Let’s face it: spending money feels good. It goes against our better judgment. After all, shouldn’t we hang on to as much cash as possible? Don’t we want to avoid running up those bills? Sure. But there’s something about money leaving our hands—whether as hard currency, credit card swipes, or electronic funds transfers—that is deeply satisfying. There is something about money that makes us want—even need—to get rid of it.
Theorists have discussed the joy of spending in different ways. We’ve heard talk of “retail therapy” and know about the pleasures of shopping. Buying things feels good because it may provide a sense of security or scratch some deep evolutionary itch to acquire food and shelter. Consumption might also feed our quest for status and recognition, marking us as more successful than our neighbors. Buying things for others or giving money as a gift or donation might even make us feel superior or powerful.
While these perspectives are important, I want to approach this from the point of view of money itself. At a more fundamental level than the things we buy, the reasons we buy them, or whom we buy them for, money drives us to spend and gives relief when we get rid of it.
Two factors--the nature of money and the system in which money functions--make it necessary that we pass it on.
We know that money itself is valueless. The bills and coins we carry are not things of worth. Yet, it is still common to talk of money as a symbol or token of value.
But this is not quite right.
Money is actually a sign that something’s lacking. Put differently, it signals a debt. It shows that the holder is owed something. He or she has given something away and is waiting to even things out.
Say you’ve performed a service for someone or sold a product. You’ve provided something of value—your labor or the good that you’ve produced. Instead of getting a value in return, you’re given money—intrinsically valueless tokens. You’re currently “in the red,” even though you’ve gotten paid! The more products you sell or the more labor time you expend just gains you more of these empty tokens, putting you further into a deficit. (Today is Labor Day, after all, so we should reflect on money as the supposed fruit of our toil.)
It’s not until you use this money for something, paying for a product or service, that you access its value. And you aren’t really accessing its value, since it has none. You’re making up for the condition of lack you were in. You’re evening things out. Having someone take your money in exchange for his or her good or service relieves you of this token. It also rescues you from the possibility that you’ll be stuck with a valueless token.
Carrying around money proclaims that you’re owed something. But it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it. There is relief in spending money because someone else has bought into the same belief that you bought into when you accepted money in the first place. There is relief because you’ve evened out the imbalance you entered into.
But there’s more.
The bottom line that allows us to accept this token and convinces the next person to take it from us is the state. Think of the state as first in this line of tokens-for-goods-or-services system. In exchange for services performed for it, the state prints and issues money rather than providing payment with something of value. So the state essentially remains in debt, never actually paying for what it gains. Instead, it forces those who receive its tokens to turn to others in society to get something of value. Money is a symbol of the state’s debt.
So why accept the state’s tokens in the first place? After all, saying something is money is not enough. There need to be teeth to the system to make it work.
The state requires tax payments and declares that it will accept them in the form of its currency. This makes it necessary to have money in order to pay the state when it comes knocking. Money is more than a shared belief. It’s an enforced belief.
In spending money, you’re not only crawling out of the deficit you entered into when you accepted it for your goods or services. You’re relieving yourself of a symbol of the state’s debt that you’re shouldering and its claim upon you to recall that symbol through taxes.
So the next time you feel strangely good when you make a purchase, it might be because you have a shopping addiction. I’m not one to diagnose. Consumption feels good, after all. But it might also be that you’re getting rid of a burden and feel yourself slightly lighter.