Credit: Keith Srakocic | AP

When Sarah Newcomb was growing up in Orono in the late 1980s and 1990s, she always felt like a misfit — like she was less-than.

That’s because in a town full of the children of University of Maine professors and professionals, who went on ski trips and vacations to Disney World like it was no big deal, Newcomb’s family was different.

“Orono was an upper middle class town and we were lower middle class. I felt we might as well be white trash,” she said. “There were people I felt I couldn’t date because they were off-limits. Class was just so obvious to me. To me, it was ever present. It was not fun for me to feel poor.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Newcomb

Newcomb was pretty and smart, creative and musical, and in a way it’s surprising to hear that she didn’t fit in. But the financial divide that loomed between her and her more well-off peers showed itself in ways that were both big and small. Her family couldn’t afford new clothes from stores like The Gap or The Limited, so she shopped at thrift stores instead. When she was on school field trips and the bus would stop at McDonald’s so the students could get a quick bite to eat, Newcomb stayed on the bus because she didn’t have $5 to spend.

“Little expenditures that meant nothing to most people were a big deal in my family,” she said. “What happens with people is that you start to internalize it. It becomes part of your identity.”

Newcomb’s experiences growing up in a lower middle class household have inspired her, as an adult, to help people with similar backgrounds overcome the bad lessons, shame and self-doubt that come with growing up poor. Nowadays, she’s a senior behavioral scientist at Morningstar, a global financial services firm where she researches why we make financial decisions and how we can make better ones. She received her doctorate in economics and psychology from the University of Maine, and although she has been living and working in Washington, D.C., since she graduated in 2015, she’s getting ready to move back to Maine with her daughter, Zoe.

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It has taken time and work, of course, but Newcomb clearly has found career success and financial stability. Still, the lessons she internalized as a child are never too far from the surface.

“Here I am, about to buy a house,” she said, a trace of wonder in her voice. “I never thought I would own a house. That wasn’t for people like me.”

‘Nothing to do with numbers’

So how did she get from there to here? And how can others do it, too? To better understand, it’s important to look even farther back in her life. When she was a child, she was raised as a very conservative Christian. (She declined to name the denomination.) In the church, she learned very strongly that money was the opposite of what’s good and moral.

“The teaching that is very common in many religions glorifies poverty as a spiritual state,” Newcomb said. “It teaches that money is the root of all evil and that the pursuit of wealth is the sign of a poisoned heart. That things like wanting material comforts are greed and avarice. The deep lesson from religion that I internalized as a child was that you either care about other people or you care about money. Choose a side.”

So she chose people. Or, perhaps more accurately, she chose the side that didn’t have money.

“I thought I hated the rich, and everyone around me hated the rich, so I felt justified,” she said. “My problem was that I was blaming money itself for choices that some people make with their money.”

Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Gilson via Sarah Newcomb

And even after Newcomb graduated high school and struck out on her own, she brought these lessons with her and her financial situation didn’t improve. There was no money for college, so she went to Portland and worked a series of dead-end jobs while trying to get a theater career going. But it wasn’t financially sustainable. Once, she even turned down the opportunity to have a record contract.

“I was afraid of the kind of money [the producer] was talking about,” she said.

When she turned 24, she was living in Massachusetts and was able to put herself through college without her parents co-signing the loans. She enrolled at Salem State University with an undeclared major, but ended up falling in love with math.

“So at 28, I graduated with a math degree and still couldn’t get my finances together,” she said.

It was one of her first big aha moments.

“I said, this doesn’t have anything to do with numbers,” Newcomb recalled. “I was so tired of being poor, because being poor is exhausting. And thought, OK, fine. I’m going to learn how to be a financial planner, and learn how it’s done.”

She started the training, and ended up taking a class on psychology and financial planning. The teacher didn’t focus on interest rates but on something that was, for her, much more important.

“The big lesson I got from that class is that it’s never about the numbers,” she said. “A number means different things to different people because of the stories we tell.”

The teacher asked the students to examine their own histories with money, which led to a second epiphany for Newcomb.

“It was at that point I began to wake up to the fact that I both feared and hated money,” she said. “It was never a source of opportunity. It was always a source of barriers, and I had come to resent money and the people who had it. In order to feel OK about myself, I had to judge them. I was also afraid that if I had it, it would corrupt me.”

Rewriting old stories about money

Money isn’t inherently good or bad, she realized. It’s a tool that can be used in lots of ways.

“Some people take money and use it to exploit others and the planet. Other people use their money to heal and to serve and to comfort and to build,” she said. “It’s just money. It’s all human choice.”

As Newcomb worked to rewrite her stories about money, she decided she wanted to help others do the same.

“I started to realize I could not possibly be the only person who was hardworking and motivated and smart and stuck,” she said. “I realized I didn’t want to be a financial planner. I wanted to help people get unstuck.”

Newcomb finished her program in personal financial planning, moved back to Maine with her then-husband and young daughter, and enrolled at the University of Maine with the goal of studying the psychology of money. She loved the experience, and when she graduated she got a job at a startup called “HelloWallet,” which was owned at the time by Morningstar.

“What they wanted was a behavioral scientist who would help them make tools so people could manage their money better,” she said. “It was like, this job was made for me.”

Later, she moved from HelloWallet, which had been purchased by KeyBank, to working directly for Morningstar. While there, she had the opportunity to advise officials from the U.S. Department of the Treasury about financial management tools; write a book, “Loaded,” about money and psychology; be a regular contributor to; and more. In Maine, she will work remotely for Morningstar and, she hopes, make a difference locally as well.

“I have a dream of working with communities, places where their entire economic identity has changed, or left,” she said. “How can a community reimagine itself? I would love to find a way to help distressed communities use resources in a way that feels right. How can they imagine their own resources, their own community, in a new way?”

Mainers may not always have money. But they do tend to be resourceful, and that’s innately valuable, she said, adding that if she could tell her childhood self one thing, it would be that.

“I think I’d want to say something around the idea that it doesn’t matter where you start,” she said. “You have resources. You have value. All you have to do is turn that value into something that serves your community.”

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.