Emotionally Attached to Money: The Scarcity Mindset

brain - emotionally attached the scarcity mindset

When you think about emotional attachments what do you picture? What do you feel connected to? What would make you feel a deep sense of loss if it went away?

Emotional attachments are a normal part of any close relationship. When you love someone you don’t want to lose them.

It makes sense to form emotional connections with those we meet, but we can also become emotionally attached to the things we own. Think about children who form connections with baby blankets, pacifiers and teddy bears.

It’s not unusual to feel emotionally attached to objects, but what about money? Can you feel emotionally attached to the dollars and cents in your checking account?

Does that seem like a strange question to ask? You can’t hug money. You can’t snuggle it for comfort. So surely you shouldn’t feel emotionally attached to it either. Right?

Emotionally Attached

Have you ever tried to declutter your house or minimize your possessions? One rainy day you pull everything out of your closet and toss it onto your bed. Eager to begin you make quick progress of the first few items.

You toss a stained t-shirt into the trash along with a torn pair of pants and a skirt with a broken zipper. Those are easy, but a few minutes later it becomes much more difficult to purge.

You stumble across an old t-shirt from a rock concert or a bracelet given to you by your very first best friend. Maybe your kryptonite is an old Swatch watch or a ratty old sleep shirt that’s seen better days.

As you hold each physical object in your hands a rush of emotions overtakes you. It’s difficult to separate your feelings from the objects themselves.

Each of us feels a particular fondness to various things we own. We feel emotionally attached to something we no longer need or wear. We consider parting with this stuff, but our heart urges us to hold on.

It’s so difficult to let go.

Emotionally Attached to Money

If a fire broke out in your house what sentimental items would you rush to save? Would you save photographs, love letters or mementos from your childhood.

These are the items we stow away in a box for safe keeping and drag with us whenever we move. We feel deeply connected and emotionally attached to them.

Can we feel this same emotional attachment to money? Money isn’t unique. It’s not one of a kind. In the middle of a fire I would not rush off in search of money. That doesn’t mean I’m not emotionally attached to it.

In fact, I’m quite certain I am emotionally attached to money. It’s this emotional attachment that leaves little room for generosity.

Generosity

Generosity is rarely discussed in the personal finance community. This isn’t surprising. I believe the pursuit of financial independence is inherently selfish, so it makes sense that FI enthusiasts wouldn’t talk about it too often.

We can read about earning more, saving more and retiring at an early age, but rarely read about donating any of it. Generous voices in the FI community are hard to find. ESI Money, Harlan Landes, J. Money, Angela, Revanche, and Physician on FIRE, are in the minority.

Being generous with my time is easy. My family and I routinely make meals to feed the homeless and give away books to kids in need. I actively volunteer to raise money for my sons’ schools and help out in their classrooms.

This spring I worked over sixty hours to support a local silent auction. I walked door-to-door, made phone calls and followed up with other solicitors. That should have been the hard part, but it was my financial contribution that me cringe.

Donating to worthy causes is difficult for me. Every time I donate I face an internal struggle of sorts. I find it physically difficult to part with the money.

Giving Away Other People’s Money

Last winter Rockstar Finance hosted a community giveaway event. ESI Money asked bloggers to submit ideas for how to use money to “bless others.”

I had a great idea to provide books to kids in need, but didn’t buy a single book until I received ESI’s free money. Without that Rockstar Community Event I don’t know if I would’ve put my charitable idea in motion.

Quite frankly it was much easier to give ESI’s money away than my own. I’ve continued giving books away since that time, but I definitely needed the push to get started.

Why am I so stingy?

The Abundance Mindset

My husband is quite generous. He tips well, buys dinner for strangers in restaurants, and provides generous cash gifts to carpenters and handymen. He once paid $1,500 more than the asking price for a used jeep just because he felt bad for the guy who was selling it.

Where I see the value in selling an unwanted household item. My husband just wants to give it away. “Don’t ask for $30,” he’ll tell me. “Just give it to them for free.”

