Scarcity Mindset: It’s All About the Brain

Scarcity Mindset: It’s All About the Brain

Email 9 mins

What is a scarcity mindset?

Scarcity is the feeling that there’s never enough. 

Back in the day, scarcity and fear helped humans survive. In the hunter-gathering days, there were different existential threats that humans contended with every day. ancestors depended on hunting, gathering, and foraging so food hoarding and rationing was key to survival. As a result, we are descendants of scarcity survivalists.

Today there is an unprecedented abundance of resources available, and yet our ancestors’ reactive, scarcity survival brain endures for one purpose – to keep us alive. Unfortunately, our hunter/gatherer brains haven’t evolved as quickly as the world around us. Thanks, tech.

Scarcity mentality can impede our ability to make good decisions. When people operate with a scarcity mentality, they see the world and its resources as finite and there is never enough. But our brains only have limited bandwidth – when we focus on hoarding resources to survive, we can’t be expansive or strategic about growing our resources in a way that enables us to thrive.  

FOMO v. Scarcity

Scarcity mindset can be a great motivator and a significant inhibitor. 

FOMO – the fear of missing out – can inspire people to say yes to an experience if they think that they might not have another opportunity to do so. While FOMO originates from a place of fear, in my experience, the actual execution comes from a  place of gratitude – being grateful to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

For example, when I first got divorced, I had FOMO. I felt like I needed to get out and “live” to make up for lost time. I was afraid of missing out on formative life experiences like living abroad, dating, and discovering myself as an independent person outside of a relationship. It was FOMO that inspired me to quit my job, file for divorce, and hop on a plane to Australia. 

Scarcity is the shadow side of FOMO. 

When I arrived in Australia, I started dating my way through the different neighborhoods of Melbourne. I went on regular dates and friend dates (thanks Bumble BFF) and met a ton of interesting (and bizarre) humans. The first date was great, but after the second or third date, a tiny voice in the back of my head would ask, “is this someone you could spend the rest of your life with? Would he be a good father? Can you make THIS work this time?” (Yes, my inner critic can be a real b*tch sometimes, but she means well.) 

I was 31 years old fighting against a biological clock. Procreation is central to survival and my scarcity brain was reminding me that there were factors I needed to consider to carry on my historical, biological purpose – to make babies. 

A scarcity mindset can limit your beliefs about what opportunities are possible. People with a scarcity mindset might tell themselves, I need to take this opportunity even if it might not be right for me because I might not get an opportunity like this again or I should keep dating this person even though I’m not super into them because time’s a wastin’ and all the good ones are already gone. 

So, while it is possible to make a good decision from a place of fear (FOMO), I personally prefer making decisions – particularly about my money – from a place of possibility. 

What does this have to do with money? 

Dealing with money can be emotional and extremely triggering. Taking control of your finances and living your best life requires intention, planning, and confidence. At Aura, we use a blend of mindfulness, coaching, and education to help our clients recognize when they’re being triggered and why- and give them the tools they need to pause, reset, and respond with intention. 

Having a scarcity mindset and other limiting beliefs can adversely impact you in many ways, including your relationship with your money. If you’re making a decision from a place of fear, your mindset is inherently restrictive – how do I protect myself? 

Cultivating an abundance mindset and asking more expansive questions like, “if money were no object, what would I do?” creates space to imagine how you’d like to live your best rich life. 

Overcoming a scarcity mindset: A Practice. 

Overcoming a scarcity mentality and cultivating an abundance mindset is simple, but it’s not easy. 

For most of us, our money stories and beliefs about money are formed between the ages of 3 and 7. Between the evolutionary programming of scarcity survival and our inherited beliefs about money from our family and society, unlearning and confronting our fears can take many forms. 

The Basics: Learn to respond, not react. 

Step One: Recognize your triggers. 

It’s no secret that times are difficult. With rising inflation and talks of a potential recession, people are more stressed than ever. Our brains can’t differentiate between the stress of being attacked by a wooly mammoth and not being able to afford rent next month – stress is stress and when stress increases, the scarcity mind snaps into action. 

