What is Money For? - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

What is Money For?


Photo of the world's most expensive candle courtesy of Lisa Yarost.


One of the classes I took for my graduate degree in education was a class on Inclusion. This class focused on teaching us strategies on how to include special needs children in mainstream classrooms. For me, the highlight of this class was a stress-inducing workbook that offered such gems as:

Alex is a first-year math teacher. His fifth period class includes Jackson, a little boy with severe Autism, who regularly bangs his head on the desk hard enough to draw blood. Jackson's aide is unable to be in the classroom that period because she is helping another child with severe physical difficulties to eat lunch. Alex cannot get the class to focus because of Jackson's behavior and he does not know how to communicate with Jackson or help him calm down. What should Alex do?

The workbook would then provide about 20 lines to fill in your ideas for how to react in such a situation. Since my answers ranged from "Heck if I know" to "Start bringing a flask to work" to "Quit!" I felt I did not need nearly the amount of space the workbook provided me.

I mention those stress-inducing hypothetical situations that I encountered years ago because they remind me of some of the comments I occasionally receive on various blog posts I write for the greater Internet. I will sometimes receive a comment asking for advice in an untenable situation--like how to save money when the family makes a combined $40,000 per year and $6,000 of it goes to child support for kids of a previous marriage and the emergency fund is always wiped out by an emergency whenever it reaches more than a grand and so on and so forth.

Whenever I read these types of comments, I realize the stress I felt over the hypothetical situations in my education workbook was NOTHING compared to this. I knew that the hypothetical Alex had lots of options, and he was, ultimately, fictional. The people who are desperate enough to ask for help in the comments section on a 500 word article on saving money for retirement are real, and I feel even more helpless in the face of their enormous problems than I did when poor Alex was fictionally cleaning up bloodstains before his 6th period class shuffled in every day.

These types of comments also remind me of how lucky I am. There have been many times when I have reminded J (and others) that money is a tool. It's not magic, nor is it The Answer. It's just a tool.

Except, that attitude reflects the fact that I have never been desperate about money. If I didn't have enough money to live comfortably, money would represent security, a life of ease, and even power. Because in addition to being a tool, money is also all of those things.

But it's hard to remember that when you take your security, comfort, and power for granted. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from, or even if I would be able to pay all of my bills. So I've always been able to think about money as a tool, rather than as the answer to my problems or the thing standing between me and a life I want to live.

That does not mean I will stop regarding money as a tool. It is the means by which I make the life choices I want, and since I am not destitute, I can use it that way. I see money as a tool that I can choose to use or not and make the decisions that will build the life that most closely resembles my ideal. In my own personal situation, I feel like that is the most rational way to view money. But is that really what money is for?

For someone who has none, money can be comfort and ease, and the source of bitterness and resentment.

For someone who has a lot, money can be power and the ability to distance yourself from discomfort.

For someone who has trouble managing money, money can be a temptation.

For someone who is tight-fisted, money can be a precious commodity that must be held close.

It's so odd that money represents so many different things to different people. Depending on how much you have and what you habitually do with your money, your view of money can be dramatically different from anyone else's. Which, I suppose, is why money is so often the cause of arguments from the international down to the household level.

Of course, all of this is also why I have a job. If money were simple, there would hardly be enough for a personal finance blogger to talk about.

But, as stressful as they are, I am glad to have occasional reminders from my readers that my view of money is skewed by my relative privilege. Yes, money may be a tool for me to use. But others may work their entire lives just to reach the point that I think of as a rational view of money. J and I live a life wherein deciding whether our money is best spent on this repair or that one is a tough conversation, but not one that will ultimately affect our ability to live comfortably. I may strive to be rational about my money, but for many, money must be emotional because the lack of it is so limiting.

I'm very glad that I have not experienced that, but I hope to never forget that it is the reality for many people in my town, my state, my country, my world.

What do you think money is for? Is striving for a rational view of money a reasonable thing to do?



haverwench said:

The first chapter of the classic money book _Your Money or Your Life_ is devoted entirely to the question, "What is money?" They point out that money means many different things to different people, including all the ones you cited above. They explore the many "levels" of thinking about money until they arrive at what they consider a truly "universal" definition: "Money is something you exchange your life energy for." That, they say, is the real, ultimate truth about money, and that is the insight that they think should transform your entire attitude toward it. But my reaction to it was, "Huh?" I mean, come on, that's not a *complete* definition of money at all. If it were, then it would be stupid to want money at all. Why would you give up your life energy for anything? Their definition leaves out half of the equation: the part where, after you acquire money in exchange for your "life energy," you then *use* it to acquire other things--goods and services--that enable you to live a better, fuller, more comfortable life.

I guess my point here is that even these two widely admired money experts, having devoted considerable thought to the topic, still came up with a definition of money that's fundamentally incomplete. Which just goes to show that no matter who you are, your views of money will always be shaped to some extent by your personal biases and life experiences. So it's not just you.

June 20, 2013 9:55 AM

frugal_fun said:

Off topic: Alex's hypothetical issue does actually come up occasionally. I think for that very reason, mainstreaming children with extreme disabilities is a terrible idea. When I was growing up, my parents ran a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. The group homes, schools, and sheltered workshops that existed back them for them were closely supervised and tailored to their needs. (At least where I lived) I have no idea how anyone benefits when a child is so disturbed by a typical classroom environment that they resort to hurting themselves.

One of my ex-neighbors, who also grew up in the integration era, told me of a poor young lad with cerebral palsy who fell every single day on the marble flooring of their high school after being "mainstreamed". :( (She grew up in a small marble mining town.)

*Anyway* - back on topic. :)

You're right, money is a tool - nothing more and nothing less.

And it's interesting precisely because how people use it (or don't use it) reflects a bit of who they are. (And sometimes quite a bit.)

For instance, I lost a lot of respect for Thomas Jefferson when I found out that a)he was both one of the wealthiest plantation owners in VA (inherited) and b) spent most of life living beyond his means. He died so in debt that there was absolutely no money to free his slaves. During his life, apparently, there was no luxury he was willing to turn down.

Perhaps as a young man he had stronger ideals. (He authored the Declaration of Independence at age 33). But looking at his lifelong management of money suggests a life of spotty self-discipline and perhaps little regard for others. :(

June 20, 2013 3:34 PM

Retired Empty Nester said:

Great article, lots to think about.

June 21, 2013 8:56 AM

haverwench said:

Frugal_fun, I guess we can all tell which Founding Father is your favorite. :-)

June 21, 2013 4:22 PM

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