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Bean counting and bag lady dreams

When does healthy financial caution become pecuniary paranoia?

By Donna_Freedman Dec 31, 2009 1:17PM
Great Northern beans. The baby and I pretty much lived on them for a year and a half after we moved to Philadelphia. Twice a week I would put a pound of the white beans in the slow cooker with diced onion, grated carrot, and a neck bone or ham hock. When I struggled back through the door of my fourth-floor walk-up in the evening, carrying the baby and a sack of dirty diapers, I was grateful for the smell of the soup we'd be eating for the next few days.

Oh, we had a few other foods -- primarily vegetarian minestrone, homemade spaghetti sauce, baked white or sweet potatoes, scrambled eggs and occasionally a chicken leg quarter that I'd buy and roast for my daughter. The meat counter guy used to kid me: "Come on, live it up -- buy two!" I'd laugh along with him, but he would never know how I hoarded change just to be able to buy one.

After I married, it was years before I could even think about beans. But for the two years it took to get divorced, I was back to bean soup. The Bag Lady showed up then too: in a recurring nightmare about my being broke and alone, with nowhere to go and no reason to live. A therapist I know says this dream is common among middle-aged divorcees.

I paid off my debts two years ago. And I'm still eating beans. That's not to say that I don't eat other things, or even eat out on occasion. But occasional Bag Lady reruns keep me from living too large.

Do men have these dreams, I wonder?
I'm struggling to overcome my upbringing and the financial paranoia it engendered. "It's like money in the bank" is a phrase that had real resonance for the folks I knew. If you could pay your bills and still put a little away, you were doing pretty darned well for yourself.

That's where I am now. I pay my bills, help a couple of relatives who are struggling financially, make some charitable donations and, yes, set money aside each month. But from time to time the nightmare comes back: I'm being evicted from my apartment. My daughter cannot be located. No one will help me. My money is gone.
A certain amount of paranoia isn't a bad idea in nervous economic times. If we've learned anything in the past year or two it's that anyone's fortunes can reverse. Living frugally positioned me for going back to school and now it's giving me the breathing room to figure out my next move.

Thus I doubt I'll give up beans any time soon. However, I would like to stop counting them -- asleep or awake.

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