What Is Money, Really? – 15 Money Truisms

My late friend Dick Wagner was a great philosopher of money. He was fascinated with the way individuals and society thought, felt, interacted with, and related to money. He developed a list of Money Truisms to answer the question, “What do we know of money?”

Let’s look at 15 of them.

1. Money is the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet. Money touches everything we do individually, and it shapes the policies of societies. 

2. Money skills are 21st century survival skills. We cannot function successfully without them.

3. Money skills don’t come naturally to human beings; they have to be learned. Unfortunately, most societies are not good at teaching money skills, so each of us is responsible for learning them ourselves. 

4. Money is a 21st century taboo. We talk about money in a general sense all the time. But talking about your money in a real way—how much you earn, how much you owe, how much you have, how you feel and what you believe about it—is a societal taboo. To understand the truth of this, just imagine asking everyone at a social gathering to disclose their net worth.

5. Money is a social agreement. It is what you and I agree that it is, what two people or a community or a political state establish it to be. Then that money functions as a medium of exchange and a store of value.

6. Money is neither good or bad, it just is. Money can be used for good or evil. It can be a tool used to control, to wound, to traumatize, to create deep vulnerabilities. It can also be a tool used to help, to heal, to lift someone up. But money itself is neutral. It is a blank canvas that can be whatever we want to make it.

7. Money requires fundamental integrity supported by laws and government. Money does not function well in a society that is corrupt. It requires honesty, virtue, and an environment of trust. For example, if I fill my car with 10 gallons of gas, I need to be able to trust that I am getting 10 accurately measured gallons of the kind of gas I am paying for. Individuals can be corrupt in their use of money, but eventually the system will break down if it is overcome by corruption.

8. Money requires healthy notions of wealth. Accumulated money alone does not equal wealth. The definition of true wealth is much more expansive and individual, including emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing. 

9. Money is an ultimate form of sharing. It is essentially worthless if it is stored. Money requires a context of reciprocity and exchange. Until it is spent or given, it really does nothing. I am not saying that means we should not save money, just that money saved for future needs like retirement is meant to eventually be used in support of our or others’ needs or wellbeing. 

10. Nothing is more intimate than money, including sexual intimacy. In counseling, people are more likely to discuss their sexuality than the intimate details of their finances and their relationship with money. The way we use money reflects our authentic values with clarity and accuracy. T

11. Money cannot give us security. It’s not the nature of money to ever provide reliable security for individuals or social units. Security is an inside job, that state of calm, confidence, courage, clarity, and creativity that comes from within. Reaching that sense of security and emotional wellbeing can certainly be supported by money.

12. Money doesn’t bring happiness, although the absence of it can bring a lot of unhappiness. Money spent properly can bring happiness into our lives, beginning with meeting our basic needs in the form of food, shelter, and clothing.

13. Money can’t give us meaning, but it’s necessary in our quest for meaning. This is not from Dick Wagner’s list, but one I adapted from Jacob Needleman’s book Money and the Meaning of Life. A certain amount of money is essential to support us in going beyond necessities and creating meaning in our lives. 

14. Money contains elemental paradoxes. It can induce selfishness or enable generosity, can support or constrain a sense of one’s worth or importance. It can express one’s best and one’s worst qualities.

15. Everybody is weird about money. Individuals often use money in ways that seem illogical or nonsensical and may even be hurtful to them. All of us are sometimes illogical or incongruent in the way we spend money. This supports one of the main tenets of this podcast, that every financial behavior makes perfect sense when we understand the underlying belief or money script. 

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

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