The Secret Life of Money: Enduring Tales of Debt, Wealth, Happiness, Greed, and Charity

The following article is adapted from The Secret Life of Money: Enduring Tales of Debt, Wealth, Happiness, Greed, and Charity by Tad Crawford (Allworth Press).

The Power of Money as A Symbol

“If only I had more money, I would … ” 

We can find an infinite variety of ways to complete that sentence. Take a trip.  Buy clothing. Have a nicer home.  Help the poor.  Continue our education.  The list flows on and on, as endless as the needs and dreams of human beings.

When we fantasize about what more money would bring us, we rarely distance ourselves so that we can see the fantasy as distinct from the money that would be needed to realize the fantasy.  But which is more important: the money or the fantasy?  The fantasy is within us, the money outside us.  Because of this, the fantasy tells us what we desire.  The money is neutral, silent as to who we are or what we desire.

An examination of money fantasies reveals our minds to us, the inmost workings of ourselves.  For example, a man of thirty-five yearns to leave his work and go to live on a tropical island.  If only he had the money, he would go.  If he forgets about the absence of money and welcomes the opportunity to explore his own thoughts, he may discover any number of truths: He fears the duties that he will have to perform if he is promoted; he is worried about his marriage but feels unable to confront his spouse; or even the banal possibility that he needs a vacation.

If the man stalls this self-examination by saying that he doesn’t have enough money, he loses the opportunity to see into himself.  He goes through his days dreaming of another life, an unlived life filled with equatorial passions and spent on the sandy shores of exotic islands.  He does not recognize that this other life, this island life, is illusory, a flight from his reality.  He sees money as an adversary and chooses to live with his feelings of deprivation.  However, his deprivation is not of money, but of self exploration.

We seldom think of the power that we mentally give to money.  We are aware that we feel limited by the absence of money, or that we feel strengthened by possessing it.  Yet money is truly powerless until we vivify it through the power of our minds.  Money itself has never built a building, manufactured a product, performed an operation to save a life, or given sound investment advice. Money has taken innumerable, often surprising. If we believe in money, it doesn’t matter whether the money is cryptocurrency, minted coins, printed paper, giant wheels of stone, grain, tobacco, the teeth of dogs and porpoises, or the feathers of exotic birds. Especially in today’s world, money is valueless paper, valueless except for the consensual value that we give it.  

The key point is that money must have power over us inwardly in order to have power in the world.  We must believe in its value before we will change our conduct based on whether we will receive it.  In the broadest sense, money becomes a vehicle of relationship.  It enables us to make choices and cooperate with one another; it signals what we will do with our energy.      

It is this flow of our energy into the world that demands exchange, whether of conversation, love, bartered goods, or money.  In fact, another definition of money is simply that it is energy, the potential for action.      

The life of money comes mainly from its hidden nature.  Money is not only about the financial transactions of individuals, corporations, or even nations.  It is also about the deeper questions of how life energy will be spent, how people live in relation to one another, and how culture and community survive and grow.  Our daily striving for our salt obscures the deeper meanings of money and the way in which, whether we realize it or not, money confronts us with the meaning of our existence and our actions.

Because money is about relationship and exchange, which are fundamental issues of the human condition, it is archetypal.  An archetype is a pattern inherited from ancient human experiences and present in each of us.  Often, we are not aware of these patterns, but they exist in us nonetheless.  So, these patterns are unconscious, living in the part of us that is separate from our everyday awareness and identity.  Yet we are influenced by these patterns.  And we may have a desire to understand the archetypes so that we can better understand ourselves. 


Tad Crawford is the author of the novel A Floating Life as well as The Secret Life of Money and a dozen other nonfiction books, chiefly on the business lives of artists and writers. His stories and articles have appeared in such venues as Art in America, The Café Irreal, Confrontation, Communication Arts, Family Circle, Glamour, Guernica, The Nation, and Writer’s Digest.