For twenty years I made a living as a freelance writer and consultant. My income varied, but I never struggled. Married with three children and a home in rural Pennsylvania, I felt settled and secure.
Then in 2002 the work dried up. My total income for the year fell to seven thousand dollars. We were rapidly depleting our savings, and I was consumed with anxiety. My wife and I rented out our house, loaded our kids into our old station wagon, and drove west. I hoped the sense of adventure would mask our need to find a more inexpensive way to live. We stayed in cheap motels along the way. In Texas I got rid of our car, and we boarded an overnight bus to central Mexico.
As soon as we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in San Miguel, my preoccupation with money vanished. Rootless and with few possessions, I felt unencumbered and no longer worried about the future. When a bank statement arrived from home showing that our account had dipped below a thousand dollars, I gazed at it with a vague, distant interest. What will happen, I wondered, when it gets to zero?
Eventually I was hired for some projects that paid well enough to sustain us in Mexico. We rented a slightly bigger apartment on a slightly better street and stayed for two years.
We’re back home now, and once again my work is steady, but I often miss the freedom that came from those hard and desperate circumstances. For a couple of years we lived in the moment, because it was all we could afford — and the experience was surprisingly rich.
Ithaca, New York
When my fiancé turned twenty-one, his father gave him the deed to a remote, neglected piece of property. It had been a working ranch at one time, but the house had burned down, and the land was overgrown. The only building on the place was a decrepit ten-by-ten-foot structure with a collapsing front wall and a floor covered in dry manure.
Despite the lack of amenities — including power and plumbing — we decided to make it our home. In the three months before our wedding we cleaned out the building and replaced the roof, the front wall, and the flooring. We hooked up electricity, installed a new pump in the old hand-dug well, and bought a refrigerator on credit.
We soon realized we hadn’t factored property taxes into our budget, and that expense drained our bank account. The remote location of the ranch limited my opportunities to earn more income. Besides, I was a teenager still trying to finish high school. To save money, we cut back on groceries.
Before hunting season — and without a hunting license — my husband illegally shot a deer that was grazing on our property, with the idea that we would eat it. Neither of us had butchered meat before, and we didn’t have the proper tools. By flashlight we skinned the deer with a pocketknife and used a hatchet to cut the meat into pieces small enough to fit in the freezer. We buried the other remains so we wouldn’t get caught.
We did eat all the venison, but I was unskilled in the kitchen, so it was always poorly cooked. One afternoon our dog dug up the evidence in the yard just as a game warden was driving by, which alarmed us. But the warden, it turned out, was just looking for an out-of-the-way place to pee.
I was four years old when my parents divorced. My mom had custody of my brother, my sister, and me. Her parents offered to support us and put Mom through nursing school if she would move back to Chicago, but my mother wanted to remain independent. She chose to stay in California and worked as a salesclerk at JCPenney while attending nursing school. Our dad lived a couple of hours away, and we saw him infrequently.
We had little money, but we always had food and, thanks to our grandmother’s sewing skills, decent clothing. My siblings and I took pride in helping our mom with household chores on weekends, enthusiastically vacuuming the floors and doing laundry in the wringer washer in the garage. Every Thursday, which was discount night, we went to the drive-in theater, bringing our own popcorn to save money.
One summer Mom was determined to take us on a vacation to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we piled into her old junker and headed east. We had car trouble along the way and were stranded on the side of the road for a while, but we eventually made it to our destination.
Years later my siblings and I wanted to buy our mom a Christmas gift. We sold toys and other items we could do without at a local flea market. With the money we made, we purchased two dresses that she could wear to the ballroom dances that she loved.
Meanwhile my dad remarried and started a new family. We went to stay with them a couple of times. Surprisingly we never resented our step-siblings’ upscale house with its swimming pool and stable of horses. More than material wealth, we valued the loving atmosphere in our home and the camaraderie and the strong work ethic our mother had instilled in us. We would not have traded houses for anything.
My family and friends think this prison provides me with necessities like soap. In fact, an inmate must be “indigent” — not have any money in his account for three months — to receive a state-issued package of three sheets of writing paper, a stamped envelope, a razor, and two thin bars of soap. We’re expected to make this last several months.
