Money Is A Shared Delusion: Why How We Think About Money Matters

Feb 10, 2022 | Mindset & Identity, Money & Life, Productivity

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.

“Time is money.”

It’s a phrase you’ve heard before. And probably a phrase you’ve accepted as truth. And it’s certainly true that there are plenty of ways that time and money relate to each other.

But a few months ago, I started to wonder: Is time really money? And if not, how does that change the way I think about my time and my money?

Today begins a series exploring those questions. I’ll tackle them from different angles and different aspects of entrepreneurship so that we can make more intentional decisions about how we spend our time and our money.

First, a little context.

“Remember, time is money” is a line from Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 essay, “Advice to a Young Tradesman.” He encourages the reader to consider the money they might spend if they take a day off, as well as the money they’d lose for not working. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been running that calculation on repeat since I was sixteen years old! At least in the US, it seems we’re born with this idea already encoded into our brains.

Max Weber cites this aphorism repeatedly in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He sees it as a sort of semiotic turning point—a shift from the godly ethic of vocation to the secular ethic of capitalism. And remember, this phrase dates back to at least 1748. That’s 274 years of cultural indoctrination to this idea.

Now, if all of that sounds like I’m firmly against considering time as money (or money as time), I’m not. But I do think it’s an incredibly complicated truism that’s worth interrogating instead of merely accepting as immutable.

To kick off this deep dive into the question of whether time is actually money, I wanted to talk about money. And what money actually is, how we think about it, why the way we think about money matters. So I called up Paco de Leon, who just released a fantastic new book called, Finance For The People. She’s also the founder of The Hell Yeah Bookkeeping, which serves production companies and creative agencies. Paco knows more than a thing or two about money. But I wanted to start with the basics:


This article is also available as Episode 382 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


What is money?

At its most fundamental level, Paco told me, “Money is a shared delusion.” Money is valuable because we believe it’s valuable, not because it has inherent worth. If you’ve ever heard the term “fiat currency,” this is what it refers to: money that’s based on an agreement rather than an intrinsic value.

About 10 or 11 years ago, I went to a lecture on money & meaning at my alma mater. Yes, I am that kind of nerd. That was the first time I was introduced to this idea—this fact, really. Money becomes valuable because you and I (and millions of other people) believe it is valuable. We believe it strongly enough to use money as a means of exchange and pay taxes and wages. The government incentivizes us to believe that—but ultimately, without the trust of US consumers, the dollar just wouldn’t be as valuable.

Further, this lecturer explained money exists to make exchanging goods—buying and selling—easier. Instead of every trade being a negotiation of how many eggs are worth a pound of wheat, we can assign a monetary value to each product and then independently decide whether we want to trade our money for the eggs or the wheat or a new phone.

We’re seeing this play out in real-time right now with cryptocurrency, my current research obsession. What do people believe bitcoin or ether is worth? And how does that value fluctuate based on the number of people who believe in its value? How is a quote-unquote currency impacted if few sellers accept it as payment from buyers? If you’re curious about how this “money is a shared delusion” thing plays out practically, learn about crypto and all the wild things happening in that market. (Hint: it’s not great.)

Back to the kind of money we have a stable agreement about. It can be hard to integrate the idea that money is a shared delusion because it’s so integral to the way we navigate the world. Our survival, in many ways, depends on how we earn and spend money. Paco was fascinated with that duality; money is both imaginary and key to our contemporary existence. She said, “Once we start to examine what [money] is at its core, we can start to ourselves, ‘If this thing is based on belief, well, how else is the way I interact with it based on beliefs?’”

What we believe about money impacts how we interact with it.

It’s the reason you and I can make drastically different money decisions, and they’re still the right decisions for us. Money isn’t an immutable, universal Truth—but a fluid, relative representation of value, which is always individual. What I value is not what you value. What you value is not what I value. What we each value will be decided by our circumstances, values, personal preferences, and priorities. And even within that relativity, there’s also the question of how value is related to available resources. For instance, I might understand and appreciate the value of investing in a house in Montana right now. It’s where we plan to move in about five years. But saying the market there is volatile would be an extreme understatement. Could I put together a down payment to buy property there? Sure. But I have to weigh the value of that money against the potential risk of buying now versus purchasing a few years from now.

