What is money?

We all use it, most of us would like to have more of it, but what is it really? Money’s most basic purpose is to make it easier for people to exchange goods and services. Money is used to measure and represent value. When you work to provide a product or service to an employer, client, or customer, you are giving them something of real value. When you accept an otherwise worthless piece of paper or bank account-digital entry as compensation, you do so based on agreement and trust. You both agree that piece of paper or account entry represents value that can carry over time and distance. You accept it because you trust that it will be accepted by someone else in exchange for something you consider valuable.

Putting all this together, we can say that money is a human invention – a social technology – based on agreement and trust and used to represent value in the exchange of goods and services. As a human invention, money can be created and destroyed.

stack of us hundred dollar bills

What money does

Money functions as…

  • A medium of exchange; it is a tool.
  • A unit of account to measure value.
  • A store of value over time and distance.
  • A formative influence on economic and societal developments – a strong influence that can work for or against the general welfare and public good.

Characteristics of money

There are many different kinds of money systems. We have a choice. All kinds of money have six characteristics in common:

  • Community-wide agreement to use it in exchanges.
  • A token of some kind. Sometimes one money system has multiple forms of the token, such as a coin, a paper, and an accounting entry – which today is usually digital (data stored and processed electronically).
  • Authentication. Typically some authority certifies the authenticity of the money token, usually by requiring the populace to pay their taxes with it.
  • Trustworthiness. There must be confidence that the money will have continuing value and be accepted in exchange for goods or services rendered.
  • Creation. A supply of money must be created by some agency and entered into an economy. This is the most important characteristic of a money system. Whoever has the power to create the money supply has a dominant power over society.
  • Destruction. Money can also be destroyed or removed from the economy. The amount of money created or destroyed affects the purchasing power of individual units of the current money supply.

Money systems are sometimes described by any one of these characteristics, without due consideration to the other characteristics, so it is important to clarify definitions.

Ben Franklin and digital currency transactions


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