Think back to a time when you experienced heightened stress – was there a trigger? What was it? Are there any patterns of behavior that have preceded moments of stress for you in the past?

Step Two: Get Curious about your feelings. 

Okay, so now you know you’ve been (or are currently being) triggered. 

First, remember to celebrate the small wins. Just recognizing the pattern or the feeling of being triggered itself is a huge first step to understanding and reclaiming your power.

Second, get curious about what’s happening. What are the physiological effects? How is stress showing up for you in your body? Are you feeling tense in your stomach, your shoulders? Do you have a headache? Are you clenching your teeth? Take a minute to observe your body – put on your investigative cap and find the physiological manifestation of stress inside. 

Step Three: Relax. 

If you’re having trouble isolating a particular source of stress, no problem. If you’ve found a spot of tension, great, breathe into it. 

Take three big, clearing breaths in through your nose for four… three… two… one…, and out slowly out through your mouth for eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one.

Step Four: Repeat (2 minutes, 10 rounds)

Congratulations, again! You’re activating your Vagus Nerve and working to shut down your fight-or-flight response. According to science, the 4:8 breathing technique can help slow down your heart rate, stop cortisol production, and release calming chemicals to help you relax and regain control. 

Intermediate: Practice Gratitude. 

There is no one objective reality. We all experience life through our own filters. How we choose to experience life is more within our control than many of us realize. 

Research shows that practicing gratitude can actually increase happiness and quality of life. For beginners, this can be as simple as recognizing an opportunity to reframe the “pain of paying” into an expression of gratitude. I know someone who, during tax season, gets all of their receipts together, makes a hot cup of tea, and offers a statement of gratitude out loud before sitting down at her computer – “I am grateful that I make a good living and can afford to pay taxes.” Not only does she feel much better about paying taxes, but reframing the activity into one of gratitude and relaxation also makes the process more efficient and enjoyable. 

Next time you find yourself suffering from buyer’s remorse, try reframing the feeling and be thankful for having the resources to buy yourself something special. 

If you’re feeling sorry for yourself while skipping a night out with friends to save money, try writing a letter to yourself thanking you for making the investment in your future. 

I know this might sound a little woo woo, but writing and saying our practices aloud is like weight-lifting for the soul. But the more we write it and speak it, the more we believe it and the more true it becomes.

Expert: Give to receive. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to feel wealthy is to give things away – money, clothes, furniture, whatever. 

In Judaism, we have something called the pushkah box – a coin box that families keep in their home and fill with spare change every day (plus a little more on shabbat). When the jar is full, it’s spent on a “good cause” of the household’s choosing. Sure, you could spend it on a new TV, or a fancy dinner, but most often, the pushka is donated to charity. 

Do a few coins really make such a difference? 

Short answer: yes. 

Long answer: yes and… 

The 12th Century sage Maimonides said that how much you give is less important than how often. The pushka practice is a practice because it helps build the giving muscle. Each day you remember to fill the box, you strengthen your giving muscles. 

Think of it this way, imagine you spent a year going to the gym and lifting weights every day. After 365 days, you might be surprised by how much more weight you can lift than when you started, but you might be equally surprised at how natural getting up and going to the gym has become to you. Working out is no longer a goal, but part of your routine. 

The Pushkah practice – or any consistent giving practice –  is the same. You build your giving muscles over time so that you don’t even think about it, it’s just part of your routine. 

It doesn’t have to be loose change around the house. You can make a practice of cleaning out your closet, volunteering your time with nonprofit organizations, or even just scheduling a consistent phone date with grandma. 

Time is in fact a scarce resource, but making a practice of spending it intentionally and giving back could pay dividends beyond your wildest dreams. 

Takeaway: Be Patient. 

Practice is personal and if done right, can be permanent. But it takes time to cultivate a practice. Be patient with yourself. If you miss a day, don’t stress – just restart your practice when you remember. It doesn’t matter where you start or what you do, just pick one thing, set time aside, and show up without judgment. The more you invest in yourself and your growth mindset, the sooner you will start to see a world of possibilities open up around you.