What does Money mean for me?
The founder of the MoneyMuseum talks about his personal view ...
This question already interested me as a teenager, but I couldn’t really talk about it at home. I grew up in a family where the topic of money was politely ignored, although with the full awareness that we did after all own a prospering business. We had money, but we simply didn’t talk about it. My schoolmates often identified me with the business and with money rather than regarding me as an individual.
So, not surprisingly, I absorbed this image into my own evolving self-awareness and identified myself with my family’s money. And I suffered. But, like many people, I observed early in life that money didn’t seem to correlate much to happiness. And I saw that bitter family feuds often erupted over the issue of money. Why, I wondered, did the source of our comfortable existence ignite such conflicts? I really did experience money as a kind of spark that could set off frightful explosions.
My questioning of money’s role in life led me to the works of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher of happiness. And he had a lot to say to a young person on the subject of money. One thing was clear early: while money didn’t guarantee happiness, neither did its absence. Yes, it was possible to be poor and happy but only with reduced expectations of comfort and the other advantages that money can deliver.
At university, my dissertation was on The Challenges of Economic Aspiration in Modern Society. I did not resolve this issue in my paper. But the process of writing did give me ample time to deeply consider it. Thus I already had begun to form a vision of a life that would seek to balance both sides of the divide - to achieve wealth and happiness. And with this target in mind, I began my working life, taking a job in banking.
And later, when I’d become an independent financial adviser, I often asked my clients to tell me what money meant to them. “What is money?” I would ask them. My clients were mostly entrepreneurs and their answers led to many very interesting discussions. Every story of how they came to their wealth was different. I listened closely and I learned a great deal, until the basics of “The Secret of Money” gradually emerged. This mystery is like some others in life: its solution must come from experience, not just from words. But there is one money secret that I can share. It comes from a modern Greek thinker on this subject, Aristotle Onassis: “Don’t chase after money; let it come to you.”
I call it serendipity. It’s the art of being in the right place at the right time. And this particular money secret led to the foundation of the MoneyMuseum. The question What is money? is at the core of the MoneyMuseum’s activities. After Money Secrets, I created an online test, What money type am I? that was a favorite of many visitors for years, even if it asked questions that are rarely posed in everyday life. The MoneyMuseum allowed me to explore many aspects of the meaning of money, including its history, from Croesus, the inventor of what we call money, through the highpoint of Rome and on to the many forms of China’s currencies over the centuries, all the way to today’s digital money. As a topic, money is virtually inexhaustible. My explorations yielded dozens of exhibitions, publications, films, audio plays and lecture series. There is always something new to discover.
What have I learned from all this?
- 1. There are many ways to answer the question What is money. That’s evident simply from looking at the history of money. The historical panorama of money in the museum’s collection, even ignoring the great events they reflect, say much about the role of money in society.
- 2. Even a casual observer can see that something fundamental changes in Europe around 1500. Not just the size of the coins but the actual genesis and the modern role of money as the embodiment of wealth changed then. And today money has become even more abstract, nonphysical and "unreal:" money has become merely an electronic impulse.
- 3. What else have I learned? I’ve learned something that I think is very important: to distinguish sharply, in thought and in speech, between the terms money, assets and wealth. If we don’t maintain these distinctions strictly we are in danger of seriously confusing important issues. They are three very different things and each needs to be considered in its specific context. Blur the lines and you’re soon in trouble, soon comparing apples to oranges, as they say.
- 4. We pay our bills with money. Assets, on the other hand, should generate income and when the time comes, provide us with financial security when we’re old and no longer earning. And wealth, I have learned, is a far broader value category, comprising not just material possessions but also knowledge, experience and spirit, our accumulated life’s capital, so to say.
- 5. Above all, I’ve learned there are many situations where money is simply the wrong measure of value. For example, I collect antiquarian books, from the Renaissance and later. The older books are works of great craftsmanship. Sometimes they are even true works of art. To hold such an object in your hands is to sense the time it took to make it and the centuries that have passed since. Sometimes a visitor to the MoneyMuseum will ask me how much a given book is worth. I always reply that for me it is worthless. By that I don’t deny that when I bought the book it had a price. Which I paid. With money. But when it became mine, in that instant it lost all material worth. At the same time, it glows for me with its historical, intellectual and emotional value. Worthless and precious, both at the same time. That is just another mystery of money.