Q&A with 'Bootstrapper' author Mardi Jo Link
Hard-earned financial lessons and a lot of physical labor save the farm
As a little girl, Mardi Jo Link dreamed of one day owning a farmhouse in northern Michigan where she could raise her children and live off the land as her grandparents had.
MARDI JO LINK, AUTHOR,
Photo: Michael Brantley
In "Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm," Mardi Jo Link chronicles how she mended a broken heart and literally saved her Northern Michigan farm with alcohol, Buddhism and hard-won financial lessons. The book debuted in April 2013.
Several decades later, sure enough: She acquired a century-old farmhouse and raised three teenage sons. But when her marriage of 19 years collapsed and her ex, nicknamed "Mr. Wonderful," relocated across the street, Link's bucolic fantasy suddenly turned into hardscrabble reality as she fought to feed her family and save her farm on a single income.
In Link's new memoir, "Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm," the former newspaper reporter, tournament pool player and headstrong optimist recounts a year of living closer to the bone than she ever imagined. Along the way, she learned to butcher her own livestock, weigh the nutritional value of road kill, feed her brood on a year's supply of day-old bread won at a zucchini-growing contest and fend off foreclosure with sheer gumption.
Through it all, she nursed a broken heart with equal parts alcohol and Zen Buddhism and swears off men altogether until -- well, we'll get to that.
Had Laura Ingalls Wilder sipped bloody Marys, she might have turned out something like Mardi Jo Link.
Q: How did the daughter of suburban school teachers end up on Walton's Mountain?
A: Growing up, I always wished that I'd been raised on a farm or at least had the benefit of a rural life, so I kind of promised myself that when I had a family, that's how I was going to raise my children. I was pretty committed to that goal, so when life got in the way, I really wasn't willing to give it up without a fight.
Q: Where were you financially when your marriage collapsed?
A: I was hands-on for my current situation, but I was pretty naive about what was coming down the pike. It would be great if young adults learned how to handle finances the way we learn English and algebra. I'm not really sure why that's not in our educational curriculum because that's something that we have to be good at for our whole lives and I think it's missing. We learn that by experience, and a lot of times those experiences are the hard knocks.
Q: What's our biggest misperception about sudden poverty?
A: The misnomer would be that some great big tragedy befalls you. In my case, I suppose that was divorce, but really it happens in small decisions, small increments, small missteps. Those create this snowball effect that is very difficult to halt.
Q: Were you in credit card debt?
A: We were, but that wasn't our biggest problem. My biggest problem was that I had a mortgage that was too big for anybody but the insane. I was spending 70 to 80 percent of my income on my mortgage. That's ridiculous! Nobody does that. And you certainly can't maintain that over the long run.
Q: Were you saddled with an exploding ARM or something?
A: No, I had a conventional mortgage, but it was predicated on two incomes. So for that year before our finances were sorted, I was continuing to try to fulfill that mortgage with less than half of the income coming in. So the mortgage was far beyond my means. I don't think I immediately solved all my financial problems; I just outlasted them until my income increased.
Q: That would have driven you to drink if you hadn't been there already, right?
A: (Laughs) Right! I've never been a problem drinker, but if I ever was going to come close to that, it would have been in that year. I don't know if I just don't have the gene or if I was working so hard that I was too tired to raise a glass. It reminds me of that great Oscar Wilde line, "Everyone talks about my drinking but no one speaks of my thirst."
Q: How did you marshal your forces for what turned out to be a year of living hand-to-mouth?
A: The first thing we did was identify the expenses that weren't necessary like cable TV and cellular telephones and get rid of them. Then we looked at how we could replace things that we were paying for, like heat and grocery bills. Providing our own heat with firewood and much of our own food with a vegetable garden and raising livestock took an awful lot of physical labor.
I think our culture has forgotten that physical labor can replace cash
money if you are dedicated to it and do it every day consistently over
a long period of time.
Q: Did those aches and pains lead to any insights?
A: I think our culture has forgotten that physical labor can replace cash money if you are dedicated to it and do it every day consistently over a long period of time. I still have a 160-by-160-foot garden, and I was just out there planting the broccoli. So I still do that, and I still believe that there is a benefit to physical labor, both emotionally and financially.
Q: Why didn't you ask your parents for help?
A: My parents even say that! But they raised me to be self-sufficient. I don't know if it's the way I grew up or something in my personality, but if there is something that I have the know-how and strength to do myself, I have a really hard time asking for help. I was so in the thick of it that I always thought, "OK, this is going to be the worst month; next month, it's going to get better," and eventually it did. But my parents were really proud of me, and I just couldn't share with them that I was on the edge of failure.
Q: You also didn't ask for help from the neighbors. In fact, you write at one point, "I don't have many neighbors, and the few I do have I either don't know or don't like." Doesn't sound like Walton's Mountain exactly.
A: We tend to look at rural life through very rosy-colored glasses, and it isn't all that. People aren't always nice and people aren't always helpful. Many of us are persnickety and bristly. I hope that that rang through because I think for many people it is true.
Q: How did you fend off foreclosure?
