If you’ve ever lived in real poverty, struggling to meet your basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing, it’s almost certainly not a “lifestyle choice” you would voluntarily opt to return to. If you were to ask people who are living in poverty whether they would like to continue in their current circumstances or transcend to living a life where their basic needs were met, it’s almost certain that nearly all would choose in a heartbeat to move out of poverty.
Yet one category of money scripts—the unconscious beliefs about money that underlie our financial behavior—is described as taking a Vow of Poverty. It is more common than you might expect.
Let me emphasize that this Vow of Poverty is unconscious. It is not a deliberate choice, but a set of deep beliefs shaped by childhood experiences. Although someone with these money scripts is not consciously aware of the beliefs, the person will still make financial decisions and practice financial behaviors that are likely to keep them in poverty.
Like other beliefs that result in problematic money behavior, a Vow of Poverty is rooted in good intentions. It includes a set of money scripts and extreme beliefs that were formed, typically when the person was very young, as a way of soothing and protecting a wounded part of themselves.
Vows of Poverty might form as a result of growing up with circumstances and experiences such as:
- Feeling envied and resented because of one’s family having more money than the families of one’s friends.
- Being taught that wealth is inherently evil or corrupting.
- Being taught that taking care of finances is “too hard.”
- Learning a religious viewpoint that if you have faith, God will provide.
- Learning that financial success is pointless—perhaps extended family members pressure a child’s parents to share any extra income, or parents take away money a child has earned.
The good intention and protective purpose behind Vows of Poverty can take many different forms. The intent might be to keep you equal to those around you so you belong, to keep you from being or appearing evil or corrupt, to avoid wealth in order to maintain the moral high ground and be a good person, to avoid financial success out of fear that you might not be able to handle money, or to show faith that God or the Universe will provide.
Another possibility is the hope that a Vow of Poverty will fulfill a deep desire to be taken care of, which is often driven by the need to be seen, heard, and accepted. The protective intent of the money script might be, “If I am self-denying enough and a good enough person, ‘they’ will notice and approve of me.”
Unfortunately, regardless of the original protective intention, money scripts around a Vow of Poverty often result in financial behaviors that cause more harm than good. People with poverty money scripts might sabotage potential success, stay underemployed and underpaid, give away money to a degree that limits their ability to provide for their own basic needs, financially enable friends and family members, and fail to save or plan for retirement.
Such financial behaviors can damage family relationships, as well. If one spouse is working toward being financially successful and the other seems focused on financial failure, conflict is inevitable.
For spouses, family members, or financial advisors, it is helpful to understand that someone with an unconscious Vow of Poverty is not simply “stingy” or “cheap.” Scolding, shaming, or confronting them is unlikely to help. In order to change the financial behavior, it’s essential to explore the origins and intent of the beliefs behind it.