My scarcity mindset is eroding my relationship

scarcity mindset relationship

My scarcity mindset is deeply internalized.

So deeply internalized that I did not realize the extent of it until I woke up to the damage it has been doing to my relationship.

I do not know exactly where my scarcity mindset comes from. It does not come from growing up in poverty. My family was decidedly middle-class. We did not want for food, or clothes, or school supplies, or Christmas presents. My upbringing came with economic stability and privilege.

My scarcity mindset might come from being in debt for all of my adult life.

It might come from witnessing the realities of our economy and job market, personally and among friends and families.  From watching talented and smart people battle bouts of unemployment or face long stretches of precarious employment characterized by contract work with no job security and no benefits.

Mindset is complex, and I suspect that my scarcity mindset comes from many of these places.

Regardless of its roots, my scarcity mindset is insidious and ever present.

As I draw closer to my 30th birthday, still paying off student loans and starting a brand new career, I feel totally lost. I feel frustrated. I feel angry with myself for taking on more debt in my late 20s. I feel so much fear and anxiety about every cent of debt I owe and an unhealthy attachment to every cent in my bank account.

That’s messed up.

Because I got woke to my financial mistakes almost a year ago and I am now making great decisions. I have a steady job and I finally got the ball rolling with my side hustles. I am paying down my debt aggressively, all while building a healthy emergency fund, investing a small amount, and contributing the 18% maximum toward my retirement fund.

My student debt should be completely gone in about 18 months.

Yet I can’t sleep. I check my balances obsessively. I am torn between sending every last dollar toward my debt and aggressively tucking my paycheques away like a squirrel stockpiling nuts for the winter. I reluctantly fall somewhere in between, and am still deeply miserable.

That’s the thing with a scarcity mindset. When you do not have a lot of something, you fixate on it.

“When you really want something, you start to focus on it obsessively. When you’re hungry, it’s hard to think of anything other than food, when you’re desperately poor, you constantly worry about making ends meet. Scarcity produces a kind of tunnel vision, and it explains why, when we’re in a hole, we often lose sight of long-term priorities and dig ourselves even deeper.” -Shankar Vedantham (NPR)

With debt, it feels like every dollar I have is going to this invisible place and I do not get to use it for what I want, or even what I need sometimes. On some level, I knew my psyche was being affected in strange ways by being in debt, but I thought I was handling it. I thought I was coping, and it turns out I’m just not.

And this all came out in the subtlest of ways with my partner.

My partner is currently facing a stretch of underemployment. He is brilliant and well educated, armed with a PhD in his field, a creative mind, and a tough work ethic.

In the seven months he has been underemployed, he has been freelancing and teaching a class at the local university. He has pursued multiple different job opportunities, going on numerous interviews, completing language assessments, personality tests, and a myriad of other screening tasks.

None of those opportunities has yet come through.

And he is okay with that. He planned exceedingly well for this stretch of his life after defending his doctoral dissertation, knowing full well that work may be hard to come by. He diligently saved during his PhD and has a plentiful emergency fund to cover many months of expenses, freelancing all the while to bridge the gap.

Yes, he has been anxious and worried dealing with this uncertainty. But do you want to know who this has most dramatically impacted?

Me.

I have spent every day of the last seven months deeply conflicted and anxious about what is happening to him. I hate to admit it, but I hate that he is underemployed. Let me be very clear, I do not value him less.  But this dynamic surrounding his job status has created an underlying anxiety in our relationship that has become hard to ignore. Here are just a few things that have made up my emotional portfolio over the last several months.  Let me preface this by saying that some of these are fleeting, some are more ingrained, and just about all of them are completely unfair.

Resentment. I am a little resentful.  I am resentful that I am the only one really making an income right now.  I am resentful that he would not really be able to provide for me if something happens with my job.  It is not fair to use somebody else as your emergency fund, but the reality is that many of us do lean on our partners financially and it is scary to know you do not really have that safety net.

Fear. I am afraid of so many things right now. The unknown is terrifying. We talk about our future together, all while having no idea when or where his next paycheque will come from.  That is scary to me in ways I cannot adequately express.

Sadness. It has taken me some time to fully process this, but I am sad about how this employment situation has significantly impacted some of our life plans. I know we will get there, but there is definitely some mourning involved. Building a life and starting a family already feel like insurmountable financial challenges – with two solid incomes. Right now, it feels straight-up impossible and like we’ll never get there.

