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'Broke Is Beautiful' author: Embrace cash-strapped life

If you talk too much about money these days, chances are really good that you're going to feel really bad.

Even if your 401(k) has recovered some, your job situation could be iffy. Or maybe you're decades away from getting out of debt.

So maybe it is time to take a deep breath and offer a collective: "So what?"

Nobody's saying go out and run up more debt on that plastic, mind you. But maybe it's okay to admit that no matter how well-educated you are, you're still broke. Or if not technically broke, that you're running scared.

"I wish that more people would come out of the closet as broke people," said Laura Lee, 40, who lives in Rochester Hills, Mich., and wrote a new book called Broke Is Beautiful: Living and Loving the Cash-Strapped Life.

"A lot of people are feeling broke."

Lee quotes a poll of New Yorkers that found that people who earned more than $200,000 a year are more likely than low-income people to feel poor when seeing others with more money.

Her book offers another interesting stat: In a 1999 poll, college freshmen predicted that they would be earning on average $75,000 a year by the time they were 30. This was at a time, she said, when the average 30-year-old was earning $27,000.

Many people, Lee maintains, suffer delusions of wealth. But she doesn't put herself in that category.

She says, for example, that she mainly buys her clothes twice a year at church rummage sales where women's sweaters start at $4, jackets at $7 and slacks at $5.

Her income can be sporadic. She receives money when she writes books, such as an earlier one called The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Life. She also writes speeches for corporate executives.

And Lee stays in lower-priced hotels when she travels during about half the year with a Russian ballet artist as part of a business they've built that offers master ballet classes across the United States.

Lee studied theater at Oakland University but has had rough years when her credit score wasn't all that good. She says she often buys Ramen noodles.

Still, "I've always felt more secure relying on myself to create my own job than relying on someone else," she said. "You rely on them to continue to need you — it's always seemed less secure to me."

But she knows many people don't feel the same way.

Lee's bottom line: It's up to you to determine how you feel about your financial situation.

"Define yourself as an artist and you give yourself permission to be 'starving,' " Lee writes in the book. "This can be a great liberation."

The most practical thing to do with your resources, she maintains, is to put them toward what makes your life worth living.

Think about this.

If times are tough, it may help to take a second job or put every dollar toward paying down debt — if that fixes a problem.

Or it could be time to admit that you're just aspiring to live a life that you realistically can never afford.

Here's where many experts would now say it's time to cut features on your cell phone or go back to basic cable.

But if you still have cable, I'd say the best step is to turn off the reality shows.

Unlike the premise of some cable shows, most people do not have a $3,000 budget for a wedding dress or $5,000 sitting on a prepaid Visa card to revamp their entire wardrobe in less than a week.

As a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, many people on Extreme Makeover could not afford to pay the bills that came with living in high-end homes and went into foreclosure.

"If you feel as though you've been running just to stand still, you should know that this does not mean you're a loser," Lee writes. "It means you're normal."

Most of us will never celebrate a lack of money — or view broke as the new fashionable black —but we could feel more secure in uncertain times if we stopped grading ourselves on our 401(k) balances, the amount of home equity we have and our credit scores.

"If you can't change your situation, you can change your expectations," Lee told me. "Your identity is not your credit score — your identity is something else."

'Broke Is Beautiful' author: Embrace cash-strapped life 05/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 5:12pm]
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