This guest post from Donna Freedman is part of the “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some reader stories contain general “how I did X” advice, and others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity, and with all sorts of incomes.

A few years ago I had about $130 to my name and was struggling to balance a handful of part-time jobs with re-entry into college after 30 years away from higher ed. Going back to school terrified me. But my life was already turned upside down: I’d left a long-term marriage and run through most of my savings to support myself and my disabled adult daughter. Why not throw college into the mix? As terrified as I was, I knew that if I didn’t do it then I’d never do it.

Somehow I got through the first year, surviving on a crazy-quilt of gigs:

  • babysitter
  • apartment house manager/handyma’am
  • work-study grunt (I moved a lot of tables and chairs)
  • freelance writer
  • paid medical research volunteer
  • mystery shopper
  • oldest living cub reporter on the college newspaper

(That last one amused me greatly, since my previous job had been on the city desk at the Chicago Tribune.)

My skills at coupons, refunds and careful meal planning, with help from the food bank, kept me fed and clean. I bought nothing unnecessary. Yet I sank slowly, inexorably into debt because divorce lawyers get paid by the minute.

An old acquaintance (now an editor with MSN Money) found out about my travails and invited me to write an essay. “Surviving (and Thriving) on $12,000 a Year” appeared on 10 January 2007. I figured it would be like any other article I’d ever written for newspapers or magazines: Some people would read it and agree, some would read it and get irritated, and the next day they’d all be thinking about something else. Wrong.

Smart spending
Thousands of readers e-mailed their reactions. Many others, especially personal-finance bloggers (including J.D.!), discussed the article online. Dozens of people tracked down my personal e-mail to offer support and tell their own stories. (Some tried to give me money.) The folks at MSN Money realized this was a demographic that wasn’t getting heard, or helped: Folks in debt, whether through catastrophe or poor choices; who lived paycheck to paycheck; who couldn’t even think about retirement because day-to-day survival took all their financial and emotional resources.

The next few years were insanely busy. I got accepted to the University of Washington on full scholarship, completed my divorce, helped my daughter plan a frugal wedding, kept my apartment-management job, did a few more articles for MSN Money and was eventually hired to write its new personal finance blog, Smart Spending, and later a personal finance column, Living With Less. I paid off all my divorce debt, started a Roth IRA and a savings account, and have been giving to charity (including the food bank that helped me) and sending checks to family members who are struggling.

My life changed. My lifestyle didn’t. I’m still living much the same way: cooking most meals from scratch, walking or riding the bus (I gave away my car in August 2009), buying from yard sales and thrift shops, clipping coupons and sending away for rebates (I can’t tell you the last time I paid for toiletries), gleaning fruit and making jam.

Some people call that “voluntary simplicity.” I think of it as living mindfully — deciding what’s really important and working toward it. My most vital money-management tool hasn’t been figuring out how to get more, but rather discovering how little I really need.

Surviving and thriving
Understand: I’m not yet a minimalist. Nobody who has as many books and papers as I do could be considered a Zen master. But I’ve gradually been weeding out my Stuff, especially my share of community property from the divorce. (Pitching box after box of sports programs and magazines into the recycle bin was incredibly freeing.)

And it’s not that I don’t ever indulge myself. Frugality means saving where I can so I can spend where I want — on frugal travel, say, or the occasional therapeutic massage. But it’s not about who cuts the most corners. It’s about using money intentionally.

Living mindfully doesn’t mean not wanting things; it means wanting the right things for the right reasons. In the past I was well-fed, gainfully employed, and still miserable enough to want to die. In the past six years, I’ve found that rice and beans, freelance writing, and a library book can make me happy. I feel hopeful, alive, passionate about the world around me. Not always happy about the world, mind you, but excited to be part of it.

Maybe I had to go through the tough times to make me appreciate the good times. Maybe we all do.

In that case, I’m pretty well situated because I’ve gone through tough times before. I am a middle-aged woman who grew up broke, worked unskilled jobs, gave birth out of wedlock, washed diapers on a scrub-board and lived mostly on Great Northern beans, married the wrong guy and endured a long-term emotionally and psychologically abusive marriage, clawed my way into a journalism job despite having neither a college degree nor formal training, dealt with a child’s near-fatal illness and subsequent disability, helped care for a dying parent, stood in line outside food banks, pushed myself to go back to school, suffered major depression. You don’t go through all that without learning things about life that can’t be taught except through experience.

I am aware that others have faced greater poverty, harsher abuse, fewer options. Oppression-ranking isn’t the point. We don’t read about the lives of others merely to contrast them with our own, but rather to learn the truths contained in those lives.

In the past few years I’ve undergone significant changes. None of this was easy, but all of it was worth the effort, the exhaustion, and the very real pain that often accompanies any major life upheaval. After the past few years I can say that sometimes, change really stinks. But I can also say that while change is scary, it’s not the end of the story. It’s the chance to write our own sequels.

Note: Donna Freedman, 52, won the Clarion Award for her work on MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog. Donna recently started her own site, Surviving and Thriving. I’ve mentioned her articles many times in the past, and she’s even shared a guest post at GRS about why she fought to save three bucks. I think Donna’s almost as funny as Robert Brokamp; both of them make me laugh out loud.

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