Anxiety. Plain and simple. It stresses the bejesus out of me to think that the economic wellbeing of our coupledom is falling pretty squarely on my shoulders right now. What if this continues for X amount of time? When we have children? What if, what if, what if?

Bitterness. It is hard to work three jobs to pay down student loans after graduating with an undervalued degree (or three) into a precarious and part-time work-based economy and wondering how we would ever eventually pay a $1200/month daycare bill without feeling a tinyyyy dose of bitter that we are operating under way different circumstances than our parents were when they were building their lives.

Plus ten thousand other feelings all day long.

As you can see, I have a lot of work to do. The scarcity mindset is real, and it has caused emotions to run high over the last six months. The result? Lots of tears and lots of little arguments.  I am so very lucky that my partner and I have a fantastic line of communication about most things, money included, and that having tough conversations is something we have gotten better at over time.  I am really lucky to have a partner who loves and trusts me enough to wade through these fears with me.  But I would be lying if I said that it has been easy, and I am guilty of letting my scarcity mindset slowly eat away at small pieces of our relationship.

We have had many brutally honest conversations about this. He is rightly confused why I do not have enough confidence or trust in him that he will find work, and soon. Why I do not have the faith that things will eventually work out. Why I do not see that we have both always managed to earn money and find jobs, and we will again.

On an intellectual level, I know these things to be true. I trust him implicitly in every other way as my partner in life. And I have great confidence in myself and my overall career path.

But believing these things in a real, emotional way? In a way that will calm the sinking feeling I get every time I look at my debt balance? Or in a way that will keep me from frantically checking my bank account every other Friday to make sure my salary was actually deposited (even though it always is)?

I should have faith in us and our ability to work things out. I should know that we are two highly-educated and resourceful people with multiple income streams and a ton of potential for lucrative and solid careers.

But I just can’t seem to get there yet.

Is anyone else struggling with a scarcity mindset when it comes to your money or any other resource in your life?  How has it impacted your relationships?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.  

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13 thoughts on “My scarcity mindset is eroding my relationship

  1. Piggy says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. It can’t have been easy to share this kind of personal stuff! I remember when I was on my 14-month sprint to pay off the last of my student loans, my husband was… not excited about my all-consuming scarcity mindset. He has financial worries of his own (read: twice the amount of student loan debt I started with), and he didn’t like how I was CONSTANTLY hyper-focused on money: not spending too much of it, making more of it. It was definitely a crazy-making time for me, and I thank him all the time for helping our relationship survive it.

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      Piggy, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience – it makes me feel not so crazy and alone out here on scarcity island. I’m so glad to hear that you and your husband were able to manage and get through that stretch of time, because it really does take a pretty intense toll on a relationship.

      I am constantly trying to remind myself that stressing this hard about money is not worth compromising my relationships, my mental health, among other things, but it is really hard to take that step back sometimes. Thanks again for sharing, it honestly helps more than you know!

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  2. eemusings says:

    My scarcity mindset comes from 2 places: 1 leaving home very young and fending for myself with very little $. 2 (and more importantly) having my partner be unemployed for multiple stints over the years, and underemployed as well, meaning i was the sole provider for what added up to a few years total. 2 was the killer. i am still recovering. our relationship is still recovering. it is in a good place now but i cannot express how damn hard it has been. he was hurt by how important money is to me and how much it impacted our relationship, and i was hurt by how little it mattered to him and thus how little he seemed to put into fixing the issues, while being clearly able to see how badly it was affecting my mental (and eventually, physical) health.

    Much love to you. You are in the roughest part. It sounds like his prospects are good (in our case the same was not true, in terms of lack of qualifications, a scattered work history and to be quite frank, a lack of direction and to a degree, a lack of motivation as well). Things changed when I had given up all hope, to be honest, and I hope it doesn’t come to that for you. Keep those lines of communication open – talking about this shiz is the hardest and we struggled a lot with that during this time. Keep finding happiness in the little things, seize those moments when you can, treasure and store them up. Maybe try not to think too much about the future (impossible as that sounds). You can’t plan for anything right now and it hurts to dream about things you can’t have and may not have for awhile. The uncertainty is the killer but it is something you have to learn to cope with unfortunately.