When my supply of soap gets low, I wait until the communal shower is empty, then collect the discarded bars littering the floor. Many are only half used. Finding them is like finding money, and I am baffled that some inmates can afford to leave them behind. I press the slivers of soap together to create a makeshift bar that usually lasts a couple of days. Since I can’t afford the three-dollar pouch of laundry detergent sold in the commissary, I also use the soap to clean my underwear in the sink.
I’m a veteran and had undiagnosed PTSD when I committed my crime. I self-medicated with PCP, a hallucinogen that only exacerbated my symptoms. After twenty-five years in prison, I wonder what the victims of my robbery would think if they could see me collecting used soap from the floor of the prison shower.
The year I was nine and my sister was thirteen, our mom moved us to an apartment in a small Arkansas town. She worked the night shift at the front desk of a lakeside lodge, making nine thousand dollars a year. My dad owed forty-two dollars a week in child support, but he rarely paid it.
I remember seeing my mom hunched over her checkbook at the kitchen table with a pile of bills, a calculator, and a steaming cup of coffee. When her shoulders shook, I could tell she was crying. It turned out she didn’t have enough to pay the rent.
To earn extra money, she began to work for our landlord cleaning apartments after the tenants had moved out. Sometimes I would help her, and I’d often find little treasures people had left behind, like a half-functional protractor, slightly broken toys, or discarded potato-chip cans that I would turn into playthings for my dolls. Because of the new job, my mom wasn’t home much, and when she was, she seemed exhausted. I longed for the weekends, when I would crawl into bed with her, and we would listen to a recording of Robert Frost reading his poems, which seemed to soothe her.
I often fantasized about answering a knock at our door and seeing Ed McMahon standing on our porch with a sweepstakes prize of a million dollars. I dreamed of what we could do with all that money.
One day we drove to a pawnshop, and my mom told me to wait in the car. After a long while she reemerged from the shop looking defeated. She had hocked her wedding band for five dollars so we could buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.
Los Angeles, California
In the 1980s I dropped out of college and moved to Southern California. I had a large blue glass bottle in which I dropped loose change from time to time: pennies, nickels, and dimes, but no quarters. Those were good for laundry machines and video arcades.
I enrolled in radio-broadcasting school in Hollywood and worked evenings at a hotel, balancing its accounts to the penny. On the side I interned at a local radio station and was eventually hired part time as the producer and writer for an afternoon disc jockey. Later I was offered another part-time job producing the morning traffic report, which allowed me to quit the hotel job.
During my daily five-hour break between the two radio jobs, I would play tennis, go to the beach, or hike in a park. I was living a showbiz lifestyle, even though my salary was less than I’d made working as the night auditor at the hotel.
Then I lost the morning-traffic gig. The income from the other part-time job wouldn’t cover my expenses, so I let my hotel contacts know I was looking for work, but I didn’t receive any offers. After two weeks my bills were past due, and the next month’s rent was pending.
I got some coin sleeves from the bank, dumped out my change bottle, and stayed up half the night separating, counting, and rolling the coins. It all added up to more than three hundred dollars. The next day I paid my overdue bills and put what was left toward rent.
That afternoon there was a message on my answering machine from the manager of the hotel where I used to work. He asked, “Can you still balance to the penny?”
Geneseo, New York
I got pregnant at nineteen, and shortly after I gave birth to my son, I became a single mom. For six years I worked hard to make ends meet, juggling living expenses with the cost of my college tuition and books for my classes. I dressed my boy in secondhand clothes and bought his toys at garage sales. Sometimes I’d take him with me to the late show at the dollar theater, and he’d sleep on my lap during the film. During the summer we splashed in the free public pool, or else we’d go to the park, and I would study at a picnic table while he played. When I had to work at night, I’d take him to my grandmother’s house and read him a bedtime story, then sneak off to my job.
I may not have been financially successful — I overdrew my bank account and borrowed money from time to time — but my son ate well and was always warm and safe.
I know my grandmother only as the unsmiling bride in a black-and-white wedding photograph and from the stories her surviving children tell when prodded. In the photo she is somberly pretty, with dark, wavy hair and large, serious eyes.
