Why I’m writing, and why you should read it.

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 and Frugal Nation blogs 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.

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  1. But… you WILL talk about shoes at some point, right?

    Glad to have you on the blogosphere finally!

  2. Leah in the Interior

    You forgot another major accomplishment…
    Your grace & sense of humor attracted a good sized group of people who think you are awesome. =)

  3. Thanks for starting your blog. How did you stay motivated in the face of great challenges? Maybe you can write a piece on your techniques to get over the hurdles. It’s all about attitude. Right?

  4. This website is a longtime coming Good luck!!

  5. Wow — what a SUPERB intro post, Donna! It sounds like you’ve lived through a lot and have great insight into what it’s like to really NEED to make the most of your money. I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences…and will put any suggestions for “mindful living” to good use! Good luck with the site!

  6. Wow!! I never realized how much we have in common!!! lol!! We really do need to have lunch. I have a buy one get one free coupon for most family restaurants in America! Seriously….this is great. Except for the part about saving money and actually living on $12,000 a year we’re a lot a like. I still struggle with money management and being frugal, but I’m in a learning curve and am patiently learning as I go. I opted for van living, but am now in a … well, let’s say “office space” and occasionally the van space – by choice, right now. I am SO looking forward to this blog! You’re such a talented writer and funny too! Way to go and GLAD you emailed everyone in your address book!

  7. Congrats on your website – I think your writing is topical and informative – keep up the business of reality writing! Best of Luck – Bee, Illinois.

  8. Jennifer

    You are one amazing woman, Donna. We admire your strength and your spirit.

  9. Congratulations on your new project! I can’t wait to keep reading.

  10. I’m so proud of you!! You make me want to strive to be better in so many aspects of my life. Long live your new site.
    On a very odd note, I had a dream about you last night.(That just seems like such a weird thing to say!) You were so busy responding to messages, that you had to have Abby help you and couldn’t get up to go pee. How bizarre was that!?! And I probably shouldn’t have said all of that here! But I see it as a good sign!

  11. I posted a little something on my blog.
    Have a great weekend!

  12. Wow! Looking forward to reading more on your blog!

  13. christina hogrebe

    Thanks Donna. I appreciate your insights into living mindfully and I’ll look forward to your posts.

  14. Thanks, Donna. I’m glad to see that you continue to share the experience and wisdom you’ve accumulated along life’s way.

  15. SonyaAnn sent me! I had read some of you articles on MSN, but didn’t know you had this site!

    I have you bookmarked and am going to be checking it out often.

  16. Donna Freedman

    You can’t see me, but I’m blushing. Many thanks to all for your kind words and encouragement.
    And stick around: There WILL be giveaways.
    @SonyaAnn: I have managed to take bathroom breaks. But oh, to be THAT busy…

  17. Congrats Donna! I look forward to reading more about your personal take on finance. And don’t forget you have a wicked sense of humor, so you can always do comedy, too.

    aka Bargain Babe
    PS. I added you to my RSS and Twitter feed. The FB link did not take me to your page, however.

  18. Welcome to the blogosphere! I’m looking forward to reading more.

  19. Woohoo! Glad to see you with your own blog now 🙂

  20. Isabell B.

    This is great! I have enjoyed your writing and I admire your openness and honesty. I look forward to reading more!

  21. I found your blog through SonyaAnn. Looking forward to reading more on your site. Have a great weekend!

  22. Looking forward to reading this. I’m a former shop-when-I-want person who filed bankruptcy last year and is learning to live on a lot less while still keeping what’s important. Have managed with a lot less effort than I could ever have believed to cut more than 60 percent from living expenses. So far!

  23. Valerie

    Hi Donna. Looking forward to future blogs. After 20 years & several kids later, I served my ex with divorce papers and a TRO., currently have a permanent RO. Haven’t looked back since! Money is tight, but would rather have that then my previous life. I am excited to learn how live and love frugality!

  24. Here from SonyaAnn, nice little piece! I look forward to hearing more.

  25. i thought i was the only one

  26. Rebecca C.

    Wow, I remember reading your original 2007 article! That’s about the time I started college for the first time – at age 50! I didn’t have to face even half the challenges you had, but college in itself is quite a challenge, I’ve found. Started a blog (http://college50.blogspot.com/) to record my experiences, but haven’t been as prolific as I hope you will be with this blog. I’ve bookmarked it and will read every post!

  27. Rochelle

    I’m glad to see your new site. Living mindfully is a good definition for the way you live and it’s not a bad thing. If it wasn’t for a possible layoff hanging over my head in 2008 I wouldn’t have read your column quite so carefully – I am very glad I did even though my job situation improved at the end of 2008 when I landed the job of my dreams. Frugal living, no matter to what extent, helps us have some control in times that seem to be increasingly out of control.

  28. Stacey

    Congratulations on the launch, Donna. I look forward to more!

  29. Sheila

    Found you on SonyaAnn’s blog. Congrats on getting to where you are now. Looking forward to reading more.

  30. Congrats on the blog Donna! I want to add my well wishes to the chorus above and add that I too am glad to see you finally join the pf blogosphere.

  31. Catseye

    I remember reading that first article for MSN Money and being impressed by it. And look at you now. Go, Donna, Go!

