It’s not about the money: growing up with a fear of scarcity
This is a story about how parenting from a place of scarcity creates a fearful mindset that stays with you for life.
I grew up in Surrey in a six-bedroom, four-bathroom house, set within an acre of its own land. We went on a family holiday at least three times a year, and to everyone on the outside, we were comfortable.
Comfort is interesting because it implies ease and freedom, but behind closed doors, we lived a strange contradiction of circumstance that didn’t play well with the assumptions that people who thought they knew us held about us.
You see, my dad was wealthy, but his wealth was private, hard-earned and not for sharing. Famous for telling us that money didn’t grow on trees, we learnt from a young age that money was hard to come by, and difficult to part with.
Born and raised on the idea that we were somehow wealthy, but also very poor, my parents articulated scarcity-loaded decisions that fueled a very real paranoia that we were only ever a few pennies away from a descent into the gutter.
While my dad bought himself hundreds of pairs of shoes and expensive clothes from bougy Italian fashion houses, my stay-at-home-mum trawled charity shops and found what we needed in the classifieds section of the newspaper, as if we were living on the breadline.
When I took an interest in learning the piano, my mum found a second-hand one for free. The high keys clicked like rickety bones, and the middle C played wild and unpredictable, like a baby tooth hanging off a gum, but it was free, and it was there, and that was what we could afford.
I loved to read, and my mum would bring me stacks of books from charity shops, sometimes good, sometimes terrible, sometimes with no idea what she was buying. At 11 years old she got me two box sets of Catherine Cookson novels, I had no idea what I was reading, but I read them all because that was what we could afford.
Before my mum got her Toyota mum-bus, she mooned away years in a two-door, beat-up Nissan Micra, and in a bizarre but predictable twist, my dad always drove around in the latest Mercedes-Benz, upgrading his cars whenever the mood took him to a showroom.
This is an actual email from my dad.
My mum was born and raised in Manchester and grew up on the dole. Marrying my dad probably didn’t help to undo her issues, but I often wonder if my mum’s own childhood triggered a stress response to the situation she was in. My dad was tight, and she responded with thrift.
So what was going on in my childhood home, and twenty years later, why am I still talking about it?
There are children in this world who are much worse off than I was, but this isn’t a story about those children.
I grew up afraid of being broke, and angry at being afraid of being broke.
As a teenager, I was so scared of asking my dad for money that I’d steal money from him instead. I knew he kept a padlocked suitcase of foreign currency in his room, and I unpicked the stitching on the underside of the bag so I could slip my hand inside and siphon off funds.
I stole money in increments.
Tidying up his money, one small crime at a time.
The older I got, the more expensive life got, the more devious I became.
I’d hunt through his expensive designer gear and sell his things off on eBay. Small things, Cartier things, things that shone with value in the dark recesses of his countless walk-in closets.
My mum sold everything worth taking, and my dad is a hoarder.
Eventually, I graduated from petty thief to career woman, and finally, I didn’t need to take anymore.
One of the proudest moments of my life was when I got my first salary. Not because it was huge, or because of the career I was building, but because finally, I was financially free. I vowed then and there, that I would never take anything from anyone ever again.
The theft wasn’t the problem.
Though granted, some people reading this may disagree, this isn’t a story about my ethics either.
Fear is a powerful driver, and as far back as I could remember, I lived in fear. My mum would hide receipts for fear that my dad would question why she’d been out for a coffee. My dad would hide shopping bags from designer stores, for fear that my mum would realise he had money.
As if the home we lived in wasn’t a big enough indicator that there was some deception at hand.
We shopped at Makro because my dad could bulk purchase household goods at wholesale value and keep costs down. We were a five-person household, but my dad ran our home like an extension of his business. Our family was a business overhead, and because it didn’t generate profit in and of itself, it needed to run with discipline and an emphasis on cost reduction.
Fast forward to the present day, and here I am. 30 years old, happily married and once again, living in comfort.
There’s that word again.
Between you and me, I’m not sure I know how to be comfortable, and that’s a limiting construct of my own creation.
I may have left behind the unhappy family life that created the financial PTSD I grew up in, but leaving home doesn’t sever you from your past. Before meeting my husband, I had lived alone for almost 10 years, and in that time there’d been no reason to reflect on my attitude towards money because I was in control of everything.
Now I’m a mother, I’m earning a quarter of what I used to make and my husband pays for most things. I feel like a ghost, visiting my mother’s past. Terrified that I’ll eventually lose all financial independence.
And all it took to tip our relationship dynamic out of balance was my shrinking bank balance.
Suddenly, every time I go out for a coffee I feel guilty, and anytime I buy something from the shops I second guess myself. Nervous that I’m spending when I shouldn’t be.
In the past few months, I’ve noticed it on myself, this stinky new mood. I feel like I’m choking on gratitude for my husband’s work and his ability to provide. I’m so bitter it hurts.
How do you explain to someone you love that their generosity is offensive to your childhood trauma?
My husband has never denied me anything, and he’s always enthusiastically supported my freelance career, but none of that matters, because in my head, I’m living in a rerun of my early years. Remembering how miserably reliant on my father we all were, and how anytime we needed anything, the thread of reliance was twisted a little tighter.
As I write this I feel like I’m finally understanding why this is such a bitter pill to swallow.
First of all, the pill isn’t a pill at all, it’s a pound coin, and I’m choking on it because I’m not sure I’ve ever had a healthy relationship with money.
I’d rather die than ask for financial help, and that’s a spectre from my childhood that’s completely interrupted my happy marriage. The only thing more jarring than this episode of my life is that shitty cameo Ed Sheeran did in Game of Thrones.
Secondly, even though money is my current trigger, I’m starting to realise that money is only one of many triggers that took root in my poor-little-rich-girl days.
The woman I’m trying to undo is a woman who grew up in a home where the real currency was scarcity. Scarcity of security, love, trust and certainty.
Homes, where finance is a problem, are usually homes where other things are problems too.
I was struggling to cope with my parent’s poor relationship before I understood the meaning of money. Still, money became a miserable outlet that we all understood and could get behind because it was tangible.
The other things.
Crying things. Desperate things. Screaming things. Out of control things.
I still feel them today, but I skim them off the surface of my stinky new mood, and when I do, all that’s left is money, because it’s still real and very much there. A relentless souvenir of a strange time in my life when I was poor and rich all at once.
I love both my parents, and I write this entire piece in painful reflection because I want to understand myself better and make peace with a past that is constantly interrupting my present.
For now, I carry around the past like loose change, jangling in my back pocket. My currency is trauma, and it’s my life’s work to untangle myself from the child within me, who still thinks that money’s too tight to mention.
If I could ask you to take one note from this story, it’s that money isn’t dirty or wrong, or responsible for what I went through.
Scarcity is the real villain in this story, and if you’re reading this as a parent or a carer or a lover, then I urge you to think about how you seed your belief system, and if the place you care from is a place of MORE because that’s the real treasure.
You see, comfort begins within you.