Buddhist fundamentalists interpret this precept to mean that their religious royalty should not handle money. So, when a person who is regarded in such a way travels to somewhere like the United States, for example, this person will require someone to always be with them who is singularly saddled with responsibility to pay for things like plane tickets, hotel rooms, and even meals, because money is tainted by this notion that it is not offered freely.
Even if the money is given to the teacher, it was presumed to have been taken from someone else at some point along it's karmic path, that is, someone somewhere down the line had to give something up in order to make the money manifest. The very notion of commerce is believed to be irretrievably intertwined with human greed, so the religiously pure cannot risk being associated with it by even touching coins or bills.
This pious being grips (or more likely this person's community grips) very tightly to something that is believed to have been attained, some high level of enlightenment, that would be stained and lost if money, I mean the actual coins and bills, got involved with this person's life in any way.
Of course, in a more practical sense, this precept is the moral admonition against stealing.
This precept serves to remind us that when we believe that there is something in the world that we need so badly that we are considering taking it away from someone else we have lost contact with reality. When we believe that we fundamentally lack something, and so desperately need to possess it that we would consider depriving another of it, we have lost sight of the simple truth that all we really need is available to us at all times. The only thing we ever need is right in front of us all the time. It is reality itself.
The Buddha was fond of lists, or those who finally committed his teaching to the written word were fond of lists (it's easy to see why lists would be popular in an oral tradition), and he is said to have asserted there are four basic human needs: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Everything else is a desire. When you think you need something other than the simple beauty of a full moon, your mind has led you astray in it's grasping, you're being fooled by the notion that peace, happiness and satisfaction is contained within and by means of the possession of that iPod, or that million bucks. This is delusion itself.
I use this maxim in my own life, it is interwoven into my personal decisions all the time. It is why I began a process of divesting myself of my possessions four years ago, a process that continues to the day, and I expect will continue for some time to come. It guides my decisions about what to buy every day.
I suppose one can steal food, money or clothing. One could skip out on the rent or a hotel bill. It is possible to craft a scenario in your mind to back one into a corner where one MUST steal in order to satisfy what the Buddha is said to have called a need. Yep, watch your mind do that, it inevitably will.
Once you've convinced yourself that this precept is flawed, you have just demonstrated it's fundamental truth, just as surely as the religiosity discussed above is profoundly deluded. You have reached for and grasped at something you decided you needed--the scenario to prove that it is sometimes okay to steal. Congratulations.
These monks, or their communities who insist on these "no handling money" standards are also grasping. There's something out there they have to have. They have to have it so badly that they are willing to insist that another person handle money for them when they could, and should, be doing it themselves. This sense of attainment, this notion that "I am now the kind of being that can be exempted" from something as basic to human existence as paying your own way is exactly the grasping of which this precept warns.
They take from this assistant their time and energy for this silliness. The assistant may be willing, or even eager to do this service, bit that's because they are grasping at another notion of attainment, some special status for being Buddha's butt-wiper or something. They are likely not interested in running around with you and I and paying for our sandwiches just because we can't be sullied by money, are they?
I just use this laughable extreme as an illustration. I'm sure there are teachers in those traditions that are very weary of this game, who just go along because to not do so would upset a cherished apple-cart. This isn't really the point.
The point is that when you take something that isn't freely given to you, either by exchange for something you give, such as money, or because it was given out-right, you are grasping, your mind is lost in the delusion that this thing is important enough to cause harm, or loss, to another.
The truth is that before you attach to such notions you are already aware that there is nothing you really need that is not always available to you, right in front of you, at all times. Christians may call this God's love, or the love of Jesus. It's the same assertion. Everything is desire.
So, this precept serves to remind us that when we want something so badly that we are willing to cause someone else to experience a loss, we are deluded. Whatever it is, we don't really need it.
So, when you see things as they really are, you do not take anything not given to you.