Surviving and thriving

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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There are 36 comments to "Surviving and thriving".

  1. Karen in MN says 06 June 2010 at 04:13

    Hooray for you! Great article, and so, so true.

    In the 1980’s, I lived on less than 10K / yr as a grad student.

    No, I didn’t live at home, although I did live in a dump in a bad part of town with a roommate. No car, of course, although I was lucky to get a subsidized bus pass through school. Rice and beans and ramen with lots of cheap vegetables and now and then some cheese–it’s actually a pretty healthy diet. I was eligible for food stamps, but I didn’t use them–I figured others needed them more than I did, since I didn’t have kids in those days.

    It’s also amazing how much you can find to do that doesn’t cost anything–having fun with no money is not that hard! Libraries, bookstores that don’t mind if you hang out and read their books without buying anything, farmer’s markets, outdoor concerts, art festivals, city parks, church concerts, rehearsals of professional operas and orchestras and theater companies, and lots of “city hikes” kept me amused when I wasn’t studying.

    There’s a great sense of power from knowing that you can actually get by on very little.

  2. mm says 06 June 2010 at 04:33

    This post was a sunday morning testimony, Thank You!

    I agree, weeks when i decide not to spend money i find out how much I can do and eat with outspending a dime. I actually cook the food in my home and I participate in free activities in my city. I dont miss the spending that week. I am so amazed at how much i can get by on. The thing is you want it to be your choice not spend.

  3. Betsey Francklyn says 06 June 2010 at 05:00

    Living mindfully. Brilliant. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly. Keep up the good work, abundance favors the disciplined.

  4. TosaJen says 06 June 2010 at 06:31

    Thanks for the update Donna, and beautifully written, as always.

    Although we’ve never done extreme frugality at our house, I value reading about what other people are doing, as food for thought about what we could do if we chose to or needed to.

    And, I’m just about to dive into your your archives at MSN. 🙂

  5. says 06 June 2010 at 06:52

    Kudos to you for not throwing up your hands and giving up. You looked your adversity in the face and tackled it head on, and you won!

    So many people do not want to make the extra effort to try to help themselves when times are tough. You looked at your situation and started working towards getting out of it.

    And now you can appreciate where you are and where you have been and you take nothing for granted. It makes your life so much better all the way around when you ‘live mindfully’.

  6. Holly says 06 June 2010 at 07:23

    You are a true survivor! Thank you for sharing your inspiring and beautifully-written story.

  7. Sarah says 06 June 2010 at 08:29

    Thanks for sharing your story and your perspective. It seems that sometimes the people who have been through the most have the clearest perspective on life. Losing it all makes it easier to see what really matters, I guess.

  8. Yankeegal says 06 June 2010 at 08:33

    Thank you for your inspiring story. I am always so impressed by those who take control of their own situations as opposed to those who depend on someone else to do it for them.

  9. Carla says 06 June 2010 at 09:06

    Thank you for sharing your story! Out of all the other reader stories, I connect with this one the most. Even though I am younger (31) and don’t have kids, there are other similarities I can relate to: divorce, limited education, disability (but my own). You are an inspiration!

  10. Brian says 06 June 2010 at 09:32

    Thanks for the great post. Posts of inspiration are far superior to posts of so-called “advice”. I’ll be paying much closer attention to what Ms. Freedman has to say.

  11. margot says 06 June 2010 at 10:34

    Congratulations! What a wonderful story of accomplishment. I LOVE your paradigm of learning to do with less rather than trying to figure out how to get more. That approach would revolutionize debt in America and might even reverse all of the environmental destruction we cause.

  12. Funny about Money says 06 June 2010 at 10:57

    OMG, I remember that article! In 2007, it was only just beginning to appear obvious that the Great Desert University would eventually lay off some or all of my staff, most likely starting with highly paid moi. At the time, I figured about the max I could possibly scrounge together in full unemployed mode would be around 12 grand.

    The prospect was downright terrifying.

    Your article provided some comfort for me and my cohorts…at least it might be possible (as unlikely as it seemed) for us to survive. Somehow.

