Author Laura Lee may have well written the Brokelyn manifesto, the recession-victims’ King James Bible and the brokester I Ching all wrapped into one. Her new book, Broke is Beautiful, is a vast, thoughtful and intensely researched tome on the value of living the cash-strapped life. We talked with Lee, a former pizza delivery-girl, fast-food worker and author of several books, about things like the distraction of plutolatry (the worship of wealth), our throw-away culture and how brokeness has always been cool.
On a deeply philosophical level, Lee is asking the questions: Do you really need to spend money on all this crap? Or have you bought into the shaky zeitgeist that spending money is always a good thing? “Being broke is not abnormal,” Lee writes. “Being rich, on the other hand, is freakish.” We had a few questions of our own.
So what’s the difference between being “broke” and being poor?
Being poor is more of a social classification. I think that when a person thinks of themselves as broke, they think that they’re supposed to be at a different level and that they’re in this state of things just not being right.
Has the internet changed the perception of what it means to be broke?
I think it’s allowed you to have resources, and community. You can use something like Freecycle. It feels tremendous when you have your last quarter and you’re out of coffee and you post on there, “I’m outta coffee. Is anyone kicking their caffeine habit?” And someone shows up and says, “Yeah I’ve got all this gourmet coffee.” That is the best coffee you will ever have is the coffee you got when you only had a quarter. You appreciate it in a way that you don’t when you go to Starbucks every day.
Your book talks a lot about the connection between being broke and being green, and the negative effects of big-box stores like Walmart. Does that mean there’s a “wrong” way to be broke or go green?
People tend to make the assumption that going green is cheaper than not going green, and it can be, if it means not buying new things or using stuff you’ve already got. But it can also be just bottom-line cheaper to get something at a big box store, to get fast-food. There’s a right way to be green and save money, but you can also be green by buying lots of “green” stuff, which is kind of ironic.
What’s a ridiculous thing you see a lot of people spend money on that’s completely unnecessary?
My boyfriend is Russian and I’ve known a lot of Russian people, and every Russian person I’ve known has been kind of disgusted by paper towels. They can’t understand why on earth you would buy paper towels when you have a rag to clean stuff up with, then wash it and use it until it falls apart. It’s not a green concern for them. It’s more like, “Why are you basically throwing your money in the trash?”
Now that brokenness is cool, how do you feel about “broke chic” being co-opted by designers and wannabes?
I came across a t-shirt a couple of months ago — it’s one of those real trendy brands where they have the skinny waist models wearing a “broke is the new black” t-shirt. It seemed really ironic to me to be buying from some upscale label with their “broke is the new black” t-shirt that probably cost 50 bucks. I think artists have had the advantage of having that starving-artist mythos that, rather than being embarrassed, they could play up at times. I think that gives you a little bit more of a mental out. If some of that mindset could be transferred to people who were downsized, I think it would be positive.
Do you think people will stick with the redemptive qualities of living the broke lifestyle as the economy rebounds?
I’ve been seeing a lot of stories lately that are like, “good news! Consumer spending is up and people are willing to go into debt again, and so this is great news for the economy.” I think that on a really big level, on a social level, I would like to see us thinking more about whether this is good news or not. I hope that people do change their habits and mindsets and start questioning whether it’s always positive that we’re buying more stuff, if that’s necessarily good. The Great Depression certainly impacted that generation and how they think about things, so it could stick with us.
Broke is Beautiful from Running Press is available for $12.95 from the author’s website, Amazon and other retailers.