The Colour of Money

Usually, the first thing I get asked when I tell people I’m going to South Korea is ‘what do they use for money out there?’ (Still unsure on the ‘right’ answer to this – the barter system, obviously.) The actual answer of won, minted in denominations of coins and banknotes like most of the rest of the first world, isn’t particularly exciting, but you do learn that people are attached to whatever type of money they grew up with.

Why is this? Well, it’s less that we love our money and more that we just like feeling we ‘know’ what it is worth. I derive a certain security from ‘knowing’ what a £20 note could get me and how to make that denomination of money last for different scenarios. The thing is, that value – both actual and what’s in my head – is and has always been completely arbitrary.

Do you know what a Freddo is? When I first started getting pocket money in the late 1990s, a Freddo was 20 grams of Cadbury milk chocolate and cost 10 pence. Today, a Freddo costs 25p and is 12 grams. Besides being a great way of explaining the concept of ‘inflation’ to a child, I realise that random yet concrete examples like this is basically how I continue to rationalise the power of money. This isn’t a fair reflection of the value of the labour and materials behind it if I sat down and thought about it. It’s simply a near-random ‘value for money’ that exists inside all our heads.

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I can barely even buy a normal Freddo anymore. These chalky haunted rictuses are no substitute. Fudges have suffered the exact same inflation as normal Freddos.

My grandmother does the same thing with Hovis bread, for pete’s sake – and has done so through decimalisation and decades of inflation. There is no intricate conversion algorithm for the value of bread inside her head, though. Like the rest of us, she goes shopping, decides “eh, I guess that’s reasonable” in a split second for the usual loaf or something competing that’s on offer, and then goes and does a similar thing with another two dozen products. What’s going on there, though? Are we even really considering it on any level, or just simply playing a game of eeny-meenie with sums barely worth worrying about the difference?

When we can’t make these snap value judgements with foreign currency, we find it at least jarring, or at worst somehow inferior or untrustworthy – look at how different and Monopoly-like their money is. Conversely, there’s a sense of superiority when we know our currency will go further. Cheap beer in Vietnam, or whatever. It’s all relative and we probably shouldn’t lose sight of that. After all, it doesn’t matter to a Korean vendor that my ability to size up the value of transactions of a certain amount has been subconsciously rooted to tiny blocks of frog-shaped chocolate since childhood – he or she probably do the same with something else.

The point I’m labouring here is that we should not to lose sight of our personal value-for-money systems and how they change as we get older. Chocolate, organic food, videogames, motorcycle parts, whatever you personally buy a lot of. It’s all relative. There’s no point in getting uppity about your actual physical money, either – no matter where you are, you’re still swapping bits of paper for things. Sure, my bits of paper might have the Queen on it, but does it have Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah looking like he knows a really funny joke he’s not going to tell you?

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(Photo from Wikipedia)

No. It doesn’t. That’s why the Brunei dollar is better than your money. Wherever you’re from.

Well?

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