As we’ve discussed on this web log previously, our relationships with money can mirror parts of our relationships with food. In both, "consumption" is often what we focus on most. Yet with effort, both food and finances can bring us closer to each other and the world around us. But it can be difficult to think about money as more than just our primary tool as consumers.

How did our individual relationships with money get so complicated?

The reasons are many, but a few key factors might include:

  • We all inherit financial habits from the people who cared for us as children; presuming those caretakers were imperfect humans (like me and everyone I know), at least some of those habits can prove unhelpful in adulthood
  • Finances involve complex technical concepts, involving mathematics, politics, and lots of history (among others)
  • Even with flawless financial knowledge and habits, factors such as race, gender, physical and cognitive ability (and many more dimensions of human difference) change how we access and use money.

Yet, when finances come up in everyday conversation, we often miss a more fundamental reality: charting a path towards financial wellness (at least in the US) is a Herculean challenge - it means working against entrenched systemic headwinds.

German philosopher Georg Simmel said:

“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.” [1]

Money is one of those “overwhelming social forces” that Simmel mentions - and it’s a common thread that runs through every part of our daily lives. It can determine the quality of education your children receive, the type of medical care you have access to, and your level of influence in democratic processes.

That ubiquity creates potentially-fraught dynamics that are easy to miss, unless you’re looking for them. Take the relationship between financial quantification and individuality. Simmel writes in “The Philosophy of Money”:

“The exchangeability that is expressed in money must inevitably have repercussions upon the quality of commodities themselves, or must interact with it. The disparagement of the interest in the individuality of a commodity leads to a disparagement of individuality itself...The levelling of objects to that of money reduces the subjective interest first in their specific qualities and then, as a further consequence, in the objects themselves.” [2]

In other words, applying prices to everything devalues characteristics we might otherwise appreciate. When we look at the salaries of professional athletes, the prices of works of art at auction, or how much different couches cost, it chips away at the individuality of each of those people or things. By pricing them, we flatten them into numbers - and lose (some) of our ability to appreciate them in their fullness.

These types of assumptions are so fundamental to our modern ways of seeing the world that it can be hard to conceptualize an alternative reality. What would it be like if money wasn’t a part of how you experienced your co-workers, or your neighbors, or your extended family?

In a society as intertwined with money as ours, industry has evolved to exploit these various dynamics.

Take the post-World War II period: Aggressive social programs instituted by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson led to an unprecedented period of economic expansion - with much of the benefit conferred to a rapidly growing middle class. Between 1933 and 1950, disposable personal income per capita in the US had nearly doubled - and by 1971, nearly two-thirds of all American adults were considered “middle class”. [3,4] As more and more families could provide for their basic needs, their demand for new, less-essential goods grew as well.

Between 1944 and 1985, total advertising spend grew in lock step with this trend - increasing 35 times over. [5] Labels like “citizen” were increasingly replaced in discourse by “consumer”. In 1956, journalist William Whyte wrote, “...thrift now is un-American.” [6] In 1962, a new “Consumer Bill of Rights” was written for the modern era. By 2001, in the wake of the tragedy of September 11th, President George W. Bush encouraged the reeling American public to “Get down to Disney World in Florida.” [7]

Given this backdrop, how could your relationship with money not be complicated? We’re “consumers” in almost every part of our lives.

What’s the opposite of a “consumer”?

I would submit “steward” as a provocative alternative worth contemplating. Stewards are less concerned with the perpetual pursuit of unlimited wants, and more focused on - as Wendell Berry describes - the “kindly use” of the resources under their control. Stewards recognize the interrelatedness of the different parts of our existence, and the impermanence of anything we might claim to “own”.

Yet “steward” and “consumer” aren’t binary distinctions. Berry writes:

“Some people are less destructive than others, and some are more conscious of their destructiveness than others. For some, their involvement in...industrial and commercial waste is simply a ‘practical’ compromise...the price of modern comfort and convenience. For others, this list of involvements is an agenda for thought and work that will produce remedies.” [8]

It’s a path we all have to choose for ourselves, that we work out over the course of our lives. At Walden Mutual, we’ve noticed the dearth of banking options for people who want a financial partner for this journey - so that’s what we’ve committed ourselves to building. Join our waitlist today to stay up to date with our progress.


[1] Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

[2] Simmel, Georg. “The Philosophy of Money” Page 427

[3] Real Disposable Personal Income: Per Capita. (2020, March 26)

[4] Kochhar, R. (2018, September 6). The American Middle Class is Stable in Size, but Losing Ground Financially to Upper-Income families.

[5] U.S. Annual Advertising Spending Since 1919. (2008, September 14).

[6] Is Thrift Un-American? (1956, May 7). LIFE Magazine, 40(19), 40

[7] Shiller, R. J. (2012, January 14). Spend, Spend, Spend. It’s the American Way.  New York Times

[8] Berry, Wendell. “The Unsettling of America”

Photography: Christina Johantgen