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My scarcity mind-set actually helped me become a millionaire

Financial experts view scarcity mind-set as being a hindrance to building wealth, but for this author, it equipped her with the habits to do so.

My scarcity mind-set actually helped me become a millionaire
[Photo: Flickr user Daniela]

When it comes to money and mind-set, it seems like many financial experts agree on one thing—to grow wealth, you need an abundance mind-set. A scarcity mind-set, on the other hand, supposedly holds you back. Being poor is often associated with a scarcity mind-set. A 2014 research paper from the American Psychological Association found that those with limited means “are more likely to make mistakes and bad decisions than those with financial cushions.”

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But growing up poor unleashed my creativity. Poverty taught me four vital skills that I still use today—skills that I like to call CRAP: creativity, resilience, adaptability, and perseverance. The acronym is a fitting metaphor—because of what I had to wade through in the process.

Scarcity inspired creativity

When I was ten years old, I dreamed of owning a Barbie dream house. I knew my parents couldn’t afford it, but the pull of the dollhouse was strong. So, one day, when I noticed some perfectly good cardboard boxes just sitting in the dumpster outside our apartment, I grabbed them.

I dug around a desk drawer until I found a pencil and a pair of scissors. I started cutting. By tenting together two pieces of cardboard, I made a roof. Then, by gluing together the cutouts from the doors, I built a mattress. I added the finishing touch by transforming the scraps from my mom’s sewing pouch into a floral bedspread. My scrappy little dollhouse looked nothing like the one in the commercial, but I didn’t care.

Whenever I got bored of MacGyver-ing my toys, I went to the library. At first, I could only read in Chinese, so I stuck to the foreign languages section. One day I was walking down the aisle, letting my fingers wander over the spines when one book caught my eye. It was A Little Princess, translated into Chinese. When I got to the checkout, the librarian had to gently coax me into letting go of it, just for a second so that she could scan it for me.

I devoured the book in three days. The riches-to-rags story was the exact opposite of my life, which made it intriguing as hell. I kept reading. Eventually, I had enough of a grasp of English to write my own stories. That launched my childhood love of writing, which later morphed into my dream of becoming an author, all because my family couldn’t afford cable.

Being poor made me resilient

When I was thirteen, my right eye swelled shut from a wasp sting. We didn’t have the money to buy the $15 anti-inflammatory medication, so I put on a pair of thrift-store shades and went to school pretending to be a rapper.

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“Nice pants,” a schoolmate would say behind my back, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“I know. I have good taste,” I would retort, smiling and pretending to brush crumbs off my faded overalls.

“Your parents are poor.”

“No. They’re billionaires who are just really into hobo chic.”

I think this is why years later when I finally moved from poverty into the middle class on a computer engineer’s salary, I never fell into the trap of fear of missing out (FOMO) or keeping up with the Joneses. So while my coworkers were blowing their incomes on cars, clothes, and houses, and working unhealthily long hours to keep it all together, I didn’t care about what anyone thought.

I was forced to adapt

As a kid, we moved around a lot, chasing cheap rent so my parents could send the savings back to our family in China.

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The first time we had to move, I broke down into sobs. My dad pulled me aside, held my chin between his hands, and looked me directly in the eyes. “I know you’re sad you’re leaving your friends. But I found a cheaper place that will save us money. Your cousins are counting on this money to go to school, and they have so much less than you. You don’t want to let them down, do you?” That shut me up.

This is why discomfort and setbacks never faze me. In college, I figured out how to stretch the money I made from my internships until it covered tuition, rent, food, and everything else. It wasn’t glamorous, but the adaptability I’d honed in my childhood allowed me to cover all my expenses, and I graduated with zero debt.

I learned to persevere

Getting my degree is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. While students in other tracks were making friends, getting drunk, and partying, we were getting our butts kicked by two intense exams; those who didn’t pass had to take remedial courses on top of a full course load. Luckily, I had heard about the exams ahead of time, so I gave up my summer to study.

But it all paid off. As soon as I graduated, not only was I able to cover my costs, I had two years of internship experience and a killer résumé. I had mediocre grades at best, but that didn’t stop me. I knew I didn’t have to be the best. If I could just pass and get my degree, this grueling program would pay for itself. If I had to work psychotically hard to force my slow-learning brain to understand impossibly tricky subjects, so be it. If I had to drag my sleep-deprived body through the trenches, so be it.

Scarcity was the crucible that forged the skills I needed to become a millionaire and retire at age 31 to travel the world. If you grew up poor like me, don’t let ever anyone tell you that you can never become rich one day. Scarcity can make you stronger. It can even make you a millionaire.


This article was excerpted from Quit Like a Millionaire: No Gimmicks, Luck, or Trust Fund Required by Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung. It is reprinted with permission from TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019, Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung.

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