Justin Locke

Don’t Get Locked Into Poverty Thinking

How to look out for tell-tale signs.

December 5, 2011
by Justin Locke

There are endless numbers of books and lectures telling you how to become rich. Today, I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to share some thoughts on how to not be poor.

Recent economic vicissitudes have led to large numbers of people experiencing a lack of financial resources for the first time in their lives. Lack of money is a form of trauma and there are many common responses to it. Some of these are of course logical and necessary, but many times, the kneejerk reactions to a financial crisis may look like rational solutions, but in fact they can actually beget policies that perpetuate it. I call this kind of thing “poverty thinking.”


This is a very large topic, which would make for an interesting presentation, but here are four of the most common symptoms:

  1. The Belief That People Who Have and/or Spend Money Are Immoral

    One of the best ways to get out of a recession is for everyone to start spending lots of money. However, whenever a large company spends a lot of money on a sales meeting in Las Vegas, their “extravagance” is always criticized in the press. This disapproval seems rational on the surface, but when viewed calmly, it is totally illogical. When a company is “extravagant,” it is hiring people. Disapproval of someone spending their own money is envy rationalized as righteousness. It is a form of “poverty thinking,” as it is anti-wealth. If anything, we should be shaming wealthy people for NOT spending lots of money on lavish parties.

    One should avoid vilifying rich people as a compensation for the pain of poverty. This is because, when you become rich yourself, you may hesitate to grab your big opportunity, as you don’t want to become something you currently despise. What I say is learn to love rich people, after all someday you may be one yourself.
  2. The Belief That One Can Scrimp to Greatness

    When an organization’s income falls unexpectedly, it is natural to immediately counter this by cutting expenses. While this may seem like a good idea at first with profits remaining the same for a while or even briefly increasing, a whole lot of built-up systemic waste gets cut in the first round with no real loss of value. That’s the hook that creates a cycle of poverty thinking. The reward for cutting seems so great that it becomes the highest priority, while income from last year’s business model is taken for granted as a constant.

    As even more is cut, the profit margin is maintained for a while, but usually at the cost of overall long term organizational growth. By the time this becomes obvious, it is too late.

    It’s a bad sign if you find yourself spending more time on saving money, than on developing new business. Nothing stands still anymore and if you’re not growing, you’re dying. No matter how broke you are, you should always think about some way of expanding your services or investing in future growth.
  3. The Belief That Desire Is Bad

    When our desires are not met, this is of course painful. If this frustration happens repeatedly, it is easy to think that the desire itself is the cause of one’s pain and from there it’s an easy leap to think desire is inherently bad. In response, it is common to try to suppress the desire itself before it can be frustrated. Yikes. Wealth is the cultivation and indulgence of desire. Poverty thinking is the suppression of it.
  4. Seeing Money as a Final Goal Rather than as a Tool

    When you suffer any kind of money-related trauma, it is common to put one’s fist to the sky and shout “I’ll never be hungry again.” That’s understandable, but while money is essential, it is not a primary goal of life, it is merely a means to your ends. If you hoard money and never spend it, that’s pretty much the same as not having it at all.

The above four are just a few of the most common symptoms.


Many people who have never experienced poverty first-hand think that it is primarily just a state of lacking money. Poverty thinking goes way beyond that. It is a whole world view — largely negative — that results from coping with the physical and emotional trauma of chronic scarcity.

If you are new to this, you can easily fall victim to the siren song of quick fixes, shallow logic and faux righteousness. Certain short-term measures for cash-flow and survival are often necessary, but be careful that neither you nor your clients fall into the long-term habits of poverty thinking.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© Justin Locke