Money isn’t an immutable, universal Truth—but a fluid, relative representation of value, which is always individual.

Paco gave me an even better example. Imagine you’re at a restaurant with a friend, and the Happy Hour special is $1 oysters. If you’re not an oyster fan, know that that price is a steal. You say to your friend, “I love oysters! Let’s get a dozen—that’s such a good price.” But your friend is dubious. “$1 oysters?” they say, “That’s… suspicious.” Maybe they are old. Perhaps the restaurant got them from an unscrupulous purveyor. Maybe they’re just not very good. You and your friend are working with the same financial information on the surface. It’s Happy Hour, and the oysters are $1 each. But you bring your beliefs about money and value to the table, and your friend brings theirs. The result is two drastically different approaches to the potential purchase.

Our values, personal histories, upbringing, geographic location, culture, class… all these things and more influence the way we approach the proverbial $1 oyster. So do the beliefs that we have about ourselves. Paco told me that many of her original stories about money were informed by her belief that she wasn’t good enough. It might be easy to write it off as a “money mindset thing.” Yet, her anxiety about not being good enough was based on real experiences. She told me, “Being queer and a woman of color has not been a nice day at the beach. I’ve heard family members talking about so-and-so being gay. I remember hearing that story and being like: okay, noted, not okay to be gay.” She also picked up the “not good enough” message from thirteen years of Catholic school—a privilege in many ways, but also a daily immersion into a story about being fundamentally flawed.

The worry about not being good enough coalesced into a story that she should take what she’s given and be grateful for it, grateful to be included, to belong. But eventually, she started to shift that story—and decided to go out on her own in order so she could take control of the value of her work on the open market. And… still, she was undercharging for bookkeeping services and consulting. “I was that $1 oyster,” she said. So the work continued. She pursued therapy and other ways of processing her beliefs and experiences to unpack why she was perennially coming up short on decisions about price.

This is what we mean when we talk about understanding your money mindset. It’s not about “charging what you’re worth” or investing in yourself. It’s really a process of unpacking unconscious stories, weighing them against cultural conditioning, and finding ways to resource yourself to shift your thinking. “Thinking bigger” is just a bandaid over a much bigger issue. If you try to cover your money wounds with “charge what you’re worth,” you won’t get very far without bleeding out. This is why so much money mindset advice feels like a panacea. Before we can write a more effective money story, we actually have to root out and process the old one.

Before we can write a more effective money story, we actually have to root out and process the old one.

“The quality of your thinking impacts the decisions you make,” Paco told me. That’s why she cares about really getting to the heart of how we think about money, rather than trying to plaster over it with affirmations and financial advice. When you say something like “charge what you’re worth” to cover over feelings of inadequacy, the inadequacy is going to leak through. Those unexamined feelings influence your decision-making. So you find a way to rationalize a decision prompted by your original, negative money story rather than the one you think you’re telling. Paco says:

“Just feel your damn feelings on the upfront! Recognize that you’re an emotional creature. Sometimes your feelings are going to get in the way. Feel them and manage them and regulate your nervous system.”

The Moral Quality of Money

When we start talking about how our beliefs impact our decisions with money, we inevitably land on assumptions about the moral quality of money. Money and what we do with it seem to signal whether we’re a good or bad person, a good citizen or a bad citizen.

The messages around this can come from the oddest places—or, maybe, the most predictable least helpful places. For instance, in an interview on cable news, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said that low-wage workers had a patriotic duty to get back to work. Prosperity gospel preachers tell you that wealth is a sign of god’s favor. And the vast majority of the political machine in the US has been touting the welfare queen as the ultimate moral villain since Reagan.

