Some Thoughts on Currency

Recently, I came across this great article about Nicola Piccola, a person who went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help out with rebuilding and wound up moving there. Today, he lives in New Orleans and works for the New Orleans Food and Farm Network for a very low wage, meaning that he has to be extremely careful with his money.

The full article is a great read, but I wanted to really focus on a few particular points. Near the end of the article, the interviewer asks Nicola a very interesting question, and he provides a great answer:

One man, a stocks trader, told me that everybody has their own “currency.” What you would say your currency is?

This is going to sound really cheesy. [Laughs] But I would say my currency is love. And that comes from a story of a person that I became really good friends with in St. Bernard Parish. He was our neighbor when we lived in a house in St. Bernard, a town called Violet. He was my neighbor who grew up in this town. In this little tiny neighborhood that no one’s really heard of, and no one really ever leaves.

He was in his 50’s, truck driver, was living in a FEMA trailer, rebuilding his house piece by piece, doing as much work as he could on his own or hiring contractors when he could. We never asked him for any money, and he couldn’t believe it. We would have about 30 volunteers at a time, like a church group or a school group come down. They would stay in the house with us and we would work on house-gutting or hanging drywall.

He would come over when we were eating dinner. He just loved talking to strangers; he loved getting to know new people from other states and other places. Every time he’d come over, he’d be like, “What do you need, Nic? You need some money; you need $20?” I’d be like, “No, I’m okay.”

One time he came over. He said, “I’ve never seen people like you; I’ve never seen somebody just come down and not want money, not want anything in return, and just want to help us.” And he was baffled.

Sometimes he’d stare at me, and he would get this smile on his face and he’d say, “I don’t get it. What do y’all survive on? Love?”

This passage has been on my mind a lot lately.

First of all, the entire point of Nicola’s comments is to focus on the idea of a currency that isn’t money. Here, currency simply means anything that is a means of exchange – a common article for bartering.

Here, Nicola is essentially arguing on behalf of love as a form of currency. He gives of himself – his time, his energy, his skills – to others and finds that others often give him something of value in return – friendship, companionship, food, shelter, and so on. Sometimes it’s a direct form of exchange and other times it isn’t.

In fact, Nicola believes in that idea of “currency” so much that he tries hard to live his life using that type of exchange as his primary means of living.

For many of us, that seems almost alien. Most of the readers of The Simple Dollar are concerned with how to maintain and accumulate personal wealth for reasons of financial independence of some kind. We focus heavily on money as our form of currency. We work for money, we invest that money, and we use that money to obtain the things that we want.

For a long time, I was very centered on that idea of money as the central currency that really matters.

For example, I’d look at friendships as something I could build with money. I would buy gadgets and clothes to make myself look good. I’d buy dinners and rounds of drinks to foster relationships. It worked – to an extent. I essentially exchanged money for the opportunity to build friendships.

In essence, I translated everything in my life through the power of the dollar. Everything I wanted, I could simply pay money for directly or buy something to achieve that goal indirectly.

Seven or eight years ago, I would have just scratched my head in confusion at Nicola’s idea of currency.

Today, though, as I find myself on the road to financial independence, the idea that the anonymous stockbroker and Nicola hint at in this article makes a whole lot of sense. Money is far from the only currency in life.

The first big realization to make on this journey is that money can’t buy you a lot of the things that you want and need in life. It can buy people to stand beside you, but it can’t buy a strong and loving relationship with those people. It can buy you entrance to the best universities, but it can’t buy you the skills that come with a college degree. Money can’t put you in a career path that makes you happy, either.

What can do these things? In my experience, there are several kinds of currency that are at least as valuable as money.

One big one is simply your time. I could throw money at my children all day long, but an hour or two spent focused just on spending time with them does far more to build a relationship than any item I could buy. The time you spend making something well, the time you spend building a strong relationship, and the time you spend making your community a better place are exchanges that simply can’t be replicated with money. Sure, we often exchange our time for money – our workdays, for example – but time itself often does things that money cannot.

Another example is relationships. The relationships you have are a form of currency. You can use them for ideas, for companionship, for entertainment, and for almost anything that you need. Your friends and acquaintances might do anything from lend you a hammer to allow you to stay in their house or feed you a meal or two. They can open the door to new career paths as well.

Another great example is knowledge and skills. Knowledge and skills open the door to new career paths and enable you to solve all kinds of problems that might be outside of the abilities of other people. People will trade a lot for these things provided that you have the knowledge or skills that they need.

Health is another example of a currency. Being in shape provides you with a great deal of energy to deal with almost anything in your day. You can use that to achieve things you would not have been able to achieve without abundant health.

All of these currencies – and many more – can easily be exchanged directly for money. You can swap your time for money at any job. You can tap your relationships for things you might otherwise need to spend money on. Your health gives you additional energy to enjoy your day. You can put your knowledge and skills to use to save money or to earn more money.

Yet those things also have many uses that money can’t possibly buy for you. They can foster love. They can build deep, lasting relationships with people. They can provide companionship with people who genuinely care about you. They can provide entertainment and fulfillment that lasts for a lifetime.

Cultivating financial independence is great, but it’s not the only currency you need for a lifetime of fulfillment and happiness. You need time. You need an abundance of healthy relationships. You need knowledge and skills and health, too. And, yes, you also need love.

Don’t get so focused on the accumulation of dollars and cents that you fail to keep track of the other currencies in your life. You should treat them with the respect and prudence with which you treat your money.

Devote your time to the things that really matter to you and trim out the time-wasters and the distractions from your life.

Focus on building strong relationships, both in your professional and personal life, that will provide a constant exchange of ideas, opportunities, and fun.

Be a lifetime learner and seek to constantly add new skills and knowledge to your repertoire.

Take steps to maintain and improve your personal health, whether through diet, exercise, or both.

Give some of these gifts to the people around you, both friends and strangers. Pay forward every good thing you have in your life and be known as a giving person.

All of these moves give you an additional type of currency in your life that goes beyond mere dollars and cents. These currencies open the door to life opportunities and experiences that money simply can’t buy.

Invest in these currencies and your life will have true abundance.

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