feet with the word poverty on the concrete

The Vow of Poverty

One problematic money behavior that doesn’t get a lot of publicity is the Vow of Poverty. To be clear, I don’t think anyone consciously vows to exist in a state of poverty, where they don’t have enough money to meet basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. If you asked people actually living in such poverty whether they would like to stay there or move to living with their basic needs met, I have a hunch that most people would choose to opt out of poverty in a heartbeat. 

I’m going to suggest that most of those, such as members of some religious orders, who take a deliberate vow of poverty are actually vowing to live a simple life with as few of the trappings of materialism as possible. They are still supported by money from some source, especially in today’s world because money does touch everything that we do. While individuals may not personally own assets, the organizations and their leaders can have access to and control vast amounts of money. 

A vow of poverty as a problematic money behavior is different. It is an unconscious vow based on money scripts and is often a response to early traumatic experiences. It may lead someone to avoid learning about or dealing with money, live “in the moment” to such an extreme that they make no financial provisions for the future, stay stuck in low-wage jobs, sabotage financial opportunities or windfalls, and live financially dependent on others.

As with other money scripts, this unconscious vow of poverty is made by an inner part of the person that has a good intention. The intention is not to make things worse, but to protect the person from emotional pain. The vow was typically put into place when the person was very young as a way of soothing a wounded part of themselves.

There may be many reasons for the vow of poverty. Perhaps an inner part might equate having money with fears of being evil or corrupt. Probably behind that was some trauma associated with someone perceived to be rich. So a belief that rejecting wealth gives one the moral high ground could be a form of spiritual escape from pain and a way to keep parts of us convinced that they are good and not evil.

Or it could be that a part of us is afraid of failure because it doesn’t think it can successfully handle money, which leads to extreme behavior of avoiding any risk or opportunity for financial success. Another possibility is that a vow of poverty comes from a deep need to be taken care of, which can be driven by a need to be seen, heard, and accepted. 

If one partner in a coupleship has taken an unconscious vow of poverty, conflict over money is often exacerbated. The dynamic may be described as one partner aiming for financial success and the other vested in financial failure. One wants to work toward career and financial success while one wants to simplify; one wants to build wealth while one wants to avoid money. This doesn’t mean that either partner is right or wrong. They both have inner parts of themselves that are maintaining their views with the best intentions for themselves and the coupleship. Each one very likely wants to have their basic needs met, to support a meaningful life, and to have emotional wellbeing. They just see the way to achieve those things from very different platforms. Resolving this conflict is certainly possible with communication, compromise, and perhaps help from a financial therapist.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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