What does money mean to you?
This sounds like a simple question, on the surface.
But I’ve spent at least the last decade passively observing how different people think about money. And in the last few years, I’ve paid attention a lot more actively. Especially as I’ve worked to build my own business, raise my family, and share what I’ve learned about business and investing.
What I’ve discovered is that money has a lot of different meanings. And how you think of it tends to impact your ability to get it and to keep it.
If you want to accumulate a lot of money in life, you probably want to think beyond getting and keep it, and really think about how you think about it.
What follows are a bunch of reflections on the many meanings of money…
“Money is the root of all evil.”
Most people in Western society are familiar with this statement. Many think it’s a Bible quote. And it is — except, it’s not.
The accurate Bible quote, from First Timothy, 6:10 (let’s go KJV), is, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
In the original Greek, the word used for “love of money” is philargyria — the most accurate word for this in today’s English is probably avarice, which is defined as “insatiable greed for riches; inordinate, miserly desire to gain and hoard wealth.”
So it’s not so much that money is the root of all evil — but rather, an attachment to hoarding money that is.
And yet this belief pervades our culture. Many people think that money is evil. And this is reflected in pop culture almost always portraying successful business people as somehow evil. Or, villains as automatically greedy.
It’s ingrained in our conscience from a very young age that if we pursue wealth, we are being evil.
However, I argue that this is mistaken. Rather, if you attach your happiness to the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, you will invariably be miserable. Because no amount of wealth will ever be enough.
And along the way, you are likely to do some rather nasty things to others, simply because you’ve prioritized wealth over everything else.
There are some horrible people who are also wealthy. Perhaps being horrible to others, in fact, helped in their pursuit of wealth. However, the money itself is more like a magnifying glass — it makes our good and bad traits bigger.
So, what are other more helpful definitions of money?
Money is a way to get things…
My kids learned early on that there was something special about money.
It’s unavoidable in a culture where we are constantly exchanging money for goods.
They see us paying for anything from food to clothes to anything else, and they realize that money gets you things. If you have money, you can give it to stores that have things, and take some of those things home with you.
This is actually a very neutral definition of money — it carries no moral weight or imperative. And it’s accurate.
However, outside of describing reality, it’s not very useful, so we will keep going…
Money is what you get for hard work…
“Hard-earned money.” Now that’s a statement that carries a lot of weight. More than most people realize.
If you use it in your marketing, you’re essentially telling your prospects that they’re going to have to work hard to replace any money they’re giving you for your product. You’re setting the bar higher for the amount of benefit your product must provide for it to make sense.
If you tell yourself that money is hard-earned, you’re setting yourself up to have to work especially hard to get it. You’ll choose occupations and jobs where the amount of work you put in and the money you get out have a very direct relationship.
You can certainly make a lot of money in life with this approach — save a lot of it, and you can end up as a “Millionaire Next Door.”
But hard-earned money is often slow money, and difficult money.
Most people who make a lot of money fast don’t like to think of it as hard-earned.
Money is scarce…
If you grew up without two nickels to rub together, you probably hold this belief, at least on some level. Most people who were alive and financially responsible during the Great Depression had this mentality about money. I believe a lot of young adults today who are living through the aftermath of 2008’s Great Recession are also having this implanted on a deep level.
If you believe money is scarce, you have a different kind of attachment to money. And I don’t think it’s very healthy.
You’re unable to ask others for it, because it makes you feel guilty. You’re unable to spend it, because it makes you feel poor.
You will get ahead because you keep more money, but you will severely limit your ability to make more money.
Money is abundant…
The flip side of the scarcity coin is abundance.
Take a look at the Forbes 400 list. Or simply go to any high-end mall, probably within a few miles of your house (assuming you live in or near a major urban area). Spend some time in New York’s financial district. Go watch how much money is being spent in Las Vegas, or at Disney World.
Or, look up the price of a new car, or houses in the top 20% of the market in your area.
Consider the total amount of money that will change hands in the U.S. economy this year: $16.77 trillion dollars. Consider that Bill Gates’s $81 billion wealth is not even 1/2 of 1% of that.
There’s a ton of money flowing out there. More than you could ever make a dent in, in your entire life.
The only questions then become, where is it flowing, and how can you get some of it?