    In the two years between the time your article appeared to the tune of the first rumblings of pending disaster and the time the university closed our office and canned all five of us, my associate editor lined up not one, not two, not, three, but FOUR side jobs (two of which paid more than GDU was paying her); and I paid off the second on my house from the proceeds of “noonlighting” — teaching community college courses one day a week, a gig that morphed, at layoff time, into a permanent part-time job. One underling escaped to another university; another married a man who can support her decently despite the second blatant screwing GDU delivered to her after the layoff; and a third had a nervous breakdown. Thus four of the five of us made it out OK.

    Keep on writing! Love your site, and also your daughter’s, I Pick Up Pennies.

  13. Mike Crosby says 06 June 2010 at 11:09

    Woohoo. Wow, what a good post. I had to post it on my blog too.

    I remember when I started my college career and my favorite class turned out to be political science. (It was Thursday night 7-10PM). I looked forward to it so much, it was like going to the movies.

    A few times I was not able to attend, because I was so poor, I could not afford to wash my clothes. (Of course now I have better life skills, and that would not now be a problem.)

    For meals, I used the top of a pan to cook my food. I unscrewed the knob, replaced the hole with some foil, and would cook potatoes in the pan top. A 10 pound bag of potatoes goes a long way.

    And your comment about the rice and beans. Today I eat at a restaurant (called Baja Fresh in Southern CA) and I order the rice and bean plate. It costs less than $2. It’s not so much that I’m trying to be frugal, which I am, but rice and beans are really healthy foods.

  14. Brenda says 06 June 2010 at 11:24

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is probably the first article on this site that I can actually relate to, since your story is very much the same as mine. (I’m going back to college this Fall, since it’s been six years now, and I can’t find any work, save part-time retail).

    Also, as someone else who lives on well under $12,000/yr and has had plenty of hardships and major crippling depression, I totally know what you’re going through.

  15. Nicole says 06 June 2010 at 11:29

    Love Donna Freedman’s work. I’ve been enjoying the new blog too. 🙂

  16. Lily (capital L) says 06 June 2010 at 11:31

    Many young (and less young) people in Italy live with 800-1000 euros a month. It’s called “Generation 1000 euros” for good reason. People who graduated magna cum laude and can only find jobs at call centers and such. 🙁

  17. J says 06 June 2010 at 11:41

    Heehee! J.D., no one can say you’re not consistent. I read your earlier post on Donna and the “I Make $6.50 an Hour…” which led me to this:

    “(Final note: One must also wonder if it might not make sense to find alternate arrangements for her dogs. The dogs were responsible for her problems in Pennsylvania, and she complains about having to feed them now that she’s in a bad situation. Make no mistake: I am a devoted pet owner. But Datko’s three dogs are causing her woe!)”


  18. brooklynchick says 06 June 2010 at 12:02

    Amazing and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  19. Bill says 06 June 2010 at 12:58

    Ouch, the memories of college life in the ’60s.

    I really can’t remember just what I made then, supporting myself, a wife and baby daughter, but when I got that first post-graduation full-time job, at $135 per week, just over $7,000 a year, I thought we could — albeit briefly — splurge because we had hit the big money.

    My wife could make anything out of rice. And today I can’t stand the sight of rice.

    Again, ouch for the memories.

  20. Kate says 06 June 2010 at 13:16

    Yes, I remember the life of beans and rice very well. Talk about carb overload! I was never so overweight in my life – before or since. I was so glad to get back into the life of lean proteins, good fats and fresh veggies (much healthier for me). Thank you for sharing what you’ve been though!

  21. Michelle B. says 06 June 2010 at 14:56

    Thank you for this article. I saw a lot of my own life reflected in this article (including caring for a disabled relative) and have often wondered when the I would finally see a glimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I will come out of the other end stronger and much wiser. Reading this story and similar stories from other readers has been a very positive experience since I discovered this blog about a year ago!

  22. Raye says 06 June 2010 at 15:37

    Beautiful and inspiring story Donna. Last night I read Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and then today “I just happened” to read this article that you wrote about surviving and thriving — (normally I don’t get to read GRS post till Wednesday) is that serendipitious or what? Hmmm…

    Thank you for sharing.