So the other night, while grilling hamburgers, I asked him why he’s so generous. “I don’t worry about making more money,” he said. “Money has always come easily to me.”

I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind as I fell asleep later that night. How could my husband give away his money so easily? The answer is obvious. He was raised with an abundance mindset. He believes there is plenty of money to go around and that he can earn more if he needs it.

Why don’t I feel the same way? Why do I struggle to donate and why is it so hard for me to part with money? I’ve known plenty of people who earn less, but give more so easily.

As I laid in bed I began to piece together the reasons. It turns out there are quite a few.

Early Money Memories

What visions come to mind when you think about your childhood? Many of my earliest memories involve money.

I grew up in a single income household for the first nine years of my life. My mom stayed home with us while my dad went off to work. When my mom returned to work she did so as a part time office assistant earning minimum wage.

Growing up I watched my mom hold on tightly to the money my dad brought home. She never remodeled the house or spent money in any visible way on herself. She purchased clothes and toys for my brother and I, but I don’t remember her buying much else.

When the car broke down or the refrigerator stopped working my mom always seemed to panic a little. Every time my dad earned a bonus at work it went to fix a broken car or appliance.

My mom often seemed nervous about financial issues and money.

Scarcity Mindset

scarcity mindset

My mom struggled with a scarcity mindset that she unknowingly passed on to me. We had enough money to pay the bills, but we didn’t seem to have much more beyond that.

Growing up I convinced myself that money was hard to come by. I believed that I should hold on tightly to ever dollar I earned. From a very young age I began rolling pennies and stashing them away beneath the dresser in my bedroom.

My upbringing imprinted a scarcity mindset on my deepest money beliefs. I constantly felt the need and desire to save more.

Children carry blankets and pacifiers around to feel comfort and security. You know another thing people carry around for comfort and security? Money. 

Counting Every Dollar

When I graduated from college I began my career earning $32,000 in Washington, DC. I needed enough money to pay for a car, rent and food. I lived on a miserable sun porch in a group house with six other people to minimize my expenses.

In my twenties I traded my youth to rise up the corporate ladder. I needed money. I hated feeling strapped for cash and I poured my heart and soul into my work.

In those early years I worked ridiculously long hours learning on the job. Some nights I left the office after midnight and returned the next day at eight o’clock in the morning.

Each time I saved a dollar I felt a sense of relief. As my bank account grew I became more emotionally attached to money and the security it provided.

My Beliefs Failed to Change

My mom’s actions and beliefs make perfect sense. She was a part time office assistant earning minimum wage, but I did not follow in her footsteps.

I became a highly paid software engineer, but I never changed my money blueprint. I failed to adopt an abundance mindset even when my circumstances completely changed.

Despite earning hundreds of thousands more than my mom ever did I never changed my broken beliefs.

Money As a Symbol of Success

Having a scarcity mindset is the main reason I feel attached to my money, but it’s not the only reason. Early in my career I began to equate my self worth with my net worth. As I earned more and saved more my money became an extension of my success.

I viewed money the same way an athlete might view a trophy. I toiled away countless hours learning and training as a software engineer. That money was my reward.

My husband and I lived like the quintessential millionaires next door. I never needed to live the rich lifestyle, but I needed to know that the money was there.

I paid for that pile of cold hard cash with my time. Each dollar in the bank represented proof of my hard work and dedication. The money served as evidence. My time, effort and energy were all wisely spent on growing my career. At least that’s what I told myself.

Each time the bank accounts grew my emotional attachment to the money grew stronger. I found it difficult to be generous. How could I part with the money I spent so many hours working to earn?

Emotionally Attached and Unable to Let Go

Growing up my friend collected Beanie Babies. She spent inordinate amounts of time filling her shelves with those tiny creatures. Thirty years later she still can’t part with them.

Perhaps that’s how I felt about the money I earned over the years. I spent a ridiculous amount of energy building my net worth. After spending so much time focused on accumulating it became difficult to let go.

