When it comes to thinking about money, it's a good idea to turn to Charles Dickens. The 19th-century novelist had a knack for bringing the mysteries of money alive. There's a wonderful moment in his novel "Dombey and Son'' when the boy asks his father, "Papa, what's money?"
Like any parent who has been asked a simple -- but very big -- question, Dombey was disconcerted. Dickens pictures him thinking about monetary policy, international rates of exchange, and the like. But in the end he opted for a simple answer. "Gold and silver, and copper. That kind of thing," he said. "You know what they are?"
"Oh yes, I know what they are," said his son. "I don't mean that, Papa. I mean what's money after all?"
The answer still matters more than 160 years later. After all, we're living in an era when 25.4 million people are unemployed, involuntarily working part time, and marginally attached to the labor force. The typical household income fell by 7 percent over the past decade.
Money has many meanings. Aristotle wrote about it as a universal standard of measurement. It's still the definition that dominates today: Money is a standard of exchange and a measure of value.
But I want to focus on a slightly different way of looking at money: Money as memory. I was first exposed to the idea from reading a 1998 paper "Money is Memory" by Narayana Kocherlakota, now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. He makes a case that money is "technologically equivalent to a primitive version of memory."
Kocherlakota's paper is a philosophical investigation into money, memory, technology and information. In his view, money reflects -- it remembers -- the sweat and lost sleep that went into coming up with a new product; the dirty hands and aching muscles from remodeling a kitchen, the wonderful memories of children playing at the lake cabin.
At the dawn of a new holiday season, retailers are gearing up to jump-start sales with steep discounts beginning on Thanksgiving. Yet the observation that money has memory is why we should put giving at the core of our household money management. When we give away money, we ask all the right questions: What causes move us deeply; what can we do to make the world a better place, what kind of memories do we want to leave behind? Why not ask the same questions when it comes to our spending and savings decisions in the coming months. Remember, money has memory.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.