    Please email me any time if you ever need to talk ❤

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      “he was hurt by how important money is to me and how much it impacted our relationship, and i was hurt by how little it mattered to him and thus how little he seemed to put into fixing the issues.” OMG yes yes yes. We are struggling with this exact dynamic right now

      Thank you so much for your comment, in particular the reminders about appreciating and treasuring small moments. That has honestly been the glue holding it together over the last few months. There are many things I have to be grateful for and that is something I am trying to be mindful of each day. Thank you for the support, and I’m so glad to hear that you and your partner made it through what sounds like some genuinely trying and difficult times.

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  3. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life says:

    Oooof I recognized a lot of my younger self in this. Apologies for the long reply to come!

    I grew up poor and that part was fine. It was the late teens through adulthood period that set that scarcity mindset like acid into my bones. I spent that period paying down tens of thousands of dollars of debt for my parents, supporting the whole family during the same time that I was putting myself through school, and saving up little by little so that I wouldn’t get sucked into the debt cycle that had consumed their finances. By late-20s, I’d paid off their consumer debt that I knew of, had been supporting the entire family for a decade, and was firmly in the survival mentality. I knew that if I were to die, my family wouldn’t have an income, so I had to take out life insurance on myself to ensure they’d be ok for a while if the worst happened.

    My partner, by contrast, has always been solidly middle class and has always had the knowledge that someone in his family would step up and help him out if an emergency happened.

    That different mentality was particularly difficult before we were married when I wasn’t earning enough to support both of us and he was so frustrated with his job (legitimately) that he was talking about quitting without another job to go to. We were living together and my presumption was that I’d pick up the slack until he found another job. Having been unemployed nearly a year during the Great Recession, I was genuinely frightened and stressed that I would have to bear the load alone, now for TWO households (as I continue to support my family to this day).

    We’ve had many long and difficult conversations about the differences in our backgrounds and how they influence our thinking. I wrote about this exact thing recently here, if you’ll forgive the link: http://agaishanlife.com/2017/01/fundamental-differences-on-money/

    As to impact – it’s been a bumpy path. We both have to be very open with each other on our frustrations and desires, and why we feel that way, so that we don’t inadvertently press on a sore spot (mostly mine), or come off as a patronizing jerk (mostly me). But because we also have had so many conversations about it, I find it much easier to point out that this actually taps into my innate fear of becoming poor and so I need some time to sit with the decision, or that he feels that we’re contracting our lives too much in order to save and so we should revisit that.

    We didn’t even try to start a family til I was 32, in part because of this. I couldn’t bear to have a child til I was reasonably sure we were stable because holy hellfires daycare is expensive here (up to $2000 a month!) Once I was pregnant, I started diverting that much out of our cash flow into a savings account and that went a LONG way to making me feel better about how we were going to afford it. Not only did we learn to live without that money, we also built up a really good baby-emergency savings account and that makes this scarcity mentality-minded person feel much better.

    We compromise a lot, every day. It helps that as the neurotic one about money in the family, I’m also the money manager, so I get to work out my frustrations or worries on the budget and then present my thoughts to him with data.

    I totally understand a lot of your feelings and I think you’re doing one of the biggest necessary things already – reflecting and being self aware. So many people in this position would just get more stressed, more silent, and lash out until their relationship collapses under the weight of the resentments. I hope you’re able to keep talking, keep deep breathing through the moments of fear and worry, focus on the smaller pieces that you can control or affect. You’ll come through the other side. And over time, as you see things work out, generally for the better, and you see that both of you have grit, I think you’ll learn to wean yourself away from the scarcity mentality. Best of luck!

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      Wow I cannot thank you enough for this comment. I just re-read it multiple times, and something tells me I’ll keep coming back to it. That is amazing how you stepped up to support your family (and continue to), but I can see, given your family’s financial circumstances, how that would ingrain a scarcity mindset quite deeply.

      One thing you said that stands out is that you have gotten much better about communicating to your partner how these dynamics tap into your innate fear of becoming poor. This has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in my relationship recently. We have finally reached a point where I understand my own fears and insecurities well enough to explain to him why my feelings about money, debt, and underemployment are so crippling – and he gets it. He does still not completely understand, and he probably never will, but being able to articulate the deeply-rooted sources of our beliefs and ideas about money has been a tremendous help in rebuilding our relationship.

      Thank you again and I cannot wait to go back and read that post you shared.

