! Tanja’s magnum opus is packed with brain-changing information and actionable advice for using your money to make the world a better place.

Alert readers will recognize Tanja as the critically acclaimed (by us) genius behind the blog Our Next Life and her first book, Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way. Tanja spent 16 whole years as a consultant to Democratic politics and progressive cause campaigns, working on everything from renewable energy to healthcare for low-income families. Before that, she covered politics as a public radio journalist.

Tanja Hester, author of Wallet Activism and boss-ass bitch.
Tanja Hester, author of Wallet Activism and boss-ass bitch.

She’s been outspoken in personal finance media about the need to consider systemic barriers and opportunity gaps, rather than simply pushing already privileged people to accumulate more wealth. It’s part of why the New York Times called her “the matriarch of the women’s FIRE movement.”

In other words, her progressive activist bona fides are well in order. If anyone is going to out-social-justice-warrior me… it’s this bitch.

Ambush journalism

Piggy: I have a number of very difficult and intimidating interview questions.

Tanja: I brace for intimidation.

Piggy: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Tanja: Starting with the hard-hitting questions first, I see. Donuts? Pizza? Nachos? Something super unhealthy, obviously. Can I assume it has no climate impact? Making me a hypocrite right out the gate!

Piggy: That’s gotcha journalism for you.

Tanja: You got me.

Dafuq is “wallet activism” anyway?

Piggy: Now that we’ve revealed the depths of your hypocrisy, why don’t we talk about those ethics you’re so CAVALIERLY DISREGARDING. Dafuq even is “wallet activism”?

Tanja: Wallet activism means using your financial power in all its forms to push back against an unjust and unsustainable status quo. There are no rules about who can do it or minimum requirements; it’s just learning to approach all your financial decisions differently, in a way that capitalism would prefer you didn’t.

Piggy: Give some examples!

Tanja: I think most people are familiar with “ethical consumerism” or “conscious consumerism.” While those provide a good entry into thinking about the concept, they’re still CONSUMERISM, and reduce you to a mere consumer instead of the multitudes you contain, and assume that the point is TO CONSUME, which it isn’t.

All of us consuming so much is the root of most of our problems. So it’s learning to question not just whether you want to purchase something, it’s also questioning whether to purchase it at all. But this goes way beyond shopping. It’s questioning whether the financial institution you bank with is doing good things with the money you have deposited there (spoiler: they almost certainly aren’t). It’s thinking about what you do for a living or how you conduct yourself at work. And so on.

Wallet activism is for everyone

Piggy: That sounds like a lot of work, a lot of really thoughtful, intentional decision-making. But in your book you say wallet activism is something everyone can try. Tell me about the accessibility of this movement to people of different economic classes.

Tanja: One of the reasons I wanted to write Wallet Activism is that I desperately wanted to READ Wallet Activism, but nothing like it existed. And I get why. These are complex problems we’re tackling (inequality/exploitation, the climate crisis), and the solutions aren’t always simple.

So I was determined not to dumb anything down or assume readers couldn’t handle the truth, because all of the watered-down solutions out there have led to no meaningful change. (We’ve all been recycling for thirty years and haven’t “saved” the planet yet, for example.)

But I knew that in sharing the whole, complicated truth, I also wanted to simplify the decision-making process, because I don’t want the result of reading this book to be that you stand paralyzed at the store, unable to make a decision (that was me when I first went gluten-free). So I do offer a set of questions that can help you make a better choice, no matter your ability or income level. This is a book that recognizes that Amazon and Walmart are the best choice for most people, and I refuse to shame anyone for that.

Piggy: I knew there was a reason I love you.

Tanja: Mutual, obviously.

Not only do Tanja and I share a love of wallet activism and each other... we love a Hemsworth.

How to care about everything

One of the best worst quotes from one of the best worst movies comes from Ever After. The spoiled, be-codpieced prince pronounces to the mysterious girl who has captured his heart, “I used to think that if I cared about anything, I would have to care about everything, and I’d go stark raving mad.”

Which, for those who want to make a difference and pursue activism can be totally relatable! Decision paralysis sucks at the best of times, but what about when it prevents you from doing good? Tanja actually removes some of that guilt and headache in Wallet Activism.

