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Tyrone Schiff
Sociology 315
You Used a Dollar for What?

Many years ago, the process of trading spices from India and silks from China

was a tough and tedious process. Back then, these and thousands of other objects were

exchanged for a fair price. Figuring out just how much and which particular object to

give took a great deal of reasoning on both sides of the transaction. Although the

monetary system in place today is far more uniform than it was back then, there are still

integral components of these ancient techniques that persist. Money, although practically

identical in all physical properties, has a variety of different uses based on where the

money came from, who the money came from, and what the money is intended for.

People will mentally ration their money into groups based on unconscious social rules.

Therefore, money is not exclusively economic, and the use of it is highly contingent on

social cues derived from one’s community.

One of the greatest champions of non-fungibility, the concept that the use of a

dollar is not consistent in all cases, is Viviana Zelizer of Princeton University. In her

essay, “The Social Meaning of Money: ‘Special Monies’,” she asserts the following about

the prevailing perception of money, “Special money in the modern world may no be as

easily or visibly identifiable as the shells, coins, brass rods, or stones of primitive

communities, but its invisible boundaries emerge from sets of formal and informal rules

that regulate its uses, allocation, sources, and quantity” (350-1). Zelizer could not be

more accurate about her assessment of money. The purpose of this paper will be to

further prove Zelizer and illustrate through personal experience that these “boundaries”

are real and occur in every day life.


Keep in mind that when dealing with money and its budgeting, it is critical to

understand that all of the use and interaction one has with money is drenched in social

rules. These rules may not be perfectly conscious to the individual as it occurs, but these

societal standards are at work constantly. In particular, this paper will address the

boundaries associated with money. Where money comes from has tremendous

ramifications on the usage of it.

In my own personal budget, I receive money from many different sources, and

although I hardly notice it, I instinctively use those monies for distinctive purposes. In

order for me to go to the University of Michigan, especially being an out-of-state student,

I have to take out massive loans. These loans are transferred to my bank account by Sallie

Mae, a company that provides students with loans. There are two important things to note

here. First, these funds are placed into my personal bank account with other money I

already have, however, I earmark, or mentally account, for this money in my personal

bank account that is from Sallie Mae. If I use this money on frivolous things, I will not be

able to buy books or pay for my rent and tuition. Second, the money that I receive from

Sallie Mae is a special type of money that I set aside. Although it is combined in a

general pool of money, my bank account, I mentally separate my loan money from the


Money that comes from institutions does not always have to have a rigid set of

planned out expenses. I receive a check from my job that I have here on campus every

two weeks. This money comes to me as a result of my own hard work, and therefore, I

can use the money on whatever I wish. However, I always keep in mind how much

money I have to spend on unnecessary items as to not tap into my loan.


This brings up an interesting point about the fact that who we receive money from

further changes the usage of money. The following example harps on the gender roles

that Zelizer discussed in great detail in her paper. Although the function of money in this

example does not directly imply a superiority of one gender over another, there are

distinct differences in the usage of the given monies.

My mother and father both send me money from time to time, but they give me

money for completely different expenses. My parents are divorced, so it is unlikely that

they discuss their intentions for the money they give me. For instance, my mother sends

me some money for common day-to-day and living expenses. She never specifically tells

me what the money should be used on, but she makes it known that it is just to have and

use. This is where my social rules that govern the usage of my funds come in to play. I

typically use this money to go out and eat with friends, buy a new piece of clothing, or

pick up some things from the grocery store. These are typically the types of expenses that

my mother intends for me to make with the money she gives me.

On the other hand, when my father gives me money it is usually for bigger

expenses that happen more infrequently. When he gives me money it is usually for a

plane ticket home or for my books at the beginning of the semester. These are larger one

time expenses that I understand is the purpose of him giving money to me. Though it is

not completely explicit in either case as to what to use the money on directly, I earmark

each of the monies I receive from the different parent and use it on different things

accordingly. Clearly, based on who I receive money from it changes the way that I use

that money furthering the non-fungibility inherent to money.

There are also times in which I am given money for specific purposes and this of

course alters the way that the money is used. A common present that I receive on a

birthday or special occasion is a gift-card from one of a number of places that I enjoying

shopping at. For instance, I may receive a gift-card from BestBuy or iTunes, and what

this implies is that I have to use my money at these places. I am not given a choice in

what I want to do with the money given to me, because it is only redeemable at a

predetermined location that the person decided for me. This somewhat limits the scope of

money, similar to the way that Zelizer described men limiting the scope of women’s

purchasing power in the early 20th century (361).

Finally, perhaps one of the most compelling illustrations of the non-fungibility of

money is based on why the money is received in a given situation. I am going to spend

money that I win in a bet far differently than the money I receive for my bar-mitzvah. It is

an unspoken social rule that money received for momentous occasions ought to be saved

and put to good use later. Whereas, money attained from gambling, the lottery, or other

less formal methods can be spent at will. Although it is all money, the ways in which it is

spent based on the situation in which it is received is a great determinant of how it will be


Money is by no means solely an economic tool. It has made the process of

exchanging goods infinitely easier, but there is still a great deal of social influence that

dictates the way in which money is used. The reason that social rules play a significant

part in the use of money is because they personalize money in such a way that they alter

what an individual can and cannot do with his or her own money. This reveals just how

interwoven the world of economics is with the world of sociology. Money, although

considered non-social, is clearly not exclusively a tool of the market. From the evidence

shown in this paper, there are definite boundaries to the extent of money. These

boundaries vary and include such factors as who the money is from, where the money

came from, what the money was intended for, and why the money was received in the

first place. Money is an excellent medium of exchange, making the buying and selling of

objects very simple and efficient, but it is vital to appreciate the role that social influences

play on the many uses of money.