The Frugal Divorcée

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

I admit I’d had pride in the supposed superiority of my natural thrift.

I admit I’d had a habit of looking down on my slower-witted and weaker-willed peers. I jotted down mental notes of their failings, took pleasure in their flaws.

I admit I may have been tired on that Thursday morning and perhaps not at the top of my game.

I admit I am powerless in the face of a random and meaningless cosmos.

I admit that—God help me—without intending to, with only the purest of intentions, I took my nine-year-old Volvo wagon in for a routine oil change and emerged with a bill for … $535!

Five hundred and thirty-five dollars!!! Although technically it was an oil change plus two changed-out hoses at $95 apiece, with four hours of labor charged for water- and oil-system repressurization and tire rotation. I’ve been with these guys since 2001, on my friend Keith’s recommendation, and I’ve trusted them through 109,000 miles. But why, why, why $535??? Good God! I kick myself! I gnash my teeth! My stomach lining burns! I can feel, viscerally, the weight of the $535 that is never coming back (and that’s just the principal, not all the interest that won’t be compounding decade after decade). It’s not tax deductible … not exactly … although, hey—here the battered head lifts, the rheumy eyes narrow—now comes the sneaky question: could it be? Up on the brain scan pops the menu of my annual tax deductions, which I reflexively begin to rake through, as if it were an oft-worried-over Zen garden (rake, rake, rake). My car repairs are not tax deductible, of course, unlike automotive depreciation or whatever is based on mileage … I’ve debated this many times with my beleaguered tax preparer (gray Bozo hair, somber bassoon voice, my 1099s fluttering around him in what seems a continual invisible breeze).

Even knowing the answer, I still feel compelled to rake over the shifting sands of my shabby little accounts (rake, rake, rake), the mental raking nervous and automatic and habitual, but then, I must say, occasionally wonderfully meditative. Lying in bed at night, I sometimes draw solace—I sometimes extract a slim meniscus of peace from the floating belly of darkness—from the notion that come morning, I will take my white, egg-shaped mug of coffee to my (IKEA, as-is) wooden dining-room table and, with freshly sharpened pencil (shoved joyously into the electric sharpener—Zzzzz! Zzzzz! Zzzzz!), after perhaps a Sudoku, or two, or three, draw up a heady, new, ever more accurate Quicken Deluxe household budget! (Sudoku puzzles litter every corner of the house—I have one going for every mood of the day … Light, Easy, Medium, Diabolical.)

And understand that I am not alone in my obsession with frugality these days (although, sadly, obsession does not mean achievement—I deserve the title skinflint only in the self-mocking way Carrie Fisher calls herself “a failed anorexic”). Look around you: our entire nation is in a frenzy of fiscal self-examination; we hang our formerly private budgets out conspicuously, like laundry flapping in the sun, newly eco-friendly (in the way that dead lawns are suddenly progressive, brown being the new green). There’s no use pretending anymore: the mask has fallen; our financial system has imploded; we did it to ourselves; up above America floats an ozone layer of consumer debt; we’ve run up $11 billion a year in credit-card late fees alone; furniture stores are in foreclosure; in restaurants, waiters stand as motionless as birds on a line in winter. And perhaps the most significant cultural ramification of the Great Recession: Suze Orman has spawned a hundred imitators. On AM radio in Los Angeles, on Spanish, Mandarin, sports, and Christian shows, I increasingly hear personal-finance gurus hectoring terrified couples, Laura Schlessinger–style, about their numbskull $350 car payments and interest-only mortgages, because, as we’re told time and again, the chickens have come home to roost.

Which is not to say that this sawbuck-swirling auto-da-fé doesn’t have a festive undercurrent. Indeed, if you read (what remains of) the newspaper or visit (while they’re still standing) your local Barnes & Noble, you’ll see a new brand of frugality afoot, as flagrant and in-your-face as glittery-’80s-Rolex conspicuous consumption once was. From every corner of this blasted red-white-and-blue (and brown, aka the new green!) foreclosurescape creep the unapologetically cheerful new titles: The Cheapskate Next Door, America’s Cheapest Family, The Scavengers’ Manifesto, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, Possum Living, The Joy of Less, Frugillionaire. Some of these get-cheap-quick guides are quasi-self-published; some are read by many but bought by few (as the authors themselves note with pride), because cheapskates love exchanging used books and browsing free public libraries … and that is okay! As Ultimate Cheapskate Jeff Yeager approvingly notes in The Cheapskate Next Door, with a cheerful wave from his used, paid-for-with-cash pickup truck—the one in whose cup holder he has placed a cup of water filled to the brim in order to dissuade himself from indulging in jackrabbit-start-filled, fuel-inefficient driving—“C’est la cheapskate!”

