What Is Money? A Qualitative Study of Money as Experienced

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As practicing therapists trained in existential phenomenological psychology, we see people as always involved in attempting to construct a meaningful world around them and within their relationships. Money is an integral part of day-to-day life but its meaning-making role is little understood—and little studied. This experientially-based study connects these 2 realities by looking at how individuals use money to alter or stabilize their sense of self, world, and relationship. Our study uses in-depth interviews with participants, talking with them about their histories and experience of money throughout their lives. We describe the landscape of an individual’s relationship with money and how money appears in people’s day-to-day experience in the context of North American society. While we present some preliminary findings, this paper also focuses significantly on the application of the dialogal phenomenological method, which relies on dialogue and group process to carry out the research. We have found that money carries personal and variable notions such as value, treasure, ownership, and security, and the way our participants deal with money expresses an individual style and attitude. Our participants describe interactions around money that range from frustrating and confusing to those that promote their personal development. Our study expands the understanding of money in ways that are relevant for clinicians, financial professionals, and the public and identifies areas for further human science research.

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