  23. Nancy says 06 June 2010 at 16:23

    Thank you so much for your inspiring story about second acts and second chances. I applaud you.

  24. JoDi says 06 June 2010 at 17:07

    YOU GO GIRL!! Love your story, and I wish you continued success and happiness. You’ve achieved so much to be proud of, not just since 2007, but in all the years before that too!

    Now I’m off to read your original essay and check out your site.

    Thanks for sharing your story here!

  25. David/MoneyCrashers says 06 June 2010 at 17:22

    Great story!

    She ought to write a book about it…

  26. Christine | Money Funk says 06 June 2010 at 18:02

    When a woman needs strength in such a time of need… its amazing how our psyche will step up to the plate with such courage to withstand and prosper our troubles.

    I, like you, have climbed out of an abusive relationship and raised my child(ren) as a single mom. So I understand what sacrifice you have put forth for the greater good of you and your daughter’s life.

    And its amazing how far you’ve come on hard work and faith. Keep it up!

  27. Andy says 06 June 2010 at 18:30

    Is “stick-to-it-ness” a word? Because that was what I kept thinking Donna as I read your post.

    What fueled your persistence? Family upbringing? Internal fortitude? Faith in a higher power?

    All I can say is that a bottle of that fuel would go along way to changing our consumption-driven culture.


  28. Nicole says 06 June 2010 at 18:36

    As I was reading “Dr. Demento and the desecrated turkey” on the blog I was thinking how it would be great in a book (like Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck).

  29. JonasAberg says 06 June 2010 at 23:12

    Very nicely written piece. There were a couple of things that really stood out to me, like : “frugality means saving where you can so you can spend where you want”. That is really what it’s all about to me, exactly like you wrote “using money intentionally”.

    It’s okay to spend money on wants, as long as you are doing it intentionally and not like an afterthought. Too much extra spending is done on impulse, when you just got paid.

  30. Kate says 07 June 2010 at 05:41

    Kudos to you, Donna, for not only making it through such tough times, but also for putting your story out there as an inspiration for others who may be down on their luck.

    Reading through the comments, I noticed that a large proportion of readers have been through tough times themselves. It really does make me think, that as Donna and a previous commenter mentioned, that its the bad times that make you truly appreciate what you do have, and able to richly thrive in the future on an income that so many others would (perhaps wrongfully) describe as poor. Keep up the wonderful writing, (I’m about to head over to your blog), and thanks GRS for posting these wonderful stories every week!

  31. Dan says 07 June 2010 at 05:47

    The only thing I can add is that reading this gives me another opportunity to give thanks for the good life and wonderful family that I have. Sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder to make sure they know how much I appreciate and love them.

  32. Kevin M says 07 June 2010 at 07:18

    Excellent story, most of us are so comfortable we fail to understand what real struggle and success looks like.

  33. Erin says 07 June 2010 at 11:27

    I read Donna’s article on 2007 when it first came out. I’m so glad to hear that things worked out for her!

  34. TiffanyW says 07 June 2010 at 12:19

    This is a great article. Thank you Donna for sharing your story!

  35. Bankruptcy Ben says 07 June 2010 at 22:16

    Okay Okay Okay, I’ll stop complaining already about my life:) I’ve never scrubbed diapers, or been in an abusive relationship.

    I love reading about stuff like this makes me realise that if she can do it I can do it:) I’m still not sure how to convince my partner to live on rice and beans. I’m happy doing it, she’s not so much.

  36. virginia wilkie says 08 June 2010 at 16:32

    Thank you for such a wonderful article. Your point of view comes from the heart and is seldom heard because folks who live this struggle are too busy surviving to write and help others understand.

    I have always found that living frugally and being purposely grateful for what I DO have is very zen and freeing. That is why I have made a commitment to selling good items online for gals who need a break and want to gift their family, friends and arrange their decor on a budget but still make it beautiful.

    It is possible to find that passion in life while creatively and mindfully planning your budget, your gifting, your decorating, your work, your diet, your exercise and your relationships. So many go through life on automatic pilot and never find this freedom. It is like creating a work of art and it is called YOUR LIFE.

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