Financial planners talk about individuals getting stuck in a “poverty mentality” that can affect every part of their lives.

What does that mean, and where does it come from? Is the poverty mentality a feature of captialist societies, or is it a feature of humans in general?

I decided to take a look at some of the writing around the subject, to see if there are any universal truths inherent in this conventional wisdom.

This concept first came into my awareness in an abstract sense as I grew up as a child and grandchild of people who experienced poverty during the Great Depression. Interestingly, even though my mother’s family experienced scarcity at that time, they seemed to come out of it psychologically unscathed compared to my father’s.

My dad talked about not having enough food, about people being unable to find paying work, and about not having adequate clothing and no money for things like vacations, appliances, cars and other luxuries. He lived in a farm community, and even so, there was a scarcity of some foods such as sugar, coffee, tea and fresh fruit.

My mother did experience some scarcity as a child. Her father was a journalist; he was the editor of the Milwaukee Herald when she was very young. Then he was pulled into World War II and sent to London to gather information and write about the war.  He was gone for several years, I believe.  She shared a memory of her father waking her and her siblings in the wee hours of the morning to give them warm chicken pot pies that he had picked up from a bakery on his way home, after putting the next day’s newspaper together. She remembered having gone to bed without enough to eat, and how delicious those pies tasted.

My mother’s whole family went along on her father’s next assignment to India, and her life changed significantly.  She came of age in the elegant environment of American diplomats living in a foreign outpost–cocktail parties, entertaining visitors from abroad and having a staff to help with the mundane tasks of housekeeping, laundry and gardening.  Even so, there was not a lot of money; life was just easier in India.

My dad enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 16 and left behind the poverty of his Minnesota childhood. My parents and grandparents never forgot what it was like to go without, and they continued to be frugal and careful with money for the rest of their lives.

What is it that makes the poverty mentality a dysfunction? I think it’s when people are so scarred by the lack of basic necessities that they can never actually believe there will be enough. They believe they don’t deserve to have anything new, beautiful or convenient – that things like vacations, massages and good quality food  are for “others” and not for them. Some financial writers say that people with this mindset don’t save for the future because they are sure they will never have enough money anyway.

I think a better way is to think in terms of abundance. Nature provides abundantly and sharing is a way of creating even more abundance. Putting things away for a leaner time is consistent with the natural world order–even squirrels and chipmunks and bees do it.

There is enough. Enjoy it. Today.

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