A: One thing that I would advise: I didn't put my head in the sand, I didn't pretend that it wasn't happening, and I didn't not open the mail. It's very tempting just to pretend it's not happening. I picked up the phone and called people and told them what was going on. I even drove to my mortgage company's office and met with the vice president. So I made myself visible; I made myself a person and not just an account number. I don't know that that necessarily helped me in any financial way, but I have a feeling that it did.
Q: You and your sons shared an unusual chemistry that drove you through one tough year.
A: I hope that when readers finish the book, they see my sons as the heroes and not me. My sons were at the mercy of my bad decisions, so that was quite a sense of responsibility. I wanted things to work out for me but even more for them. They did everything I asked them. They might have wished they were other places, like off in somebody's garage playing in a metal rock band. But they were very devoted to me.
Q: What did they think after reading the book?
My middle son said to me, 'You know, Mom, I remember all of these
things happening but we didn't know that you were scared. We didn't
know how desperate our finances were. We just thought that was our
lives.' That made me feel like maybe I did my job.
A: My middle son said to me, "You know, Mom, I remember all of these things happening but we didn't know that you were scared. We didn't know how desperate our finances were. We just thought that was our lives." That made me feel like maybe I did my job. Maybe I protected them from adult problems at that time.
Q: Was it a life-changing experience for them as well?
A: Today, my oldest son is a sous chef at a four-star restaurant in Chicago and he's only 23. He didn't go to cooking school; he did it all on experience. My middle son is a full-time student and also works at a wonderful restaurant here in Traverse City called Stella, and my younger son, who is 16, plays varsity soccer, just got four A's and a B-plus and he just started dishwashing at Stella. So I think that hard work has benefitted them; I think there's not enough of it in our children today. And they have a certain reverence for fresh food that I'm not sure that you have if you don't see how it's grown.
Q: You also undertook an inner journey into eastern philosophy. What sparked that?
A: I was raised a Lutheran and that's still what I identify with. But for that year, everything was so immediate, and I knew that the whole idea of Zen Buddhism is to live in the present moment, so for that year, that idea was very attractive to me. I was mourning the end of my marriage and wondering what was ahead for me, spiritually, romantically, certainly financially, and that idea that the moment you're living in right now is precious was important for that year. And when you're living so close to the land and see things growing and see things dying, it's impossible not to think about your own mortality. For me, it doesn't replace Christianity; it sort of fits alongside.
Q: Did you have to cross any lines that you never thought you'd cross?
A: Yeah, I was pretty resolute that I would never ask for government assistance. Not that I'm against that; I know that there are people who need it. But I always had this idea that that was for other people. I was educated. I had been raised in an intact family. I'd had advantages that other people probably didn't, so I certainly didn't think that I should take advantage of any public assistance. And yet nine months into that year, I had signed my kids up for reduced lunches at school. That was a line that I thought I would never cross. I think the only reason I did was that it wasn't for me, it was for them; it was important that they have a nutritional meal every day. It was temporary, only March and April, but it was pretty hard to step over that line. It made me realize things would have to change pretty soon or we would have to sell or just let it go to the bank.
Q: Fortunately, things did take a positive turn around that time.
A: Yes, that was the time that I sold a piece of property and my freelance writing started to pick up.
Q: When did you start to feel like you might actually succeed in keeping the farm?
A: Right about that time as I was walking out of the title company with that check for an acre-and-a-half of my property that I had to sell. It was better to sell a little piece and hang onto most of it than to lose it all. When I knew that that check was going to cover everything that was outstanding and also give us a cushion plus a savings account, I thought. "OK, I can make it from here." That was almost 12 months from the day that my husband moved out.
Q: Your love life also revived, much to your surprise. Tell us about Pete.
A: Of course, I had sworn off men forever. I thought, I am perfectly capable of living the rest of my life as a single woman and parent and writer and be self-contained. It is amusing to me that the man I ended up marrying had to come to the property as opposed to me going out and finding him. Pete was the builder who had been adding on to the farmhouse when I had to say, "Look, I can't pay you." But he sort of hung around through that year; he would call me and say, "So, any chance that the job can start again?" and I never really knew if that was because he wanted my company or because he needed the work; it was probably a combination of both. But he would stop by and see how we were doing. A couple of times he anonymously plowed our long, snowy driveway, which was just a godsend; that was better than a present or a bouquet of flowers. He fixed our chicken coop when the foxes got in. It's almost like he had this sixth sense of what we needed.
I'd had advantages that other people probably didn't have, so I
certainly didn't think that I should take advantage of any public
assistance. And yet nine months into that year, I had signed my kids up
for a reduced lunch at school. That was a line that I thought I would
After I got my feet under me and it looked like things were going to work out, my attitude about men changed a little bit and we started dating. We'll celebrate our third wedding anniversary this August.
Q: What's the biggest lesson you learned from your year of living frugally?
A: No. 1, the most important things in your life are probably within your property lines: your family, your home, your self-respect. No. 2 is much more practical: Have a savings account and be dedicated to it. I do now. We're a society of consumers but when I was growing up, my parents always said, "Pay yourself first, pay yourself first" and I wish I had done that. I do that now.
See related: Jane Austin's Guide to Thrift
Published: July 15, 2013