The Four Paradigms of Money

In my previous post, Why Is Money So Hard to Talk About?, I discussed why money is such a contentious topic. We have become afraid to talk about it, and rightly so as it has ripped friendships and families apart. It is better to stay cautious.

But why is money so hard to talk about?

Each of us has a different paradigm in which we view money. This paradigm, impacted by past experiences, shapes our personal understanding of money’s ultimate purpose. Until we understand the paradigm in which others, as well as ourselves, view money, we can’t expect our words not to carry venom.

I have consolidated the view of money into four broad paradigms.

4 paradigms

Paradigm #1: Money Indicates One’s Success

This is the paradigm continually portrayed through the media and marketing campaigns. It shifts our value from “who we are” to “what we have”. Material possessions characterize one’s success more than underlying character attributes, as those are not easily apparent.

Why I believe it’s wrong: Most of us can agree that money does not indicate one’s level of success. We would certainly not verbally condone those who are chasing material possessions to substantiate their status within society.


Although most of us can conceptually agree that money is not a scoreboard, I still consider this a primary view of money because our actions speak louder than words. All of us want acceptance from our peers – its human nature.

How do I know this paradigm is alive and well? We finance cars we can’t afford. We go on vacations we can’t afford. We buy fully mortgaged houses and think it’s normal.

We ask people “what they do?” instead of “who they are?”. We look at their house, their car. We immediately label their success based on these aesthetically pleasing or distasteful objects.

Is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company more successful than a monk living amongst the mountains? We are urged to believe the CEO is considering the monetary perks, but in reality we don’t know – only they can tell us.

The Kardashians are not on primetime television because of their contributions to society, rather because of their appearance and their ability to live fabulous lifestyles. I’m not suggesting that we should banish these shows. But I do ask myself: “Do I think this is normal?”

This is the most polarizing view of money. The rich can talk to the rich. The poor can talk to the poor. But they cannot talk beyond those boundaries as they simply do not understand each other. The poor think the rich are greedy, and the rich think the poor are lazy.

Paradigm #2: Money is the Root of All Evil

root of evilThis is probably the most popular view of money – especially within the church. This view suggests that evil and sin are primarily driven by money and wealth. It suggests that that accumulation and spending of money should be minimized, as too much of it overpowers us to act in immoral ways. People holding this view often believe money should not be talked or thought about, because such thought will inevitably lead to greed.

Why I believe it’s wrong: As I journeyed my way through twelve years of Catholic education, I’ve heard the “Money is the root of all evil” verse hundreds of times. After all, who doesn’t love a misquoted bible verse that reinforces one’s erroneous convection that their apathetic behavior is somehow indicative of their holiness?

This view is often believed to be biblically based. Unfortunately for those who believe this, this biblically based view is not based on the Bible – because the Bible does not mention money as the root of all evil.

“For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many grief’s.” (1 Timothy 6:10).

We forget to include the most important part of the verse – for the love of money. Not just money, but the love of it!

I’m not disputing that money can drive people to lie, cheat, steal, and kill. However, it is made clear that money can be your slave (managing money) or it can be your master (loving money). We are not destined to be evil for the sake of money – we have a choice. We can be masters of money, or we can be mastered by money – that’s why the bank lends a symbolic token to its servants called a “MasterCard”.

chainWe are managers of money, not owners. When we begin violating our manager duties for the sake of owning money, we fall prey to the evil’s associated with being enslaved to evil.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)

I’m of the opinion that this paradigm is the primary reason we feel reluctant, scared and ashamed to openly talk about money. There are some who feel as though one is less of a Christian because they have money, work to accumulate money, spend money, and invest money. It’s better to keep private than it is to be perceived as greedy and selfish for considering monetary consequences in their decision making.

Paradigm #3: Money Cannot Be Neutral

This view suggests that money is either good or bad; but it cannot be neutral. It can be our servant or our master – and those are the only two options. It believes the human heart is predisposed to strong feelings regarding money.

fork in the roadIn order for money to be paradoxical, it must put an imaginary fork in the road between slave and master. Thus, it must have an intrinsic force to pull us in one direction. As a result of its intrinsic force, we are left prey to money’s fury without constant intervention to reject its evil.

Why I believe it’s wrong: In my opinion, money does not have an intrinsic force trying to pull us to do good or evil. It’s just there, used universally as a tool to maneuver through civilization.

I don’t like this view as it insinuates money is similar to a drug. Once circulated in the economy, it can be used to cure a disease, or it can be sold on the street for illegal recreational use. These two options have one thing in common: a problem. The drug is either remediating the problem (disease or illness), or it is causing a problem (social ramification of recreational drug use). We cannot control how the drug interacts with our physiology or community without completely eradicating it.

Money does not have this power. Unlike a drug, we have the power and control to influence how money interacts with our emotions.

There is a difference between money and the personification of money, which I do believe can be likened to a drug. But this personification of money comes from a previously mentioned incorrect paradigm – an indicator of one’s level of success.

Paradigm #4: Money is Amoral

This view suggests that money has no intrinsic value, no morals. It’s the opposite of the previous paradigm. It subscribes to the belief that money cannot be good or bad, as it is always neutral.

