Money, Money, Money

Money, Money, Money

Twin Oaks’ business warehouse

I want to talk about money. Not because it’s a fun topic. But because there’s so much to say. 

Along with purpose and relationships, I see money is one of the big three broad overarching issues that intentional communities need to deal with, and that define what kind of community people are looking for.

There are a number of facets to the money conversation, particularly for forming communities. Where is the money going to come from to buy property? How individualized or collectivized will finances be? Will there be a community business or will people be responsible for finding income sources themselves?

But there are some deeper issues. We’ve got a lot of baggage wrapped up around money. Security, privacy, autonomy are some big trigger points. But we also tend to have our sense of self-worth invested, so to speak, in our relationship to money, which is highly influenced by our class background. When looking at financial questions for a forming community, I think each of us needs to examine our own relationship to money and be transparent about what we see. If we can’t do that, that’s a red flag. If we can, seeing whether there is alignment in our core beliefs and desires about money will help determine if we can agree on a financial model for the community.

There’s no easy answer to the question of where the money will come from to start a community. That is, unless you do have an easy answer, though nothing is without complications. 

You might have someone in your group who has a lot of money, maybe from inheritance. This can work well if you can navigate the potential power imbalance and make sure your legal framework and financial agreements are solid. You might also be able to find an angel investor or donor, though again, there’s potential for a power imbalance and this needs to be approached very thoughtfully.

Or, you might take the approach of finding enough people who have enough income and assets to be able to get a bank loan. This tends to work well for cohousing communities where people own their own homes, and works less well for more collectively oriented kinds of community. The problem being that people who’ve chosen a more conventional lifestyle that has provided that kind of money tend to want a more conventional kind of community and don’t necessarily want to support people who haven’t chosen financially lucrative life paths. 

A lot of people have forwarded the idea that there are a lot of boomers with money who need care, and millennials without money who can provide care, who all want community, and can’t we put them together? The central, oversimplified problem is that boomers have control issues and millennials have commitment issues. There are no easy answers.

As someone trying to help start a community, this is certainly a question that’s on my mind, but it’s not where I’m starting. Where I’m starting is trying to find a group of people who have enough alignment (we want similar things and have similar ideologies) and affinity (we like each other) that we are committed to doing something together, and then we figure out what makes sense. This would involve doing an inventory of the assets, liabilities, and income (actual or potential) of the group. This would require a high degree of vulnerability, which I think is crucial in itself. More on that later. 

One of the obvious first steps would be to have a founding core group move in together for a trial period. This would serve as a test of our alignment and affinity. It could also help meet what should be one of the key benefits of living in community: It’s cheaper. Living in community should enable resource sharing, which should make it possible to live well with less money, which should make it possible to build assets to take the next step.

There are other potential avenues to financing a new community. The place to start might be creating a community business, rather than buying property. There’s also the possibility of having something mission driven and looking for grant funding, though my understanding is that foundations mostly don’t want to fund land acquisition. The exception to that being the strong interest these days in land justice and funding BIPOC communities. Another strategy is to search for property with existing infrastructure that’s being sold at low cost because it’s not well suited for anything other than it’s original, now-unviable purpose (e.g. small college campuses). 

As far as financial models go, broadly speaking the spectrum is from expense sharing to income sharing. Expense sharing is what the vast majority of groups do. There are certain expenses that have to be covered, a mortgage, taxes, insurance, infrastructure maintenance, and the members pay to help cover those expenses, equally or based on use. Other expenses might get included as well, like food or cleaning supplies, or if the group decides to have other shared facilities, like a workshop or tool library. Members are individually responsible for being able to cover their share with little to no community support in generating income.

Income sharing approaches this from the opposite direction. It assumes all expenses, community and individual, are shared and the group figures out how it will collectively meet it’s income needs. There are pros and cons to both models, and it’s a spectrum, not an either or. There’s lots of ways to structure this. But to get creative, I think we need to take a deep dive.

There is a particular belief embedded in modern capitalism, which is that we deserve whatever access to wealth and income we have, and this is experienced very differently depending on your class background. I think this is wrong and damaging. It ignores the legacies of slavery, genocide, imperialism, and colonialism that have established the systems of financing and private property that run the world. It also serves to disconnect and isolate us from each other, makes us feel a false sense of pride or shame about our situation, and exacerbates a sense of scarcity and competition. And all of this reinforces the system by removing any sense of choice or possibility. 

I’m an anti-capitalist. I believe capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. The core mechanic of capitalism is the investing of capital to create more capital which is invested to create more capital, etc. The generation of capital is based on the extraction of resources and the exploitation of labor. So it only works as long as there are always more resources to extract and more labor to exploit. 

I also think capitalism inherently trends towards the consolidation of wealth and political power, making it fundamentally unjust. Can you make rules to make it just and sustainable? Maybe, but there will be a perpetual power struggle with forces trying to undo those rules who, because of the trend towards consolidation, will always tend to have the upper hand. 

But I recognize that capitalism is the only game in town, so we better know how to play it. I recognize that within the existing system people have very real needs and concerns, particularly parents with children, and older people regarding their care as they age and die. I recognize that we are heavily socialized by capitalism and can’t simply ignore or condemn needs and desires that may be coming from that socialization, or from very real individual circumstances. 

So, the question is, can we lay it all out on the table and face it together? Can we create a system based on sharing and mutual support that buffers us from the effects of capitalism without compromising our ability to impact the world? Can we recognize that there’s nothing fair or just about the financial system and address the entitlement or sense of being undeserving that can creep in? Can we allow for differing needs? Can we approach whatever level of shared financial responsibility we have together and not just leave it up to individuals? Can we foster our relationships such that we don’t necessarily need to have our financial contributions be equal?

Obviously I’m coming from a particular place with this. Most of my intentional community experience is in an income-sharing, egalitarian community that holds the ideal “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Over the decades, the understanding of egalitarianism at Twin Oaks seems to have evolved from “everyone should have the same” to “everyone should have the same access.” It also holds that all labor is valued equally, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, childcare, or working in one of the community’s businesses. Twin Oaks is part of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. To be a member of the FEC a community must, among other things, “hold its land, labor, income and other resources in common,” and “assume responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.”

In starting a new community, in addition to doing the personal work of looking at our issues around money and sharing that with each other, I think we need to identify our design principles. For me, I would adopt something like the two FEC principles above, though I think they can be interpreted with more flexibility than FEC communities have tended to. I want our economic system to explicitly and actively seek to undermine capitalism. I also don’t think we should assume people will live in the community forever and want people to be able to create financial security for themselves in their old age. People also need to have enough flexibility and autonomy to address personal situations if the community is unable to offer support, for example with caring for an infirmed or dying relative. I want there to be transparency and care for each other at the heart of our financial model. 

Is there a financial model that can accommodate all this? Probably not without some compromise, but I believe that if we’re willing to do the work we can figure it out. 

But it’ll take work. These conversations can be incredibly triggering. And this is why I think vulnerability is so important. Vulnerability is the basis for intimacy, which is the basis for trust, which is essential for sharing, which is what community is all about. These are the conversations I’m excited to have with a group of people committed to taking everything we know about intentional community and taking the next step in what intentional community can be in the world today. 

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