These messages aren’t the whole of the moral lessons we learn about money—they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re signposts of a pervasive, inescapable message about money; having money is good and, if you don’t have it, you better work your ass off for more of it so you can be good.

Paco said:

“We are overly focused on our own personal shortcomings, right? You did this wrong. You are bad. You are not disciplined. But what I really think what we need to focus on when we feel these negative feelings of shame and guilt is exploring and understanding where they came from. Who taught you that you should be ashamed of this? Where did you pick that up? Was it a move? Was it a song? Was it your grandparents?”

She said we pick up these expectations from family, friends, and society. When we violate that behavior, we feel bad. The answer? Paco says that financial pros need to help people heal the parts of them that are broken to help the people they serve to heal.

Nowhere is moralizing more prevalent than in discussion about debt. But as Trump and other billionaires have proved repeatedly, debt only seems to be bad when you’re the wrong kind of person with that debt on your balance sheet. So I asked Paco: what’s the deal with debt?

As is her gift, Paco gave me a great analogy. Debt is like fire, she said. Fire has benefits—it lets us cook our food, for instance. But if that fire gets out of control? Well, then there’s a problem. Debt has significant benefits. Without the invention of the 30-year mortgage, many of us would not be able to own real estate. Without a loan or a business credit card, we might not be able to make investments in the growth of our companies. But debt can quickly get out of control. And that’s when it becomes a problem. “We shouldn’t look at things with this tunnel vision of ‘debt is bad,’” Paco said. Black and white thinking rarely (maybe never?) benefits us.

Is time money?

As I mentioned, I’m really interested in exploring the maxim, “time is money.” In what ways is that true? In what ways is it not true? And how might a fundamental, unexamined belief that time is money benefit or harm us and our work? So I asked Paco for her thoughts. She told me that there was a long time where she definitely ascribed to this philosophy. She’d make calculations about what she wanted to buy and whether the price was worth the amount of time it would take to earn that amount. She said it wasn’t a horrible way to think about money—but it’s certainly not the only way to think about the relationship between time and money.

For instance, when she started hiring, she realized that she could create leverage with other people’s time. As a business owner, she could use their work to earn more. She also thinks about how money can buy time, “Time is a non-renewable resource. Money is a renewable resource.” And, of course, she’s very interested in investing in a way that produces more money without more time spent on work.

Paco and I agree that the danger in believing “time is money” is that it often reinforces conditioning around productivity and usefulness. We learn at an early age that the goal is to get as much done in a certain period of time as possible—the more ways we can hack our time to produce more, the more we’re rewarded. We’re also taught to evaluate our worth to society from the perspective of productivity. Taking time off, therefore, risks getting you labeled as lazy. And that brings us back to the core belief Paco (and I) have had to wrestle with: Am I enough? Am I doing enough?

“Am I deserving of the space to just be a human appreciating the sunshine on my face? I want to normalize wanting to chill,” she told me.

“To me, money is freedom and it’s power. It allows me to live a life of dignity.”

As we started to wrap things up, Paco told me that she really wants people to be able to live a life of dignity. Yes, we need to concern ourselves with our own personal finances. But we should also be concerned about the public policies that would allow all people to live dignified lives. She said, “let’s just solve that problem first. And then luxury will follow.”

I’ve been rolling the idea of “dignity” around in my mind since I talked to Paco. Who is denied dignity? What are the mechanisms that enforce that denial? What does a dignified life look like, and how much does it cost?

Paco does such a great job of addressing the things we can control about money. And she also does a great job acknowledging that there is much that’s out of our control. This is certainly true when it comes to dignity, as well. We can do a lot for ourselves to ensure a dignified life. But for many of us, factors out of our control make it incredibly difficult. So, what policy changes could we advocate for so that all people could have access to a dignified life? What community care projects could help more people live with dignity?

We all have room to work on our beliefs about money, and many of us have enough space to start changing the larger conversation, too.


This article is also available as Episode 382 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


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