Recently I had a conversation with a person who deeply believed these two money scripts. She was sure there was great emotional and spiritual reward in ridding oneself of the trappings of materialism and living simply and in poverty.
I’ve conducted many workshops where participants uncover and examine their money scripts, which are the thoughts and beliefs they have about money. I’ve never run into a money script that wasn’t true in some circumstances and false in others. The more certain a person is that a money script is true, the greater the chance that it will be the source of financial and emotional suffering and pain when circumstances change, which they inevitably have a way of doing.
Like all money scripts, these two contain some truth. Money and material possessions cannot in themselves create happiness. However, having enough money to get out of poverty certainly does make people happier. Research shows a direct relationship between more money and happiness until someone’s income reaches around $50,000 to $80,000, enough (in the US and depending on location) to meet basic needs comfortably. Beyond that, more money doesn’t correlate to more happiness.
Many would equate having more money with having more stuff. While often true, this is not always the case. Charles Dickens’s famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, was wealthy but lived like a pauper. His lack of material possessions certainly did not give him more joy or contentment. In fact, it was a symptom of the spiritual emptiness he lived with until he was transformed.
Money and the things it can buy are not what stifles joy, connection, peace, and spirituality. Money is a 21st century survival tool; it touches everything we do and without it our very survival is threatened. It’s how money is viewed and used that can open us to connection or isolate us, cause us turmoil or fill us with serenity.
There is also a significant difference between poverty by choice and poverty by circumstance. Living in poverty is not the same as living simply. There’s nothing simple about the day-to-day anxiety of being poor. It may mean juggling second jobs, child care, and transportation; living in fear of a child getting sick or the car breaking down; or coping with the bureaucratic and often illogical demands of systems that provide assistance. Struggling to get by without enough money is hardly a lifestyle that leaves room for spiritual contentment.
Poverty by choice, in contrast, means living simply despite being able to afford more. It may be that knowing one has the means of acquiring more, yet choosing to live without, may exercise more spiritual muscles than going without of necessity. It may also be somewhat disingenuous for someone living simply within a financial safety net to preach the virtues of poverty.
Having modest earnings, little net worth, and few possessions is not exactly poverty if one has control over or access to assets and even luxuries. Some religious leaders and heads of charitable institutions, for example, may be provided with the means to live comfortably and be freed from responsibility for the housekeeping necessities of daily life. Living simply by choice in this way can free them to focus on their work or spiritual development.
Maybe the most balanced perspective is to view living simply through a lens of “enough.” If we don’t have enough for basic necessities, how can we be content? If we do have enough, do we really care if someone else has more?