Throughout my life money has helped me overcome financial fears, stress and anxiety. Like Linus I snuggle a security blanket, but mine is full of money. With money in the bank I am able to live my life more fully. I worry less about the medical nightmares that have plagued my life. I get to enjoy pain free moments without money worries.

When you take a pacifier or a baby blanket from a child do they cry? What would happen if you took my money away?

What Truly Matters

Deep inside I know that life is fragile. I also know that my success should not be defined by the money I’ve earned. I don’t flash my wealth or need others to know I have it. In fact, I tend to be too modest about my success.

My emotional attachment to money is not a Scrooge McDuck like feeling. I’m not greedy or materialistic. I don’t need to hoard my money or flaunt it in any way. I just needed it there for security.

Generosity

abundance mindset

As a child I focused on my mom’s money worries and struggles. I failed to pay attention to the generosity of her spirit.

Every Sunday morning my mom placed money onto the offering plate. She handed money to men begging on the street and to charities who called looking for donations.

Despite feeling like she didn’t have enough she didn’t hesitate to help others. My mom may have struggled with a scarcity mindset, but she gave abundantly. She knew there was plenty to go around.

It’s taken me years to learn that lesson, but now I know it too. I continue to give even though it’s difficult for me to do so. In fact, the more I give the easier it becomes.

Feeling emotional attachment is quite normal and natural, but those attachments can also become harmful to our overall well being.

I don’t need to cling to every dollar. My husband is right, “there is plenty to go around.” The more I give the more I believe him.


Do you consider yourself to be a generous person? Do you feel emotionally attached to your money? Tell me in the comments below.

Emotionally Attached to Money: The Scarcity Mindset

18 thoughts on “Emotionally Attached to Money: The Scarcity Mindset

  1. We’ve given enough away that had it been invested it would be worth millions, yet it was only 10-15% per year and it never seemed to impact our lifestyle. I always got paid more than I thought I deserved and we still saved 20-30% above what we donated on a single income with three kids. When your life goes like that and then later in life you inherit seven figures from your parents it is hard to not have an abundance mindset. I do find it harder to give money away since I retired slightly early and only have a hobby income. But I’m working on that. I think generosity builds an abundance attitude.

    1. Thank you for sharing your own details about generosity. I think this conversation is sorely lacking in the PF community. I never thought about calculating the amount we could have earned on the amount we’ve given away. Thankfully I’ve never done that, because it would make it that much harder to keep giving it away 🙂 My husband and I donated well over six figures to our alma mater over the last decade or so and you are right once we give the money away we never miss it. If we don’t miss it then surely we have always had more than enough. Intellectually I need to keep reminding myself of this because emotionally I still struggle with it.

  2. Loving your posts lately.

    I am definitely emotionally attached to my money and find it both hard to spend it and give it away. For me, I think it’s because I’ve worked to change my spending habits and part of me is scared I’ll fall back into my old mindless spending ways. Deep down I know that isn’t true, but it’s a limiting belief I find myself working through.

    I’ve found that my budget is helping me be more generous. By stashing away money each month specifically for “giving”, I’ve been able to say “yes” to move giving opportunities without the mental struggle I used to face.

    1. Thanks Melody! I’ve never been a spender, but I appreciate your point and your perspective. A limiting belief limits us no matter where it comes from or how it was formed. It’s incredibly difficult to leap over the mental hurdles we create for ourselves. This post was quite cathartic for me. The simple act of writing about it helped me clear my mind and realize how ridiculous it is to stay trapped in this mental model. I don’t know if you’ve written about this topic, but it might help just to dump your thoughts out about it. I’ve never budgeted, but I do think it would help to mentally earmark money for charitable contributions. It might help to “know” that the money will be given away. Thanks for the idea!

