The Benefits of Going Broke

(When you’re broke and you’re trying to make your own lotions and salves a little mold in your home grown stash of calendula is a depressing discovery)

I don’t like being broke.  If I had a million dollars I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  I don’t hate money.  I don’t think being poor is necessarily more virtuous than being rich.  Bad ethics abound in both economic groups.  On the other hand, it is not my life’s ambition to be rich.  While I certainly wouldn’t mind having such security I don’t need to be rich to have a good life.

But being broke sucks.  This past month we have had to catch up on bills and it has been staggeringly difficult.  We almost had our power turned off, we almost had our internet turned off, we almost had our trash cans toted away, we couldn’t afford to buy half the groceries we’re used to buying.  And we weren’t living extravagantly before this either, so don’t be thinking “Boo hoo, so you can’t buy any brie cheese and caviar, so sad for you and your richie-pants life.”  Naw, we were already living modestly.  We have simply reached a new level of broke.

So you’d think this was a super depressing month.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t.  It was humiliating standing outside in my pyjamas begging the power guy not to cut off our power for five days, but the humiliating bits aside, I have felt oddly refreshed.  I have had to become more resourceful and creative.  I am having to become better at household management.

The Benefits of Going Broke:

  • Better Pantry Management.  I have had to pay much closer attention to what I already have in my pantry and to rely on its contents a lot more.  This is great because in years past I’ve had too much left over in my freezer.  We should be eating everything I freeze within a year.  This summer we packed it full of good stuff but still had lots from the previous year.  I am now using up older stock and am checking the canned goods and the freezer before going to the grocery store.
  • Learning new skills.  I couldn’t afford to buy the expensive Eco laundry detergent we usually use.  I mean, I could afford to buy the really cheap heavily perfumed crap but I refuse to go toxic just because I’m broke.  So I made my own detergent.  It’s easy, it’s super cheap, and it’s natural if the bar soap you use is natural.  I’ve thought about trying this for a long time but as long as I could afford to buy good stuff I lacked the motivation.  So far the home made stuff is working really well.  I did accidentally use a perfumed soap (I was tricked by packaging that hid the heavy synthetic perfume – the ingredients were otherwise completely natural) so next time I’ll be looking for a different soap for it, but the point is that it costs so little to make your own detergent and it takes practically no time at all.
  • Getting more creative in the kitchen.  When you can’t just run out and buy whatever you might want from the store to make dinner with you become more creative.  Especially if, like me, you’re used to having constant access to cheese to cook with.  I’ve been wanting to experiment with making more vegan meals or at least meals that don’t revolve around cheese.  I’m not planning on becoming vegan but I am interested in reducing the amount of dairy we consume by a lot because I don’t want to support the dairy/meat industry which is contaminating our waterways and using up land to feed the cattle instead of being used to feed people directly.  Not being able to afford much cheese has forced our hand in this direction and I’m not sorry.  Yes, some days I really crave cheese but it’s good for me to eat a lot less of it.
  • The combination of going super broke but also being able to keep our house has turned my attention back to the garden.  I have a large city lot and it isn’t being used nearly to capacity for growing edibles and herbs.  I’m pretty good at growing food and plan to get better at it.  If you have beds going all year with at least greens then you can rely a lot less on buying produce.  Prices on all foods are rising and I don’t know that it will ever go down again.  To offset it I will grow more of my own.  It does make a difference.  Even though growing your own isn’t free (water, seeds, starts, tools) it is exponentially cheaper to grow your own once you have beds in place and tools on hand.*  This year my focus will be on having at least a few beds well planned to supply us with dark leafy greens throughout winter and growing more of my own produce for canning and freezing.
  • It has made me more appreciative of the generosity of others.  When you don’t need someone’s help or largesse it’s so much easier to take it with grace and pride still in tact.  When someone is generous with you when you’re in a precarious situation it can either ding your pride and make you want to refuse such generosity (which is stupid) or you can take it, be thankful for it, and find ways to reciprocate that will keep your pride in tact.  A friend bought Max a pair of his favorite kind of shoes on E-bay (we couldn’t find any in his size here in town or anywhere near by) and I almost cried it was so sweet.  They ended up not fitting, which sucks, but that friend’s generosity was really felt by me.  I’m making her some cloth dinner napkins in return.  I may have almost no money but I have things I can make and share with others as a way to thank them for the things they help me out with.  My pride is not bothered by an exchange of things between people.  My pride isn’t wrapped up in money and I don’t have a hard time accepting gifts of money from friends and family who are inspired to do so, provided that I think how I can give back to them either now or later.  So I think being broke is making me feel more generous with what I do have and this is allowing me to not concentrate as much on what I don’t have.
  • Simplifies life.  The best thing about going bankrupt was not having any debt and not having any credit cards anymore.  We’ve been debt and credit card free for two years now.  The hard part is that when we don’t have cash to pay our bills, we’re on the line, we have zero safety net.  I worry a lot about medical issues because Philip and I both have no health insurance.  In the past I would know that in an emergency I could use my credit card for things.  We have zero safety net now.  That’s scary.  The flip side of this is that without credit cards we can only spend what we’ve got.  So there are a lot of things we simply can’t afford to do.  When you have extra resources it seems there are so many situations where there’s pressure to do things (vacation to see family, joining friends out to dinner, etc) and you find yourself squeezing things into your budget you can’t truly afford because you know you can put it on your card and pay for it later.  When you have no cards you just have to say no.  It’s that simple.  Maybe it sounds terrible to some but to me it’s freeing.