My father and his three living siblings rarely talk of their life before the war or their internment at Auschwitz and other camps. But, seventy years later, they still visit the cemetery where their father is buried and where a gravestone was placed in their mother’s honor, and they weep, pray, and speak of recent events as if their parents could hear them. When I ask about my grandmother, they give her high praise, saying she was a kind woman who worked hard to care for her children.
Recently they have begun to open up more. One day my youngest uncle told me that, in the tiny garden apartment in Czechoslovakia in which their family of ten lived, my grandmother often invited their poorer neighbors over for the weekend. She also welcomed any traveling Jewish student for Sabbath dinner. Sometimes she’d take a few of her children aside and tell them to say they weren’t hungry so the guests could have a piece of chicken. Her children would reluctantly obey, although, according to my dad, they were always hungry. My father also told me his mother ate only pickles and the water left over after she cooked noodles for chicken soup.
A pious woman who prayed daily, my grandmother scraped together enough funds to send her eldest son to a private Jewish school to further his study of Judaism. But in 1938 her husband was conscripted to do forced labor, and the son, thirteen at the time, had to return home and find work to help support the family.
In March 1944 they were to be deported to a concentration camp. With less than twenty-four hours to prepare to leave home, my grandmother stayed up all night sewing money into the hems of her children’s coats and dresses. She also baked bread to pack in their bags. Then, before dawn, she buried her silver Sabbath candlesticks in the back-yard.
My grandmother died in May 1944 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz with her three youngest children. Miraculously her five other children survived their year in the camps. After the war they retrieved her candlesticks and left for Toronto, Canada, where they eventually married and started families of their own.
I recently got my grandmother’s marriage and death certificates from Slovakia, where she had been born. When I showed them to my father, he said he had not been able to remember when her birthday was. He began to sob.
“I wish I could have given her a better life,” he said. “I wish I could have done something for her.”
“You survived,” I told him. “Isn’t that the greatest gift you could have given her?”
More than half the population of my rural county in California cultivates and sells marijuana. Most of us have other jobs, but they don’t cover our living expenses, so we must supplement our incomes. We are also volunteer firefighters and supporters of local nonprofits and parents who are active in our children’s schools. I’m never shocked when another person in our community starts growing marijuana, regardless of his or her age, political leanings, or background. Without this cash crop our area would have no humane society, no theater, no botanical gardens.
Over the years the price of marijuana has dropped significantly, but we continue to cultivate it so we can afford homes, decent cars, and quality food. We are not carrying guns, cruising around in fancy cars, and living like rock stars. We are just working hard to provide for our families.
It took seven years at three different colleges for me to complete my bachelor’s degree. The summer after my graduation I began job hunting and enrolled in two postgraduate classes. My wife earned a modest income working at a coffee shop, but it was a stretch for us to pay for rent, tuition, and groceries.
To supplement our finances, I took a part-time job with a meatpacker who supplied beef and pork to restaurants in our town. During the day I made deliveries and ran errands for my employer, and after closing I cleaned and sanitized all the surfaces that had come into contact with raw meat or blood. I swabbed the butcher tables with bleach, steamed the concrete floors, and dismantled the slicer, the patty press, and the meat grinders to wash their parts in hot water.
The slaughtering was always done on Thursdays. Hogs that nuzzled my hand Wednesday evenings would be sides of pork the next day, slung from meat hooks in the cold locker. Thursday evenings I shoveled entrails and organs into barrels for the rendering trucks and hosed the blood and detritus down a drain in the floor.
One evening the slaughtering ran late. I arrived for my shift to the distressed lowing of cows as my boss prodded them into a chute where he fired six-inch metal bolts into their heads. I felt alternately curious and repulsed as I watched one carcass after another hoisted, skinned, and sawed into sides of beef. One image in particular has always stuck with me: six cow skulls, impaled on meat hooks, their unseeing eyeballs still staring at me.
Despite the carnage I witnessed, all that prime beef was too much to resist. Some evenings, when I had the place to myself, I would filch a pound or two for dinner with my wife. Back at our apartment we’d prepare a feast, surrounded by the aroma of barbecued cube steak while the meat sizzled on our little hibachi grill.
