Old habits die hard.
When you get to be a middle-aged man like me, you have forty-nine years of learned behavior to guide your actions and decisions — even when you know your choices aren’t necessarily for the best. Our mental blueprints (including our money blueprints) are deeply ingrained and tough to change.
Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into a spendthrift or anything. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how certain parts of my past continue to affect me, sometimes in huge and annoying ways. For instance, I fight an ongoing battle against a scarcity mindset. I haven’t been able to master the abundance mindset.
Scarcity and Abundance
I’ve been reluctant to talk about scarcity and abundance because the terms have been co-opted by “Law of Attraction” types who use them to encourage magical thinking. I hate the New Age-y approach to these concepts. I want to discuss them from a psychological perspective.
- With a scarcity mindset, you believe that everything is limited. Time is limited. Money is limited. Love is limited. This causes you to worry about the future. You’re consciously or unconsciously more concerned with what might go wrong than with what could go right. You make fear-based decisions. You’re afraid of missing out. You’re afraid of not having enough. You have trouble with moderation and often exhibit “all or nothing” behavior.
- With an abundance mindset, you believe there’s plenty for everyone. There’s plenty of wealth, prestige, and happiness to go around. You’re optimistic about the future. You think things will work out even if there are bumps along the way. You make decisions based on the Big Picture rather than a single snapshot in time. It’s easy for you to balance tomorrow and today.
I’ve written before about my trouble with impulse control. In the past, I’ve had problems with overspending, overeating, video game addiction, alcohol consumption, and borderline hoarding behavior. (I’m a compulsive collector of Stuff.)
All of this — the collecting, the addictive tendencies, the lack of self-control — stems from a scarcity mentality. But I didn’t realize it until a few years ago when my therapist helped me see the source.
Because my family didn’t have much when I was young, I find it difficult to defer gratification. My default mindset — even when life is grand — is that if I want something and it’s available, I should get it now. Somewhere deep inside, I feel as if there won’t ever be another chance. My father had this mindset. My mother had it. My brothers have it too. (Like me, Jeff and Tony have both learned to fight the feeling of scarcity in their own fashion.)
A Real-Life Example of the Scarcity Mindset
Over the past year, my deeply-seated scarcity mindset has begun to manifest itself in another annoying way.
Since moving into our new house last July 1st, we’ve had to make tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs. About $56,000 of these costs came from the sale of our previous home, but that still leaves us on the hook for $30,000 or $40,000. We have one last project to do before we believe we’re finished: We want to replace the rotting back deck and install a hot tub. (This was the first project we had planned to tackle when we moved in, but we had to put it off for more pressing priorities.)
Kim and I know without a doubt that we’ll use the deck and hot tub nearly every single day of the year. (TMI: Currently, she and I both take several hot baths each week. If we had a hot tub, we’d be able to soak together.) It’s not a question of whether we’ll get value from building an outdoor oasis. No, the problem is that I’ve reached some sort of mental breaking point.
I’m reluctant to spend another penny on home improvement. I’m over it. I hate the idea of cashing out yet another chunk of my index funds. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I feel like that’s money I’ll never get back. (I feel this way despite the intellectual understanding that we’d recoup maybe 80% of our costs if we were to sell the home in the future.)
I recognize that this is my scarcity mindset kicking in, yet I cannot shake these feelings. They’re a part of my money blueprint.
Here’s the thing: In so many ways, financial freedom depends on casting aside this scarcity mentality and embracing an abundance mindset instead. Financial well-being is fundamentally tied to positive expectations of the future.
Let’s look at three ways the scarcity mindset can manifest itself — and how to embrace abundance instead.
Jealousy and Spite
For some, the scarcity mindset manifests as jealousy and spite. These folks resent the success of others, financial and otherwise. They find it tough to be happy when something good happens to a friend or family member. They’re territorial, reluctant to co-operate toward a greater common good.
Here’s how Stephen Covey describes this flavor of scarcity in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win-lose. There is only so much; and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.
This type of scarcity mindset is the source of the average American’s love-hate relationship with wealth. Most people want to be wealthy — but are suspicious of those who already are. They typical person believes that when she makes money, it’s a result of hard work and skill. But others who get rich? They’re lucky jerks who don’t deserve it.
People with this form of the scarcity mindset don’t just hold back themselves but they keep down the people around them. This usually manifests as gossip and griping. Sometimes these people “keep score”. In extreme cases, they actively work to sabotage the success of others.
