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The other day I was talking with a video producer about making some videos to put on You Tube and he was saying that it can be hard to get a video photographer to commit very far in advance to a half-day job, because they would always prefer full-day job. I thought sure, you can’t blame anyone for that, just as I don’t want to pay for a full day if the job will only take half a day. As they say, it’s all about the money. Then it occurred to me how inaccurate that common refrain actually is. When people make that assumption, they are forgetting what money really is.

Money is a medium of exchange, pure and simple. The essence of that definition is that people want money not for its own sake but for what they can exchange it for. That is especially true in the modern world, when most money is not even tangible. Most of it consists of nothing but numbers stored in some sort or digital memory. What can you do with those numbers themselves? Nothing, obviously. Yet if you transfer big enough numbers from one account to another, you can trade them for a new car, a house, or a 300-foot yacht. But why would anyone give you something like that in return for some numbers in a computer file? Because she can exchange them with someone else for something she wants, of course. And one and on, from person to person, even though each one wants something different and numbers stored on a computer are not what any of them want. The situation is no different when some tangible form of money is used. If you buy your lunch with a 10-dollar bill, it does not happen because the restaurant owner is a big fan of Alexander Hamilton and plans to frame it and hang it on the wall. She takes it because she can exchange it for something he does want. Of course, people are always pointing out that paper money has no intrinsic value. Some say that only gold and silver coins are real money because those “precious metals” have intrinsic value. It is true that they could be melted down to make jewelry and a few other artifacts, but when they are used as money they too are accepted only because they can be exchanged for something else. Whether money is numbers on a computer or printed paper or metal discs or anything else, what people want is not the money but things money will buy.

Am I making a pointless distinction? Isn’t it still all about the money? Perhaps in one sense, since people are still always trying to get money, even if they just want it to exchange for something else. But when people say it’s all about the money, they usually mean money is all anyone really cares about. That is simply not true. They care about the things they can do with it.

First and foremost they use it for food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their families. Then, in many cases, for education. Then, for things like entertainment and to satisfy their interests in hobbies and avocations. But also to promote things they value, like religion, politics, and the arts. And often they use it to help others, either directly or through organized charities. Money is not all they care about. It is only a means to an end, and sometimes that end is very altruistic.

But what about people who already have more money than they can possibly need for themselves, family, and friends, but still keep wanting to acquire more and more and more? I suppose for some it becomes a true obsession, not a means to any other end. That might describe a classic miser, but I doubt if many people fall into that category. There are other things that huge money can bring, like respect, admiration, and preferential treatment. For some it becomes simply competition, a game in which money is just how you keep score. The goal is winning the game.

So in almost every case, money is not really what it’s all about. It is not what people care about. It is, however, a useful tool for understanding what people really do care about. As the Bible says, where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart also. If we understand that, instead of cynically assuming that people care only about money, we can watch what they do with it to learn what they really care about. What they really value. Sometimes the answer will be discouraging. Sometimes it will be truly inspirational. And most of the time it will probably just be that people do the best they can to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families and get a little enjoyment out of life while they’re at it.

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