Releasing my “noble poverty” mindset has been an exhilarating journey.
When I first heard the term “noble poverty,” I had a visceral reaction of relief at finally having a name for a condition I had lived with since I was a child.
Mikelann Valterra, founder of the Women’s Earning Institute, has defined noble poverty as “the belief that there is virtue in not having money and that good people do not have it.” People with this mindset live by the phrase “It is better to be good and poor than rich and evil.”
The roots of the noble poverty mindset I used to carry run deep. I was raised in a devout Catholic family in a small rural town in Kentucky. My parents had me when they were both nineteen and worked hard to make a sweet little home for my siblings and me, but they struggled over money. The conflicts over power and control were exacerbated during their divorce, when I was a teen.
My experience of church teachings gave me clear messages about money: “You cannot serve both God and money,” “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and the most memorable to me as a child, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
I first started earning money through small jobs: brushing my grandmother’s hair for ten cents and later babysitting. At sixteen, I worked at a local video and record store and did my own tax returns. I worked two to three jobs at once to put myself through college, and even still, I took out as much in student loans as I could to pay my tuition; I was part of the first generation of students to incur unprecedented educational loan debt without fully grasping the consequences.
I went on to get an M.S.S.W. in social work and worked for nonprofit organizations with refugee and immigrant families and affordable housing. In my early thirties, when I began teaching financial literacy, I realized that I needed to start a retirement account and found an SRI mutual fund for my first IRA.
Even then, by age forty, I was still living with a mindset of noble poverty. I realized that I wanted to retire from this way of thinking and living. I came to understand that my calling was socially responsible investing, and I began doing deeper personal money work to liberate myself from the noble poverty mindset as I helped people align their money with their values.
As they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, taught me that we live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity. From her work with Buckminster Fuller, she saw that our systems that are still catching up with the reality of abundance. I now work with my clients to leverage their investments to transform these systems, so that fair trade, gender equity, inclusion, and economic justice become integral to our economy.
Barbara Stanny, in her book Sacred Success, taught me about women and our relationship to both money and power. She says that women’s challenges with money are often really challenges in their relationship with power. I continue to explore this for myself and help my clients in their own challenges with power.
There are many other teachers, of course, who have helped shaped the unique path I find myself on today. I am thankful to have defined my own “brand of joy,” an idea coined by Tanya Geisler that emphasizes the WHY of my work. As we begin a new year, I am thrilled to be continuing this journey with my clients and colleagues.
In June I participated in the inaugural Conscious Company Global Leaders Forum, a gathering of about 200 business executives who are interested in evolving themselves as a conscious leaders. They share a goal of bringing deeper awareness to bear inside companies to change how business is done, and to create positive, meaningful ripple effects in the bigger world.
As you might guess, some of the attendees were from recognizable companies like Google, Patagonia, Clif Bar, GoPro, and Seventh Generation. Economic innovators like Kat Taylor from Beneficial State Bank, and mission-oriented CEO Vincent Siciliano with New Resource Bank were there. Game changing leaders from BALLE, Bioneers, Social Ventures Network, Oxfam, B Lab, and American Sustainable Business Council attended as well, along with many chapter heads and members of the Conscious Capitalism national network, NEXUS, and Village Capital.
Natural Investment’s Carrie Van Winkle was recently featured on Forward Radio, a Louisville radio station. This is one of the best overviews of NI’s approach that we’ve heard. The forty-minute conversation covers some of the themes of resilient investing, as well as offering a quick introduction to SRI in general. Topics include fossil-fuel free investing, first steps for millennials, and bees.
Check it out here: Sustainability Now from Forward Radio
The new year offers us a burst of energy for starting fresh and recommitting to the changes we’d like to see in our lives. In the Mindful Money Transformation work I do to help clients achieve their money goals, I’ve found that there are four important ingredients that work together to help create powerful change.
#1 – Our WHYs
We start by identifying the goal (the WHAT) but then quickly dive into the WHY. There’s little energy in the “what” until it’s accomplished—the energy to fire our actions is in the “why.” If the goal is to pay off credit card debt, the why might be “to feel free from the stress of the debt hanging over me.” If the goal is to contribute the maximum amount into their IRA for the year, the why might be “to know that I am sending love to and caring for my elder self by what I do this year.”
# 2 – The energy of 90 days
Many of our goals are long term and that’s OK, but it can be overwhelming and hard maintain momentum toward goals that are still out of reach. So looking at the year by seasons can be a powerful lens that really focuses your energy: using the energy of your WHY, look at the next three months (set a specific target date) and set yourself an achievable goal. Shifting to this seasonal focus can really help you keep the momentum.
Let’s look at an example.
Before she started working with me Hope had spent many years trying to build her wealth like a butterfly. She was flitting from one money guru to the next. Reading their books, following them online, and changing course as she found the next lovely “blossom” (investment approach, idea, stock) that caught her eye. Trying to build wealth on our own can often lead to this butterfly approach, fueled by fear that we’re doing the wrong thing (especially when the market takes a deep dive), and ever seeking new ways to make the most of this money are investing.
