Broke Is Beautiful

Living and Loving the Cash-Strapped Life


By Laura Lee

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The economic downturn has forced nearly everyone into a life of limited means, but author Laura Lee was broke before it was cool. She won’t tell anyone to clip coupons or forego their morning latte — in fact, she won’t give any guidance on how to be saved from a dark financial destiny. Instead she provides readers with a psychological how-to full of fun tidbits. Broke is Beautiful is an insightful compendium of history, inspiration, facts, and humor that all celebrate the lack of money as a gateway to more serenity, self-awareness, and yes, even security.

In the tradition of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, here is an unconventional take on a subject that is relevant to us all. It is quirky comfort for the (literally) poor soul: offering historical and geographic perspective, ponderings on consumerism and credit scores, and even recipes for ramen noodles.


THERE is no such thing as independence, only interdependence. This book is dedicated to my late father, author Albert Lee, from whom I stole that line. To my brother and unofficial research assistant, Dr. Christopher (Cal) Lee. To my mother, Carol Lee, for providing a home and safe haven during my financially insecure times. To Valery Lantratov for inspiration and international perspective. To my life-long friend Jennifer Hunter for on-going moral support in richer and poorer times. To my wonderful new agent Laura Ross (Lauras rule!) for believing a book with a target audience of "broke people" could sell.
Thank you to editor Jennifer Kasius for making me sound more articulate than I do in normal life. Thanks to copyeditor Erin Slonaker and designer Jason Kayser.
A Big Thanks to the "Social Network Team," the folks who offered me tips and suggestions during the writing of this book: Richard Allman, Ken Boullt, Lisa Bruno, Lisa Crawford, Jodi Connors-Bergman, Jacqueline Clapper, Sandra Deering, Daniel Gill, Kristin Hertz, Valorie Howard, Shane Hunter, Dianne Ilkka, Nancy Jones, John Longo, Marlin McCoy, Gary McKeever, Larry Mein, Thane Norton, Jodi Prahler, Lynda Pringle, Bonnie Ray, Tanya Roycraft, Pat Salzer, Sue Schier, Helen Stewart, Sarah Stewart
And praise be to librarians everywhere! I bow down at your feet.

