Nickel and Dimed: Overview

Nickel and DimedThis week, The Simple Dollar is conducting a detailed review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This title is a bit of an unusual choice for a review of personal finance books, as it details an educated and affluent woman’s attempt to get by while working at low-income jobs. Can we learn anything from this noble experiment? Let’s find out.

Some of you who are reading this post right now are thinking “I’ve never heard of this book.” Others are probably thinking “Why on earth would this book be reviewed on a personal finance blog?” The best way to explain, I suppose, is by providing a brief overview of what this book is about.

Nickel and Dimed is a nonfiction work that you would typically not find in the personal finance section of a library or bookstore; instead, you’d have much better luck looking in the sociology or current affairs sections. It’s written by Barbara Ehrenreich, a widely reknowned author who has had regular columns in Time Magazine and The New York Times and had pieces in magazines of all stripes, from The Atlantic to Mother Jones. In short, she’s an excellent writer, though not an expert on any way in the matters of personal finance.

So what’s relevant about Nickel and Dimed, then? The book chronicles Barbara’s experience living as a low income hourly wage earner in the United States, working at jobs that pay six to seven dollars an hour and living a lifestyle that matches that income. A cynic might say she was “slumming it” for a book, but the book does succeed in one clear way: it is a well written account of what life is like near the poverty line.

Typically, I wouldn’t really consider a book about poverty in America to have much interest for personal finance readers, but this book has two things going for it. First, Ehrenreich has an impressive writing pedigree. Her skill with words brings to vibrant life what would be a very boring and bloodless story in the hands of most personal finance writers. If you doubt this, find it at your local bookstore, open it to any page, and read two pages. The people and situations she writes about jump to life.

Second (and perhaps more importantly), her experience teaches many useful lessons about the real meaning of what personal finance is and what frugality is. Most of us think that personal finance means maxing out our Roth IRA and that frugality means buying the generic bow-tie pasta at the grocery store, but the fact of the matter is that if you’re reading The Simple Dollar, you’re probably not eating beans out of a can and hoping that the heat isn’t turned off. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from that way of life; I have a lot of memories from my childhood of poverty, but I could not hope to write about them as eloquently as Ms. Ehrenreich.

Over the course of this book, Ehrenreich moves to three different cities in the United States to experience poverty and working conditions in those cities. Over the next three days, I’ll highlight the lessons from the experience of each city and then, on Friday, give my usual “buy or don’t buy” recommendation.

You can jump quickly to the other parts of this review of Nickel and Dimed using these links:
Serving in Florida
Scrubbing in Maine
Selling in Minnesota
Buy or Don’t Buy?

Nickel and Dimed is the third of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.

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