Ages ago, I read a book called The Broke Diaries by Angela Nissel, who journaled about her life as a struggling college student. I’m no longer a struggling college student, but I can write my own broke diary.
Ever been so broke that you checked for loose change under all of the seat cushions in your couch or your car or even the bottom of your purse where all the lint lies? So broke that you walked around hoping to find money on the ground like you did when you were a kid? That you dove on said ground to retrieve a penny someone tossed aside as valueless? That you felt like punching the wall whenever you saw an ad for a new technological gadget, knowing you couldn’t afford the old generations of said gadget, even refurbished ones? That you seriously contemplated whether you could make it as a pickpocket, but doubted you could since you’re not the fastest runner around? That you studied Ocean’s Eleven with a single-minded concentration you never evinced before, looking for advice? That you wanted to punch the wall again when you received a notice in the mail that your license plate sticker is due to be replaced and that the fee has now gone up $2?
I’ve been there. Oh, I’ve been there.
Life on the broke trail has caused me to appreciate things I would normally take for granted. Like ten dollars.
Thinking of a crisp, ten-dollar bill always takes me back to when I first started as a textbook editor years ago. The company I worked for held back the first check. So if you started in the middle of a pay period, you had to work three weeks just to get paid for one. I had about $10 a day to live on—and a job to commute to five days a week. Some of you know what this is like.
Most of that $10 went for train fare. You get creative when you only have a few dollars to buy food each day. (Say it with me: Ramen Noodles.) Coupons take on a grander status. “Buy one get one free” are words that fill the soul with gladness. And a dollar store is an oasis.
That was years ago, but times are still challenging. Now I live the life of a freelancer, living by “the check’s in the mail.” I greet my mail carrier with an effusiveness I’ve never shown him before. I stalk the mail truck, dogging his steps as he enters the building. I hover around my empty mailbox as he slides the mail into it. Perhaps I frighten him with my intense concentration. Perhaps he considers the value of pepper spray when he sees me coming at him, wild eyed and slack jawed as any zombie.
In the meantime, I’ve had to fall back on my what-to-do-when-I’m-down-to-my-last-ten-dollars training. I’m a seasoned vet at this. Lists flow through my head—what groceries I could buy, what coupons I could brandish. Fifty cents off eggs. A dollar off toilet paper. A dollar off toothpaste. Call me the ninja of the nickel.
Bootstrap tightening has helped me discover other joys as well: revisiting old movies that I love and hadn’t seen in years like Hero starring Jet Li (2002; directed by Zhang Yimou); discovering new graphic novels in the teen section at the library; having great conversations with kids. (Imaginary tea is free.)
What aspects of your life do you appreciate most during hard times? If you had ten dollars, or 7.5 euros, what would you do with them?
Penny, nickel, and ten dollar bill photos from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads. Coupons image from freebie-depot.com.