This post is about the book Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha—a.k.a. Much Ado About a Cabin.
It is a very long post and for that I’m sorry. I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS.
Allow me to explain.
Jennifer and her husband David used to live in Suburbia. David made a “six figure” salary as a freelance accountant and Jennifer taught about three classes a year as an adjunct English professor, which brought in around $10,000 a year.
They decided to send their three kids to a private middle and high school nearly an hour away from their home because Jennifer and David didn’t have a good experience going through their local public schools as kids and they wanted better for their children.
David’s salary was more than enough, and seemed to be getting better all the time, so when their good friends told the couple that they were selling their beautiful rambling Cape Cod in a gated neighborhood, Jennifer and David opted to buy it. They settled in nicely for the next eight years and, while David continued to handle the bread-winning, Jennifer focused on raising their three kids, now teenagers, volunteering at their schools and organizing their birthday parties, making sure homework got done, etc.
One day in the future, when their two oldest children were off at college and their youngest was in school, a man knocked on the door. Jennifer answered thinking it might be a delivery person, but no, it was a repo man, there to take back her minivan, which hadn’t been paid on in several months.
This, apparently, was the first sign of financial trouble in Jennifer and David’s lives as far as Jennifer was aware. And then, one night, Jennifer realizes David is crying into his pillow. When she questions him, he responds that they owe back taxes. A lot of back taxes. As David was “in charge” of the couple’s finances, Jennifer gave him a talking to and David apologized profusely, saying he would “fix it.”
And this is where I began to question Jennifer and David’s decision-making and general competence. This memoir takes place right after the Great Recession and the burst housing bubble that left so many Americans in terrible debt. So, I do have some empathy here. You bought a big house and sent your kids to expensive schools because you thought you could depend on your high income. Then the market crashes. Happens to a lot of people.
When it became impossible to make mortgage payments, Jennifer and David stopped making payments because when you’re about to be foreclosed on, it doesn’t make sense to shovel your available cash into a sinking ship. Totally understandable and I don’t have any qualms with this.
But then follows a series of terrible choices:
-David floats the idea of moving into a cabin owned by a distant relative, which they can rent for $250 per month and fix up. Because even though they’re broke and in, Jennifer says, $350,000 of debt, they can somehow afford to fix up a house? David is even fantasizing about adding skylights at some point….?!?!
-Watch out, boys. We’ve got a runner. Jennifer half agrees to move into this cabin, but then is so angry at David for ruining their finances that she fantasizes about leaving him and, in fact, applies for, then takes a five-month teaching job in a city 12 hours away. She takes one of their dogs and lives in a rehabbed boxcar while she teaches there. She develops a whole life for herself in this other city, including friends and even a guy she kind of dates. David has to reminder her at the end that she promised to come home even though she doesn’t want to.
-The cabin is in the mountains, next to a picturesque waterfall, which is right out the front door. So that’s cool. But it needs total rehabbing. They can’t even count on hot water for showers. At one point, they’re at Lowe’s trying to decide what kind of new flooring to put in and I’m like, WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THE MONEY FOR THIS SHIT? YOU SHOULD BE COUNTING EVERY FUCKING PENNY NOT DEBATING HARDWOOD AND LINOLEUM. Live with the old, ugly carpet while you get your shit together. God, this is stressful to read about.
-The owners of the Cape Cod move all Jennifer and David’s stuff into the garage of the Cape Cod because it has taken Jennifer and David an unreasonable amount of time to move out and even though Jennifer and David still technically own the house, the sellers, to whom they pay their mortgage payments directly, are apparently sick of waiting for them to move out. So Jennifer and David go over and break into the garage of their old house with a sledgehammer to get their stuff out. I don’t even know what to say about this.
-In addition to his accounting business, which is suffering due to the down economy, David also decides to “take over” a local Chipotle franchise. This is not totally explained in the book. David spends a bunch of time coming up with new menu items and Jennifer suggests craft beer options, so I think the Chipotle was maybe being turned into a different restaurant? Jennifer and David invest money into it but only “break even” and then hand it back over to the actual owner when they can’t make it profitable…This…sounds like a nightmare for a financially sound couple. I have so many questions but the details are murky in the book, so I don’t really know what to think about this episode.
