The pros and cons of a poverty mindset

Penny Golightly poverty mindset

I often wonder about the way our beliefs and thought patterns can impact upon our lives, and whether they have positive or negative effects.

Many people have written about the poverty mindset over the years – especially success gurus and religious leaders – and it is nearly always seen as something entirely negative that should rigorously be avoided through the use of highly positive self-talk, the avoidance of ‘losers’ (how compassionate), and investing in their expensive services.

So I thought it might be useful to throw all the received wisdom in the bin for at least a little while, and start afresh. Is there another way to look at it?

Could a poverty mindset be helpful sometimes, as well as potentially harmful?

How a mindset works

A mindset of any kind is a complex cycle of beliefs and automatic or ingrained ideas, thoughts, and behaviour patterns that go around and around. It reinforces itself, and can be helpful, harmful or simply neutral.

With a poverty mindset there are deep-seated beliefs that often start in early childhood. They may be taught to us directly or by example by close relatives or carers, or we may simply learn from and respond to our circumstances.

At the root of most poverty mindsets is a belief that we don’t have enough to get by on, that we are lacking in some way, or that we are struggling to survive. It’s not a comfortable place to be coming from, granted, but perhaps it served our hunter-gatherer ancestors very well indeed and helped them to go the extra mile.

The thoughts then spring from the underlying beliefs: sometimes we’re aware of them and sometimes we aren’t. It’s often worth trying to tune into them and catch them, perhaps by writing them down on a scrap of paper or making a note on a mobile phone over a period of a couple of weeks or a month or so, as and when they pop into your head.

Try not to judge these thoughts. Everyone has all sorts of things drifting through their internal monologues pretty much every minute of the day, and more often than not they make no rational sense, feel childlike and weird, or simply don’t represent our conscious thoughts. Just get into the habit of writing them down as they arise, and come back to them later when the allotted time period is up.

Typical poverty mindset thought patterns

Here are a few examples of thoughts that could potentially be associated with a poverty mindset. You might experience one of them, or find yourself under the influence of quite a few of them.

  • I’ll never have enough money to get by on
  • I will always be poor
  • We’re always playing catch-up and having emergencies
  • We can never afford a holiday
  • Everyone else has more than me, and it’s not fair
  • Rich people are unkind, dishonest and selfish
  • I don’t deserve nice things

Recognise any of those creeping into your mind?

It might be worth stepping back and unpicking a couple of those. By and large, these are not completely rational statements if they contain anything extreme such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘my whole life’ or ‘forever’. When unhealthy words and phrases like that start creeping in, feel free to challenge them.

However, some of the phrases do work when applied to the short term, or the here and now.

For example: “We can’t afford a holiday right now” could well be a true statement. It depends upon your individual circumstances, such as debts, income, opportunity-cost and also how much you want to spend on a holiday. “We won’t be able to afford a luxury holiday this year unless we make some major changes” could easily be true, and I’d never advise you to book one if you were in debt.

However, it’s important to try to cultivate a flexible attitude. For example, you might be able to afford a holiday after all if you sold some old junk to raise a little cash, and took a shorter or cheaper break. Rigid thought patterns are often unhelpful and limiting, and could discourage you from improvising.

Sadly, “I will always be poor” does apply to certain people, so let’s not engage in magical thinking. In any society there will always be people who have more and people who have less. There ARE some people who will therefore always be comparatively poor, and in countries where a living wage is not paid there will be some people who are very poor indeed however hard they might work.

The trick with the “I will always be poor” thought is to challenge it in a realistic way. My suspicion is that for most people, it could be gently changed to something more positive and helpful, such as “I stick to my budget and live happily within my means,” or “I’m managing my money better now and things are improving.”

Likewise, a thought such as “I’m having another money crisis!” might be true. Again, it’s important to check your facts: what exactly constitutes a crisis? Born worriers might simply need to reassure themselves that the situation is under control, but then again it might be a real and necessary call to action. Once corrective action has been taken, you then have an opportunity to move on.

Not all negative thoughts are inherently bad for you, and trying to ‘banish them completely’ as some gurus suggest can be demoralising and simply impractical, although it may also be useful to remind yourself from time to time that “my thoughts are not me.”

Poverty mindset thoughts lead to actions and habits

Our beliefs and thoughts lead on to actions and behaviours, and the results of our actions feed back into our beliefs. Over time, our actions tend to turn into habits, for better or worse.

A negative thought from a poverty mindset could potentially lead to a positive action. It could spur you on to stabilise finances, pay off debts, or start saving or investing.

