It’s Tax Time: Do You Know What You’re Paying For?

For the cost of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile program, we can hire 4,784 elementary school teachers for one year. Use this tool to find out where your tax dollars are going and how they might be better spent.

No one really likes paying taxes, even if deep down we know they’re essential for the functioning of basically everything we take for granted, like functioning roadways and social security.


But it never hurts to have a clearer understanding of where, exactly, your money is going. Fortunately, a nonprofit called the National Priorities Project has done the hard work of making taxes and the federal budget easily understood.

National Priorities Project, which was recently nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent 30 years informing the U.S. citizenry by making the federal budget more transparent. Today their tool of choice for conveying this information is through interactive and visualized data. The graphic below shows very clearly the breakdown of where every single tax dollar goes:

As you can see, the biggest slice of our taxes goes toward military spending, closely followed by health care. Interest on the federal debt takes up a sizable chunk of a tax dollar, while energy and environment, science, transportation, education, and international affairs get the smallest contributions.

But there’s more to the federal budget than just income tax dollars. National Priorities Project also explains the difference between discretionary spending (money allocated directly by Congress) and mandatory spending (money allocated through entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare). As National Priorities Project explains on its website:

“Mandatory spending is largely made up of earned-benefit or entitlement programs, and the spending for those programs is determined by eligibility rules rather than the appropriations process. For example, Congress decides to create a program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. It then sets criteria for determining who is eligible to receive benefits from the program. The amount of money spent on SNAP each year is then determined by how many people are eligible and apply for benefits.

Congress therefore cannot decide each year to increase or decrease the budget for SNAP. Instead, it can review the eligibility rules and may change them in order to exclude or include more people.”


True to its name, National Priorities Project also provides interactive tools to help people visualize where their own money is going and think about how their own priorities could better be reflected in the federal budget.

There is a personalized tax day receipt where users input the amount of federal taxes they pay and see a complete breakdown of where their own money is actually going. Through the group’s trade-offs tool, visitors can decide where they can reallocate tax money to projects they are more interested in. I found, for instance, that for the cost of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile program, we can hire 4,784 elementary school teachers for one year or power 288,000 households through wind power.

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.