People with this type of scarcity mindset are a drag on life, a net negative to the world at large.
What if you suffer from this sort of scarcity mentality? Train yourself to be happy for others. Recognize that my success does not diminish you. Life is not a zero-sum game. To that end:
- Don’t compare yourself to other people. Focus on yourself, on your own goals and accomplishments. If you must compete, compete with yourself. Strive for constant self-improvement.
- Practice a win-win approach to life. Look for ways to improve your own situation while also helping those around you. When faced with a conflict, don’t try to be the “victor”; instead, work toward a solution beneficial to both parties.
- Teach yourself to share. Force yourself to give things — time, money, resources — to other people. When you have a surplus of something, spread the love. (More on this later.)
Jealousy and spite can be overcome, but it takes work. Making the effort is a great way to change your outlook, creating a better life for yourself and the people around you.
For others, the scarcity mindset manifests as fear of the future. These people think and act like children of the Great Depression. They’re so worried about how bad things could get that they’re unable to recognize and enjoy what they already have — even when they have a lot.
Let me give you an example.
I once met with a woman who had over $6 million in the bank. She was my age — mid forties — and lived a modest lifestyle. She wasn’t overly frugal, but she didn’t spend a lot either. Plus she had just landed a job that paid half a million per year. Nice position to be in, right? Not to her. She was scared to stop working because the didn’t want to run out of money.
Based on standard assumptions about inflation and stock market returns, this woman could probably spend $240,000 per year for the rest of her life and still die rich. (That’s without taking into account her new $500k per year position!) Her spending was closer to $50,000 per year, yet she fretted about not having enough.
Other folks are more extreme. I’ve known retirees who have millions in the bank but who are so frightened of the future — inflation! peak oil! stock market collapse! — that they won’t spend on needed home repairs and health concerns. What good is all of that money if you’re dead or your house falls down around you?
These folks aren’t harming anyone else (at least not directly), but they’re doing severe damage to their own well-being. They sacrifice happiness today in order to have more tomorrow — but they never enjoy tomorrow.
People with this type of scarcity mentality never have enough. No amount of money will allow them to sleep soundly at night.
What if you feel like you’ll never have enough? Unlike those who suffer from jealousy and spite, you should keep score. Do this in two ways:
- First, keep a journal — a standard daily diary. It doesn’t have to be detailed. Write down the most important events from your life. And every day note at least one thing for which you are grateful. At the end of each year, go back and re-read what you’ve written. (This exercise will increase in value the longer you keep at it.)
- Second, track your net worth and spending. Know how much you have and how much you need. Remember this rule of thumb: For every $25 you’ve saved, you can probably spend $1 each year without worry. (If you’re really nervous, you might change that to $1 for every $30 or $40 saved.)
If you have more than enough stashed away and still fret about the future, force yourself to spend. I’m dead serious. Pick something you’ve always wanted to do or have, and go get it. Money is a tool to build a better life. If the tool sits unused, what’s the point?
Finally, there are the folks like me, people who find it tough to wait for what they want. We’re “shopaholics” and compulsive spenders. With our flavor of the scarcity mindset, we’re so skeptical about tomorrow that we enjoy too much today. We want it all and we want it now.
A decade ago, when I still struggled with money, I had nothing saved. No retirement, no nothing. What I ought to have been doing was paying down my debt and building a foundation for the future. Instead, I was spending everything I earned on books, comics, and computer games. It never occurred to me to wait. I wanted things now, so I bought them.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, my therapist helped me to understand that growing up poor had given me a loathing of uncertainty and an inability to delay gratification. My money blueprint was largely constructed around a fear of missing out. During my transition from spendthrift to money boss, I learned to put off potential spending. I learned to wait for the things I wanted.
Like the last group, people with this sort of scarcity mentality never have enough. But the lack manifests in a different way. Instead of needing more money, we need more Stuff. We buy and buy and buy and are never satisfied. There’s no amount of possessions that will make us happy.
What if a feeling of scarcity drives you to always want more? Practice the art of deferred gratification. I learned this skill by using the 30-day rule. Here’s how it works:
- When you see something you want, make a note of what it is, where you saw it, and how much it costs. But don’t buy it yet.