Introduction: I Was Broke Before It Was Cool!
"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
—1 TIMOTHY 6:10
For years I've been jealous of the folks who lived during the Great Depression. Sure there were bread lines and people were out of work, but they had those great union songs to make the poor folk feel powerful: "You can't scare me, I'm sticking with the union!" They had sad songs to make the poor folk feel sympathy: "Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time." They even had escapist songs so that poor folk could fantasize: "We're in the money, we're in the money." The poor were the subject of art and literature, from the portraits of Dorothea Lange to the novels of John Steinbeck.
You may have been broke, and life may have been hard, but you got a lot of sympathy. You and your modest means were part of the culture. There was a sense that people were all in it together.
I came of age in the Reagan era, watching videos of the Duran boys swanning around on boats in exotic locations and Madonna singing "Material Girl." We watched Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties and Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. The grubby rustic hippies were so last decade. They started trusting people over thirty, put on suits, and became Yuppies. They wanted everyone to know about their new-found hobby of building up wealth.
Shows began to pop up on television that equated poor fashion sense with moral failing. We drooled at Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Our culture focused on flipping houses, redecorating their interiors, and watching Silicon Valley tech geeks become millionaires. Sure, there were lots of people building up crushing debt, but it wasn't something we talked about—or even thought about if we didn't have to. (Heck, those debts hadn't crushed anybody yet.) We had easy credit. Our home values were going up and up, so we'd have more tomorrow than today. Spend now—or the terrorists win!
Dale Wasserman, the playwright who created Man of La Mancha, described himself as a "showbiz hobo." I am a literary and theatrical hobo. I have pieced together a living writing books, organizing ballet tours, and taking odd jobs like shopping mall Easter Bunny and clerk at The Arlozone, a combination Arlo Guthrie merchandise store and coffee shop in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (I was as shocked as anyone when the place went out of business.)1
My economic station has seen me rolling quarters to make my rent and looking up dandelion recipes on the Internet to make use of a free crop that appeared in the lawn. Nevertheless, I kept having to buy food—it threw off my whole budget. I was completely out of style.
Nowadays, I feel like the ugly duckling who has grown into a swan. I see that I was a trendsetter, ahead of the curve. Now everybody is talking about what they can't afford. They're discussing gas prices, mortgage payments, and their grocery bills. Doing more with less is the new black. I can stand up and say, "I was broke before it was cool—and broke can be beautiful!"
So welcome, wealthless, and congratulations on coming out of the closet. Never has there been a better time to hold your head high as a cash-strapped person. When once you were on your own, being told to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, today you're part of a movement!
President John F. Kennedy said that "a rising tide raises all boats." It is also true that a lowering tide brings the boat back down to the folks who have been treading water. Since I've been here for a while, I want you to know that the water here is fine. I feel that I am more than qualified to guide all of you who have suddenly realized your fortune was part of a "bubble" on the joys of being broke. Yes, I said the joys of being broke. It helps if you can look on your poverty as a way to lighten your load and a chance to test your creativity and resourcefulness. You might as well look at it that way anyhow, because you're still going to be broke either way.
The premise of this book is simple: Being broke is not abnormal. Being rich, on the other hand, is freakish. This will not be a how-to guide on dealing with a tight budget or simple living, although some of those types of tips will slip in here and there. It is a mental guide for keeping your sanity in troubled times by seeing your poverty from different perspectives—economic, historic, and cultural.
Not everyone sees money the way we're accustomed to in our culture. Seeing yourself as an irresponsible lazy bum is only one option, and if you're suffering financial reverses, it's probably not the best one for your well-being. Try one of these alternatives on for size: Consider yourself an eco-savvy member of the green movement, a spiritually evolved person who has given up materialism, or a resourceful artist of life. Remember that the word wealth comes from the Old English weal, which means well-being. Being wealthy simply means you're doing well, so you don't need money to pull it off.
If you're contemplating being flat-out busted for the first time after a period of prosperity, chances are you're only thinking about the negatives. Daniel Gilbert, a noted happiness researcher (one of those job titles you never knew existed), points out that things that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think, and things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we think.
Just as buying that dream house didn't make you as happy as you'd imagined, having it foreclosed for non-payment won't make you feel as bad as you imagine. I'm not saying it won't be embarrassing and that you won't feel bad about it. But that shame won't be the only thing in your life; you'll still have your friends and your thoughts and your talents, and you'll still have happy days. What's more, when something you thought would ruin you happens and you're still standing, you tend to feel a lot more resilient and strong. I know, I've had lots of time to think about this stuff. I was broke before it was cool.

