The Feeling of Not Having Enough Money


As I stand at the cash register, I shift my gaze between the grocery store checker whose name I do not know (but whose face is a Saturday morning staple), and Oli, a now master bagger who has perfected the art of packing groceries with the precision and urgency of a superhero. 

I’ve already swiped my card and have committed to whatever the final bill will end up being, even though there are several more items to scan. Now I simply get to enjoy the cooperation of the checker scanning each item and sliding it across the countertop to Oli, who has already carved out bag space for it to tetris into place. There is a sort of rhythmic joy to the whole thing, which I get to enjoy to the soundtrack of a mid-2000’s pop/rock song that I will undoubtedly have stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Waiting for the transaction total, I notice a sense of lack starting to appear within me. It’s a physical feeling that starts as a trickle in the base of my belly. It runs upwards and fills my torso, like light filling a room. By the time it reaches my chest, it feels constricting, as if someone has saddled me with a weighted vest designed for someone much larger than me.

The Sense of Lack

I recognize the feeling as a combination of dread and fear–dread about the impending final bill, and fear that I won’t be able to pay it. 

Except this doesn’t make any sense. I checked my account totals as recently as yesterday, and I know that while my life has many problems to solve, thankfully, grocery affordability is not one of them.

Nonetheless, the feeling of lack persists. It’s a familiar feeling, really. I have distinct memories of this same exact feeling in many different money scenarios in life. 

Where The Sense of Lack Comes From

While mom and dad did a great job of providing for us, there was a heavy sense of lack in the air around us growing up. While we were never insecure for food or shelter or clothing growing up, we also never had the sense that we could afford much of anything. 

Always in debt, we preferred to buy many cheap things instead of a few high-quality things, perhaps trying to fool our systems into feeling rich by the sheer volume of accumulated stuff. Why would you want to buy a high-quality jacket from Patagonia when you could buy 10 poorly-crafted, ill-fitting jackets from WalMart for the same price?

Bills were paid, but they were bitched about. Money was frequently at the center of household tensions – there wasn’t enough of it, or it wasn’t being used responsibly, or it wasn’t being generated at the speed needed to feel secure about things.

As a creative kid, I didn’t have personal ambitions to make a lot of money when I grew up. I was interested in self-expression, creative contribution, and collaboration. Money didn’t make much sense to me – it felt made up and like a dull thing to center my life around. Yet I couldn’t escape the fact that it was needed, I couldn’t square up my lack of interest with my desire to have more of it, and I also didn’t see how I could be successful at earning it given my parents’ near-constant money anxiety. 

Watching my parents handle money created two forces inside of me: the first was the force that pretended that money didn’t exist, and the second was the part of me that obsessed over having a lot of it so that I could finally afford clothes that fit and looked good on me.

The Sense of Lack Persists

After graduating college, I moved from San Diego to Chicago. This was the first time in my life I was financially independent and responsible for paying my bills from earnings rather than student loan funds.

I was able to cobble together an income by teaching a few yoga classes, freelance writing, barista-ing, and babysitting. I was never certain how much I would bring in in a given month. I had no benefits–no savings, no insurance, no vacation or sick time. On top of that, my degree in theater meant I had very few professional skills and no interest in working a full-time job.

For years I worked like this–not being able to afford taking time off, traveling, or treating myself to new experiences. I regularly risked overdrawing my checking account with $5 purchases. Every cup of coffee, book, meal, tank of gas, or clothing item was quickly assessed against an internal P&L statement. 

At 24-years-old, any purchase of $50 or more required an active savings strategy, and any significant expense created an immediate shame spiral. For instance, after months of saving up for a $200 harmonium, funds would need to be emergently rerouted for new tires on my decade-old Corolla. Thank goodness I had the harmonium cushion to pay for it, but what would I have done had the expense been something more substantial? Like an acute injury that required medical attention? Or a new car? Or an unexpected tax bill? The rabbit hole of possible catastrophes made me feel weak, embarrassed and irresponsible. 

I looked around the million dollar homes I babysat in. The parents welcomed me into their homes in their business attire, and left me alone to make grilled cheese sandwiches with their kids while they drove to business dinners in their SUVs with leather seats. They were partners at law firms, consulting group CEOs, VPs of Sales at commercial window suppliers.

The colanders they drained pasta with were more expensive than my entire pots and pans set. Their 2-year-old’s closets were filled with brand name clothing that they would outgrow in six months–clothes I only dreamt of owning second-hand (and only after my final growth spurts). Their supply closets were filled with ample reserves of paper towels, soaps, and dried foods, sending waves of relief over me as I stood taking in the presence of excess.  