My husband and I were teenage parents of a baby daughter and lived in a cinder-block motel near a military base. Trying to make do on my husband’s small military paycheck, we had no car, no phone, and no TV. One day at the grocery store I fumbled around in my purse, pretending to look for something while I discreetly slipped a jar of baby food into it. I left with no trouble and was excited to have found a solution to our money problem.
I soon became more brazen, putting grocery items into a bag in my cart as I shopped and then simply walking out. As time went on, I began shoplifting not only food but also bottles of liquor — first for my husband, and later for myself.
I came to love the exhilaration of stealing. I rationalized that I deserved whatever I took, after the wretched childhood I’d had. But I also started drinking heavily to assuage my guilt. Meanwhile my husband never asked how I managed to feed us so well on his meager income.
Over the years I took many items without paying, but the price was still high: self-loathing, denial, and addiction to shoplifting and alcohol. I frequently got caught — a terrifying and humiliating experience. Thanks to a twelve-step program, I meet my needs honestly these days. I realize now that, when I was shoplifting, more was never enough.
I became disabled in my mid-forties, and six months later my spouse left me. I soon discovered that my ex had maxed out several credit cards in my name. Broke and unable to work, with a teenage daughter to care for and my Social Security disability check delayed, I had no choice but to temporarily go on welfare. I received six hundred dollars per month, plus two hundred dollars in food stamps.
I bought only food that had high nutritional value. I hunted for bargains and used all the coupons I could find. I shopped at the thrift store on “Discount Tuesdays,” where I sometimes found brand-new clothing that I’d give to my daughter for Christmas or her birthday. We enjoyed simple pleasures, like sharing a seventy-five-cent ice-cream cone or reading books from the library. During a civics class, my girl was able to educate her more-affluent classmates about the realities of welfare. Throughout our struggles she was kind and understanding. Poverty brought us closer.
After the Second World War, money was tight for my parents. The grocery store in my Brooklyn neighborhood allowed customers to buy food on credit, and most kids wore secondhand clothes. I’d often see furniture piled in front of neighbors’ homes and eviction notices posted on their doors.
I secretly dreamed of having my own horse, but there was no way my parents could afford it. So I decided to save up for one myself. To earn money, I did odd jobs: shoveling snow, carrying garbage cans to the curb, baby-sitting. My parents were proud of how I deposited my pay into a savings account every week. By the time I was eight, I had nearly fifty dollars.
One day, when my father was between jobs, he asked to borrow my savings to buy groceries. It would just be a loan, he said. My father and I went to the bank and withdrew my money. After he bought food, he pocketed the change.
“Aren’t you proud to be helping your family?” my father asked while my older sisters unloaded the groceries at home.
I nodded slowly. It had taken me a long time to save fifty dollars, and I worried that it was gone forever. Discouraged, I went into the living room and saw the horse-racing sheets my father had checked that morning before he’d gone to see his bookie. He’d circled a couple of names like “Racing Fire” and “Leaping Lizards.” I decided that my horse would have a beautiful name and a leisurely life, trotting in open pastures, and it would never have to race.
When my dad saw me looking at the racing sheets, he seemed embarrassed but said nothing. The next week he paid me back and thanked me for having come to the family’s rescue. He soon went to work as a fireman, and our finances became more stable.
Thirty years later I got my horse, and my daughter and I spent many happy hours riding. It was just as I’d always imagined.
Santa Rosa, California
My husband was an alcoholic who snuck drinks throughout the day until he passed out at his job or on our couch at home. With three children and very little money, I thought it was my wifely duty to make excuses for him and do what I could to help our family get by. When the gas bill went unpaid and we had no hot water, I set big bowls and pans filled with cold water in the sun until it was warm enough to bathe the children. After we sold our car to pay the rent, I would load our children into a borrowed grocery cart and steer them across a bumpy field to the store. For our runs to the laundromat, my preschooler helped push my toddler in a rickety stroller while I balanced a basket of dirty clothes on the handles and carried my sleeping infant like a papoose.