- Over the next 30 days, be on the lookout for free or cheap alternatives. Does the library have that book? Can you borrow that tool from a friend? Could the local thrift store have a similar shirt?
- At the end of 30 days, if you still want the item then consider buying it. In most cases, however, you’ll find the urge to purchase has passed.
Also practice moderation. Recognize that most things in life don’t require an “all or nothing” approach. You can have some, and that’s okay.
Finally, keep a gratitude journal. The fundamental problem with this type of scarcity mindset is not appreciating what you already have. Force yourself to catalog the good things in your life.
From Scarcity to Abundance
A scarcity mindset leads to self-defeating behavior. It sabotages your chances for future financial success. Even when a Depression-type scarcity mentality helps you accumulate piles of cash, you’re unable to enjoy it. You’re afraid to.
Fear is always at the heart of scarcity: fear of failure, fear of the future, fear of missing out. Those with a scarcity mindset cling to the notion that there’s a limited amount of everything, and they’re afraid they won’t get their share. We’ll talk more about fear (and overcoming it) next week. For now, you should recognize that in order to achieve financial freedom, you must adopt an abundance mentality.
If you’re worried about lack, you aren’t free.
I’ve already suggested several ways to fight specific flavors of scarcity. To finish, let’s look at a technique anyone can use to move from scarcity to abundance: To get what you want, give what you want.
What do I mean?
In an amazing article from the academic journal Psychological Science, researchers suggest that “giving time gives you time”. The authors found that spending time on others (instead of yourself) boosts how much time you think you have — in both the present and the future.
Many of us feel pressured by the modern world. We feel rushed, as if there’s never enough time to do what we want. We feel a lack, a scarcity, of minutes and hours and days. To cope with this, we tend to turn inward. We watch TV. We play videogames. We get a massage. But studies show that “wasting time” like this truly is a waste. When we spend time on ourselves, we feel like the time is lost.
On the other hand, when we give our time to others — helping friends or volunteering in the community, for instance — we experience feelings of “time affluence”. Plus our time seems “fuller”. We feel better about ourselves and what we’ve done. And as a bonus:
“Giving time to others not only increases the giver’s sense of subjective time but can also increase the recipient’s objective amount of time, such that giving time contributes to the well-being of both the self and others.”
That, my friends, is abundance in action.
The bottom line? “When individuals feel time constrained, they should become more generous with their time — despite their inclination to be less so.”
The same idea applies to other areas of your life in which you experience feelings of lack. When I started giving away and selling my Stuff several years ago, for example, I came to realize just how much I had. Before, when I was constantly in acquisition mode, I felt like I had very little. I was wrong. I had mountains of things!
If you feel a lack of respect from others, give respect to others. If you feel a lack of compassion from others, be compassionate to others. If you feel like people don’t love you, love other people. If you feel broke, donate time and money to the poor. If you feel like you’ll never have enough wealth, systematically give away some of what you have.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes:
The abundance mentality…is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.
The abundance mindset comes from understanding there’s plenty in the world: plenty of money, plenty of love, plenty of time. There’s plenty for everyone — both for you and for others. There’s plenty now and there’ll be plenty tomorrow. Enjoy it!
A Real-Life Example of the Abundance Mindset
While we were wintering in Savannah two years ago, Kim hustled to get her dental hygiene license for the state of Georgia so that she could earn some money. She spent a couple of days driving across the city, dropping off résumés and speaking with doctors. Soon she started getting calls asking her to do fill-in work while other hygienists were sick or on vacation. She also got an offer for a long-term position at a big office in town.
Kim could have taken the long-term gig. In fact, she was tempted. “What if I can’t find any other positions?” she asked as we talked through her options. “This is a sure thing. Maybe I should take it in case nothing else comes along.”
After a few days of internal debate, Kim decided not to take the long-term offer. “I’m getting plenty of calls from other offices,” she reasoned. “I’ll bet I can stay busy just with the short-term stuff, and that’ll give me greater flexibility.”
Sure enough. Because she refused to make a fear-based decision, because she chose to believe she’d have more opportunity rather than less, she was able to pick and choose when and where she’d work. She had more offers than she had time. She constantly got new calls asking her to fill in.
When we returned to Portland, she used the same experience to find permanent dental hygiene positions. She cast her net wide, then waited for the offers to come. And they came. By exercising patience and an abundance mindset, she landed two gigs that she loves. (Plus, she still gets fill-in offers all of the time.)