Essay Writing Samples

Three Odd Things I do with Money

At Ultius, we get a lot of orders that range from traditional academic work to business plans. These styles of papers are almost universally written in the third person and are designed to appear professional. However, when it comes to writing quality work in the first person voice, many people struggle with the change of tone and structure. Here is a just for fun paper written in the first person regarding the author’s odd habits when it comes to money.

Odd money habits

While money has academically been considered a measure of utility within the marketplace, it would be a mistake to discredit the ways in which our social and cultural constructs affect our use of it. Viviana Zelizer covers this very concept in her 1994 book: The social meaning of money. The author considers an understanding of transaction free of cultural constraints as narrow and incomplete—and in this piece discusses several examples of how money is “earmarked” for purposes shaped by social relationships and systems of meaning.

Some of these uses include:

  • Creating or dissolving social ties
  • Making strong attempts to control others
  • Establishing or maintaining social inequality
  • Maintaining delicate status distinctions
  • Dealing with risk and uncertainty
  • Establishing or managing a group identity
  • Marking rites of passage
  • Managing conflicts of interest
  • Maintaining clandestine social relationships

Using money to establish identity

First, I have participated in transactions using money earmarked to establish a group identity. Zelizer accounts for gift giving in forms of contributions to certain groups to establish solidarity (like an organization with a particular ethnic tie), but I have also witnessed people in my life “buy in” to a group by participating in home sales parties—like Tupperware or Mary Kay. The author notes:

“…in late-nineteenth-century saloons, workingmen were expected to treat their mates to rounds of beer as a symbol of solidarity and community” (Zelizer 90).

This is a phenomenon experienced both among men and women of today’s world—with money earmarked for this sort of bonding social interaction. While I’ve certainly experienced weighing the value of spending money to engage with my group of friends (lest be left out), I’ve witnessed the pressure of this even further when receiving invites to these home parties. Mostly women attend these parties, and they are expected to spend a certain amount of money during a party.

Pressure to spend in a group

This sort of group isn’t the standard relationships developed by men and women. It is generally a group of women who are homemakers, falling into a niche that clearly can only be entered into if a member is willing to make the social-economic investment. In this way, the monies are earmarked to strengthen the group identity, and while some utility may be gained from the items purchased at these parties, more often than not purchases are fueled by social pressure to act appropriately as a member of the group. However, we see that money can also be used to negotiate power within our relationships.

It seems that we have all at one point or been involved in a transaction dictated by the earmarking of money to maintain status distinctions. I personally have experienced this when participating in business lunches, as social structures dictate who is supposed to pay in any given situation. Zelizer indicates “Tips to mailmen or nurses” as examples of this phenomenon (26).

Spending money on gifts and social relationships

Earmarking for gifts is a long-standing and evolving practice of using money to deepen social ties and express our cultural norms. Zelizer explores this topic at length:

“Consider how we define a ‘good’ Birthday gift. Surely it must express the intimacy of a particular social tie, convey affection, denote thoughtfulness. The meaning of gifts varies” (78).

She goes on later to explain:

“the personalization of gifts matters greatly: gifts must be appropriate in character and value to the relation of the parties, revealing the degree of intimacy and equality between giver and recipient” (78).

The exchange of gifts on Christmas is a great example of this I’ve experienced in my own life. Because there is a certain level of ambiguity in the gift (more often than not it is a surprise), the negotiation of gift exchange is an expression of our interpretation of intimacy. We are expected to spend a much higher sum of money on our gift to romantic and sexual partners than our acquaintances, despite there being no particular advantage or utility in doing so.

Oftentimes, it is the pressure to abide by cultural norms and ensure equality that drives us to spend so much on these gifts, defining that person as the closer. The equality portion is an incredibly important piece. Last Christmas, I received a very expensive gift from my partner and felt embarrassed and guilty that my gift to them didn’t represent the same level of intimacy (despite a rather large inequality in our respective incomes).

My partner makes far more money than myself, yet I still felt obligated to match his spending to interpret my commitment to our intimacy at an equal level. This year as I consider my holiday purchases, my efforts have turned to gifts that more appropriately mirror that large purchase. Even now as I type this paper, I understand that it is quite economically irrational, but I still feel compelled to do so.

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It is clear that money is a truly transactional commodity, but that transaction extends beyond the simplified constructs of the economist’s pure “market,” and is heavily influenced by our networks of social meaning. People throughout our culture consistently make decisions that would defy the utility models relied upon academically by this crowd.

This shows that the models are useful—but are certainly not comprehensive in terms of understanding human behavior and how we give meaning to money. My experiences have reflected many of the phenomena described in Zelizer’s work.

Many of the social experiences I have encountered required some level of “buy-in” to establish group solidarity—ranging from less formal dinners out to organized home parties. Earmarking money to more clearly define and maintain status distinctions has occurred countless times, in countless lunch meetings in my lifetime (this has more often secured my role as inferior, but I’ve gotten plenty of free lunch nonetheless!).

I have also experienced the (sometimes awkward) use of money to express and negotiate depth and equality of my intimate relationships. Though there are certainly other examples not listed in this paper, these examples should adequately illustrate why Zelizer’s argument is an important one to consider when we discuss money and its utility, as it exists within our cultural constructs.

Concerned with how much you’re spending at school? Check out these 6 myths about student financial aid.

Works Cited

Zelizer, Vivana A. Rotman. The social meaning of money. New York: BasicBooks, 1994. Print.

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