-Next……they buy chickens! WHAT? Why? The IRS is suing you. You have almost no income. You are on the verge of divorce. But, you know what we should make sure to take care of? Our personal preference for farm fresh eggs. What the fuck.
-Next……let’s buy some goats! They do. They buy goats.
These are truly people who, due to an upper-middle-class upbringing, do not understand the value of a dollar. Jennifer acknowledges that their financial incompetence is due to their not being taught how to handle money…but then the couple doesn’t seem to be trying to better their situation by making good decisions and it is so painful to watch them flounder.
Here’s a passage to give you a sense of the privilege from which they come and the general lack of maturity/self-awareness with which they handled their situation throughout the book:
One day, I came home after mountain biking for hours. I was sweaty and muddy, my leg bruised and bloody from where I had grazed a tree. There was nothing I wanted more than a hot shower. When I stripped off all my clothes and hopped in the shower only to find there was no hot water. I was furious. I pulled a towel around me and went downstairs to find David.
“I didn’t choose to live here,” I said. “You did. And if you want me to stay, you will make sure we have hot, running water in this house.”
It wasn’t fair, but I was angry, and I needed someone other than myself to blame for my unhappiness. David looked stunned. He loved living here, could not imagine living in a real house or neighborhood again.
“It’s like Disneyland here,” he told me once. “There is so much fun stuff to do!”
A real house? *Eyeroll* And his comment about Disneyland made me laugh. They are so clearly playing at being poor. To them, being broke is about a cabin in the woods next to a picturesque waterfall. It means raising chickens and planting a garden. It means homesteading.
But, dude, homesteading, if you haven’t inherited a homestead, which maybe your family has worked for generations and held on to despite economic depressions and recessions, not to mention the rise of big agriculture, is fucking expensive. I mean, did they buy plant starters for the garden? Cheap seeds? Fertilizer? Where did they get the tools? These people can only just cover their bills.
But never fear. Here comes Jennifer, bastion of thrift. When she gets back from her teaching stint, Jennifer realizes she has “a lot of time” on her hands. And since she’s an avid cook and has always wanted to learn to make cheese, she decides to try her hand at it.
QUESTION: IF YOU HAVE FREE TIME, WHY DON’T YOU GET A JOB, JENNIFER?
Once, before Jennifer’s out of state teaching stint, she’s lamenting to some friends that there are no good jobs for a writer available to her and her friend suggests that she get a job at their local Belk’s department store. Her response is along the lines of “LOL, have you seen how I dress?” as she looks pointedly at her quirky outfit of mini skirt, cowboy boots, and a necklace made from recycled Coke bottles. Because goddess forbid you sacrifice your personal style for a salary. No one ever does that.
The fact that there’s a recipe after every chapter and the book blurb lauds Jennifer and David’s “firm foot in the traditions of Appalachia” is kind of galling. I can’t imagine a poor person in Appalachia reading it and doing anything but laughing. When you can’t heat your home in the winter, making your own garden fresh pesto is just not that high on the list. The recipes are, at best, tone deaf.
This couple has a firmer foot in upper-middle-class America and this “embrace our Appalachian heritage to save money” nonsense is just that: nonsense. Instead of homesteading, they needed to read a Dave Ramsey book and go to marriage counseling.
So, Jennifer does go back to teaching part-time and sometimes teaching workshops, but the IRS is garnishing her wages, so the whole situation probably feels impossible. And she does have enough self-awareness to admit that she knows buying goats won’t actually change their lives, but instead will shore up her spirit while she waits for the IRS to settle their debts. You do what you can with what you know.
I don’t know what it’s like to be in that much debt, though I do know what it’s like to be heavily in debt, thanks to my student loans. Frightening. That’s what it’s like.
And some times you just get tired of the constant stress and have to say, fuck it, let’s buy some goats.
But you don’t then take out student loans and enroll in an MFA program. And that’s exactly what Jennifer did.
QUESTION: WHO LET THIS PERSON TAKE OUT STUDENT LOANS?
Then Jennifer’s ailing grandma comes to visit and Jennifer takes that as a sign that her grandmother is trying to reassure Jennifer that she’ll be OK even though her grandmother is dying.
That’s the end of the book.
I just. I can’t even.
Have you read it? Did you have a kinder reaction than I did? Do share!