What Does Money Mean to You?

Barclay’s Wealth, the London-based investment management firm, released a survey earlier this week of 2,000 affluent investors from 20 countries. Barclay’s polled them on their outlook for the economy, but also their definition of wealth. What does money mean to them? You might be surprised by the answers.

Robert Frank, the wealth columnist for The Wall Street Journal, summed up the results in several categories. A few highlights:

Money = Respect: Nearly half of Asians and Latin Americans said wealth "allows me to get respect from friends and family." That compares to just 38 percent of Americans and 28 percent of Europeans.

Money = Charity: About three-quarters of respondents in the U.S. and Latin America said wealth enabled them to give to charity. That compares with 57 percent in Europe and 66 percent in Asia.

Money = Happiness: Some 76 percent of Asians and Latin Americans saying wealth made them happy, compared to about two-thirds of Europeans and Americans.

Money = Role Model: Some 71 percent of Latin Americans and 61 percent of Asians say the wealthy "set an important example to others to be successful." That compares with less than half of Americans and Europeans.

The survey reminded me that people tend to place a great deal of symbolic meaning on money. We think that if we just get enough money, we'll also be blessed with security, power, freedom, or love. The truth is, money can give us a measure of freedom and security and power – but money itself is none of those things. If we think money is security, we will never accumulate enough to feel totally secure. If we believe money is freedom, we’ll never have enough to feel truly free. And if we think money is power, we will always need more money to feel powerful.

We have to remove the emotion – all that baggage — and look at money for what it is. It’s a tool. It’s a tool that helps us make magic in our lives. If security is a value, then we have to ask questions like: What does my life look like when I feel most secure? Maybe it’s having enough income to pay the bills in retirement; or living in a home where the mortgage is paid off; or being surrounded by family and friends. Then it’s important to ask questions like: What are my real costs in retirement? How much do I need to pay for the things I’ll value most in that time of my life? How much should I save in 30 years, 10 years, six months and next week to get there? How can I invest time and energy in a way that will foster friendship and build lasting bonds?

If freedom is a value, then ask yourself, which people, experiences, environments and activities make me feel most free? How much money do I need to help me create a life filled with those attributes? Can I use other resources besides money, such as creativity? Maybe I feel most free when I live by the beach. Do I need to own the beach house, or can I housesit for someone and achieve the same feeling?

When we paint a very detailed picture of the qualities we value most, it helps us aim at the right goals. Money might be useful in the process, but it’s never the whole picture.

What does money mean to you?

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