Piggy: I was sold when I read the chapter “People or the Planet? You Don’t Have to Choose.” The environmentalist movement has received justifiable criticism. For being racist, classist, ableist, and sexist in some of its solutions. So how do you resolve that people/planet conflict?

Tanja: That criticism is totally fair. As is the criticism of parts of the social justice movement for not being intersectional (suffragists refusing to let women of color be voices in the movement, second wave feminists not welcoming lesbians and LGBTQ+ people, current day feminists sometimes being TERFs, etc.). I give some more examples in the book, but basically, environmentalists have mostly disregarded people who didn’t look like them for the entire history of environmentalism. So we need to learn to question the action we’re being asked to take.

Who benefits from these “solutions?”

Tanja: I offer the question “For whom?” as a way to think about this, and encourage folks to go for solutions that help achieve justice for those with the least power currently.

For example, the push for more women CEOs. Yes, we need them. Yes, having more would no doubt lead to better policies. But “for whom” is this the solution? Pushing for more women CEOs is ultimately benefitting some of the most privileged women in our society. We should instead, or at least first, push for better pay and working conditions for the company’s lowest paid workers. Otherwise we’re just giving more power to an already powerful group.

Wallet activism is also, frankly, learning to ask about the motivations of those telling you to do some proposed solution. Way too often, solutions pushed by environmentalists totally disregard other humans (example: the “zero waste” movement is not universally accessible to all ability and income levels), so that’s not a real solution. Oftentimes folks trying to sell you something are the same ones pushing solutions. Like, Levi’s right now running these ads about buying better quality stuff means consuming less. That’s true, but they’re ultimately trying to sell you more jeans.

Piggy: You mentioned an “unjust and unsustainable status quo” and the motivations of those telling you to consume. Pretend I’m a blissfully ignorant alien baby and not the hardened socialist agitator I am and explain what you mean. ARE THERE BAD GUYS?????

Tanja: So here’s a hard truth, ignorant alien baby: Nearly all the information you take in has a non-altruistic motive.

Challenging the status quo

Tanja: Do we all love stainless steel water bottles because they’re the most climate-friendly? Absolutely not. Stainless steel takes an enormous amount of energy to produce and we rarely recycle it. We love those stainless steel bottles because companies selling them convinced us they’re better than single-use plastic bottles (they are, but only after a loooooong time). Or better than whatever unhip water bottle we already own (new stainless steel is never catching up, impact-wise, to whatever you already had in your cupboard).

That’s not on us as people who buy things to feel bad about—that’s on them for lying to us. So yes, all those lying liars who’ve tricked you a million different ways are BAD GUYS, and in my book I give you tools to spot them. A quicker way to think about it: has anyone ever told you not to buy anything? (Other than that one Patagonia ad.) I bet not. They tell you “don’t buy this, buy this other thing I’m selling instead.”

Piggy: Pass me a pitchfork and point me toward the nearest lying liar who lies! Is that at the root of wallet activism? Questioning motivations of advertising?

Tanja: It’s ONE root, and maybe the biggest. But it’s also rooting (ha!) out our internalized thoughts and feelings that drive us to consume or to stay silent when we see injustice happening. Some of those thoughts are driven by marketing, but others aren’t.

Piggy: Very clever. I sense a Pulitzer coming your way.

Tanja: LOL. You know books with a hint of practicality aren’t “real books.”

Piggy: FINE. Have the Bitches Get Riches Award for Realness.

Tanja: Thank you! I didn’t have a speech prepared…

Piggy: CUE THE ORCHESTRA.

What can wallet activism really accomplish?

Piggy: What other forces can we use wallet activism to fight?

Tanja: A big part of Wallet Activism is training your brain to be able to tell when something can be solved or nudged by individuals changing their ways, and when it absolutely requires large-scale policy action. This is not an either/or question. We need policy solutions for systemic problems and we need individuals to recognize our power and culpability in problems so we do better.