Hopefully this month will not be quite as brutal as last month but there’s always something.  All our pets are due for vaccinations and I’m really working hard not to think about the leaks in the house and all the things that could go wrong that I can’t afford to have going wrong.  I’m choosing to focus on the fun of being literally forced to do what I love best in the world: getting back to urban homesteading.

And writing.  Writing is always free.

*In arid desert cities where water is much more scarce and droughts are common water tends to be way more expensive and sometimes rationed so this may not actually be true in those places.  I live in the Pacific Northwest and one of the blessings of living in the land of rain is that water is rarely scarce.)

5 thoughts on “The Benefits of Going Broke

  1. Ann

    I agree about the credit cards. They’re really insidious. “Oh, I’ll just get this thing… it’s on sale…just this once…” all those excuses for buying stuff. Not using credit was how people used to live not that very long ago. Remember when the interest on credit cards was close to 20% or more? What was that, 20 years ago or so?

  2. minnie

    have you noticed the uptick in people trying to make their own cheese? interesting!

    credit cards can be really insidious. there have been times when i find myself just buying more and more shit instead of making things with what i have. why does that happen?!?! it must be that little serotonin boost from buying things.

  3. amy

    I made a calendula and chamomile wine a couple weeks ago with mine. I had horehound and candied ginger drops that went moldy last year and I almost cried. Always better to concentrate on what you do have and all that free fun in life too.

  4. B.

    I can attest to the truth of very nearly everything you’ve said here….we have experienced so much of the same heartache, fears, gratitude at others’ generosity, increased awareness of the things I CAN do well, all of it. Yes, being broke is a kind of refining process, & it absolutely forces one to make the best lemonade out of the lemons we’ve got!

    My garden was quite abundant last year, & the pantry is nicely stocked as a result. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have our chickens (egg layers, & then we cull the birds that are ready for the stewing pot). In fact, if I look back over my whole life I see that much of what my parents taught me, & various bits of information I’ve picked up on the way, have all played an important part in readying me for this very hard assignment: making do with extremely little. I’m grateful beyond words that I learned at an early age the value of self-control, deferred gratification, the art & practice of looking at things in a different way.

    Great post…very encouraging to those who may be only just starting their homesteading “walk”…whether urban, suburban, or rural.


  5. angelina Post author

    I love all your comments and thoughts. Credit cards have their uses, for sure, and I wouldn’t even say that we particularly abused ours but not having them does provide a certain freedom and simplifies a lot of things.

    Cheese!! I know how to make ricotta and lebneh but I don’t know how to make any aged cheeses. I’d love to learn. Are you going to attempt cheese making, Minnie?

    Amy – how long does the calendula and chamomile wine have to age for? That sounds interesting. Have you made it before? Such a bummer about the drops going moldy. Obviously I relate.

    B. – I wish I still had chickens. I’ll probably get more eventually. I’ve never appreciated a full pantry as much as I do right now. I’ve also never used so much of what I’ve already got – it’s such a good practice. It also quickly reveals what I need more of next year. I do hope that here on Stitch people can find lots of encouragement in different ways. Or at least come and not feel so alone.

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