How To Be Broke Without Going Crazy

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
How do you pursue your dream if you're not heir to the Bubble Wrap fortune? Sometimes, you quite literally need to go for broke. Making the decision to struggle now can have huge rewards later. But, choosing a broke path isn't easy, and it's not for everyone. It's also not a choice for many people living in poverty. Choosing to go broke while chasing a dream is a gutsy move, and one that comes with inherent risk and stress. When do you make the leap? And, how do you keep sane when your bank account dips to record lows? I may not be an expert, but here's my story.

When I was 19 years old, I stopped eating ice cream. This moratorium was directly linked to the beginning of my employment at a dungeon of hell called Cold Stone Creamery. The owner of this particular franchise was a woman named Michelle who took nothing more seriously than ice cream (except, perhaps, her French-tip manicure). Adding insult to ice-cream injury was Michelle's murderous insistence that everyone at her franchise have fun. At the end of every shift, Michelle bestowed upon us free ice cream — a really fun perk designed to prove that Michelle was such a fun boss. But by that point, I could barely look at ice cream, let alone eat it. Strangers on the street would gawk in confusion as I dumped my daily Oppression Sundae in the trash.

It was a shit job, but it funded my existence as I worked toward my degree in a hardcore musical theater conservatory. I needed cash to eat, drink, and buy regrettable jeans that showcased my butt crack. I was frequently broke, and I loathed working at Cold Stone, but the part-time nature of the gig meant I had time to pursue my passion.

I don't come from wealth, and I've always paid my own way through adulthood. As I grew older, my dreams shifted (TV writing replaced musical theater, proving that my dreams are consistently gay) — and so did my relationship to money. Over time, my string of day jobs morphed into a day career, and I ultimately wound up as a well-paid producer at a TV network. It was a great paycheck, but it came at a cost. Making the big bucks left little time for any actual writing.

Then, I got the biggest break of my adult life: I got laid off. Although it sucked at the time (coming on the heels of a breakup and major health crisis), it wound up being an incredible gift. I was cut loose and had freedom to move across the country and reboot my career — doing what I actually wanted to do.

With just my meager savings and an unemployment check, finances were tight, but I had something much more valuable than money: time. Suddenly, I was back in touch with my younger, Cold Stone self (minus the horrific jeans). I got a part-time job that paid peanuts, but which gave me space to bust ass for my dream. It was a valuable lesson, and I've been able to reevaluate my relationship with money as a result. Cash and I are no longer in a monogamous partnership, and I'm free to spend some quality time with my sexy soulmate: Dream.

Before you ditch your full-time day job, here are a few points to consider.
1 of 3
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
"Staffing season" is a time in Los Angeles when all TV writers compete for the same few gigs. It's the showbiz Hunger Games, but instead of navigating a deadly public arena, you're navigating parking structures on the Sony lot. I had only been in L.A. for six months, but I still managed to volunteer as tribute. I got a seat at the table, and though I didn't get staffed this time around, it felt good to finally make significant strides toward my dream.

What didn't feel good was living on an unemployment check that totaled $350/week. I was making career progress, but no money. Still, I knew there was no feasible way to hold a full-time job during staffing season. What helped me tolerate my broke-ness was the knowledge that it was for my greater objective.

In his book The Happiness of Pursuit, New York Times-bestselling author Chris Guillebeau chronicles the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people pursuing incredible goals. I spoke with Guillebeau, curious as to how his subjects remained tenacious during their challenging journeys. His answer came in the form of a question: "Do you value the outcome more than you're troubled by the present struggle?"

Hard times can be frightening, but in the words of Guillebeau, "regret is what you should fear the most."
2 of 3
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Have you ever been to a party where the host's probable income doesn't quite add up to the mortgage on her five-bedroom-palace? Whispers begin to circulate with the passed appetizers: "She produced one indie film, but that doesn't pay the butler's salary." At this point, it usually comes out that her grandfather owns the patent for doorbells, and suddenly Jeeves makes more sense.

It's easy to resent those whom we see as privileged, but this can be a dangerous game. In her essay Peculiar Benefits, Roxane Gay warns against playing the "Privilege Olympics" because we'll "never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference." Gay's argument is aimed at broader cultural privilege, but it can also be applied to money and career. We can spend hours dissecting how our hostess has had it easy, but she, too, has probably struggled. Sure, she may have been born with millions, but that doesn't mean she didn't face significant hurdles as a woman in a male-dominated field.

It's not always easy to find this generosity. There are times when I feel my blood boiling as I pull my privilege yardstick. Yet one could easily argue that I, too, am operating from a place of privilege, and that choosing a broke path is a luxury. But instead of pouring our efforts into constructing narratives of resentment, it's better to simply accept that, in the words of Gay, "few people in the developed world...have no privilege at all."

We have to accept the hand we're dealt, because it's the only one we've got. When we stop over-analyzing the privileged pasts of others, we can focus on our own future.
3 of 3
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
adjective [ predic. ] informal
1. having completely run out of money

1. make or become inoperative
2. sustain an injury involving the fracture of a bone

It's right there in the dictionary: If you're broke, you're also broken. Even Merriam Webster loves to throw shade at the poor. The word "broke" has many connotations, and none of them are sexy. And to be honest, sometimes being poor does feel like sustaining an injury over and over again. Every swipe of the credit card is another crack in your fragile financial skeleton.

But, I say, fuck the dictionary. It's time to drop the shame that surrounds the word "broke."

Easier said than done. I'm happy to regale a brunch crowd with the story of the time I had sex on a trampoline, but ask me about money, and I shut down. I've developed tricks to hide my financial status, but I'm not going to divulge them. Instead, I'm going to share a simple sentence, which I've been too scared to share for too long:

I'm broke.

I haven't always been, and I won't always be. I'm in a time of transition, without a financial parachute. But, there's no shame in going broke for your dream. And, there's no point in resenting those who don't have to. If your dream is a big one, the journey is going to be long, so find your own way to make a little money in the meanwhile — and come to terms with having less.

And if ever you find yourself slaving away at an ice cream parlor, take heart that one day you'll put down that scooper and never look back. Sure, it might ruin ice cream for you...but there's always gelato.