The Frugal Divorcée

How to survive—and even thrive—in the new age of austerity

So I’m at least cheered by the fact that I never made the laughable financial mistake of going to medical school and becoming a successful brain surgeon. Dodged a bullet on that one! And I’m even more delighted to have stumbled now onto the second genre of today’s frugality literature, a genre we might think of as Prodigal Son/Sinners Called to Redemption/“Regrets, I’ve Had a Few.” After all, where else could one find a book with the so-marvelously- in-tune-with-our-zeitgeist title of Start Late, Finish Rich?

Author David Bach, I have to gush, is wonderful: he knows where so many of us live. The book begins with tales of haggard-faced participants in his seminars admitting tearfully and a bit screechily to the rest of the room that they are 50 and broke. Hence, one of Bach’s first exercises is for you to literally write down your fiscal regrets. (“If only I had saved more money. If only I hadn’t quit that job … If only I had bet on the Yankees. If only I hadn’t bet on the Red Sox.”) You write them down and then, literally … burn them! At this point, as we are rising from the ashes, Bach lifts us up and catapults us into a whirlwind tour of amazing ways to beat a system that has been created to beat you.

For instance, every week I get an offer for a zero-interest-for-12-months Discover card that used to sound good, until Bach taught me that if you are even one day late on your payment in month 11, they get to smack on an interest rate of 24.99 percent! (Who reads the fine print? Who can remember exactly which day the minimum payment is due? Answer: no one!) But Bach says, Hold it, people, wait—you can actually use that zero-interest Discover card to pay off the balances on your other credit cards, interest-free—as long as you cleverly never miss a payment (which they statistically expect you to)! To pay off several credit cards at once, Bach has devised a scheme to pay off the smallest to the largest balance, sassily called DOLP (Dead on Last Payment), whose pleasing neatness reminds me of a satisfying Sudoku. Further, if instead of paying a $2,000 mortgage once a month, you pay $1,000 every two weeks, you can pay off a 25-year mortgage five to seven years early! Wow! As Johnny Carson used to say, “I did not know that!”

I am not exaggerating when I say that reading Start Late, Finish Rich made me absolutely high. It made getting out of debt seem chic, saving sexy, the whole mishegoss a thrilling adventure. One of Bach’s signature war cries is “Turbocharge your latte factor!” whereby he shows you how cutting out a simple, hasty, daily late-for-work muffin, compounded at 10 percent over 30 years, will explode into a gold pile for you of, like, a gazillion dollars! Good God! Which of my own lazy “muffins” (I hate muffins anyway) could I cut out? Inspired and on fire, I got on the phone and lowered my home and car insurance and ganged up a bunch of cell-phone accounts (“How? See my Web site,” I should say). If I didn’t exactly turbocharge my latte factor, I at least semicharged it … I discovered that Fresh & Easy sells an if-not-great-at-least-potable-with-much-decanting red wine at $19.99 a case! I discovered (thanks, Ben Schwarz, you around-the-bite eater of strangers’ room-service food!) that TheNew York Times (daily-subscription highway robbery) offers an educator’s rate, so in a moment of grace (having angrily canceled) I resubscribed, enjoying some Costco-priced Starbucks coffee ($9 for two pounds) as I began once again to page idly through the paper. (Although I must say, the purest New York Times chicanery is that little numbers puzzle called “KenKen,” which looks so pretentiously hard but is actually done in five minutes, far quicker than the “Easy”-est USA Weekend Stickdokus by Terry Stickels!) But now, so perusing on a Sunday morning, I came upon a business-section piece that made my blood run cold.

This was a story about the broken engagement of one Allison Brooke Eastman, whose fiancé bailed when he learned that she, at age 31, was $170,000 in debt. She’d run up much of this load studying for … what?!?! A bachelor’s degree in photography. Needless to say (using the mortgage rule of thumb), instead of now making $340,000 a year in photography, she was making far, far less as an X-ray technician. But no matter: for the next 20 years, the first, say, $1,600 Eastman makes every month will go straight to paying for that four-year college that sold her the bill of goods. Jesus! This is worse than biblical! After all, Jacob only worked seven years for his bride, found out his bride’s father had tricked him, and so then was forced to work a second seven years … But still, after 14 years, Jacob had to his name two wives, one he actually wanted. In comparison, Eastman will toil for 20 years, her only reward being not a husband (oh no, he bailed) but the company of perhaps a choleric cat and a vague, haunting sense of not living up to her artistic potential.

