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.