These tiresomely Ben Franklin–quoting Americans are having the time of their lives; in this wreck of an economy, all eyes turn—finally—to them; they are exuberantly letting their freak flag fly. “Open your mind,” intone the authors of The Scavengers’ Manifesto, above what one imagines is the groovy drizzling beat of tabla. “Scavenging means learning to be flexible. Spontaneous. Adventurous … Never wore a poncho before or listened to Turkish techno music? … Lose the squeamishness and learn.” Welcoming guests to her home—a string of scrap-lumber pergolas derided as her suburban neighborhood eyesore—Dumpster-diving Jacquie Phelan giddily exclaims in The Cheapskate Next Door: “Welcome to the Taj Mahovel!” The more you look, the more you see the New Frugals crossing ever more cultural and geographical lines. To the left, you have tattooed 20-something abandoned-house-squatting Buffalo freegans boasting to The New York Times Magazine that they haven’t worn underwear in eight years. In the middle, you have Net-surfing, Doris Day–like “Coupon Moms” with downloadable grocery savings cross-referenced by state (as seen on Oprah!). To the right, you have—no joke—the Amish, whose homes burst with charming antiques less poetically inherited than opportunistically scooped up from local estate sales (no fools, the Amish themselves admit to being hawkeyed collectors of hard goods calculated to increase in value).

It’s the Revenge of the Nerds, if there’s any one underlying theme. Consider Steve and Annette Economides (real name!), heads of “America’s Cheapest Family.” They are devout, homeschooling (of five kids!) Christians, and helping others get out of debt is part of their ministry (although they don’t bring religion into their book). Their uniform of choice consists of Dockers (it seemed to me that Dockers are mentioned on practically every other page). To keep their outlet and thrift-store wardrobes stylish, they unironically practice—and advocate—the seasonal “color draping” mocked by Michael Moore (as you may remember) in Roger & Me: Steve and Annette dutifully organize their closet according to palettes that the color wheel has determined are flattering on them, which include such startling-sounding hues as Christmas red, emerald green, and royal purple. Grocery shopping is done by team—Dad takes the outer aisles, Mom takes the inner; comparison of sale prices and coupon doubles is done in real time (“Shazam!”) via walkie-talkie. Meanwhile, humming at the nuclear core of their home is that must-have for all frugaholics—the giant 27-cubic-foot freezer. Grocery shopping for a family of seven just once a month (to avoid unplanned impulse purchases), they ladder their produce in ascending order of the length of shelf life (meaning in the first week you consume grapes and bananas; in the second, pears, lettuce, and cucumbers; third and fourth, apples, celery, and oranges); they buy 15 loaves of bread at once from the bakery outlet; instead of deli lunch meat, they select only “chubs.”

Certainly there are plenty of images one cannot shake, once one has Dumpster-dived one’s way through the new, beet-green-splattered (beet greens were free, found near a crashed delivery truck on the side of the road!) frugillionaire lit. I mean, who but a crazy (or is it crazy-as-a-fox?) person like Wanda Adams of Trotwood, Ohio, would invite friends to a whimsical boiled-omelet brunch?

Give everyone their own quart-size ziplock bag with their name written on it in permanent marker. Guests crack a couple of eggs into their bags, add a dash of milk, and choose their own omelet ingredients from a large selection … of leftovers from the fridge … the more bizarre the better … Drop all [the bags] in a large pot of boiling water for fourteen minutes …

Et voilà! And yet nothing is as memorable as the Economides family on vacation. Wearing seven matching outfits (so no one gets lost), eagerly anticipating staying not in a hotel but in student dorms abandoned over the summer (unbelievable cut rates), they realized the only must-have travel item that wouldn’t fit into their airplane luggage was … drumroll … the family Crock-Pot. And so their 18-day trip to Washington, D.C., began with a sweep of pre-Googled thrift stores to purchase a used Crock-Pot ($5! Shazam!), which they immediately filled with cans of SpaghettiOs for a festive ending to their day. (As to their tips on Paris? One can only imagine: “C’est la cheapskate!”)