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  4. mmarinaa says:

    Oh I feel you. I’ve been in far worse places, financially, but this is the first time I’m in a bit of a slump while in a LT relationship and it is killing the relationship for sure. Every second that I have to watch him doing nothing just increases my own negative feelings tenfold. I’ve always been the only employed one, have never relied on him for money, and have gladly paid his way through so many things. When I was making good money and able to save a lot, I barely registered the inequality. But now that I’m struggling a little….. oh it’s bad.

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      It is so hard. I can totally relate to how negative feelings amplify exponentially in situations where there is perceived or real inequity in the relationship. I am really working on managing these feelings in my own relationship at the moment. Sending you tons of good vibes, and best of luck to you as you work through this stretch in your life & relationship.

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  5. The Luxe Strategist says:

    “I trust him implicitly in every other way as my partner in life.” I think you have to try to remember how good of a sign this is. I once was in a relationship I had no business being in. He went through a period of not being able to hold a job, and I had a lot of the same feelings you do. The difference is, the rest of the relationship wasn’t strong at all. We never talked about anything, really, because there wasn’t much to fight for. You’re going to be OK. It’s human nature to want to feel secure, so don’t feel bad about that. Hopefully, one day when you guys are in a better spot you’ll be able to look back and be much more

    My scarcity mindset comes from my childhood. My mom was the breadwinner and my dad didn’t work. From an early age, my sister and I had to fend for ourselves at home because we knew there wasn’t a lot of money to set us up. It’s very hard for me to rely on anyone for anything. As an adult, I have a really hard time sharing the resources I have worked so damn hard to acquire for myself. My fiance and I keep our money separate because I don’t see much reason to combine them at this point. If it works, why change it? But I also think part of it is me wanting to hold onto what’s “mine” for as long as possible.

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. “It’s human nature to want to feel secure.” I really needed to read that. You are completely right, and I would never shame anyone else for desiring stability and security. Yet I feel like a terrible human being sometimes for craving financial security because of the pressure it is placing on my partner and my relationship.

      It makes perfect sense why you have a scarcity mindset, but it sounds like you have a ton of self-awareness when it comes to those tendencies, and that’s half the battle for managing them in your life and relationships. Wishing you all the luck as you begin your life with your soon-to-be-husband! I am hoping to see more wedding-related posts crop up on the blog in the near future 🙂

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  6. Miss Mazuma says:

    Oh girl, this is a tough place to be and I can completely relate!! I too have a scarcity mindset and I worry about things that are happening years down the road such as my BF kids college, apartments, and what not. It makes me insane that he is reactive and not proactive on many of these situations. Here is the difference, your partner planned for this downtime in his career. He has put time in and pursued other avenues. He is not being reactive – he is being proactive. Though his financial future affects you, it isn’t your bitter pill to swallow. He is responsible for his career and, from what you have written, he is doing his best to come out from under this.

    Your fear comes from you and it will follow you into every single relationship you participate in if you let it…I speak from experience here. You need to be able to compartmentalize. Is it the worst thing to be financially responsible for another person? Maybe he has other skills to offer in return. Is it temporary? Is it a deal breaker? Give these questions some serious thoughts and decide what you can live with. Love is very hard to find…I would argue it is harder to find than money. If you sabotage this relationship based on your own anxiety (or adding to his) you may find yourself in a similar situation next time around. I know it isn’t easy to be where you are. Some time a long time ago these issues took hold of your insides and the scarcity mindset is a hard habit to break. But remember, we have the choice to change our mindset. Start living your new truth. You paid off $7000 in 7 months!!! Congratulate yourself!!! Be kind to yourself. What might have been scarce is no longer and issue. You have a path you are following and you will soon be debt free. Put more focus on your own journey right now and let him work on his without the added pressure. I see good things for both of you if you work together as a team.

    Sorry for the super long comment! I get crazy passionate about these things. 🙂

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    • Kate @ Making it Rain says:

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. It is truly appreciated and you gave me so much to think about. You are completely right and you actually vocalized one of my greatest fears in all of this – sabotaging a wonderful relationship because I cannot get over this internal struggle of mine.

      It has been really nice to read back on this post after some time has elapsed. I have been very mindful about doing what you said over the last couple months – giving him the space and time to figure it out (it is his life, after all. I can be such a control freak!) and also to talk about different ways our relationship could work (he would love to be a stay-at-home parent for instance, and I would so not).

      There are so many ways he contributes deeply to our relationship that are not monetary, and I am really beginning to value those contributions more than I ever. Thanks again for the perspective, Miss M!

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