Once, when the cupboards were nearly bare and all we had to eat was cereal and a can of applesauce, I mixed the two together and cheerfully presented my exotic new dish: “crunchy voilà!” To this day my adult children laugh about that meal and how, as I rocked them to sleep that night, they begged, “Please, Mommy, no more crunchy violà.”
I grew up in rural Alaska, twelve miles from the nearest town. My parents, my younger brother, and I lived in a rustic cabin that we lit with kerosene lanterns. We cooked on a large wood stove, and for food we hunted, fished, and tended a garden, frequently feasting on salmon. My parents made only a few thousand dollars per year, mostly from selling the furs of animals we had trapped, but we never wanted for anything.
When I was eleven, we moved to the large town of Fairbanks. One day a classmate asked why I wore the same red sweater several days a week. For the first time I realized that, by other people’s standards, my family was poor.
I am now raising my own daughters on a middle-class income, but we still buy most of our clothes at thrift stores. I guess I can’t let go of the habits of my childhood, when we got by on natural resources and teamwork rather than dollars.
To save money and better live within our small budget, Mama and my stepfather, Charlie, moved our family to the country. Our new yard was overgrown, with a barn out back, some chicken coops, and a shack with a washing machine. On the far side of the gravel driveway were acres of rice fields. The rickety house had low ceilings and a metal roof, and it smelled of gas inside. The kitchen consisted of a sink under a dirty window and a wood stove. Layers of soot and cooking grease covered the walls.
Mama yanked down the ugly drapes in the living room and scrubbed the windows, but Charlie wouldn’t spring for paint, so the walls stayed an awful brown. Mama also washed the kitchen walls, but that yellow cooking grease wouldn’t go away. She soon lost what little enthusiasm she’d mustered and stopped trying to make the house look better.
When winter arrived, our oldest sister got married and moved away. The rest of us were in school all day, and Charlie was at work. Mama didn’t drive, and there were no neighbors nearby for her to talk to. She began staying in bed while we got ready in the mornings. When we’d get home in the afternoons, she’d still be in bed. The house would be cold and dark, and the dishes from breakfast would be just as we’d left them, with traces of oatmeal hardening in the bowls.
I have an exceptionally active metabolism and am always hungry. It’s only gotten worse since I’ve been in prison. We receive just two TV-dinner-sized meals a day on weekends. It’s now 10:30 AM on Saturday, and I’ve made instant coffee with the last individual bag I have left, which I’ll stretch to three cups: two for breakfast and the last one for tonight or tomorrow.
I’m not alone in my destitution. On my first day in prison I saw a man pick a half-eaten biscuit out of a garbage can and gobble it down. Days later I threw away a used instant-coffee bag, only to see another man take it from the trash, run hot water over it, and make a cup of “mud” — as I’ll be doing later myself. (“Good to the last drop,” right?)
We can purchase such luxuries as instant oatmeal through the prison commissary, but we must first have a balance in our prison accounts. The most fortunate of us receive financial help from family and friends. Those who don’t sometimes resort to having sex with other inmates or guards for money, selling drugs, or robbing other cells.
As a writer I’m always hoping that I’ll sell my next manuscript. For me, getting by means keeping the hunger pangs at bay and having paper and a typewriter ribbon.
Johnny E. Mahaffey
Columbia, South Carolina
When I was five or six years old, my parents argued constantly about their finances, until it seemed as though the only words that passed between them were yelled or spoken through tears. The cattle market had hit a record low, and the bank was threatening to take our house. Dad wanted Mom to stay home and do the bookkeeping, but she wanted to go back to college to become a pharmacist or a teacher.
After my parents divorced, they continued to fret over money, and I felt guilty for being another mouth for them to feed. When I was eleven years old, I got my first job baby-sitting the kids across the road from Dad’s house for twenty dollars a week. I was proud to finally be able to contribute to my family’s expenses, but when I told Dad about my new job, he scolded me and said he’d show me what I could be doing around his house instead of going off to do someone else’s work. I did my chores, but I still took the baby-sitting job because I was desperate to relieve the financial strain on my parents, and I had no other way to earn money.
