Perceptions of Currency Make the World Go ‘Round

I had a conversation involving money this weekend with a member of another generation.

It made me think of the ways that currency and value can be perceived differently, and can present differently, in various generations and cultures.

We currently don’t use shell money or beads as currency. We don’t wear neck rings as a sign of wealth. In fact, we don’t wear our wealth at all, in the way that cultures used to string their money around their bodies as both adornment and a mobile bank.

(We now expect to wear lots of expensive status symbols AND leave the majority of our wealth behind a vault, something which is highly unrealistic.)

I checked in with a few friends about this, and my (very unscientific) sampling agrees that my generation (the Millennials) doesn’t perceive value in physical currency as much as we do in digital numbers.

It’s like this: old information about keeping to a budget would hype the “pay in cash” method: if you have the cash, you can buy. Once it runs out, you’ve got to stop. Simple, right? It runs on the present availability of physical currency and the idea that a tangible trade (dollar bills for goods or services) is more psychically painful than swiping plastic.

But what my friends and I agreed on is that, to us, physical money is a freebie. It’s untraceable and it leaves very little record, especially if you lose your receipt. Dollar bills are the ghosts in our field, flitting through and leaving no footprint behind.

Using a card, however, is permanent. To us, that card is directly connected with our mental image of our bank or credit accounts. We see those charges in columns, we know how much we’ve spent each day, and we know that our available balance is going down. Unlike physical currency, those black-and-white numbers are a reminder of what we spent, when we spent it, and how much we have left.

If a conceptual shift like this can take place between just a few generations, what might a financial exchange look like five hundred years into the future? Or on another planet? Or with another, perhaps alien, culture?

What is your perception of currency in the world and culture you live in?


2 thoughts on “Perceptions of Currency Make the World Go ‘Round

  1. Interesting. I wonder, though, if the technological/digital perception of money is true for all socio-economic classes today. There are people who function on a cash economy (day laborers, etc.). This is interesting too, since it brings up the ways that different groups within a society may look at money during the same era.

  2. I think you’re totally right about different perceptions according to socioeconomic groups (and obviously second- and third-world countries have their own perceptions). More good stuff to ponder when writing about a society!

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