Mrs Money here. Over the next few posts, I wanted to share the beginnings of my journey to developing an FI mindset. If you haven’t read Part 1, you can check it out here.
Just a few years ago, I did not believe I would ever be financially independent. Worse still, I associated wealth with negative traits – greed, materialism, inequality – which meant that I never allowed myself to think it was OK to make money. Naturally, that had consequences to how much I was making, and keeping.
In the past few years however, I’ve taken positive steps towards shifting this mindset – and it hasn’t been easy. I had to deal with some ugly truths, ask hard questions, set goals, get frustrated, then try again. It’s very much a journey for me, but I’ve made real progress in shifting how I think about money, and now I believe that it is just a matter of time before I can achieve financial independence. Hoorah!
Before I dive deeper into my process, I have to come clean about some qualities that definitely helped me along in this journey:
I’ve always been cheap. (Mr. Money lovingly refers to me as cost-conscious, a term which I much prefer). Ever since I can remember, I’ve always felt a deep sense of injustice realizing that I’ve overpaid for something that I could have got for 30% less just across the road, or having to pay for “premium” bottled water (I truly believe water is a common resource and all I should be paying for is the cost of the waiter’s time to get me the tap water).
I wear this label of being cost-conscious proudly. As a society, we have bought into the idea that excessive consumption or purchasing expensive brands is a sign of wealth and status, and frugality is something to be ashamed of. Countless luxury cars and a closetful of Prada bags later, with little retirement savings and praying that we don’t encounter a medical emergency, the joke is really on you.
It’s really easy to inculcate this virtue, too (yes, it is a virtue!). Just start by being aware of what you are buying and how much you are paying for them. Have you compared the prices of vegetables in different grocery stores in your area? Do you know when you should buy organic, and when it just doesn’t really matter? If you are buying luxury goods, ask yourself why is this important to you and if its worth it. This habit of questioning and assessing your options and values is like a muscle you can keep building, and will serve you well as you begin making bigger financial decisions. To me, its not about scrimping and being miserable, but rather just being smart with your expenses. #Costconscious ftw!
I’m a bargain hunter
Secondly, I’m always looking (and asking) for a bargain – which seems to be fairly common amongst Malaysians. But I remember once shopping in Chinatown in New York with an Australian friend, who was mortified by my attempt to negotiate down a $10 pair of gloves. My explanation that this was normal in my country did nothing to alleviate his horror. I got them for $7.
I think I got this from my dad. Since I was a kid, I have vivid memories of my dad asking vendors asking for their “best price”. He would do it with street vendors, in supermarkets or restaurants – it didn’t matter. I watched him use all the tricks of the trade – charm, negotiating down for bulk purchases or minimally faulty items, and planting a disinterested accomplice (usually my sisters or I, as my mom will always give us away). His inclination towards this is unsurprising given that he has a career in negotiation and sales, but as I grew up, my usually shy self found it very easy to just imitate him. His number one tip though — just ask. You never know when you can get it. I have found this to be true time and time again, sometimes in very surprising settings.
So while these helped ensure I was not spending as much as others, I realized early on that I had some damaging believes that were my real barriers to making and growing money.
Limiting Belief #1: “I can never be rich”
This was a deep believe that money is hard to come by, that I will never earn enough, and that being wealthy is only for the few who are able to run successful businesses or work hard in high-income jobs all their lives.
This is a damaging belief for many reasons:
- It puts us at a psychological disadvantage at the mercy of money, rather than feeling in control and knowing that money can work for us
- It confines us to mediocre-paying jobs instead of driving us to get creative or hustle to find ways to increase our income
- This feeling of resignation prevents us from taking the baby-steps needed to save and invest, that are crucial in the path to FI.
My early experiences as a lawyer earning RM3,000 a month and spending RM3,000 a month is an example of how this belief played out. Because I didn’t realize that I had this belief, I continued my lifestyle and hardly had any savings left at the end of the month. I was frustrated and seeing very little money at the end of the month reinforced this belief. The idea of investing and growing my wealth was laughable because, well, I had no money.
Limiting Belief #2: “I should never be rich”
Later on, and to compound the effects of damaging belief #1, I started believing that I should not be wealthy. This may sound odd, but hear me out.
