The Blessings of Being Broke

334015Ages 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.

1962_D_Lincoln_Penny_(U.S._CoinEver 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.

599px-2006_Nickel_Proof_ObvIn 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 


35 thoughts on “The Blessings of Being Broke

  1. Been there–yes, been there, Linda. Thrilled to see Swiss Miss at the work coffee station because it leans more toward food than that watery coffee or tea. The bagel diet–a plain for the main course, a cinnamon raisin for desert. My favorite value for money scheme wasn’t mine, but a friend’s. Each day he would allow himself $1.50 to buy a large NYC pizza slice. I still get a warm, loving feeling every time I run across anyone selling pizza by the slice.

    • Oh, Sandra, me too!!! I lived on pizza by the slice too! And Swiss Miss–that makes me chuckle, because I think the same way. We had free packets of cocoa at work. I scarfed those down. And when clients came who brought food (bagels and muffins), well, I was the first one grabbing. 😀

  2. I’d probably spend the $10 on stuff for my son. Money being tight, I focus more on making sure he doesn’t have to go without. If I have to eat cheap, crappy food to give him the healthy stuff and keep him cleaned then so be it. Odd sacrificial mentality, but it’s what I’m working.

  3. In 2011 the company I worked for was shut down, although I wasn’t “broke”, it was a stressful time. As I looked for a new job, I was able to collect unemployment, which was enough to cover my mortgage and utilities and that was about it. There were a lot of Ramen Noodles and strategic use of coupons. In the end, it was a good experience that taught me I could get by on less, so now I’m able to save more for my future. By the way, I get the Sunday paper which always has a ton of coupons. If there are any coupons in particular you need, I’d be more than happy to mail them to you. I’ve never heard of The Broke Diaries, it sounds like a fun read.

    • Thanks, Jill!! I love the Sunday paper too for that, though I don’t get it as much as I used to. I just received a bunch of Target coupons in the mail, which made me giddy.

      Glad you’re out of that stressful period. But as they say, pearls are born through irritation. I see that experience has crafted a pearl in your life. Were you able to write at all? How did that experience help shape you as a writer?

      • One of the worst things about that time in my life, was that I didn’t write. I was so busy job searching and I enrolled in Duke University’s paralegal program that I felt guilty if I took a break to write. Getting back to work with a steady paycheck was great, but the best part was writing once again.

        I serious about the coupons. I can save a couple weekends worth with longer expiration dates and send them up. You might still have my personal email…I’ve got yours. Let me know, I’d be more than happy to share. 🙂

      • Okey-dokey! I’ve got your snail mail address, but I don’t think I have your email.

        Just checked my email list. I DO have your email address! I sent you an email.

  4. In the current economic climate things are getting tighter. Things may not improve until James begins school next September, so we have changed the place where we do our shopping, foresaking Tesco for the much cheaper Aldi. And yes-two for one offers.
    My Amazon shopping has also been cut back, thank God for the under appreciated local library. By the way, Sabriel- 90 pages in and love it so far! Thank you for the tip.

  5. Been there SO HARD. “Insufficient funds” when we tried to pay for groceries, and no overdraft or credit cards because we were already in debt repayment. Unable to get a job that paid enough to cover daycare, so I had to cut down to working part-time when my husband could be home with our older son… and then finding out I was pregnant again. No money to fill the oil tank for heat after we ran out in February ($200 minimum order, plus a technician to bleed the lines after it ran out).

    And the STRESS.

    What did I learn to appreciate? My imagination. Books that took me away. The joy of free things, like the gorgeous city park in St. John’s, and the beaches we could walk to at AJ’s first posting. WINDOWS, when we finally got to live somewhere that wasn’t underground. (Seriously, you would not believe how I adore windows now). I learned to appreciate the joy of a wild back yard we could explore, sunny days for walks, and friends who never judged us (and who sometimes invited us over for supper).

    If I only had ten dollars… food.

    • Oh, Kate!!! It’s tough, isn’t it? My hat is off to anyone with kids and a limited budget. I hear you on the free stuff. Free is my favorite word these days. And I also have friends who extend the dinner invitation. 🙂

  6. I’m thankful every day that I haven’t been that broke since college, but I still exhibit many of the habits I formed. ALWAYS hunting down coupons. ALWAYS buying the generic stuff over the name brand. ALWAYS watching my checking account to make sure I’m not on the verge of overdrafting.

    That period in my life, along with values instilled by my parents, taught me to live frugally and conservatively. I’m sure we all know that financial insecurity is a huge source of stress, so to not have to worry about that frees us up to do so much more.

  7. Hi L. Marie. This post really resonated with me. My hubby and I are a bit hard up at the minute. There’s lots of things that we need to do on our property for example that we just can’t afford right now. And of course it’s always nice to have some money for extras, but those are the first to go when money is tight.

    I googled $10 and it comes to £6.25 pence. Not sure what I’d do with that exactly if that was all I had but maybe some essentials like milk, eggs, and toothpaste. I hope you can learn to cope OK with what you have.

    • Hi, Elaine. I’m sorry to hear that. I totally get it. So many people are strapped for cash. And yes, I’ve been learning to cope and even trying to thrive beyond just the survival mode. Hope things turn around for you soon!

  8. What a great and positive attitude you have, Linda! It is so stressful to live paycheck by paycheck as many of us do! I laugh about extreme couponing but there is definite value to it! FREE is a beautiful word. I don’t know how we are going to manage with two in college and am quite stressed out about it. My disability makes it difficult to hold a job so creativity will be the key! There are so many resources out there to tap into, thankfully. 🙂 🙂

    • Oh, I have to laugh, because I do a happy dance when that happens to me, Ionia! 🙂 I remember taking my coins and depositing them to try to beat an overdraft! Good times!

  9. Been there, couldn’t afford the t-shirt. I adopted the unhealthy pizza diet–used a coupon to buy a large on a Sunday, ate the leftovers until Wednesday. When food was scarce I concentrated on protein to keep me full longer, and so on. What did I learn? Empathy. I grew up solidly upper middle-class and while we weren’t rolling in dough, we never wanted for the basics and Santa always brought a couple of items on our lists. Scarcity made understand what it was like to struggle and prioritize, and to deal with the difference between “want” and “need.” It helped me deepen my sense of compassion, and I think empathy and compassion are key to writing and reaching out to readers.

  10. I appreciate that you are sharing with us the challenges you are going through. I know that, for me, it’s all too easy to forget that there were times in my life when I had financial difficulties — the time when I was in Louisville, KY and unable to get back to California because I didn’t have money for a plane ticket (and probably not enough for a bus either) definitely comes to mind. Remembering those times definitely puts any current challenges in perspective.

  11. Wishing you all the best! It’s really amazing that you can focus on the positive and the blessings in your life in the midst of the freelance life and all its craziness. An inspiration to all of us!!!

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