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Cultural Attitudes Towards Money Lesson #2: Are All Cultures Money-Driven?

Updated on February 25, 2014

Although through teaching them they were supposed to be learning from me, I think it was quite the other way around, as I learned a lot from them. You see, we have a lot to learn from other cultures, even if we are the greatest nation in the world.

Eat To Live or Live To Eat?

My father used to tell me that we should not live to eat, but rather, eat to live. While I never really understood what he meant, as I have gotten older, I realize that he was spot on. Having lived in other cultures, and in the past five years as an ESL educator of tax and financial literacy for the 82,000 immigrants and refugees of the state of New Hampshire, I can fully attest to the fact that not everyone "lives to eat" but rather, many cultures are only motivated by day-to-day abilities to put food on one's table, disregarding the "future" or "extra" familial wants and needs.

In our fast-paced Tweet-it, Text-it, Scan-it-to-get-it world, rarely can we make time to pause and consider that not everyone lives this way. And, while I am the first to admit guilt, we like living this way. It only becomes a problem when we refuse or neglect to acknowledge that other cultures may not do the same.

This notion first struck me when I began my job teaching the immigrants and refugees. Although through teaching them they were supposed to be learning from me, I think it was quite the other way around, as I learned a lot from them. You see, we have a lot to learn, even if we are the greatest nation in the world.

Attitudes of Other Cultures Towards Money

When I was a student in Madrid, Spain in the late 70's, I lived with a family. One night at dinner, Doña Fernanda, the mother, asked me what I planned to do with my life, once I graduated from college. Like all rising college Seniors, I replied that as long as I made money, and lots of it, then I would be happy. She then asked me if I was happy at that given moment. I replied that I was somewhat happy but that having a job and a paycheck would make me the most happy. She replied by saying, "Well, how you can be happy with more when you aren't even happy with what you have now?" That phrase has resonated throughout the last thirty or so years and led me to explore the customs, attitudes, and languages of other cultures. I, in all of my 21 years of life just thought everyone is motivated to receive an education through the end product - money. Doña Fernanda taught me a valuable lesson that evening, so when I obtained my ESL job five years ago, I began the exploration of how best to craft a curriculum around financial literacy and our tax code, based on the attitudes of the different cultures I had sitting in front of me. I considered four categories in crafting curricula: Money, Survival, Social, and Work attitudes. Throughout the five years on the job, I often tweaked these cultural attitudes to reflect how these cultures depicted those attitudes, so while these may sound stereotypical, they are actually majority anecdotes as related to me and later supported by the reference cited in this article.

Asian Cultures

The Asian cultures (Asia, South Asia, and Pilipinos) respect money, but the ultimate motivation comes from a spiritual feeling of fate and self-denial, according to Cross-Cultural Understandings (Lynch, 2004). Asians typically view money as a necessity to eat to live another day for survival. Most Asian cultures are non-verbal in their social dealings - a quiet culture for the most part. The culture as a whole is hard-working, but that work must be in harmony with life balance and nature. To that end, one typically makes enough to survive and enjoy collective family goals.

Mid-Eastern Cultures

According to Zakat, which rules how Middle Eastern cultures manage their money, this third Pillar of Islam dictates that it is the obligation of those whose income exceeds a certain amount, to donate the excess to the poor. This was most important to note when addressing this culture, as I would talk about financial fitness, but in this particular culture, interest, a natural motivator in deciding where to invest one's money, is not allowed to be collected on bank accounts. Infusing this into my lessons made the lesson not only pertinent, but also believable - one that built trust and understanding between the learner and myself, the instructor. This type of cultural competence is most important in building lifelong, trusting relationships, because it shows understanding and respect for one another. Many banks have now allowed people whose cultures do not allow interest accrual, to open an account, thus safeguarding one's money, without the threat of compromising one's religious beliefs. In many Mid-Eastern cultures, social obligations are a collective, family endeavor. Earning money is also a family project and many Middle Easterners have family-owned businesses.

European Cultures

Europeans, for the most part, view survival as a means of one's fate. One works to live in the European culture and the social scene is very human-to-human, face-to-face. When Europeans have the opportunity to earn extra money, it is viewed as an opportunity to perhaps buy a luxury item or enrich oneself by traveling. When traveling through Athens with a fellow female student one time, I remember meeting a woman who overheard us speaking English. Thrilled with her "catch", she invited us to her sparsely-appointed one-room house on the edge of town. She had a piece of bread and a small wedge of cheese, but the little she had she was still willing to share with us. It was more important for her to interact with someone and give half her food over to complete strangers, than to have it all to herself and be lonely. That evening, we answered many questions about America and learned a lot about Greek life. It was a wonderful cultural exchange that has stayed with me even to this day!

American and Latino Cultures

Many Americans and Latinos share the concept of money as a means of power and status. And that is where the similarities end. While Latinos view the social scene as very interpersonal with family as the center of most social events, many Latinos have a relaxed concept of time, more interested in quality than quantity. Americans, on the other hand, for the most part live a very time-dominated social life with family members scattered all over the United States. As well, while Latinos depend on each other for survival, many Americans' means of survival is on an individual each-to-his-own basis. Finally, while Latinos work together and making money is a group effort, most Americans have a live to work, goal-oriented view of the working world.

African culture

One has to study the tenets of Kwanzaa to understand that Ujamma refers to cooperative economics in the African culture. From the African perspective, money exists to benefit the entire family and is a collective endeavor. The social structure of the African culture is that of kinship and family. One's attitudes towards survival is if the fates allow. Working to live as a means to an end is the work ethic of most in the African culture.

Final Thought

As you can see, my charter seemed easy: teach financial literacy and tax literacy to the immigrants and refugees. And while one's first impression is usually the best, mine was that it would be an easy sell. Easy-peasy? Not so much! Enriching? You bet your bottom dollar - oops - excuse the pun!

This is Part 2 of a series on Cultural Attitudes Towards Money. Stay tuned for Lesson 3 on the differences and similarities between the American tax code and tax codes in other countries.


Submit a Comment

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    This was a very interesting article. I have heard that statement about eating to live rather than living to eat too and it was a profound one for me.

    Too many in our culture make money their God and it makes for a stressful environment. But in this world today, without a good amount of money, living well is difficult.

  • drfil profile imageAUTHOR

    Filippa S. Viola, Ed.D 

    4 years ago from New Hampshire

    Precisely the reason I am writing this series - understanding not just tolerance and absolutely - not taking what we have for granted. I find your comment to be most spot on. Thank you. A most valuable and intelligent reaction.

  • Remigijus profile image


    4 years ago from London

    Curiously enough, to many people from the West the rest of the struggling world seems to be quite anomalous and subject to the improvements in line with the luxury consumer societies that were created in the well insulated and pampered Western countries. Yet in reality, the Western world is an anomaly itself in the middle of the struggling world and is very fragile and not be taken for granted.


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