For the most part, I didn’t envy their lives. I didn’t want their jobs or their relationships or their lifestyle. But I did want the emotional easiness of being able to go to Whole Foods and buy whatever I wanted without wondering what I would need to deprive myself of in order to do it. I envied the worriless air that wafted over me when I entered their well-heated foyers. 

The Shift

Then Oli entered my life. 13 years older than me, he was well-accustomed to full-time work, regular paychecks, and the wonderful feeling that arises when you make more than you spend. Perks, vacations, health insurance, 401K plans–those were all old news to him. He was comfortable paying $50 for a pizza without a second thought. Meanwhile, I was still factoring toilet paper into my monthly shopping budget.

As a creative person, I had an allergic reaction to the idea of office work and 9-5 jobs. But I was also 25 years old and I was tired of being broke. I was exhausted, restless, confused. The sense of lack had permeated every cell in my body. The feeling started in childhood, but it ballooned out of control in my early adulthood. I had assumed that everyone had a similar relationship to money as I did, but it was becoming clear that I had unknowingly adopted some strange beliefs that were not serving me well. Beliefs like: Money is hard to get; I am bad at making money; and I will never have enough of it no matter what I do.

As my relationship with Oli deepened, I had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of what life was like without tremendous money concerns. Wow–maybe life in a full-time job wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Oli certainly seemed to be doing okay. He had friends, he had a manageable workload, he had work that interested him, he had a sense of satisfaction from his contributions.

As I approached the end of my 20s, I began to see myself as someone who could also contribute at a high level and get paid for it. I started entertaining different ideas about what I could do. Things that sounded boring to me a few years prior suddenly held more purchase in my mind. I started to see how I might be able to leverage my creativity in practical ways that were commercially valuable enough to be paid well.

This led me to project management, marketing, sales – things I never saw for myself when I was watching my parents struggle with their finances. 

Now in my mid-30s, I feel myself trending more in the direction of the families I used to babysit for, and away from the lost girl who wished money would magically show up to save the day.

The Sense Without the Lack

And that brings me back to the grocery store, and the sense of lack that still burbles up as I await the total of today’s purchase. 

On a purely logical level, I know that I can pay for today’s bill. I feel thoroughly blessed to walk into a grocery store and put things in my cart without feeling the need to do mental math. I also know that if an unexpected expense were to come into my life, I would find a way to take care of it. I have benefits, vacation-time and a retirement fund. I have a Patagonia jacket and a garlic press I would have sold on Ebay for cash ten years ago.

There is no more lack–at least not right now, and not in this dimension of my life. But there’s still the sense of it. That’s just what happens with learned patterns, and this one has deep grooves.

The cashier finishes scanning the last item, and Oli gets it bagged and back into the cart with ninja timing. As I wait for the total to calculate on the screen, I take a deep breath. The sense of lack permeates my whole body now, and I welcome it, because I know ignoring it or pushing it away is not an effective relief strategy. 

The total flashes on screen: $200. 

“Okay.” I say to the cashier in a friendly tone. “I don’t need a receipt. Thanks so much for your help, have a wonderful day.” 

I relieve Oli from cart duty and start to push it towards the door. $200 for groceries for two people for a week. That’s five times what my mom used to pay for a family of four. If our weekly childhood grocery bill was higher than $40, it meant the house would have high tension for the rest of the day.

And yet here I am, able to easily afford my $200 grocery bill, ready to enjoy the rest of this beautiful Saturday. As we exit the store, I feel the first splash of sunshine on my face. I close my eyes and take another deep breath. This. This is what I have been working for. 

I thank my sense of lack for its guidance, and I give it permission to evolve as life unfolds, even to the point of its disappearance, should that be appropriate at some point in the future. 

And if it stays with me forever, that’s okay, too. Life is supposed to fluctuate. Part of what gives life meaning is the ups and downs. The sense of lack reminds me of the downs so that I may fully appreciate the ups.

Today is going to be a good day.

About Yoga In Your Living Room

Our yoga platform features smart, simple movements that help you feel better without confusing you, overwhelming you, or asking you to do impossible things. We believe you are capable of moving well, resolving pain, overcoming obstacles, and feeling capable beyond your wildest dreams. Try our online yoga membership risk-free for 7-days, or subscribe to our mailing list to stay in touch.