  3. I feel like I am a generous person. I’m not sure about the emotionally attached part. My first thought was to say no, but…who knows? I wouldn’t like to not *have* any, but that may not be the same thing 🙂

    Do you believe that people who don’t TALK about giving money, time, and goods away are not generous? I’ve always thought that the idea was to keep quiet about donations and helping others because talking about it would be like bragging. (Or putting someone that has a hard time asking for help in an unwanted spotlight.) Maybe I am wrong there though and there would be benefits to telling the world about giving.

    What kind of discussion would you like to see about generosity?

    1. Thanks for your comment Jackie. I really appreciate your questions. They made me sit back and think about this topic quite a bit.

      I do believe that most people who are generous talk about giving, but perhaps I should take a poll to find out. I know plenty of people who donate and talk about setting aside money in their budgets. Similarly those who volunteer often talk about where they volunteer or how they help out.

      I have heard this “bragging” argument before, but quite frankly I don’t believe it. Do you? In the PF space people “brag” about their savings rates. They “brag” about making wise financial decisions. They “brag” about getting stimulus checks, not paying any taxes and putting all of the money into savings. They “brag” about all sorts of things related to money. So if we can talk about all these things and “not” consider them “bragging” then how can we not talk about donating or contributing to charities? Why is this one topic considered “bragging” when clearly all of the other topics can be seen as “bragging” too.

      In my opinion a lot of what we read, write and talk about could be considered bragging, so why don’t we talk about generosity too? I think it’s because a lot of people don’t give. Another case in point. A lot of bloggers write about their monthly or yearly expenses. They outline in detail how much they pay for their cars, houses, food, etc, etc. They list these items in great detail. They talk about how little they spend per month. They include “fun” categories and all sorts of other one off categories. Where are the details on giving? Why are they missing? Is it because they don’t want to be seen as bragging or because they don’t give?

      I think we should openly talk about giving. We don’t need to talk about the specifics if that bothers people, but why can’t we include it on our monthly tallies and open the discussion so that others may see the value in giving and want to give?

      I struggle to give, but I still do it. I wrote this post to see if there are others who feel the same way. I don’t know if people don’t give or if they don’t talk about giving. It’s a good question, but based on how detailed a lot of PF folks are with their finances and how many taboo topics are talked about in this space I find it hard to believe that they give and just leave that line item out of the discussion. It doesn’t make sense to me.

      Thank you for widening this discussion. I’d love to hear any other thoughts you have on the topic.

      1. I replied via email, but here’s a few more comments:

        I don’t struggle to give at all, and do so both regularly and often, to multiple organizations. I like feeling like I am making SOME kind of difference. But I don’t post about doing so on my site.

        My guess would be that people who do post specific budget categories / amounts but do not have a category for donations/tithes/charity/etc probably are not giving money. They may or may not be giving time or goods.

        I always assumed everyone gave in some way, because how can you not want to help?

        I’d love to see the poll results 🙂

        1. We definitely don’t all give. I personally know many people who don’t. I dug up a 2018 study that said 68% of Americans give to charity and of those who donate most only give 2.6%.

          I do appreciate your point though. Perhaps there are more PF enthusiasts who donate, but simply don’t write about it. It looks like I’ll need to dig deeper to find out 🙂

  4. My husband grew up poor and I didn’t. One of our marriage struggles is our differing views about money. The response to any request he made involving money growing up was “we can’t afford it”. We have a lot now and could afford to spend twice what we actually do. There are certain charities I support, and I also give to our church. I should probably give more- we do not give the recommended 10%. But I donate more than he is really comfortable with. He knows rationally that we have enough, but as you said, it’s difficult emotionally for him. He knows I’m doing it, but told me to stop telling him. Oddly, as well off as my parents are, they give away less than his parents, whom I suspect never missed a full 10% tithe to their church.

    I had trouble giving money away till we had enough that I felt “safe”. We’re probably never going to run out, and I think it’s unhealthy to leave your kids above a certain amount, so I’m writing more checks these days. It’s very satisfying to be able to help those in need.