Today as a parent I have a fear of debt and divorce, and a constant — and largely baseless — dread of losing my job or our house. How will I protect my girls from inheriting my worry about financial security?
West Linn, Oregon
My mother was grief-stricken when my father left her for another woman while she was pregnant with me. She already had three daughters — ages four, ten, and fourteen — to care for, one of whom had severe autism. To support our family, my mother started preparing and selling organic, macrobiotic meals from our home, charging five dollars per plate. In our progressive town in the 1980s the business was a big hit.
Before lunch every day, my sisters and I would transform our living room into a restaurant dining room to accommodate our customers. At the age of four I was rolling the cutlery into napkins and setting the tables. When I was older, I brought food to hungry guests. Sometimes they would slip me a few quarters as a tip.
My mother’s business venture eventually grew into a successful macrobiotic restaurant. I enjoy eating there to this day.
In 2010 my husband and I filed for bankruptcy, but there was one debt I intended to pay. For three years my therapist, who had been aware of my financial troubles, had allowed me to defer payment for my sessions with him. I now owed him almost three thousand dollars. My husband grudgingly agreed that we should plan to pay off that bill and not include it in the bankruptcy.
A month later I got a call from my therapist’s billing office, informing me that my account had been zeroed out, per a bankruptcy notice. I protested and told the woman to put the amount back on my account.
“Are you sure?” she asked, astounded. “It’s a lot of money.”
“Of course I’m sure,” I said. “We made a promise to pay it off.”
When I confronted my husband about the oversight, he simply shrugged, as if to say it was worth a try.
“We made a promise,” I reminded him.
Four years later he and his lawyer sat across from me and mine in a shabby conference room, going over our divorce agreement. We had paid off a thousand dollars of the debt to my therapist by then, and when the remaining amount came up, I said that my ex-husband and I had both agreed to pay that bill and I wanted him to cover his half. His lawyer insisted that this debt had been nullified in the bankruptcy, and therefore the decision to pay it was entirely mine.
I whispered to my attorney that I would pay the whole amount. I had no legal obligation to pay off the debt, but my therapist had helped me during a challenging time in my life, and I refused to renege on him.
A couples therapist had once told my husband and me that fights over money were never about money. We’d laughed because, at that time, we had never fought about our finances. Now, sitting in that shabby conference room across from the man I had married, I knew the couples therapist had been right.
Toward the end of World War II, when I was a little girl, Mother and I fled the relentless bombing in Berlin. We went to her hometown, close to the Czech-German border, where she used the last of her savings to rent a cottage in a meadow.
When the war ended, we found ourselves in the Soviet Occupation Zone. Mother had brought her sewing machine along, and she sewed most of my clothing with material from discarded items. She taught me to knit and crochet with yarn she got from unraveling moth-eaten sweaters. “Mend and make do,” she often said, and I took pride in doing so.
Mother also fixed other people’s clothes in exchange for money or food. Sometimes they’d give me a glass of cow’s milk while she worked. Once, we begged for food at a farm and were happy to receive potato peels. Another time, when we had no food and I asked Mother for some, she answered, “I’d cut it out of my own flesh for you if I could.” I was so horrified that I never mentioned my hunger to her again.
During the spring Mother turned five hundred square yards of our meadow into a garden in which we grew vegetables, legumes, berry bushes, and fruit trees. We put up scarecrows to discourage the birds, but we let the insects and snails have their share of our harvest.
We pulled edible grasses and teas from the meadow and gathered mushrooms in the forest. I once found a boletus mushroom the size of a small plate and squealed with such excitement that Mother came running. It was enough food for days! She taught me to harvest mushrooms carefully, so they would grow back and we could return to pick more the next season. We also collected fallen branches from the forest and cut down trees to fuel our wood stove.
Our challenging way of life taught me to appreciate the inexhaustible riches of the natural world. I felt myself a part of nature, dependent on it and grateful for its bounty.
After a lifetime of odd jobs and traveling on a minimal budget, I still live modestly in an old house with a big garden near a forest. I rarely go shopping, and when I do, I buy secondhand goods. If I have extra money, I donate it to causes I want to support. I am thankful to have grown up poor.