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?
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.