Invest in more than just yourself when planning for the future

I first asked my grandfather if he would help me invest in the stock market when I was 12. I had saved up a few hundred dollars of birthday and Christmas money, and I was fascinated by the beast that was the financial world.

Apparently, my fascination had little lasting effect, as I have since pursued fields not particularly known for amassing fortunes. Although I have paid some attention to how much and where my assets were since my preteens, I have mostly trusted in the financial savvy of my wise sage of a grandfather and his investment consultant.

I was reminded of my early interest on my recent trip to El Salvador. Among the many individuals my delegation met with was a pair of activists who lobbied against drilling in El Salvador.

We listened to the Salvadoran activists for a little over an hour. They told us about their struggle to make their voices heard and the great danger posed by drilling in El Salvador. They expressed similar concerns as those advocating against drilling in the United States. Those concerns are voiced throughout Latin America; however, the concern in El Salvador was particularly dire.

While one might be able to justify drilling and the dangers it poses to the environment in a larger country with more resources, El Salvador is about the size of Connecticut. They already have a water crisis, and they cannot afford to put the little drinkable water they have at risk. And in Latin America, a place with fewer regulations and a greater danger to citizens voicing concerns, it is much easier for large corporations to take advantage of the situation.

The activists risk a great deal because of the worthiness of their cause. They described receiving threats to their families for their activism, threats far from empty after having lost friends to the same cause. All over Latin America, the debate continues. But we know that this dynamic is not exclusive to drilling corporations. The concerns highlighted by the drilling activists were applicable to many others we encountered -- a woman who fought for the rights of exploited female laborers, for example.

I was in El Salvador for just over a week. After that short of a time period, or even after a longer period, it is easy to come back to the privilege of North America and leave El Salvador and its concerns behind as a distant memory. My delegation recognized this serious danger and was determined not to forget. So, we asked, what relevance does this have for our own context as U.S. Catholics in their mid-20s? What are we supposed to take away that would affect our way of life?

The activists' response was very simple and specific: Invest financially in a socially responsible way. They recognized that we had to return to the United States and continue facing the reality that the quality of our lives comes at the expense of theirs. We could not simply discontinue our lives and the accompanying financial responsibilities.

What does it mean to invest in a socially responsible way?

I have moved away from my hometown. I work. I go to school. I have to develop my own financial savvy, including planning for the future. Many friends of mine have begun to ask the same questions about investing in markets and IRAs. As a man in his mid-20s, the time to seriously begin considering how to survive after retirement is disturbingly close.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium makes several remarks meant to bring us to reconsider how we act financially and how those actions affect the lives of the underprivileged. So it seems the question for a young adult Catholic is, How do I balance the tension between my own context as a North American who has to plan a financial future in a responsible way while simultaneously staying true to the Catholic call to act in a socially just way?

The Salvadoran activists recognized the reality that in our world, money talks. The small statements millennials make by investing money in certain ways can add up to a larger statement about the seriousness of our empathy for the marginalized in the world and our objection to their being blatantly exploited. Though the limits of returns as you exclude sectors of the market may not be thrilling, a point Casey Quinlan illustrates in her recent U.S. News and World Report article, our choice to accept this lower expectation shows on some level the seriousness of our decision.

Quinlan's article highlights the steps to take when making the decision to invest in a socially responsible way. This kind of investing is a tricky game. While a company may highlight certain good practices that construct a façade of social responsibility, there may be other aspects of the company that fall short of that ideal. Homework is required. Also, as a general rule, the article argues that maintaining a broad exposure to various opportunities may help secure a steadier return while remaining socially responsible.

I recognize that there is something almost ridiculous and hypocritical about discussing how I ought to invest the giant amount of money I plan on amassing so I can retire in comfort while being sensitive to the concerns of the marginalized world. In the grander scheme of how I should live my life in a socially responsible way, it should only be a first step, containing the elements of empathy and social consciousness that should be involved in an array of other decisions that are soon to come as I grow into adulthood. While it may seem like an inconsequential or even frivolous step, it is an important start to an adult life of socially just decision-making.

[Zachary R. Dehm is currently working toward his Master of Theological Studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.]

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