Why I believe it’s right: This is the paradigm in which I view money. I believe money has no preexisting beliefs or values, but instead reflects the beliefs and values of those who use it. Money is good when WE are good managers of it. Money is bad when WE are bad managers.

magnifyThis belief of amorality renounces any notion that money can change us. In today’s reality TV culture, we love a good story about the complete meltdown of the ultra-rich. But Celebrity Rehab and the like mistakenly imply these destructible habits were caused by the abundance of money. In reality (not to be confused with reality television), these habits were created by the individual, APLIFIED by the money.

Money just makes us more of who we already are. Are you a rich jerk that becomes poor? You will be a jerk that just became poor. Are you a poor person that is unhappy, but suddenly got rich? You will suddenly be a rich person that is unhappy.

This is precisely the reason why people wouldn’t buy lottery tickets if they really knew what it meant if they won. Money doesn’t ever change anything; it just amplifies the good or bad that is already present. Buying lottery tickets to escape from something bad? I hope you don’t win.

I like this paradigm of money as it puts ownership on us, not money itself. Our behavior with money ultimately determines the level of impact on our life. We’re not destined towards one side of the spectrum over the other. Our habits, which are within our control, place us on that spectrum. We can use it to enhance our lives and the lives of others, or we can use it to destroy our lives.

The other paradigms guide us towards extreme ends of a single spectrum. The Success paradigm says we can’t be satisfied without money. The Root of All Evil paradigm says we can’t be satisfied with money. Both of these paradigms focus on the wrong thing – money.

hammer and nailMoney is not THE objective, but rather a tool used to meet one’s objective. In what other areas of life are we so confused about tools? Would a carpenter be worried if he had too many hammers? Would he feel more accomplished if he built a house with the least amount of nails?

This paradigm supports my belief there is nothing wrong in accumulating money. In fact, to be socially responsible one should strive to accumulate money! And lots of it! Have you ever met a broke philanthropic?

The issue is not the tool but what we do with the tool. Every dollar earned, saved, spent, invested, etc. is one more nail closer to our goals and desires. The question becomes “Are our desires pure?” That’s the only question left.

If we believe money is amoral, we are much more likely to soften the boundaries between rich and poor, because rich and poor do not matter. Wealth is what matters. And wealth is not dependent on money, but rather behavior with money.

Opening the Money Dialogue

Until we first seek understanding on how other’s view money (and how we personally view money), we can’t expect to have successful dialogue. We can only expect it to stay contentious and emotionally charged.

People view money, not as it is, but as they are. My “objective” view regarding money is different than another’s “objective” view of money who subscribes to a different paradigm. We need the emotional tools to value the differences, understand, and then be understood.

It’s possible that two people can disagree, and both be right.

See which paradigm you view money through. Then see how each of the other paradigms are manifested within people you know.

Question: Which paradigm do you view money through? Leave your answer in the comments section below!

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  1. I know money might be evil, but some of the most fun things in life are a bit evil… And you need money to buy or spend on them.

    Money cannot buy happiness, but having money doesn’t make you less happy.

    …Now if I could just get some money of my own.

  2. I really agree that money is amoral but reveals where our values lie. I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). A lot of times this verse is applied to mean “put your money where your mouth is” by giving to church, charity, or other causes to show you care about them. There is a place for that, but where our money is right now really reveals where our heart is right now, rather than where we’d like it to be. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.
    Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor recently posted…Review: Simple Living in Light of Eternity SeminarMy Profile

  3. Great post! I philosophically agree that money is Amoral, but I tend to act much more like money is an intrinsically good thing.

    “Have you ever met a broke philanthropic?” You’re Catholic, so surely you can think of individuals who have made vows of poverty who also built huge service organizations that were run with not impoverished budgets (Mother Theresa comes to mind). George Mueller and John Wesley also come to mind though there vows of poverty were informal.

    • Of course! In fact, my brother took the vow of poverty for 6 years (subsequently did not make his final vows and is now married). So I understand exactly where you’re coming from.

      There are many ways to make great contributions and using money is just one of them. The point I was trying to make was that accumulating money is not evil. It’s a noble pursuit if you want it to be!

      Good thoughts!

  4. I like how you described these paradigms. I tend to lean towards money as a measure of success and money is amoral.

    This was an excellent statement:
    “The issue is not the tool but what we do with the tool. Every dollar earned, saved, spent, invested, etc. is one more nail closer to our goals and desires. The question becomes “Are our desires pure?” That’s the only question left.”

    That really rings true with me. Just like your description about drugs, money has the ability to amplify our personalities. I guess if we recognize that, then we can choose how we live our lives, and how we treat others once we become financially independent!
    Bryan@Just One More Year recently posted…Ask “Why” 5 TimesMy Profile

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I found it was much easier to understand how and why people handle their money the way they do – sometimes we just see things through a different lens.

      Thanks, Bryan!

  5. I totally agree, money is just a tool. It’s like science. It isn’t intrinsically good or evil but can become a weapon of good or evil in the different hands.
    I really like this, I’ve ran across people who definitely view money as evil. They are religious and really view saving any money as evil, kind of perplexing.
    Money is often used to gauge one’s success, I like to use one’s personality and life as a gauge of their success. I don’t care if they have millions of dollars, if they’re bitter jerks they haven’t been successful at life in my eyes. I think you could have no money but with the right attitude and view on life, I would consider them successful. They get what life is really about about.
    I like to hide any financial success I may have, I don’t like it to skew people’s opinion of me. Let my personality and life I lead speak for itself.
    Kyle recently posted…True Cost of Owning A Home-Part 4My Profile

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