Planning Tips for a Successful Life of Poverty
"I don't think McDonald's is necessarily a bad place to work, but I wouldn't say that's the only alternative for people who are trained in banking."
Greetings, nouveau pauvre. If you're planning now to be broke, congratulations! You're in a great position to lay the groundwork for a successful transition. My personal recommendation (from the "do as I say" file) is to pursue the debt-free approach to being poor. In this lifestyle you don't have much to show for yourself, but you aren't shooing away creditors either.
Even though it has been the "done thing" in America for some time, being in a state of obligation comes with more than just cash flow hassles. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that reciprocal arrangements are so vital in human social systems that we are essentially programmed to feel uncomfortable when we are in a position to receive but not to give. What's more, other people dislike us as well if we break this unwritten rule of reciprocity. Your friend may say she doesn't mind picking up the tab when you go out to lunch, but she minds. And you know she minds.
In fact, most people will avoid asking for help when they need it if they know they're not in a position to pay the favor back. The psychological cost may outweigh the material loss.
If you can plan ahead to avoid this, you can avoid what I call the Elvis Effect. You may remember that Elvis was famous for his over-the-top generosity. In his most famous spending spree, he gave away brand-new cars to his friends and a woman who just happened to be in the dealership at the time. When someone acts that way, you can bet that he used to be poor. That is a person trying to balance the scales in a big way for the time that he was down.
The person who says everyone should pull himself up by his bootstraps, on the other hand, probably didn't have as far to pull.2 A person who feels this way is more likely to have been born with social advantages that he takes for granted, and to view all of his success as self-made.
This is not to say that the poor are morally superior. That would be as absurd as the notion that the rich are morally superior. There are simply underlying psychological and social reasons why people act as they do.
Knowing this in advance, you can prepare yourself by creating your own psychological safety valve. If most of your socializing revolves around spending—going to movies, going out to eat—you're going to start feeling like a mooch and cut yourself off from other people.
Studies show that people who feel financially strapped are much less socially engaged than those who feel more secure. Adjusting for income and education, the most financially stressed attend two-thirds fewer meetings of clubs and organizations than the least economically anxious. The broke not only go to movies less frequently (they can't afford it), but they also spend less time on things that don't cost a cent, like having friends over, going to visit friends, attending church, volunteering, and participating in politics. The only thing financial stress seems to make us do more of is watch TV. Such social isolation can easily lead to clinical depression, which further isolates and makes it harder to engage in the kind of productive, creative thoughts that can lead to novel solutions to your problems.
So you have to be proactive and do the inviting. Come up with cheery free stuff to do, and you suggest the activity. Have a potluck. Plan a scavenger hunt. Have a bird-watching outing. If you do it early and often, your friends will think of you as a creative person who suggests out-of-the-ordinary activities, and they'll actually feel more positive about you.
Social activities do not have to be extravagant; they just need to be done together. Philip Simmons, author of Learning to Fall, gets nostalgic when he's around garbage. "When I was spending summers [in New Hampshire] as a child, about the only time I got to spend with my father was while we were working together on something, and so I have fond memories of our trips to the dump. The work (of lugging trash to the dump) was tedious and smelly, and I don't suppose we talked a whole lot, but it was good simply to be in my father's presence . . ."
One thing that can isolate folks without money is a sense that your digs just aren't quite good enough for company. Think about this for a moment. Are you inviting them over to be impressed with you, or to be friends with you? Are they more likely to be impressed by your interest in what they have to say or by the slip covers on your chairs?
Alice Brock, the subject of folk singer Arlo Guthrie's Vietnam-era anthem "Alice's Restaurant," published her own cookbook in 1969. If you have a soft spot for late '60s counter culture (you really ought to if you're broke), I highly recommend it. Alice offers the following advice on entertaining hippie style:
"Just because you have four chairs, six plates and three cups is no reason why you can't invite twelve people to dinner. There are lots of things you can use besides plates. For instance: hub caps lined with tinfoil, or almost anything lined with tinfoil . . ." The plastic tops of coffee can lids, empty jars, plastic yogurt and ice cream tubs, measuring cups, and baking pans all have potential as dishes. Alice recommends popsicle sticks and wire hangers as forks. "Also, any chance you get, take wooden ice cream spoons from the market. They're free." (Anyone seen those lately?) The key is serving with confidence and style.
