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What is Money For?


A few days ago, I received an email from our friend, Steven Lawson. Steven is the creator of the Monk Manual, a planning tool that empowers us to live out our priorities. It was one of those emails I kept returning to, reopening, and then thinking about throughout the day.


In it, Steven shared the following reflection. I’ll quote him at some length to give you a sense of what grabbed me, and then share some of my own reflections in between his thoughts.


Steven:


Sometimes there is a really big lesson, a really big turning, that fundamentally flips my perspective on things. One of those big moments happened about six years ago as I was speaking with a close friend.


He had been encouraging me to go to therapy for close to a year, as he had experienced it to be a powerful tool for personal growth and relational health in his own life. I had been intrigued since the day he brought it up to me, but honestly, it felt just like a nice to have. It didn’t feel necessary.


But on this particular day, when I was evading some of his questions about my thoughts on it, he pressed in a bit. He asked me directly why I hadn’t reached out to someone despite having said multiple times it sounded like it'd be helpful for me. I told him my concern.


“It just seems expensive.”


He paused for about 25 seconds, and then he asked me a simple question that fundamentally changed so much of how I approach not only money, but even my time…


‘Yea I get that, but what is money for?’”


Steven’s reflection had me hooked. His musings met my own similar stirrings; something shifting in me that I hadn’t yet found the words to name. Semi-consciously, I’ve been circling around this very question as we enter the last third of our life. I suppose it’s a relevant prompt regardless of what decade of life you’re in, but it seems particularly potent as the number of our days are getting shorter.


Maybe it’s also because I struggle with a particularly strong version of scarcity mindset. My stance more often than not is to say “No.” Or “Not now, not yet.” But I’m beginning to realize that all I have been given is intended to be spent and not hoarded. Spent on me? Spent on others? Both, I believe.


This line of thought (but what is money for?) has also led me to ask not only about money but “What is time for? What is my energy for? What is my attention for? What are my possessions for?”


Steven continued:


His question seemed simple on the surface, but when I went to answer it—I realized I didn't have an answer. (...pause and try asking yourself that question now before reading on—it’s not as easy as it seems.)


The question rocked me because it helped me to see that behind all my thoughts about money were assessments of value. I had been budgeting for years before this conversation, but it wasn't until this moment that I realized I was completely ignorant to what drove the direction of where I spent my money.


The thing is, there's actually no such thing as "expensive." This is just a big illusion we almost all believe.


Expensive is always relative. We think something is expensive in comparison to something else. And everyone has different values and beliefs about fulfillment that informs what they think is worth spending money on.

Everyone spends their money differently. When you look around you’ll notice that what people name as “expensive” says as much about them as it does about the item being qualified.


Steven’s insight (“there’s actually no such thing as expensive”) has been surprisingly revelatory for me. As we seek to outfit our new cabin or even just navigate the many life choices we face, whether choosing an item from a menu or hosting an event at Fall Creek Abbey, I’m beginning to see how naming something as expensive (whether related to money, time, energy, etc.) says more about me and what I value, than the actual expenditure under consideration.


In other words, my reaction to something's cost is an opportunity to notice and consider what really matters most to me. Often, it corrects my initial dismissal that says, “it costs too much.”


The word “expensive” brings to my mind the beautiful story of the woman who gatecrashed an exclusive dinner that Simon the leper was hosting for Jesus. (Luke 7:36-50) While they were reclining at the table, we are told that she took an alabaster flask of very valuable ointment and poured it on Jesus’ head. Remember the disciples’ reaction? They were furious! They complained and called it an absolute waste. In fact, they argued, it should have been sold for a large amount of money and given to the poor.


That seems to make good sense, doesn’t it? But notice how Jesus responds? He both affirms their concern for the poor and praises her for this beautiful (and expensive) act. Who knows how she came to even possess the valuable perfume? It’s possible that she bought it for herself at some point, an extravagant purchase because she loved the fragrance and how it made her feel. You see, because of her values, there was “no such thing as expensive!”


Steven continued:


For me therapy was expensive because I wasn’t used to investing my money into personal peace, connection, relational thriving or joy. I was used to buying stuff and buying experiences. That’s what we commonly do in modern culture with our money. But when my friend asked me “What is money for?” I couldn't help but answer, probably not how I'm spending it.


Under the guise of being frugal—I was hiding the fact that I was just being lazy with my intentionality around money.


I’m keenly aware that these questions are most relevant to those of us with privilege. I’m also aware that as a follower of Jesus, I have a responsibility to steward this privilege. Yet I find it far more instructive not to answer with so-called kingdom principles or rules that produce more guilt than heart-felt action. And, instead, to identify how my values are reflected in the way I spend money, time, and resources, so that I can pray and discern with God any need for adjustment.


So, in light of that, I took some time recently to list out my deeper, authentic response to the question, “What is money for?” Here are a few items I came up with. Yours will undoubtedly look different.

  • Health - physical, mental, emotional

  • Connection - family, community

  • Creature needs - food, shelter, clothing

  • Growth - learning, personal transformation

  • Security - reservoir, buffer

  • Creativity - beauty, expressiveness

  • Compassion - something to share with those in need

  • Play - pleasure, fun

  • Stewardship - maintaining, repairing


So now I’m playing a little game. To call it a game doesn’t mean it’s not serious, but it preserves some of the good-natured curiosity of the experiment. I’m noticing how often either I or someone else names something as expensive. I’d say on average I use the term 3-5 times a day. What I’m finding is that when I begin to let go of my anxiety or judgment around the expense, I have increased freedom to spend myself and that which is “mine” on that which really does matter to me.


After all, what is life for?





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