Book Review: ‘Your Playbook for Tough Times’

Despite the best intentions of those of us who write about money, most financial advice on the web is downright unusable for readers in financial distress. What good is an article about building an emergency fund when someone can’t make ends meet? And how does investing advice help the family who is barely putting food on the table?

Much of the time, the “rah-rah-rah, feel good” articles we write fail to reach people who are actually going through hard times. It’s not that we don’t want to reach those people; it’s that most advice is aimed at helping people work with what they have.

But how can you get ahead when you have nothing? What if your situation will get worse before it could possibly get better?

YourPlaybookForToughTimes3DAward-winning writer Donna Freedman answers those questions and more in her new book Your Playbook for Tough Times.While Freedman now rules over her finances with an iron first, she has experienced plenty of tough financial times and lived to tell.

According to Freedman, she managed a household of three and kept grocery spending below $200 per month at just 16 years old. As a 21-year-old single mother in Philadelphia, Freedman subsisted on homemade soup she made out of dried beans and did her laundry in the sink. As an aging 40-something, Freedman survived divorce, supported a disabled adult child, and earned her college degree in her spare time.

Through all of it and during the hard times in between, she was able to keep her budget afloat and maintain her dignity. In her book, she shares the tips and tricks that got her through.

Your Playbook for Tough Times: My Take

In a recent article on Americans’ struggles with money, I highlighted statistics that show just how hard times have become. For example, the average American family with debt carries more than $16,000 on their credit cards alone. Beyond debt, average retirement savings figures are absolutely paltry for all age groups. Even high earners (families bringing in $75,000 or more each year) were living paycheck-to-paycheck in high numbers last year. And in probably the most shocking statistic, I shared how, according to a recent study from the Federal Reserve, nearly half of American families couldn’t come up with $400 to cover an unexpected emergency.

As I read through Your Playbook for Tough Times, I couldn’t help but think the book was created for those in the midst of a struggle– the family who has just experienced a layoff, the family with debt, the single parents of the world, and those with insufficient incomes to really get ahead of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

Like any true frugality book, Freedman highlights the importance of saving, while also driving home the idea that anyone – and even those with limited incomes – can create a fruitful life if they can learn to spend less. But she doesn’t preach from an ivory tower; Freedman tells the tale as if she lived it herself. Because she has.

While Freedman’s writings are always chock full of stories and advice, I appreciated her flexible approach. For example, Freedman suggests how cutting cable can save you money and perhaps even improve your life, but she realizes a life without television may not work for everyone. When that’s the case, she suggests mixing things up with a Hulu or Netflix subscription or perhaps just downgrading to the lowest cable package available.

Freedman offers advice on coupons and savings sites, yet realizes not everyone wants to go through too much trouble to save. If you like credit card rewards, she doesn’t take a hardline approach against credit either; instead, she offers some advice on keeping your spending in check.

Need help? One aspect of Freedman’s book I found fascinating is the fact she doesn’t shy away from suggesting social services or financial assistance. Where popular advice says to bootstrap and do everything on your own, Freedman suggests you should do whatever it takes to get by – even if that means accepting temporary help. These services exist for that very reason, after all, and there should be no shame. Her overall mantra: Be kind to yourself.

This is a “playbook” for hard times, and it shows. Freedman doesn’t offer ultimatums or advice that only works one way; instead, she offers a handful of options that could fit anyone’s budget or lifestyle, then gives the reader the power to choose what works best. And most of all, she focuses on the underlying principle of personal finance – living within your means.

“It’s true that some of us have less – maybe a lot less – than others. But we can choose how to use the money we get,” says Freedman. “The financial bottom line isn’t just about what you earn, but also about how much of it you can keep.”

As you read Your Playbook for Hard Times, you’ll also learn:

  • How to create a financial fire drill: Learn how a bare-bones budget can help you get by in lean times. With a helping hand from Freedman, you’ll learn which bills to prioritize, what you can and should live without, and why this may only be temporary.
  • How to save on recurring monthly bills: From insurance payments to utilities, plenty of hacks exist to cut your outlay down. Freedman offers advice on negotiating bills or reworking your household to avoid them entirely.
  • Strategies for hacking deals sites: Freedman highlights her favorite deals sites, showing readers how to save on everyday purchases and even earn “free stuff.”
  • Ways to get ahead with healthcare: Whether you’re insured or not, Freedman offers advice on navigating our complex healthcare system and reducing your costs overall. She also points to resources consumers can use for additional help.
  • How to boost your income in the worst of times: Whether you’re struggling with a low income or just experienced a layoff, Freedman’s advice can help you bounce back. Learn an array of side hustle options almost anyone can do, and how to get started.

During the good times and the bad, Freedman’s advice can help you keep your head above water or dig your way out of a financial mess. More than a book, you can consider her advice “a primer on making careful and creative decisions about money,” says Freedman. The “right” decision may not be the same for everyone, but if we each make enough good decisions, we’ll all be better off.

Final Thoughts

Freedman’s words are written with a dose of optimism, but they’re realistic enough to be believable. Never preachy, Freedman offers the best advice out there with the full knowledge that every hack can’t work for everyone.

Whether you’re experiencing a crisis or hoping to become more frugal than you are now, Your Playbook for Tough Times is a book you’ll want to dive into. The bottom line: If you’re in a financial pinch, this book is worth reading.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. She blogs at and teaches others how to write online at

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