In my late 40s, with about $130 to my name, I returned to college to get the degree that eluded me as a teenager. Frankly, that 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. If I didn’t go then, I knew I’d never go.

That first year I survived on a crazy-quilt of gigs: babysitter, apartment house manager/handyma’am, work-study grunt, freelance writer, paid medical research volunteer, mystery shopper, oldest living cub reporter on the college paper. And I sank slowly into debt because divorce lawyers get paid by the minute.

An old acquaintance, now an editor with MSN Money, invited me to write an essay. “Surviving (and Thriving) on $12,000 a Year” appeared on Jan. 10, 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. Thousands of readers e-mailed their reactions to the piece. Many others, especially personal-finance bloggers, discussed the article online. The folks at MSN Money realized this was a demographic that wasn’t getting heard: Folks living paycheck to paycheck, who couldn’t even think about retirement because day-to-day survival took all their financial and emotional resources.

The editor asked me to do more articles, and eventually to write the Smart Spending blog and the Living With Less personal finance column. During this time I also finished my degree at the University of Washington (B.A., magna cum laude) and completed my divorce.

My life changed. My lifestyle didn’t. I’m still living much the same way: cooking from scratch, riding the bus, clipping coupons, buying from yard sales and thrift shops.

For me, frugality is not about denial. It’s about living mindfully, i.e., using available funds in the smartest possible way.

Living mindfully is a big part of this blog. But I wouldn’t describe Surviving and Thriving as strictly a frugality site. To do so might cause some potential readers to think, “Nope, not for me — I’m not frugal.” Or, worse, “Nope, not for me — I’m not female.”

Look: Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m going to write about my cute kids or my cute shoes.

I am more than just a double-X chromosome. I’m a person who grew up broke, worked unskilled jobs, gave birth out of wedlock, washed diapers on a scrub board, endured an emotionally/psychologically abusive marriage, clawed my way into a journalism job despite having no education, suffered from serious depression, 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.

You don’t go through all that without learning a few things about life. And I’m still learning.

Sometimes I’ll write about what I’ve learned. Sometimes I’ll write about mindful living. But I might also report live from the Bachelors Auction and Wilderness Woman Competition in Talkeetna, Alaska (first weekend in December; watch this space), or tell you about my lunch with a couple of homeless guys named Freeway and Leprechaun.

Who needs reality programming? Our actual reality is much more interesting than the edited-for-television kind. Come back regularly and find out how interesting.


read more