We all saw it at grocery stores in 2020. The shelves, once brimming with toilet paper and hand soap, were bare. We hid in our homes, deep-cleaning every surface, occasionally braving the threat of COVID-19 to hunt down the last remaining bottle of hand sanitizer in a 50-mile radius. We felt out of control, so we controlled what we could: the contents of our kitchens and bathroom cabinets.
Today, this fear of scarcity plays out differently, due to rising prices, a volatile stock market and whispers of a looming recession. We’ve simply rolled one set of worries into another, continuing to assume all our resources are scarce, whether that’s true for us or not.
If the current situation has you avoiding any long-term planning or fearing spending any money, even on things you need, you’re experiencing a scarcity mindset. This basically means you view your resources — like money, food and employment opportunities — as limited. And when you’re concerned about access to these things, it’s natural to want to grab onto whatever you can.
At times, this impulse is useful. “It helped humans survive back in the day when we faced existential threats from nature,” says Courtney Cardin, co-founder of Aura Finance, a financial wellness and investment platform that’s currently in the private testing phase. “Everyone who’s here had an ancestor who benefited from a scarcity mindset.”
But when a scarcity mindset isn’t rooted in a real need to avoid hungry lions or preserve a season’s worth of food without refrigeration, it can work against you, persuading you to make financial choices that aren’t actually in your best interest.
The emotional and financial effects of a scarcity mindset
Factors beyond your control, like inflation or supply chain shortages, can limit your access to the things you need and make it harder to achieve your financial goals.
“You can imagine it’s not a very pleasant place to be, to be kind of on guard, thinking that you’ve got to keep everything that you have, that you’re going to lose it in some way,” says Susan Greenhalgh, an accredited financial counselor and founder of Mind Your Money LLC in Providence, Rhode Island. “That’s kind of a vigilant standpoint, and that’s a very difficult standpoint to enjoy life from.”
The ongoing stress can cause you to hold onto cash in a savings account because you’re afraid to invest, potentially limiting your ability to grow your net worth over time. Or you could take the opposite approach, spending money like there’s no tomorrow because you worry items you need will disappear from stores. When you’re anxious about the short term, it’s hard to plan a few years — or even months — ahead.
You may even make ineffective or risky moves to try to lock in some wins. “Every product you see out there is a potential solution for you,” says George Blount, founder of nBalance Financial, a financial therapy and wellness practice in Boston. “The lottery’s going to look a lot better. Cryptocurrency is going to look a lot better.” But cryptocurrency may or may not be a good fit for your overall financial picture, and only one lucky person won that billion-dollar payout. Unless you’re reading this from a lounge chair on your new superyacht, it probably wasn’t you.
How to put your fear to work
Though anxiety feels awful, it can be a productive emotion that spurs you into action. Reading through some recent bank and credit card statements, for example, can give you a better sense of where your money goes each month and where you might be able to cut back on spending.
Setting up automatic money transfers into an emergency savings account can help you feel more confident that you’ll be able to handle an unexpected expense. Or perhaps you update your resume because you’re worried about layoffs at your company. Whether or not that ends up happening, you’ll be prepared to job hunt at a moment’s notice.
What’s not productive is obsessively tracking stock prices, falling for get-rich-quick schemes or constantly monitoring the news. There’s a lot of yelling, often by people who don’t totally understand what’s going on but have opinions about it anyway. Give yourself the time and space to determine what you truly need and value, so you can set appropriate money goals and make a plan if things don’t go the way you hope they will.
“We’ve got to stop and get quiet and figure those things out,” Greenhalgh says. “Once we do that, when we have our mind to our money connection, we can dampen the noise out there a little bit.”
Sara Rathner writes for NerdWallet.
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