Admit one: church, $11.50

Sure we Americans do what we can to influence the political process; failing that, however, there are other powers to which we might appeal.

So enough politics (for now). Instead why don’t we take a moment to focus on the soul.

What do we spend on spirituality?

Spiritual spending is up from $1.81 per capita in 1995 to $2.07 today

Some 40% of Americans attend a religious service weekly,1 and despite the proclamations of some hysterics, the share of Americans attending has remained relatively consistent over the past two decades. It’s clear we spend a lot of time on matters of the spirit.

But we also spend a lot of money. $73 billion to be exact.2 This is the revenue that religious organizations generated in 2009.

Okay, so $73 billion sounds like a big number, but what does it mean. Well, if 40% of Americans attend church (or some otherwise affiliated religious franchise) 52 weeks a year then you could think of these houses of god charging $11.50 or so for tickets (though at peak, in 2007, they charged $12.30).

Of course the time that is spent in church is time that might otherwise be spent working (though, yes, one is not strictly allowed to work on the Sabbath anyway). So, in addition to the money spent for our theoretical church-attendance- tickets, what is the opportunity cost of cooping up our labor force in the nation’s chapels and temples each and every sunday?

Well, assuming that the earnings power of church attendees matches that of the general population, ((If you look through the Pew Survey results you’ll see that this is close enough to true that it won’t significantly affect the results), then roughly 50% of church-goers belong to the labor force and could be otherwise earning $18.60 an hour. If the average service lasts 2 hours then we give up $18.60 in wages for every person that prostrates him- or herself before god. This grosses up to an additional $120 billion annually.

In large part this prostrating is ostensibly motivated by the desire to move on to a better place upon stumbling over the tail of our mortal coil. In deference to this desire those left behind spend significant sums to inter our remains and memorialize our passing. Annual spending on funeral and burial services equals $15.7 billion. This works out to $6,350 per passing, down from a peak $8,330 in 2001 (yes, we’re putting our dead to rest more economically now, in part due to a mix-shift towards cremations but also by buying our coffins cheap, from china).

Of course, there are some that worship a different Sunday God, that evangelize for a separate power, and succor their soul in an altogether alternate setting. Theirs is a spirituality enlivened not just by hail marys but also homeruns, made true not by mere miracles but also by multimillionaire megastars. In the US we spend more than $17 billion attending sporting events in worship of our nike-endorsed demigods. To some this might not seem to qualify as spiritual spending, but I’d bet that they have never felt the fevered thrum in Cameron Indoor, the swirling shouts at Fenway, the flooded canyon roar at Michigan Stadium. Yes, exaltation in those settings is as ecstatic if not more than that seen when worshippers burst into song, speak in tongues, faint at the preachers touch.

US per capita spend on spiritual needs

All in, by this account, we spend $220 billion annually on our ephemeral spirits. This works out to $2 per person per day up from $1.80 in 1995. So the next time you ask for a tall latte at a starbucks remember, you could save your money and then, for the same cost, you might just save your soul.

  1. If you believe this survey, though some researchers claim that these results overstate attendance by as much as 2x. []
  2. The IRS reports a number some ~$10 billion lower number than the BEA; for the sake of this discussion and since they have more recent data available, I’ll stick with the BEA for now. []
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