  5. I can sense the struggle you feel between your way of thinking and your husband’s, but I appreciate that you’ve created a system that works for the both of you. You continue to donate and your husband is fine as long as you don’t tell him how much you’ve given. My husband does this sometimes too. Like he’ll buy a random stranger dinner at the table next to us, but not tell me until many days later. I don’t ask him to keep it from me, but I think he prefers to wait until the moment is over. Of course, we’ve been together so long I can now sense that he’s going to do it. I see him look over at a table for a long enough time and I kind of know it’s coming 😉

    Growing up I had a very poor friend and neighbor who was constantly helping others. Thinking back it’s amazing how much they gave with how little they had. I’ve read statistics that say it’s very common for those with low incomes to give a much larger portion of their money to those in need. Having more definitely doesn’t mean you’ll give more, so the difference you see between your parents and your husband’s parents seems to jive with that data.

    You make an interesting point about feeling “safe.” I still don’t like to part with money, but I did feel better about it when I felt safe in the amount of money I’d already saved. I’m curious how much do you plan to leave your children? If you don’t mind my asking.

    1. I don’t really have a number, but when I was running retirement projections with our assets and spending, some of them were showing us leaving crazy amounts- like 15-20 million to our kids. A lot of things could happen between now and then- some people are projecting that returns will be lower. Who knows. It might never be a problem but I think 10 million apiece is too much. My husband and I don’t agree on this either . But being 9 years younger I will almost certainly live longer….

        1. I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that you get the final say because you’ll live longer. That’s hilarious! Yeah, I don’t think leaving enough money for private jets is a good idea either 😉

  6. I didn’t feel attached to my money, frankly because I really don’t have that much. Regarding generosity, I feel that I have always been generous to my family and friends and sometimes, I didn’t even know when to draw the line. I remember withdrawing some of my locked savings just to lend the money to a friend (losing the potential to earn in the process) and got paid months afterward (probably a year). I also use my credit card to buy their basic essentials if they don’t have any such as food etc. I even find lending even the last money on my pocket.

    What got me thinking nowadays is that, during this pandemic period, I never heard from those people. I know that we shouldn’t expect anything in return when we help others. However, it just got me into thinking why no one asked me how I was doing or if I need help or something.

    Anyway, maybe generosity should have its limits? Maybe we should always keep something for ourselves. I don’t know the answer. I’m just experiencing this now and I’m quite confused with what to feel towards those who I thought were very close to me.

    I better stop myself now, before this comment become a blogpost in itself 🙂

    1. Kudos for your generosity. I find so many stingy people lately that it’s good to know people are still willing to share their success with those in need. But you raise an interesting point. Sometimes the people in our lives depend on us, but it would be nice if they would show their concern for us too. I’ve had friends like this in my life. They always need something and I’m happy to help, but in return they never seem to know what I need or check in on me to make sure I’m ok. I hope that you find people who are as concerned about you as you are about them. They don’t need to give you money or stuff. They just need to show they care.

  7. I belong to a church who stresses the tithe. We have always given 10% back to God and used the rest to save and live. In addition to the tithe we give of our time, talents, and money on top of that. I feel this has helped us develop a more healthy relationship with money.
    There is some interesting research on this topic. Researchers gave pizzas away to random people and then other people came back and asked if they would be willing to share some of the pizza they had just been given. It was urns out the homeless and those that that the least to give were the most generous.
    I know of many wealthy people who are very generous with their money and I believe that most wealthy are very generous. They just don’t give away until it hurts like those on the other end of the scale. The whole idea of money messages instilled in us while growing up is called money scripts. It is a good idea to review some of the common ones to see your potential blind spots.
    Thanks again for your blog.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have been investigating my own money script for nearly fifteen years now, trying to figure out what makes me save, spend, or worry about money. Now I’m working to break those molds. I’ve read a lot of interesting research on generosity based on income levels. I hope to impart my wisdom on my children so that they become abundant minded adults with generous hearts and wallets.

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