"If you act embarrassed, you'll never be able to pull this kind of stunt off," she writes, "but if you're straight ahead and act like you always serve your Beef Stroganoff in a muffin tin, everybody will think you're very exciting and original and that maybe there's something they don't know."
Being broke with someone else is a great way to bond. You can prove this by watching just about any VH1 Behind the Music special ever made. If you haven't seen one, here is the plot: A group of working class kids from London/New York/Los Angeles/any economically depressed industrial city are drawn together by a dream of making it big in the music business, and they form a rock band. On the way up as they tour in a rusted van held together by duct tape they are the best of friends and share a far off dream of superstardom. Then one day they discover they have made it. They are showered with gold records and enough money to support whatever vice they wish to pursue. Without the struggle to make a living to unite them, things start to fall apart.
They begin to discover that they may not have had that much in common after all. The initial joy fizzles, the music suffers, they each blame the others, and the band breaks up. (That is until the money runs out and the members suddenly remember that they kind of liked each other to begin with and besides, that promoter sure is offering a lot of dosh for a summer reunion tour.)
Jon Moss, drummer for the 1980s band Culture Club, reflected on his group's implosion saying, "Generally, the more expensive the album, the less successful the band is becoming."
While we're talking about '80s music, you may also want to start humming the Janet Jackson song, "Control." (I was pleased to know there is someone in control, but I was a bit surprised that it is Janet Jackson.) Study after study shows that people feel more relaxed, creative, and productive when they believe they are in control of their lives.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert reports on a study with dramatic results. Researchers gave each resident of a nursing home a houseplant. They told half of the elderly residents that they were in control of the plant's care and feeding. The other residents were told that a staff member would water the plant. The members were allowed to set the timing and duration of the student researcher's visit. The low-control group members were not. After two months, residents of the high-control group were happier, healthier, more productive, and taking fewer medications than the low-control group. Six months later, 30 percent of the residents in the low-control group had died compared with only 15 percent in the high control group. But the real revelation did not come until the study ended.
When the study was finished, the students went home. Several months later, they did a follow-up and were saddened to learn that a disproportionate number of the residents who had been in the high-control group had died. The residents had been given control, only to have it taken away when the study ended.
"Apparently," wrote Gilbert, "gaining control can have a positive impact on one's health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having any at all."
This explains the seemingly illogical fact that the first thing most people do when they get laid off is go out and buy something. "You see, I'm still in control, I can buy this toaster." In a consumer society, we tend to feel in control when we have access to lots of goods and services. Choosing between the eco-friendly recycled toilet paper and the novelty toilet paper with the crossword puzzles on it gives us a sense of control. The loss of a job is a serious blow to your ability to make those choices.
Once the unemployment runs out, you probably will lose control over your ability to get that toaster. But even though you have lost control in one area does not mean you have lost it in all areas. In fact, the sense that you ever had control was a bit of an illusion. No one is control of everything.
Will Rogers said, "We're all ignorant, only on different subjects." It is equally true that we are all in control, only in different areas. The key to maintaining a successful Broke and Beautiful lifestyle is to focus on what you do control, and not on what you cannot. In the pages that follow, we'll explore various ways to do just that.
A quick note on language: There is a shade of difference between the words "broke" and "poor." Broke generally refers to a temporary state of affairs, while poor is a more permanent social status. We talk about the "working poor" but not the "working broke," for example. Because the experience of rolling pennies to put enough gas in your car in order to get to work is the same whether you are "broke" or "poor," I will be using the two terms relatively interchangeably throughout this book.
What Is a Deadbeat?
How did a person who doesn't pull his own weight come to be known as a deadbeat? It goes all the way back to the Civil War. (The same war gave us the word deadline.) Back in those days people used the word beat to mean "swindle" or "cheat." So Civil War soldiers called the guy who shirked his duty a "beat." The worst kind of beat, and the most hated, was the guy who metaphorically played dead by faking a wound or illness to escape duty—a deadbeat. As so many of our ideas tend to do in America, the concept of the "deadbeat" drifted toward the economic in the years that followed.

