A person’s hands hold four $20 bills.
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I‘m Trying to Change My Scarcity Mindset That Keeps Me Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck.

The answer isn’t just “start saving.” It goes deeper than that.

I don’t know what it’s like to live without money stress, even when there’s nothing to stress about.

Instead of going in-depth about why that is, let me tell you a funny story: in my 30’s, when I was making some unusually steady income as a freelancer, I splurged on finally seeing a therapist. We were going to try and dig into some of the stress that had me with unusually high blood pressure, insomnia, and serial breakups.

We made good progress — she was really good at her job — and after a few months, narrowed it down to the fact that most of my stress came from a scarcity mindset around money that started at a very early age.

We celebrated the breakthru, and made a comprehensive plan for therapy that we hoped would cure that anxiety for good.

The next week, two clients cut me from their budgets. No more money for therapy. But Doctor, I am Pagliacci!

I only see money in terms of what it can buy.

In money-mindset terms, I am known as a “spender.”

My medium earnings are a great example of this. When I first started writing on Medium, I was making about $7–$15/month. I jokingly referred to it as “McDonald’s money” — because it was about enough for some fast food.

Then I dropped off of Medium for a couple of years, and my articles only brought me about $2/month. I laughed and told my partner it was “coffee money.” Once a month, I reasoned, I could drink my coffee and know that my writing had paid for it.

A month and a half ago I started writing seriously again, and I saw my earnings start to grow again. First it was back to “McDonald’s money” levels, then it hit $50 — “Cigar money!” When it hit $75, I realized it could buy me a decent bottle of whiskey.

When I realized I was likely to break $100, I started wondering what I might spend that “free” money on. A night in a hotel for me and my partner? A new case for my iPad?

Then, a little voice in the back of my head said Hey, here’s a crazy thought: what if you didn’t spend it at all? What if you just stuck it in savings?

Saving money has never felt good to me.

That little voice seemed a bit strange and dodgy — but it did make me wonder: does me living paycheck to paycheck have less to do with how much money I have and more with how I think about money?

I know “paycheck-to-paycheck” is supposed to be a bad thing, but for me it still feels like a bit of luxury. Most of my experience as a parent with dependent children was in poverty.

It’s one of those unless you’ve been there, you wouldn’t know kinds of things. Until you’ve been faced with choosing between heating, food, or rent again this month, or heard your kid say “But my feet hurt!” because you can’t afford to buy them shoes that fit.

I was in my thirties before I realized that some people never experience that. Some people don’t worry about rent or heat, don’t try to balance time vs. convenience vs. nutrition when it comes to feeding their kids.

Even when my kids grew up and I started making steady money with partner who made even more— it never felt natural to put money in savings.

I bypassed the mindset by a lazy cheat.

When my partner and I divided up the household responsibilities, she happily took charge of household expenses — including putting money in savings. All I had to do was make sure that my direct deposit went into our joint account, and problem solved!

Look, I’m saving. We had an emergency fund. I’m winning at adulting, finally. I could indulge in my particular nerdy flavor of conspicuous consumption guilt-free, because I’d earned the money and paid the bills!

The emergency fund worked great when we had a couple of emergencies. So now it’s gone, and it’s proving a bit harder to restore it than we expected.

A big part of the problem, I suspect, is that I didn’t do any of the work to actually change my mindset. I just did the psychological equivalent of sweeping it under the rug and pretended it didn’t matter.

It’s not as easy as just switching from “spender” to “saver.”

If you read up on money mindset theory, it’s quick to point out that just flipping the switch from spending all your money to saving it all is just another form of scarcity.

The Saver’s desire to save money is motivated by the fear of running out of money. They are compelled by the feeling of never enough, and in the extreme are hoarders…Rather than borrowing from a lender, Savers are essentially borrowing from themselves, with the intention to make payments back to themselves to repay the used savings. — Rachel Marshall, The Money Advantage

Both the spender and the saver are motivated out of fear of not having enough money. Rachel Marshall suggests an alternative to either being the spender or the saver.

It’s time to become a steward.

I really wish “steward” was a sexier word.

Aside from the bad rap it got in Gondor (see, told you I was geeky) it just doesn’t have the same panache as “big spender”. The other side of the scarcity coin is not as nice with “miser” or “cheapskate” but even that role has board games, cartoon ducks and holiday parables dedicated to them.

A “steward”, though, is just someone who has been given the responsibility of caring for something, of making sure it is kept well, usually for others to eventually benefit.

That’s the mindset I want to cultivate. Not thinking of money in terms of what it can buy me now, nor what I might need it for later — but rather, to treat the money as a guest.

That’s what a steward does, after all — they take care of visitors. In modern days, that tends to be in the service and comfort industry, but in feudal times the steward was manager of the lord’s domain, making sure that everyone had what they needed.

What would a steward of money be like? How does it change things if money is not a possession or a means to an end but instead, is a guest? Something to be placed in a comfortable, safe space, nourished and cared for until it was time to be on its way somewhere else?

My medium earnings now have a new nickname: “honored guest.”

Look, I’m the last person you should listen to for money advice.

I have no idea if this will work — at best, I can offer this essay as a cautionary tale. I think the idea of “steward”, though, is an interesting approach to a problem many people have. It may be a way to get past the mental blocks I’ve developed over half a century of scarcity mindset.

If not? Well, maybe what I’ll end up with from the Medium Partner Program is “therapy money.”

I could do worse.

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Gray Miller

Gray Miller

Gray is a former Marine dancer grandpa visualist who writes to help adults figure out what they want to be when they grow up.