  32. I’m just stopping over to see how everything is going! And I’m completely with Catseye!

  33. east coast girl

    I just wanted to add my congratulations on the birth of your new blog. I just went back to school myself at the age of 57 and have been wondering if I am crazy. Everyone I know this age is looking forward to retirement. You give me hope. Thank you!

    • Donna Freedman

      @East Coast Girl: You are not crazy. I’m betting you’ll have the same experience I did: That of getting more out of your classes now than you ever could have hoped to get at age 18, or even age 30.
      I’m pulling for you. Keep me posted.

  34. Way to go! I relate to your story and I’m sure many others will, too. Best of luck!

  35. bouncing back betty

    welcome to the blogsphere!

  36. Congrats on the new blog. Looking forward to reading.

  37. sonia 1978

    I dont know if u read your comments hope u do. I like your blog on MSN, read it since u began, it helped me cope in those years, to know that i wasnt the only cooking from scratch and trying to save money, I still do, but it made more of habit in me, to save money, for other things in life, it feels good to know your not the only one who thinks the way u do, and to know that everyone in one way or another has endured hard times, including depression, but has come out of it, in my case, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and giving some light into your personal life, it does make a difference, because you feel a connection to certain things, and that is different from other advice /blogs, thanks and God bless u.

    • Donna Freedman

      Sonia: Thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate your reading, and hope you will continue this connection.

  38. Charlotte Hill

    Hi Donna,

    Do you have a Facebook and/or Twitter profile? I’m the social media fellow at EARN in San Francisco, and we’d love to connect with you online. 🙂

    Looking forward to hearing from you!


  39. Is love to strong of a word? Thank -you..

  40. Oh wow your writing is fantastic and seemingly just for me the way it’s written bravo

  41. Tim Heavner

    Donna — I came across your name in a response you wrote to a “Get Rich Slowly” blog, and I did a double-take. I grew up in Anchorage (thirty-plus years), but moved to NYC ten years ago, so I recognized your name immediately, although I haven’t seen it in a while. As a parent of two young boys, trying to survive in a strained marriage, and living with a financial situation pock-marked by many foolish choices throughout the years, I have recently taken up interest in financial blogs aimed at just this sort of approach to sensible money management. So happy to re-encounter your writing and find some practical advice and encouragement, and I look forward to more shared wisdom. All the best, Tim.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Tim: Thanks for your kind words. Hope you’ll come back to read some more.
      I’m heading up to Anchorage again in November. Just can’t seem to stay away.

  42. Whoah! What a powerful story! Your story is very inspiring. My wife and I are working through some pretty large school loans, but we are very excited to have a plan for our financial future. More importantly we are excited about seeing those balances decrease. Hopefully, we will be completely out of debt within the next couple of years. Soo excited!

    We see people daily who are living paycheck to paycheck. In fact, we were one of them. We know about the money fights and money arguments. We also know how fights about money or the lack thereof can set the pace for issues in other areas of marriage as well.

    We are soo glad those days are behind us! Moving forward! Good luck in everything you do.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Anthony: Thanks for your kind words. I wish the two of you luck in your goal — it sounds as though you’re well on your way.

  43. Hi Donna,
    My mom just introduced me to your blog. I’m looking forward to reading more on your site.

  44. Dottie755

    Hello Donna,
    Just found your site today and had to write. I want you to know, I’ve never ever responded to a site before even though I’ve read plenty. Your article touched something in me; I’ve found someone who is able to express EXACTLY how I feel about the relationship between money and living a good life without a lot of money. I’ve always realized the importance of living within your means but you’ve helped me understand that this can be achieved without sacrificing the joy in life . Thanks.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dottie755: Thank you so much for your kind words. I hope you’ll come back again.

  45. Congrats on all your accomplishments!!! Your more of an inspiration than you may think. So many kids today give up on themselves because of what they don’t have.. and many don’t have models to follow ie: see that you can overcome challenges..even when all the odds are stacked against you… Your doing great work.. I’ll be following =)

  46. Awesome story Congrats on your accomplishments.. Following =)

    I need to learn to “do more with less”

  47. Hi, the link to the Surviving (and Thriving) on 12000 a Year article on MSN does not work anymore. This link: http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/LearnToBudget/SurvivingAndThrivingOn12000AYear.aspx

    • Donna Freedman

      @Hanne: Unfortunately, MSN Money switched platforms and that article doesn’t exist on the current one.

  48. xokitty

    Thank you, Donna! You are an inspiration to me this morning. I just turned 46 and am at the proverbial crossroads mid-life dilemma. I love writing as well and although I’ve held corporate work in between being married and being the single mom, I feel kind of lost and scared about which directions to take since I know my passions and entrepreneurial joy have always been on the back burner or sidelines for the sake of the corporate check and lack of time raising the kids. Now that I have more time to really look at my life I see things I really want to do but am a little scared. You helped me realize I just need to dive in!! I don’t want to waste more decades, let alone another week. I’ve realized you gotta keep moving and things will make more sense as they unfold as long as you keep a sense of adventure!

    • Donna Freedman

      Glad I could help even a little — and it was just a little, since it sounds like you know what you want. My example was just a little nudge down the path you’re already treading.
      Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for reading Surviving and Thriving.


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