Generally though, we humans tend to get into bad habits. We waste time on distractions, we sabotage ourselves with addictions and other destructive behaviours, and most importantly we go through phases where we don’t even try to see the big picture or help ourselves.

It might even be partly hard wired into us that we tend to prefer to settle for inertia and lack of risk taking in the short term, at the expense of long-term wealth, health or happiness. There’s always a temptation to stay where we are, and not take any chances by doing something different.

On a primitive emotional level it can be almost comforting to stay stuck, and maybe even blame other people or external factors such as the economy for all our problems. Okay, the economy may well have a part to play in this, but it’s not responsible for everything. There’s always some small thing you can do, isn’t there?

When a poverty mindset can become harmful

There’s nothing wrong with thinking you have money problems if you actually do have money problems. Putting your head in the sand or pretending the universe is sending you unlimited cash isn’t actually going to help, but making a realistic assessment can be the first step towards creating a healthy change.

There’s also nothing wrong with having a feeling that you need to manage your money carefully, and there’s nothing wrong with making sensible, balanced plans. A small amount of fear can even be good for you from time to time.

However, there are some signs that an impoverished way of thinking and behaving is having a profoundly negative effect on your life. For example:

  • Believing that you are powerless about money, and always will be
  • Thinking that things will never get better
  • Believing that you deserve to suffer hardship
  • Resenting or being spiteful towards people who have things you want
  • Not investing in yourself, especially training and education
  • Discouraging others when they try to make something of themselves
  • Making excuses for lying, cheating or stealing
  • Not making an effort to improve your situation in any way

If you have any of these themes going on in your life, it’s definitely time to try a different approach.

Challenging an unhealthy poverty mindset

To break the cycle, you’ll have to find a convenient point where you can disrupt it. Different methods work for different people.

You could:

  1. Catch and challenge your thoughts
  2. Try making new plans and taking different actions
  3. Interpret the results of your actions in a different way
  4. Attempt to re-wire your subconscious beliefs

At the level of everyday thoughts, you have a couple of options. Firstly, you could try capturing your thoughts, analysing them and then challenging them. This could be done with a notebook and pencil and a reasonable amount of perspective, but it’s also part and parcel of cognitive therapy in case you need some extra help.

Secondly, at the level of everyday thoughts and your internal monologue, you could also try meditation or mindfulness. With practice and/or training, this can allow you to be less wrapped up in your thoughts, and perhaps also break the cycle of thoughts leading to actions or results leading to deepening unhealthy subconscious beliefs.

At the level of actions and also inaction, you can try practical steps. For example, you could set specific goals and create simple plans, and start to pay off debts, and so on. In particular, creating realistic budgets and building up savings can be very helpful in creating a sense of security – and helping you to weather life’s financial knocks more easily, thus removing the sense of constantly teetering on the brink of disaster.

Rewiring your subconscious belief patterns is altogether more tricky. Many guru types and dodgy motivational speakers will order you to parrot stock phrases to yourself in front of a mirror. This can backfire for many people as they simply will not believe the phrases on any level, many of which are – let’s admit it – irrational or fundamentally untrue.

It might be possible to repeat fairly moderate, realistic and optimistic phrases to yourself and have a degree of success instead, so think carefully about what feels credible to you.

The other way that you might be able to work on unhealthy subconscious belief patterns is by using the services of a skilled hypnotherapist. Not every person will respond to this type of therapy, but those who do may feel the benefits of it for the next few weeks. This period of time might be long enough to get out of a rut, put some new behaviours into place, and get some different results from the new actions.

Have you ever experienced a poverty or scarcity mindset? Was it helpful for a short period of time, or up to a certain point? Or has it caused you specific problems?

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  1. This is very interesting for me because I like the idea of minimalism but I’m not very good at it and I wonder how much this has to do with the poverty mindset. I think for me the idea is to buy less but to make sure that what I do buy is something I’ll want to keep. This would apply to clothes. There are so many nice and reasonably priced clothes it’s tempting to buy too many.
    I also can see both sides of “prepping” buying extra food in case of emergency and minimalism, just having enough but i think having good quality food. I don’t really think that the shops are all going to close down but at the same time it’s nice to have a bit of a stock in the cupboards in case you can’t get out for any reason.

  2. Many people resent even the slightest notion of asking “What if …” As if any consideration of possible negative outcomes is in and of itself damning and a cause of failure.

    But so-called “negative thinking” can have a positive power, too. Provided one isn’t a dogmatic optimist.

    Julie Norem’s “The positive power of negative thinking” is a study in this topic:

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