Most people have heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point in their lives.
The basic notion is that human needs are grouped and ranked such that the basic needs — food, water, shelter, sleep, clothing — are the most important. Unless those needs are met, higher needs such as friendship, self-esteem, career advancement and the like do not become primary motivators in day-to-day life.
In Maslow’s pyramid, financial security is in the second layer, along with personal and emotional security, health and well-being, and safety.
I think it’s more important than that. For the majority of people, financial security is a base-level concern that directly affects all of those other basic needs.
The hierarchy as Maslow created it
Here’s how Maslow ranked human need in his 1943 paper introducing the hierarchy.
The things that keep us alive are on the bottom. Above that are things that keep us “safe,” such as physical security, financial security, health and well-being. Next come things like family, friendship, community. Then a need to feel good about ourselves, both as it relates to our inner dialogue and our place in our social spheres. Lastly, the need to become who we desire – the growth of us as people.
Of course, this will be fluid based on culture, age, and life situation. The average person is not going to play real-life Frogger to get to a piece of food in the middle of a busy road just because your physiological needs are ranked more important than your safety needs. Unless your need for food has become so great that it has become more important than your physical safety.
The lines are actually blurred as we move up the stack, rather than strictly linear.
But I would argue financial safety is actually more suited for the bottom of the pyramid than the second block, and in fact is critical to all of the others above it.
Putting finances first in the hierarchy
Let’s look again at those basic needs in the Physiological layer: food, water, shelter, sleep, clothing. (I’m setting aside homeostasis and sex for this article.)
While each of these things can be attained without financial security, the quality and availability of them is significantly reduced. Someone who is penniless can often get these things through social services, but none of them is a certainty from day to day, which means they are always at risk of not having one or more of these needs met. That’s a significant psychological stressor to encounter every day.
What about your average middle-class family?
Say you’re the head of a household where money is tight. You’re behind on bills, you’ve got what feels to you like significant debt, and you don’t see an immediate way out. That economic uncertainty is a direct threat to your ability to procure and provide food, water, shelter and clothing to you and your family. How well do you think you’re sleeping with that kind of worry?
Missed payments, collections, insufficient funds — these are all conscious and unconscious signals to our brain that those basic needs are threatened. And let’s be clear, we will feel that threat as it relates to our present situation. For instance, people who are behind on the mortgage aren’t thinking everything’s fine because they’ll just sell the house and move into something cheaper. They’re worried about losing the house.
How this fits in with the rest of the needs
Financial issues are cited as among the top two reasons for divorce in many studies, and no wonder.
The desire to find a mate, hold friendships, live your purpose and all those higher-level needs are strained when you’re worried about fulfilling the basic ones. It’s more difficult to be a loving, understanding spouse when it feels like you’re racing toward catastrophe and you don’t know when the wheels are going to fall off.
It’s harder to be an attentive, present, nurturing parent when you’re trying to figure out how to keep the rest of your life together.
I’m not saying people struggling financially are bad husbands or wives or parents. I’m saying they carry out those roles with a fight-or-flight undercurrent that demands more mental energy of them to put their best selves forward. It’s similar to the way we tend to react poorly when we’re tired or hungry. Our higher-level functions are compromised because our basic needs are not met.
A part of the problem, a part of the solution
What I’m suggesting is not that financially secure people are better. A rich jerk is still a jerk. But when someone is under stress it’s harder to show up as the best version of themselves. We are already at a psychological and physiological disadvantage.
I believe the amount of debt people carry around in the United States and the prevalence of paycheck-to-paycheck households manifests negatively in ways we don’t even think about.
Young families are burdened with crushing student loans before they even say, “I do.” Anxiety and depression are incredibly common, and financial insecurity doesn’t help that.
How many issues that people see therapists and marriage counselors for would be improved, in part, by lessening the client’s financial stress?
Money isn’t the solution to all of these problems. But we can’t overlook how important financial safety is to feeling like our basic physiological needs can be met every day, and therefore allowing us to work on ourselves from a place of security rather than stress.