America’s Cheapest Family: they are the very opposite of hip, and I wish I were one of them!

Why? Because I am the sort of failed cheapskate who pores over this amazing treasure bin of ideas with what Ultimate Cheapskate Yeager calls “TE”—“Tightwad Envy.” (Why oh why don’t I have the sort of open-minded friends who would thrill to the wacky fun of a boiled-omelet brunch? Why, instead of skillfully laddering my produce, do I sometimes just leave it out on the counter and forget about it completely? Dill, dill … Why oh why did I buy that now-rubbery and useless $1.50 sprig of dill last week? Do I have so much money that I can simply throw it away?) Like America’s more successful cheapskates, I too suffer from what Yeager calls “SAD”—“Spending Anxiety Disorder.”

[SAD] was a favorite topic of conversation with the cheapskates I interviewed: how they feel when they spend money and, specifically, when they pay full price for something. They often described physical symptoms, like “dizziness,” “light-headedness,” and even “nausea,” when talking about spending large sums of money or spending money unnecessarily.

They even talk of “early-onset SAD,” sharing memories of being a pint-size cheapskate—so poignant!

Struggling with my finances, nudging toward 50, I sometimes daydream about being happily married to a matching frugaholic husband in a matching Christmas-red tracksuit with matching walkie-talkies as we troll Ralphs, excitedly comparing triple coupons. (Did I mention that Steve gave Annette her very own custom-made coupon box? You see, her coupon wallet had become too small—coupons were falling out. She was thrilled!) How satisfying it would be to have a von Trapp family–like army of homeschooled children whistling as they spin their chore wheels—doing the dishes, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn—while I meticulously reward them in 25-cent increments, according to a complex yet motivating point system, dropped in three glass jars (spending, saving, tithing). Oh, what I could do with a 27-cubic-foot freezer!

But no. Aside from not being disciplined enough to adhere to a budget worthy of being marveled at by others ($535!!! $535!!! Dill!!! Dill!!!), I have a major character failing: a blue state/liberal arts/humanities bent. Never mind that I don’t like Dockers, candy factories (which the Economides praise as free, fun field trips for the kids—sure they are!), or large, sweaty chubs of meat. Never mind that America’s Cheapest Family lives in Scottsdale, and also apparently does not drink, whereas not-so-royal-purple me could not quite manage one fate without the help of the other. True, burning with a hard, Keatsian, gemlike flame is not necessarily incompatible with frugality. Look at Henry Harrison, of Jonathan Ames’s The Extra Man. What I have yet to see any reviewers or commentators dwell on is Harrison’s most telling quality, his old-world (even anachronistic) thrift. Harrison is not just conservative politically (to the right of the pope), he is conservative financially—no credit cards! Oh no, Harrison affords the good life in Manhattan by wisely taking in a boarder, second-acting operas, crashing museum openings, escorting 90-something dowagers to the Russian Tea Room. He doesn’t fritter money away on frivolities such as personal dry cleaning or professional pest treatments (a flea infestation is managed with cologne splashed around the ankles). Harrison is still stymied by the car—yes, in the end, in the cities, we are stymied by cars—but at least he correctly owns an unsightly beater and has no car payments. Eccentric as it all is, nothing about Harrison’s world feels that odd to me, having grown up in my own madcap, tightwad Chinese-German immigrant family who second-acted operas, had ballet lessons in the living room, and car-camped across Europe, occasionally staying in one-star Spanish hotels featuring the lone squat toilet shared by the entire floor. Even today, my Shanghainese father takes in boarders in his $1.5 million home in Malibu, sleeps in the dining room, and eats Dumpster sushi over the blare of (see how free?) PBS.

Perhaps this brand of impoverished gentility is the squalid extreme of what writer Vince Passaro lauded as “the kind of life that was once held up as the most respectable alternative [to ‘smug Izod-and-golf-shoe wealth’]—frugal, humble, and smart.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell, as Passaro was dismissing affordable bohemian life as a modern impossibility in perhaps the most famous essay on the subject, his infamous (oh, the vitriolic mail!) 1998 Harper’s piece, “Who’ll Stop the Drain? Reflections on the Art of Going Broke.” In this guiltily-mesmerizing-as-a-car-accident essay, Passaro had the temerity to detail precisely how he and his wife had genteelly gone broke ($63,000 in debt! $1,300 in monthly minimums to credit cards alone!) in New York on a household income of close to $100,000 a year. Amazingly, said debt was due not to astronomical real-estate values (their rent-stabilized apartment was about $900 a month), but to the cost of raising three children. Passaro’s curious problem, he admits, was that his style of fatherhood was not so much yuppie-scum-like as aesthetic, à la Henry James Sr.—in other words, “steadily consuming the inheritance, never caring, wanting to give his children not objects so much as the world itself and the mysteries that lie beyond the world.”

