Here on, I’m always trying to come up with fresh advice to help you make money—and save money (because after all, a penny saved is a penny earned). So today I’m going to go after one of the lowest of low-hanging fruit in your monthly budget: your religion expenses.

But before I begin, I just want to draw a clear distinction between religion, which I am discussing, and spirituality, which is not part of this discussion. I am only talking about physical, material activities related to organized religion and the expenses associated with them; not the metaphysical beliefs which for many people underlie those activities.

With that out of the way, I think there can be no question that whatever else religion is, it is a business. It is a global business, it is a lucrative business, and it is a profitable business. And like any other business, religions make money by selling various products and services to their adherents. That’s your money, so you should at least understand where it’s going and be prepared to do some soul searching as to the value of your investment.

What Are the Costs?

As with any other product or service, the costs vary from religion to religion, but they tend to come in two categories: money and time, money being the price you pay to participate in various activities and rituals, and time being the amount of unpaid labor you do in the service of religious organizations.

In my religion, Judaism, for example, the initial pay-to-play investment is very high. If you want to be part of organized Judaism at all, you’ll have to join a synagogue, which is going to cost you a membership fee that can range anywhere from $3000 to $10,000 and up per year. This is the bare minimum you have to pay, because this is the price of your admission to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days on our calendar. But your synagogue membership is just the beginning. On Yom Kippur, you’ll probably be hit up for an additional donation on top of your membership fee, and these can be substantial. Want your kid to be Bar Mitzvahed? She’ll have to attend at least five years of Hebrew school at a cost of around $1000 per year, per kid. You’ll also have to pay for the ceremony itself, refreshments afterward, and a big party for the kid (because all of his friends get one). That will cost at least another $20,000-30,000 on top of everything else. You’ll also be hit up throughout the year for various related charities. So you can see how the expenses can add up really fast.

Of course, every religion does it differently. Latter Day Saints tithe at least 10% of their income (not sure if that’s gross or net). Catholic Churches pass a collection plate and so forth. But every religion is going to cost you money. That’s how they fund their operating costs and pay their clergy.

Then there’s the investment of time. No matter what religion you belong to, you’ll have a fairly substantial time commitment every week. For example, I’m supposed to pray three times daily for at about 15 minutes each time, attend synagogue for at least two hours every Saturday, and say a very very long prayer after each and every time I eat something. And that’s just in a typical week. When I was a kid, I went to Hebrew school for two hours each on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, attended mandatory services on Saturday, and had homework. I spent a good chunk of my childhood devoting at least 10-15 hours per week to my religious activities.

Again, every religion is different, some place greater demands on your time, some less. But most expect you’ll put in a significant amount of time.

Is it Worth It?

I’m not asking rhetorically. This is one of the most important and difficult questions a person can ask herself, and I frankly can’t give you an answer. What I can do is give you five questions to think about:

  • Do I believe in god? This is a biggie, because this is going to go a long way toward determining whether you feel these are mandatory obligations. Of course, you could be an atheist and see value in the rituals and traditions, or you could be a believer, but in a more free-wheeling, spiritual sense. But your belief can at least help you clarify your priorities.
  • Do I believe god expects me to pay for/do all of this stuff?—What does god want? Is this it? How do I know that
  • Are there other worthwhile things I could be doing with my time? Are they more worthwhile or less?
  • Are their other things I could be doing with my money? What is this really worth to me?
  • Can I really afford this? If I’m struggling to pay my rent and heating, is it really wise for me to be spending so much money on something I can’t eat and won’t keep the lights on?

The Examined Religious Life

Obviously, the answers to these questions will vary from person to person. My concern is that so many people—perhaps even you—don’t ever stop to even consider these questions. They just keep doing what they’ve always done because that’s what they grew up with and that’s what their used to. Many of us don’t even see these questions at all. We just assume that we must do what we are doing as an unalterable part of life.

But these are all valid questions, and we should all ask them. Because we spend an awful lot of time and money on religion, and the wisdom of this considerable investment is worthy of our consideration. It’s just too much time and money at stake to be spending without any conscious forethought.

It may well be that, when you ask yourself these questions, you’ll realize that you have been, from your perspective, wasting a lot of time and money. If you come to that conclusion, that’s thousands of dollars per year back into your budget. It may also be that you’ll decide its totally worth your while, in which case, at least you’ll know what you are spending your time and money on. Either way, the unexamined religious life seems rather wasteful to me.





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