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How to Put Your Money Where Your Politics Are

Oct. 1, 2018
Managing Money, Personal Finance
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If you’re Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, you can afford to slide a cool $10 million to a super PAC, as was reported in September. If you’re pretty much anyone else interested in contributing to a political action committee or candidate, you’ll likely give an amount with five or six fewer zeros and still need to contemplate that decision.

Specifically, there are household budgets to tweak and contribution rules to review. And, of course, with midterms looming, there are more political causes that want your money than you can shake a checkbook at.

Before donating, consider the following advice.

Make sure you can afford to donate

Determine which “bucket” of your budget this donation will come from, says Craig Israelsen, executive in residence in the Financial Planning Program at Utah Valley University. Some buckets are off limits, like those for housing payments or utilities. And pulling from retirement savings is “questionable” at best, he adds. (“Our retirement is on us — nobody else is really responsible for that.”)

But the money “has to come from somewhere,” Israelsen says. So would you dip into to your clothing or restaurant budget and offset a $100 contribution by, say, not shopping or dining out for a month? Would you pull $300 from your travel funds and, in doing so, commit to driving to Mom’s for Thanksgiving dinner rather than flying?

Pausing to reflect on what you’d have to give up for this donation will help you rank its importance among other expenses. Maybe you decide to keep the restaurant dinners and either skip the donation or give less than you’d intended. (More on the value of small donations later.)

Or maybe this reflection affirms that, yes, this contribution is important enough to make a sacrifice. (And if this exercise is a real head-scratcher, consider it your cue to build or revisit your budget.)

Need help starting your budget?

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Start with a small contribution

Determining what you’d have to sacrifice for a donation is less painful when you start by donating, say, $10 instead of $100. That may be a weekend without Uber, rather than a month without dining out.

And consider that your individual contribution will go further in a local campaign — for a city council member, for example — than it will for a presidential or senatorial campaign that costs millions, says Michael Barber, faculty scholar at Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and assistant professor of political science.

Wherever you choose to donate, “start small, and then gather more information,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics and operates OpenSecrets.org. Five or 10 bucks would likely be enough to get you on the campaign’s or organization’s email lists. “Use that information to make sure you agree with their message,” Krumholz says, and continue gathering information on the recipient.

If you’re still impressed by the candidate or organization, then go through the budget-bucket routine and perhaps contribute more. If you’ve lost interest, you can feel grateful for donating $10, rather than $100 — or $10 million.

Research the rules and recipient before donating

The decision about whom to donate to is up to you, but in any case, verify the rules before doing so. For example, if you decide to give to a federal candidate committee, party committee or PAC, first visit the Federal Election Commission website. You’ll learn about contribution limits, as well as other considerations, like the aggregate amount you can give before your name appears on a public FEC report. You’ll have to rely more on web searches for local and state campaign information.

If you’d rather give to an organization, like a nonprofit that works within politics, learn about it on sites such as OpenSecrets.org or CharityNavigator.org. Among other information, these sites disclose the nonprofit’s type, which determines whether or not your contributions will be tax deductible.

Note that — unfortunately for Mr. Bezos — you cannot deduct contributions to political candidates or campaign committees.

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