One could question why this approach must necessitate blowing $36,000 a year on three private- (okay, parochial-) school tuitions and a steady clip of music and sports lessons, including “baseball and soccer and basketball and skating and swimming,” I for one being not quite sure how basketball and shin guards qualify as a Jamesian mystery. Hell, I even question why we seem to consider farmers’ markets Jamesian mysteries. “Look, Mom, no pesticides!” my older (newly pickily and pricily vegetarian, like so many of our California rabble—no simple chubs of meat for them!) daughter cooed a few weekends ago, kicking her slender leg out as she lovingly cradled a teeny $5 basketlet of yellow raspberries. “Farmers’ market?” I replied. “Never again! Consider this your annual trip to Disneyland!” But although I’ve already eagerly picked up a woven-hemp bushel of them, I can’t rightly cast the first stone at these Uffizi-loving New York renters with a Brooks Brothers balance. Here on the Left Coast, I too have made life choices that step far off the path of frugality. After 20 years of cohabitation (with a wonderfully frugal man!), I got divorced; I am now “dating” (what a word) a charming person whose attention to personal finance is, shall we say, seasonal; a freelance writer, I continue to live in overpriced Los Angeles (where I know few peers who do not violate the fiscal rule of thumb that you should never take on a mortgage more than twice your annual income).

Never mind my trees-before-the-forest angsting over dill (dill! a forest of dill!)—all these willful lifestyle decisions tag me as financial dead meat, according to the fascinating classic The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. Contrary to glitzy media images of sports stars swilling Cristal or rappers driving Rolls Corniches, Stanley and Danko’s meticulous research reveals a picture of the typical millionaire as less American Express than American Gothic. Statistically speaking, the typical millionaire is the exact opposite of anyone in the urban creative class, with Puritan values (and Amish, what about Amish?). He (and American millionaires are mostly males) is nearing 60; he has been married to the same coupon-clipping woman for some 40 years (a key to retaining wealth is being married to an even more frugal spouse); he drives a 10-year-old hunk of “Detroit metal” (typical millionaires spent about $25,000 on their last car, and 37 percent of those cars were used); he dwells in a household with very low overhead; he takes his pleasures cheap (says one representative millionaire: “I drink scotch and two kinds of beer. Free and BUDWEISER!”); his home is typically not in a trendy (and hence overly expensive) neighborhood (Trotwood, Ohio, anyone? Boiled-omelet brunch time!). Other intriguing facts: millionaires are typically first-generation rich—by the second or third generation, the wealth tends to have dissipated. Overrepresented among millionaires? Earners of Scottish ancestry!

Even worse news for folks like me: the businesses demonstrated to make people rich by way of ownership are “dull-normal,” which include—and here we quote from the authors’ scrupulous tables—bowling centers, drugstores, coal mines, ambulance services, cafeterias, diesel-engine-rebuilding firms, doughnut-machine manufacturers, heat-transfer-equipment manufacturers, janitorial-services contractors, long-term-care facilities, meat-processing plants, mobile-home parks, pest-control companies, and sandblasting businesses. (I was reading this information while on hold to change the mailing address for my This American Life royalty statements. The breathless gamine said, “If you’re calling about an artist currently signed to Rhino Records press 3,” and I experienced a romantic upswell at the magical phrase artist currently signed to Rhino Records—only partially diminished by the fact that my current royalty statement totals 27 cents.) Then again, here was the silver lining: a fair number of the millionaires studied amassed their wealth on a household income of $80,000 or less. As a rule, and focus now, “people accumulate significant wealth by minimizing their realized/taxable income and maximizing their unrealized/nontaxable income.” Partly for that reason—perhaps counterintuitively—physicians are not effective wealth accumulators. Many years of higher education put one at a disadvantage, because one starts later in the workforce, burdened with loans while laboring in a high tax bracket; and of course, the authors write dispassionately, “as a rule, doctors have exceptionally high levels of domestic overhead.” The mind reels!

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!

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