Money for the sake of money is not an end in itself. You cannot eat dollar bills or wear your bank account. Ultimately, the usefulness of money rests in exchanging it for goods or services. As the American writer and humorist Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) wrote in 1911, money is a “blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.” Money is what people regularly use when purchasing or selling goods and services, and thus money must be widely accepted by both buyers and sellers. This concept of money is intentionally flexible, because money has taken a wide variety of forms in different cultures.
Barter and the Double Coincidence of Wants
To understand the usefulness of money, we must consider what the world would be like without money. How would people exchange goods and services? Economies without money typically engage in the barter system. Barter—literally trading one good or service for another—is highly inefficient for trying to coordinate the trades in a modern advanced economy. In an economy without money, an exchange between two people would involve a double coincidence of wants, a situation in which two people each want some good or service that the other person can provide. For example, if an accountant wants a pair of shoes, this accountant must find someone who has a pair of shoes in the correct size and who is willing to exchange the shoes for some hours of accounting services. Such a trade is likely to be difficult to arrange. Think about the complexity of such trades in a modern economy, with its extensive division of labor that involves thousands upon thousands of different jobs and goods.
Another problem with the barter system is that it does not allow us to easily enter into future contracts for the purchase of many goods and services. For example, if the goods are perishable it may be difficult to exchange them for other goods in the future. Imagine a farmer wanting to buy a tractor in six months using a fresh crop of strawberries. Additionally, while the barter system might work adequately in small economies, it will keep these economies from growing. The time that individuals would otherwise spend producing goods and services and enjoying leisure time is spent bartering.
Functions for Money
Money solves the problems created by the barter system. (We will get to its definition soon.) First, money serves as a medium of exchange, which means that money acts as an intermediary between the buyer and the seller. Instead of exchanging accounting services for shoes, the accountant now exchanges accounting services for money. This money is then used to buy shoes. To serve as a medium of exchange, money must be very widely accepted as a method of payment in the markets for goods, labor, and financial capital.
Second, money must serve as a store of value. In a barter system, we saw the example of the shoemaker trading shoes for accounting services. But she risks having her shoes go out of style, especially if she keeps them in a warehouse for future use—their value will decrease with each season. Shoes are not a good store of value. Holding money is a much easier way of storing value. You know that you do not need to spend it immediately because it will still hold its value the next day, or the next year. This function of money does not require that money is a perfect store of value. In an economy with inflation, money loses some buying power each year, but it remains money.
Third, money serves as a unit of account, which means that it is the ruler by which other values are measured. For example, an accountant may charge $100 to file your tax return. That $100 can purchase two pair of shoes at $50 a pair. Money acts as a common denominator, an accounting method that simplifies thinking about trade-offs.
Finally, another function of money is that money must serve as a standard of deferred payment. This means that if money is usable today to make purchases, it must also be acceptable to make purchases today that will be paid in the future. Loans and future agreements are stated in monetary terms and the standard of deferred payment is what allows us to buy goods and services today and pay in the future. So money serves all of these functions— it is a medium of exchange, store of value, unit of account, and standard of deferred payment.
Commodity versus Fiat Money
Money has taken a wide variety of forms in different cultures. Gold, silver, cowrie shells, cigarettes, and even cocoa beans have been used as money. Although these items are used as commodity money, they also have a value from use as something other than money. Gold, for example, has been used throughout the ages as money although today it is not used as money but rather is valued for its other attributes. Gold is a good conductor of electricity and is used in the electronics and aerospace industry. Gold is also used in the manufacturing of energy efficient reflective glass for skyscrapers and is used in the medical industry as well. Of course, gold also has value because of its beauty and malleability in the creation of jewelry.
As commodity money, gold has historically served its purpose as a medium of exchange, a store of value, and as a unit of account. Commodity-backed currencies are dollar bills or other currencies with values backed up by gold or other commodity held at a bank. During much of its history, the money supply in the United States was backed by gold and silver. Interestingly, antique dollars dated as late as 1957, have “Silver Certificate” printed over the portrait of George Washington, as shown in Figure 1. This meant that the holder could take the bill to the appropriate bank and exchange it for a dollar’s worth of silver.
Figure 1: Until 1958, silver certificates were commodity-backed money—backed by silver, as indicated by the words “Silver Certificate” printed on the bill. Today, U.S. bills are backed by the Federal Reserve, but as fiat money. (Credit: “The.Comedian”/Flickr Creative Commons)
As economies grew and became more global in nature, the use of commodity monies became more cumbersome. Countries moved towards the use of fiat money. Fiat money has no intrinsic value, but is declared by a government to be the legal tender of a country. The United States’ paper money, for example, carries the statement: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” In other words, by government decree, if you owe a debt, then legally speaking, you can pay that debt with the U.S. currency, even though it is not backed by a commodity. The only backing of our money is universal faith and trust that the currency has value, and nothing more.
Watch this video on the “History of Money.”
Key Concepts and Summary
Money is what people in a society regularly use when purchasing or selling goods and services. If money were not available, people would need to barter with each other, meaning that each person would need to identify others with whom they have a double coincidence of wants—that is, each party has a specific good or service that the other desires. Money serves several functions: a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value, and a standard of deferred payment. There are two types of money: commodity money, which is an item used as money, but which also has value from its use as something other than money; and fiat money, which has no intrinsic value, but is declared by a government to be the legal tender of a country.
Hogendorn, Jan and Marion Johnson. The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 6.
- literally, trading one good or service for another, without using money
- commodity money
- an item that is used as money, but which also has value from its use as something other than money
- commodity-backed currencies
- are dollar bills or other currencies with values backed up by gold or another commodity
- double coincidence of wants
- a situation in which two people each want some good or service that the other person can provide
- fiat money
- has no intrinsic value, but is declared by a government to be the legal tender of a country
- medium of exchange
- whatever is widely accepted as a method of payment
- whatever serves society in four functions: as a medium of exchange, a store of value, a unit of account, and a standard of deferred payment.
- standard of deferred payment
- money must also be acceptable to make purchases today that will be paid in the future
- store of value
- something that serves as a way of preserving economic value that can be spent or consumed in the future
- unit of account
- the common way in which market values are measured in an economy