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.


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