What happens when changing your money mindset doesn't take you out of systemic poverty?
by Jane Harkness
“Know that it will happen. Plan for it to happen. Envision it happening.”
According to the business coach advertising a seven-figure blogging strategy, it was possible for anyone to earn this amount of money—all you had to do was dream it and sincerely believe it.
And if it didn’t work? You weren’t in the right state of mind to attract a financial windfall. In other words, poverty and debt are the result of a “poor” mindset, but if you shifted your “money mindset,” you could welcome money into your life with ease.
Changing the way you think about money can certainly change the way you manage it. But when they’re not nuanced enough, these conversations about money and mindset end up simply repackaging the individualist “bootstraps” narrative with softer, quasi-spiritual language.
Where the personal finance and life coaching communities overlap, you can find many people who say that you don’t just “earn” or “make” money—you can “manifest” it by thinking positive thoughts about money, writing down affirmations, or even using rituals to attract more money into your life.
If you believe that you’ll always struggle to earn and save money, it will always be scarce—but if you believe that you’ll always have more than enough, money will be abundant.
“This isn’t new,” notes Jen Dziura, founder of Get Bullish. “You can go all the way back to Tony Robbins in the early '90s using neurolinguistic programming to nudge people's ‘money mindset.’ Before that, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich was published in 1937. There is perhaps nothing more American. The aesthetics of this have just gotten more femme and witchy.”
Perhaps the resurgence and feminine rebranding of this trend began in 2006 with the success of Rhonda Byrne’s popular self-help book The Secret. The Secret describes how readers can use the “law of attraction” to improve their lives: by visualizing certain outcomes and maintaining a strong belief that they will obtain what they desire, they will eventually achieve their goals. After Byrne appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Secret went on to sell over 20 million copies, and although it has been twelve years since The Secret was published, the law of attraction is still a hot topic in the world of self-help.
To be fair, even those who do believe in the law of attraction often note that thinking positively isn’t enough—you won’t achieve anything if those affirmations aren’t combined with action. But no individual is an island, and as the gulf between the rich and poor widens across developed nations, we have to consider the big picture—our own thoughts and the actions they inspire aren’t the only things that affect our material conditions.
“I think you have to believe you can be good with money to be good with money. But I also think circumstances have a lot to do with it,” says Kara Perez, who educates women on personal finance through her organization Bravely. “You can’t will yourself out of systemic poverty.”
In a world where certain demographics have been historically disenfranchised, we have to acknowledge that as tempting as it is to believe we’re fully responsible for our economic success, factors outside of our control can also have an influence on our finances—for better or for worse. Women, people of colour, the LGBT community, and people with disabilities have all faced serious obstacles when it comes to finding employment, earning fair wages, and building wealth.
Even in 2019, white women earned about 82 cents to a man’s dollar—and when you take racial disparities into account, black women earn 63 cents, Native American women earn 57 cents, and Latina women earn 54 cents. In addition, legal systems often fail to protect marginalized people from workplace discrimination. For example, people with disabilities are often paid less than minimum wage with no repercussions, and in many places, employers can still legally fire someone simply for being gay or transgender.
Furthermore, moving up between social classes is becoming increasingly difficult, and your parents’ financial standing in your childhood can influence your earnings for life. Centuries of discrimination against certain groups have made it difficult for families to build generational wealth. As of 2016, black families held a median of $20,700 in family wealth, while the median for white families stood at $171,000.
Let’s be honest—an able bodied white man whose parents were able to pay for his college education will likely have an easier time “manifesting” more money than a black woman who had to take on student loans to pay her own way.
Economic cycles that individuals have no control over can also affect their financial status and employment prospects. For example, American students who graduated during the 2008-2010 recession are still earning less on average than students who graduated before the recession. Economists project that it could still take another decade or two for their earnings to catch up.
“Our world is unequal, and that means some people are not just going to be able to bootstrap themselves out of some situations,” says Perez.
However, if someone finds themselves living paycheque to paycheque, putting unnecessary purchases on credit cards, struggling to stick to a budget, or hesitating to negotiate a higher salary, could working on their mindset help them out of their financial rut? Whether you believe in the law of attraction or not, many financial coaches agree that adjusting your attitude towards money can have a long term, positive effect on your financial standing.
“Many of the women I work with were told in school that they weren’t good at math,” says Jenny Karlsson, a money coach who works with female entrepreneurs and freelancers. “As adults, they’ve translated this into a limiting belief that because they’re not good at math, they’re not good with money.”
“With money, if you think you aren’t able to manage it properly, you won’t try,” says Maggie Germano, a financial coach for women. “If you feel like you don’t deserve to have more, you won’t pursue higher salaries. It’s a vicious cycle that fulfills itself.”
In other words, women who are exposed to negative stereotypes about their ability to work with numbers and get a handle on their finances may start to believe it. The stereotype then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy—as Karlsson describes, a woman who is discouraged during her math classes in high school and believes she’ll never be able to work with numbers may feel apprehensive about creating a strict budget or investing later in life.
Yes, it’s fair to acknowledge that your thoughts about money can determine how well you budget, save, and negotiate. But at the same time, we have to remember that many disadvantaged people are trying to get ahead in a game that’s been rigged from the start. We live in a capitalist system wherein privilege can impact our lifelong earnings, and acknowledging these barriers doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to them. On the contrary, we have to begin with those uncomfortable conversations about privilege and personal finance in order to dismantle those very systems. We need to honestly assess how macroeconomics, policy changes, and systems of oppression can affect our earnings, employment opportunities, and ability to save.
If someone changes their attitude towards money, it will almost certainly have an impact on their finances, but so can their race, their gender, or their parents’ financial status. A nuanced, effective, and compassionate approach to personal finance must take all of these factors into account.
Otherwise, we risk alienating the people who need these tools the most.
Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her writing has been published on Thought Catalog, Student Universe, Pink Pangea, and more.
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