Hope is a smart businesswoman. She wanted to be smart about building her wealth, too. We are now working together using a honeybee approach to building her wealth—and getting her to her ultimate goal, financial freedom.
Watch a butterfly. It flutters from blossom to blossom in what seems lovely but a bit random. The butterfly is primarily there to drink the liquid nectar; the pollination they do is by accident. While butterflies are eye-catching with their beauty—and important pollinators—their focus and their purpose are very different from the behavior of the honeybee.
Now watch a honeybee.
Someone you know has received a windfall of money, maybe $50,000, $350,000, or $5 million. It’s exciting! What a wonderful life-changing experience. Lucky dog, wish it was me!
This is the emotion and experience of a windfall, yes? Well, not quite, or at least, not fully.
The reality, from my personal experience and in my work with clients, is that these windfalls are usually tied to sad or traumatic events: the death of a loved one, a severe accident, or the upheaval of a new and unfamiliar life after divorce. This leads to a common situation that I short-hand as “the reluctant inheritor” (since the most common large windfalls occur after the death of a parent or grandparent).
The reality of this experience is that it comes with complicated emotions – like guilt, responsibility, and overwhelm – that are tough to talk about in our society.
We all have some money goals that leave us overwhelmed, drained of energy. So we push them aside, but the longer we do so, the more this disconnection tends to fuel a feeling that we just don’t know how to tackle them. But it’s important to get past these feelings, and find your way forward into these difficult topics; I’m going to share three “bigger picture” framing ideas that can be applied to many of our inner challenges.
One of the biggest uncertainties for many of us is planning for retirement. How will we live in our elder years? What choices will we have? What will our lifestyle be?
It’s just numbers, right? It should be pretty black and white. Well, not always….
In my financial planning work with clients, we go through a process of exploring their goals, getting clear on what they really want, and then creating specific action steps to move toward those goals.
When exploring goals, there are three common questions that arise for many people:
- Should I rent or buy?
- Should I pay off my mortgage or build up my investments?
- Should I pay off my student loans or save for a longer term goal, like retirement or a down payment on a house?
The tough love financial guy, Dave Ramsey, usually has a black and white point of view about such questions. There is one right answer: “Duh! Of course you would do it this way.”
My personal experience, and my experience working with clients of different ages and in different financial situations, is that the financial planning process is full of grey areas. There isn’t a black and white, “of COURSE you would…”, answer.
So what do we do?
Many of you have probably given thought to the culture we are in today. A culture of wanting, getting, and having things—most of which take money. A culture of the newest phone, a bigger TV, and amazing restaurants. We’re all immersed in this culture, to varying degrees. It’s so easy to find ourselves pulled into wanting things … to feel better, be better, or to present ourselves better in the world.
This energy of wanting is all around us. We are fish, and the water is our culture. Most of the time we’re likely to be swimming in our wants and desires unconsciously. As I work with my clients on their mindful money paths, and while working on my own, I’ve found that two key steps can be powerful in shifting into a new space, creating a more healthy culture around oneself.
The first step is ELIMINATION. The second is INVITING IN.
Elimination begins with developing awareness. The fish must first be aware that they are surrounded by water. How subtle the culture can be—the allurement built around these desires to have things, to get things, reinforced by the media we take in (online, magazines, TV) and by the conversations that come in and out of our days. Though I don’t consider myself to be deeply immersed in our consumer culture, I still notice the ways it calls to me a daily basis, telling me my life can be—should be—different, better, more.
This Elimination step is not about living an ascetic life of self-denial. It is about consciously creating a life that is authentic and meaningful to you. What are your true priorities and values, and how does this guide your money choices? It’s an ebb and flow—a continual upward spiral of awareness. Sometimes I’m better at this than other times.
Once you develop this awareness, then it’s time for some good ol’ action. So what are some simple steps to eliminate some of the consumer culture that surrounds you?
Let’s begin with a free association. Pause for a moment; write down what comes to mind when I say the word “money.” OK, done?
Based on my own personal relationship with money, and my work with hundreds of people over the last decade, I’m guessing many of your words have a negative connotation. Not all of your words, I’m sure, but some. The darker thoughts seem to be ingrained in us to some degree. Judgment. Shame. Heart is racing, feeling anxious. Anger toward oneself, and toward others—even your most beloved—about how their behaviors impact your financial wellness.
Perhaps since the dawn of money, humans have had a love/hate relationship with it. Money is one of our most enduring sources of personal stress. Even with the work that I do, helping others with their relationship with money, I have my moments of struggle with my money friend. The doctor still needs a doctor, right?
We have begun to bring the sacred back into parts of our lives where it was once lost. Mindfulness, as taught Thich Nhat Hanh and others, is a way of being in the moment: conscious and connected, aware. Books and articles abound with discussions of applying mindfulness to the core areas of our daily life. For example: eating mindfully supports our health and connects us to the wonder of our food. Sitting down together with those that we love, we give thanks and bless the food and those who have provided it to us. We think of the farmers and many others who are part of getting the food from seed to our table. We celebrate and quite naturally find the sacred in this practice.
As we begin this new year of 2014, I am inspired to build the same type of mindfulness practice with my relationship with money.