Money is what you get for value creation…
Here we get into how entrepreneurs tend to think about money.
Most entrepreneurs are driven by value creation and contribution. They want to create a better solution in the marketplace for a problem they’ve identified.
And when their solution matches market demand, it has “value.”
Now, there are all kinds of things the market demands. It might demand entertainment, or the alleviation of a problem, or the attainment of some goal. It might demand ROI, or it might demand an emotionally-stirring experience.
No matter what the market demands, if a product or service meets that demand, it can get a price tag.
And that price tag is best set based on the price the market is willing to pay to get that solution.
If enough people are willing to pay that price for that solution, both the market and the entrepreneur are satisfied.
(I could also apply this all over the place — from the job market, to church and nonprofit donations, to any voluntary exchange of goods or services for cash.)
The money generated from this is a measurement. How much value was created for how many buyers? Add it up, and that’s what that money means.
But you can go even further…
Money is a way of keeping score…
There was a recent documentary on Warren Buffett where he made a comment to this effect.
Buffett is a miser. He decides what McDonald’s breakfast he’s going to have in the morning based on whether the stock market is up or down. He goes cheap on the market’s down days, and he splurges when the market opens hot. We’re talking a swing of less than $1 here on a meal costing less than $5, for a billionaire.
He also famously buys upper-middle-class cars, and lives in an upper-middle-class house.
He has certain business expenses that are far more than most in the upper middle class, but his personal lifestyle is very modest relative to his income.
For him, making money ceased being about its impact on his lifestyle a very long time ago. He’s agreed to give away pretty much all his money, because he couldn’t spend it all if he tried.
But he still gets up every day, excited to go make more money with his investments.
For Buffett, money is a measurement of his mastery at making money through investing. It’s a way he keeps score.
He could have retired long ago, but he loves what he does too much. It’s a game. And the money he makes is how he measures his performance in the game.
Most great entrepreneurs who I’ve heard talk about money have reached this point — and for many, it happened as soon as they had enough to fund a very modest retirement.
(Frankly, while I’m not quite there yet, I already think of money more in this way than in any other way — I’m just trying to rack up a personal high score, with the benefit of financial security being a nice byproduct.)
The great thing is that when you’re not too attached to the money itself, but rather use it as a measurement of your mastery, you’re happier and money seems to flow more easily.
This is the state of money Nirvana, I believe. You see money not as something important in and of itself, and so you’re not too caught up in greed or avarice. But you recognize it reflects the amount of value you’re creating in the world, and is a great way of keeping track of how well you’re doing that.
But there’s still one more definition that we’ve only hinted at…
Money is a tool to be used to help others…
I started this article with Christian references, I’ll end it with with an idea from Buddhism.
In Buddhism, the Buddha was a historical figure, but Buddha also a title given to someone who has achieved personal enlightenment.
Once you become a Buddha, so the teaching goes, you have two paths you can take.
One path is to simply rest in enlightened awareness, as a hermit monk, enjoying your personal bliss. The other path is the path of the Bodhisattva, to bring that enlightened awareness back into the world, sharing it for the benefit of all others.
The historical Buddha as well as many others after him followed the second path — the path of the Bodhisattva.
You can take the same approach with money.
I can’t find the exact quote, but Steve Jobs is rumored to have said that the best way to change the world is to start a company. That’s hard to argue.
If there’s a big change you want to see in the world, you need resources, and people behind you. A company gives you both. And if the market agrees with the change you want to see, and is willing to pay for it (value), you will make the change faster that way than through any other means.
Once you’re up and running, you’re able to reinvest in the company, to continue to have a bigger impact. Plus, any money that comes out of the business can be used for philanthropy and in support of any personal causes that don’t have the same market demand.
And along the way, if your motivator for accumulating wealth is fueled, at least in part, by doing good in addition to doing well, you’ll have an extra motivation, and some would say you’ll attract even more money.
Whether the “attraction” bit is true or not, seeing money as a tool to be used to help others does seem to increase your ability to get it and grow it — more so than simply wanting to hoard it all for yourself.
The big picture…
How you think about money is as important as how you plan to get it, and how you plan to keep it.
Choosing the right definitions and framing for the concept of money could be a big breakthrough.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,