Piggy: That’s oddly comforting. It’s not all on us! We can hold giant corporations and governments accountable. And we can use our dollars to literally tell them what we think about their shit. Instead of beating ourselves up for not recycling that one plastic water bottle 16 years ago

Tanja: Absolutely! It also lowers the bar in capitalist terms. Because to get a big policy change enacted, we usually need popular support, a majority of voters. To get corporations to change their ways, we often only need a single digit percent of consumers to change. You think if Bank of America loses 4% of their banking customers, they won’t notice? They absolutely will, and they’ll want to know why. It’s easier to push capitalist entities than it is to push government, so why aren’t we doing it more?

Piggy: That really gets to the “wallet” side of “wallet activism.” When I think of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer… it was a huge commitment and a lot of brave and tireless work by activists. Switching banks, by contrast, is absurdly easy and fast.

Tanja: Exactly! And switching banks is one of the most impactful things you can do. We need protests in the streets, too, of course! We need to show visible anger because our problems are big enough to warrant that, and those in charge need to know they’re not off the hook. But if you’re upset about the climate crisis and you keep your money with a bank that funds fossil fuel projects? You’re unknowingly making the problem worse when it’s easy to just not.

Actionable advice

Piggy: The second half of the book is step-by-step advice. Mostly on how to practice wallet activism in every aspect of your life. A lot of this is pretty tried and true—what you buy, what you eat, where you donate. But I was surprised to read how you can practice wallet activism at work.

Tanja: Work is 100% a financial transaction, and anytime a financial transaction is happening, you have power. For some folks, you can decide what companies NOT to work for, or what industries to stay away from. Denying top talent to companies and industries makes a big difference.

But if you don’t have that choice, you still have a choice of how to operate at work. Depending on your level now or in the future, that could look like advocating for more diversity in hiring and an actual focus on inclusion and retention for those employees, organizing your coworkers to fight for better pay, or organizing a walkout to protest policies. Like Netflix employees walking out over that Dave Chappelle garbage against trans people. Sometimes change can only come from within, and if you’re inside a company that needs to change, you have a massive opportunity to push for what needs to happen.

Why now?

Piggy: Last time we interviewed you for the blog, you had just published Work Optional, your book on early retirement. Wallet Activism is HELLA different from your first book. Why the shift in focus?

Tanja: This has a lot to do with how publishing works. I would never have thought that I’d write a book about how to accumulate money, but Work Optional was the book I had the opportunity to write because FIRE [financial independence, retire early] is a trendy topic and business books are an easy sell. I did my best with Work Optional to make it super different from other books out there, making it inclusive to those with disabilities (like me), putting an emphasis on using the free time you gain in ways that push against the status quo, and encouraging folks to stop accumulating when they have enough (if everyone did that, there’d be plenty to go around).

But Wallet Activism is the book I truly wanted to write, and no one would have published it if I hadn’t first established myself as an author. My whole life has been about pushing for positive change, through direct activism and through the work I did, and this book is really going back to my roots. Never mind that no one will be able to reduce how much work they have to do if we don’t solve the climate crisis and get more equality for folks. We have to be in this together even if we’re all in vastly different circumstances.

Piggy: Damn, you’re inspiring.

Tanja: Aux armes, nous citoyens!

Piggy: Liberté, égalité, fraternité!

Get your copy of Wallet Activism

Wallet Activism by Tanja Hester comes out on November 16th. You can get it in all the book places and all the book formats (paperback, ebook, audiobook). But personally, I hope you get yours from an independent bookstore of the library. Because frankly, that’s my #1 method of wallet activism.

If you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, you can get it from Bookshop.org or from Green Apple Books in San Francisco, which is offering signed copies and is donating 10% of proceeds to a local nonprofit focused on housing equity.

Tanja is practicing a little wallet activism of her own with the book: printing the book in the United States. And she encourages everyone to avoid shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday if possible. Those days have tons more worker injuries.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! Tanja is also launching a new podcast, also called Wallet Activism! It’ll go in debt on the topics covered in the book,with longer conversations with people practicing wallet activism in some particular way. I for one can’t heckin’ wait.

Where to pre-order Wallet Activism

More of our Bitchtastic book reviews and author interviews:

How to read books, right now, for free (TOP SECRET, DO NOT FORWARD)

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