A Cash-Strapped Life Is a Creative Life: The Adventure of Being Broke
"I also want to thank my parents in Vergaio, who gave me the greatest gift: poverty."
You probably knew someone like this in high school or college—he was a budding novelist who spent all his time scribbling in a notebook and talking about the great book he would write that would change how the world thought about literature. If you asked this guy what type of books he liked to read, he would tell you that he didn't read other writers because he didn't want to pollute his ground water. He couldn't care less how a bunch of dead poets did things. The past is dead and gone, your friend would say, and he was all about the future.
Several years have now passed, and I would be willing to bet one of two things about your "creative" friend. He has now either 1) started to read other writers or 2) given up on his writing dream and gotten a job in middle management.
One of the defining characteristics of creativity, of course, is novelty. We define something as creative if it has an element of innovation. But there are other aspects of creativity that are much less frequently discussed. Creativity is as much about constraint as it is about innovation. You could, for example, put a bunch of random words on the page, print them out, and call it poetry because those words have never appeared together in quite that configuration before. It would be somewhat original (I'm guessing it's been done), but it wouldn't mean much of anything to anyone. Most likely they wouldn't even recognize that it was supposed to be a poem. Knowing what has come before, and drawing on it, is a constraint, but it is a useful constraint.
Dr. Patricia Stokes studied artistic innovators such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Frank Lloyd Wright and determined that contrary to common belief, it is not complete freedom that leads to creative innovation. Successful artists move forward within self-imposed restrictions. Stokes calls these constraints "barriers that lead to breakthroughs."
Stokes makes a distinction between the kinds of constraints that invite conformity: "operators in well-structured problems with single correct solutions, like directions to memorize, calculate exactly, or copy correctly . . . preclude the surprising and promote the expected." Other types of structures and constraint, however, provide a foundation upon which a person can build and innovate. I'll illustrate this with my favorite limerick:
There once was a man from Japan
Who wrote verse that never would scan
When they said that the thing
Didn't go with the swing
He said, "Yes, but I always like to fit as many words into the last
line as I possibly can."
In her book, Creativity from Constraints, Stokes did not specifically address budget constraints, but I can assure you that trying to find a solution with limited capital can be just the kind of "barrier that leads to breakthroughs."
"There's lot's of freedom that comes from having less money," said Roger Hedden, writer and producer of such independent films as Sleep with Me and Bodies, Rest and Motion. "For the most part, the lack of money to throw at problems makes you come up with creative solutions. And in the end I think the project becomes better because you have a set of restrictions that are imposed that aren't imposed with an eye toward the marketplace, but are just constraints that you have to be creative around."
For ten years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women who were prominent in a variety of fields including art, music, science, sports, politics, and business. He published the results in the 1995 book The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. As part of his study, Ludwig identified a template for greatness. Among the traits of exceptional people were a sense of physical vulnerability and the existence of psychological "unease." What better to produce those two things than a little shot of poverty?
There was a time when the benefits of a pauper's life were common knowledge, as Malcolm Gladwell observed in The New Yorker: "The rags-to-riches story—that staple of American biography—has over the years been given two very different interpretations," he wrote. "The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. . . . Today that interpretation has been reversed. Success is seen as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage. . . . Nowadays, we don't learn from poverty, we escape from poverty . . ."
If nothing else, having bills to pay can get you off your butt. When it comes to innovation, the profit motive has got nothing on the survival motive. The list of great works of art and literature that were created so the artist could make a buck to pay the rent or buy some bread is too long to list.
While poverty can be a great motivator to get you to work, the promise of extra money when you're already comfortable can actually stifle creativity. That is the conclusion of Teresa Amabile, head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and the only tenured professor at a top business school to devote her entire research program to the study of creativity. She and her research team collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the high-tech, chemical, and consumer products industries. She discovered that people are most creative when they are self-motivated and when they care about their work. But when they start to worry about their bonuses and pay-for-performance plans, they start to get risk averse. To "guarantee results" they stick to what has worked before and they are much less likely to take risks.
When we are chasing after financial goals, we usually think we are seeking self-improvement. Yet we're actually more motivated by a fear of loss than the dream of gain. Our greatest fear is losing ground.
Economists and psychologists discovered that people expect losing money will have more impact than gaining money. Most people, for example, would refuse a bet that gives us an 85 percent chance of doubling our life savings and a 15 percent chance of losing it. The likely prospect of a big gain doesn't outweigh the more unlikely prospect of a big loss.
When people are asked whether they would prefer to have a job at which they earned $30,000 the first year, $40,000 the second year, and $50,000 the third year, or a job at which they earned $60,000 then $50,000 then $40,000, they generally prefer the job with the increasing wages, even though they will be earning less money overall. We would rather be making less than feel like we're "losing."


On Sale
Apr 13, 2010
Page Count
272 pages
Running Press

Laura Lee

About the Author

Laura Lee is the author of several books, which include Blame It on the Rain: How Weather Has Changed History. Laura lives in Michigan where she divides her time between writing and producing ballet educational tours with Russian ballet star Valery Lantratov.

Meredith Hamilton
has illustrated nine books in the Child’s Intro series. Her other illustration work includes apps for children, cookbooks, and Steuben glass. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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