I thought instantly of my own dreamy 9-year-old (she of the organic-raspberry ballet leg), who has been musing about attending some kind of “arts middle school where you draw.” Good lord—what is the point? I see the writing on the wall already. Never mind Bach’s exhortation:

Too many parents raise their kids to go to school, earn good grades, and get a good job. This is not a formula for living rich. The rich teach their kids to be owners. The middle class teach their kids to be employees.

Worse is the delusion of my whole generation: we want our kids to go to fancy colleges in order to absolutely ensure, for their whole lives, that they will be poor.

The week gets worse and worse. My 89-year-old, Parkinson’s-stricken father suddenly requires 24-hour nursing (at $4,000 a month). In comes a 2008 IRS back bill for (including penalties) $2,300. Final nail in the coffin? My two girls turn out to have lice—a whole shitload of them! I struggled with lice for more than two years when the girls were younger, furtively shampooing and cream-rinsing and anointing, combing my girls out several times daily. But my eyes are gone at 48: I simply cannot see the nits anymore. To keep my kids in school, I have to indulge in that wild extravagance: the $95-an-hour professional nitpickers at Hair Fairies, where of course they determine that I too have lice, teeming, so attractively, in my wiry gray hair. Unlike the Brentwood dad next to me, who has three bugs and 80 eggs, I appear to have 60 bugs but only 45 eggs; the technicians speculate that even my lice are low producers, probably mostly male—I have gay lice! As they scrape away (although I have to admit, it’s nice to actually be in a salon—a rarity), I gloomily sit in the chair and work on a Sudoku, which goes so badly (so many sevens—why so many sevens?) that I have to erase my work and start over. Which gives me another wan money-saving idea: instead of buying Sudoku books or a daily newspaper, perhaps I can erase my Sudokus and just keep redoing the same ones. It’s Sisyphean.

Since I had begun this thrift-researching journey, more than one person had eagerly, with pinwheel eyes, recommended the Christian personal-finance-expert Dave Ramsey, specifically his book Financial Peace, which I did not even want to open, so burned out was I by the nit-induced emotional roller coaster. And yet, sitting in the chair of lice, here is what I read—it is almost eerie. Wrote Ramsey’s wife, about when they were in their darkest hour:

That day I asked the Lord for help. I realized that Dave and I needed more than just money. We needed peace and security so that everything would be okay. I have seen this valley we were in turn into an opportunity to share with others about the financial burden we had gotten ourselves into.

Further, I should stop berating myself, because

money is amoral. Money has no morals. That is, it is neither good nor bad. First Timothy 6:10 does not say, “Money is the root of all evil.” What it does say is “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Money in and of itself has no more moral quality than a brick.

And then finally, Dave Ramsey calls on all struggling single parents, and I can’t help feeling that he wrote this to me specifically:

You can be impulsive, less from immaturity than from desperation and exhaustion. You’ve had an unbelievably hard week, the child support didn’t come, the boss wants you to work late, the day care is mad because you are late, and the tires on your car are as bald as a baby’s butt. By Friday of a week like that you don’t care if the ATM withdrawal of $20 fast cash for a Happy Meal causes you to bounce ten checks; you do it anyway. “You deserve a break today.” I sympathize with you, but that will not let you off the hook. You do deserve a break; the only question is, what is the best way to get a break? ATM impulsing or, worse, a credit card or, even worse, cash advance rip-offs provide momentary relief and long-term mega-pain … You have one option as a single parent with limited money and not enough hours in a day; plan your escape! … The problem with prison breaks is they take a long time—too long. Digging a hundred-yard underground tunnel over a five-year period with a spoon sounds like it takes too long and is too hard. Yet a bold plan requires a blueprint, tenacity, checking and rechecking every detail, thinking, praying, and digging every day. Sounds too tough, but on the day that you are free and the sense of liberation hits you in the face when you finally reach the end of the tunnel, you will forget … You will be financially free.

I actually felt teary by the end; I felt somehow … forgiven and lifted up. Ramsey also helped this fast-results-oriented Type A person learn that “personal finance is not a microwave; it is a crock pot.” (Again with the Crock-Pots!) He also advocates diligent maintenance of old cars, so I can at least forgive myself by noting that my $535!!! oil change was initiated with a pure heart. (Does the Book of Proverbs come with a coupon for a free lube job?) In the end, Jesus saves … and so can I.

The whole country, I suspect, is in for a long exercise in tunnel digging. If we’re to avoid despair, we’re going to have to learn to substitute consolations for indulgences, and we’re going to have to gird ourselves for a life defined largely by small, mean, quotidian struggles. So I suppose I will take heart, horribly flawed as I am, and keep digging with my spoon.

But as for those Volvo mechanics? Never again!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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