After a few years working as a lawyer, I had a calling towards social justice and human rights work. I left legal practice, and started a career in the non-profit sector, hoping to use my legal skills to improve the rights of marginalized communities.
The non-profit sector globally is notoriously underpaid, and Malaysia is no exception. The story goes like this:
- fundraising in the nonprofit world is incredibly challenging, which means that the priority has to be to channel money to the communities you are trying to help, rather than to you, the person working to help them. The belief here is that money is finite.
- It is us (the self-sacrificial, bleeding heart nonprofit workers, who were trying to better society) vs. them (the evil, wealthy corporates who were ruining it). Money is therefore evil.
But I was deeply fulfilled in my new career and always told myself that fulfilment is more important than money. However after a while, I began to realize that this was not sustainable career. I needed money. More importantly, I wanted it.
Moving past my limiting beliefs
This growing frustration made me looking inward for answers. I was a fan of Tony Robbins, and he encourages us to start with your story. What is the STORY you are telling yourself about money?
I reflected on this non-profit-bleeding-heart myth. I realized that it effectively instilled a sense of guilt in those working in the sector. You are either Mother Theresa helping people selflessly, or you are a blood-sucking vampire of a human stealing from the poor to feed your lavish lifestyle.
I just couldn’t reconcile the two seemingly conflicting beliefs (wanting to earn money, while at the same time feeling guilty about it) and it was very frustrating. If you believe in the law of attraction, I was also sending out mixed signals to the Universe, effectively stunting any possibility of getting what I want.
A defining experience for me came after watching a Ted Talk. If you are in the non-profit sector, or any sector working on social impact, I recommend that you watch Dan Pallota’s “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong”. If you have just a minute, watch from Minute 3.00 – 3.50. Game changer.
In short, Dan Pallota argues that there is a bias between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, including the ridiculous reality that corporates are often paid more for encouraging consumerism in our society, while those who are trying hard to fix some of the societies most complex challenges have to struggle financially (he puts this far more eloquently than I just did). And that the solution is that we have to start demanding more of our society at large to understand that it’s our collective responsibility to incentivise bright talents who can do a world of good to raise people in marginalized communities, instead of forcing them (i.e. me) to make career choices based on economic needs that they shouldn’t have to.
Watching this video totally validated my experience as a professional in the non-profit sector.
Around the same time, I decided to look deep and explore the root causes of some limiting beliefs that I had. It hit me one day while meditating. Self-worth! What is the value I attach to myself? If I don’t feel that I can bring value to whatever I do, or more importantly, that I don’t have inherent value, I will always struggle financially. Without it, how can I negotiate a higher salary? How can I be ready to seek and seize opportunities when they come my way?
I recall so vividly an incident where someone offered me a research consultancy which would pay a pretty decent consultancy fee, and I just thought “Nah, I’m a salaried employee in my company. I can’t do anything on the side”. I didn’t even entertain the thought because I was so closed to the idea that I could add any value to a project beyond what I was already doing.
Dan Pallota’s talk, together with my recent revelations made me start to realize my worth, as someone who has the skills, experience and passion to trying to improve the lives of people who are disadvantaged. Maybe, just maybe, I could and should make this into a sustainable career.
Ok, so now I am beginning to deal with issues around guilt and barriers that were holding me back. Now what?
In the final part of this series, I will share the steps I took to slowly develop a FI mindset. I’m going to go deep, sharing processes and ideas, but also insights and reflections on why all of this even matters in the first place.
So where do you stand? What is YOUR story? Chances are, you probably didn’t know you had one! But if you have ever had financial issues, you most definitely do, and you need to start getting acquainted with it in all its ugliness. Here are some that you might resonate with:
- I am not good with money
- I don’t need money to be happy
- Money is hard to come by
- I will have to sacrifice too much time to make money
- Money is the root of all evil
- I don’t have skills or talents people would pay money for
- Rich people are never happy
- It is not ok for me to be rich if others are struggling
- Investments are complicated and I’ll never understand it
Once you identify your story, start working backwards. Where did it come from? Was it something you observed from your parents? Something someone told you about yourself that you believed? The people you surround yourself with? This first step is key towards changing your belief-system and eventually, your relationship with money.
What beliefs do you have? How have you tried you overcome them? Any successful tips to share?