elderly couple standing in front of money on a table

Money and the Meaning of Life

Jacob Needleman was a professor of philosophy and the author of a number of books, including Money and the Meaning of Life. He taught that the purpose of money is to serve and support the search for meaning in our lives. Money will not give a person meaning, but there is very little likelihood that we will find meaning in our lives without it. That idea is foundational to financial life planning and financial therapy.

Professionals in both those fields spend a lot of time helping clients drill down on what makes life worth living for them. This goes much deeper than just financial or career goals. It explores heartfelt goals, life aspirations, and purpose. What lights my heart on fire? What makes my life meaningful? This is what our money and our financial planning needs to support.

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, depicted as a five-step pyramid with basic physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. In today’s world, money is integral to meeting all of those needs. Obviously, material needs have to be satisfied before we can have any real search for meaning, which makes that search a privilege to some degree. If I have the resources to search for deep meaning in my life, most likely I am adequately clothed, fed, sheltered, and part of a community. 

We also cannot find meaning in life without money because money touches everything we do. Spending more time with people we love, going on a spiritual retreat, supporting our physical emotional health, giving back to our communities—all of those require money in some way. Money is the bridge between survival and meaning.

Various models of the process or stages of change emphasize the crucial role of consciousness—becoming aware of the need to change and of what we want to achieve or become. Conscious awareness is the start of any personal, professional, or financial transformation. Being fully awake to “what is,” being fully present, is foundational to almost every spiritual tradition. It can result in living life more fully and with more satisfaction. 

Yet consciousness is only one aspect of living life as fully as possible. We also need to take action as a result of our awareness. And taking action requires resources—including financial resources. 

Becoming conscious of the internal parts of ourselves that hold our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs around money is paramount to financial wellbeing. This is the intent of much of the work I do with both financial planning and financial therapy clients: exercises to identify your money scripts, explore the experiences and life history that formed them, and learn your own story about money. Then you can actually begin changing the problematic financial behaviors that can keep so many of us stuck. This opens the door to fulfilling your purpose and finding the meaning in your life—which is the essential purpose of financial life planning and financial therapy.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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