'Simple Abundance' Author Bounces Back From Financial Brink

Peace and Plenty
Peace and Plenty

In 1995, Sarah Ban Breathnach's self-help book Simple Abundance was published. It was featured on Oprah Winfrey's show eleven times and went on to sell seven million copies.

Now, all the money is gone. A string of business disasters, a failed marriage in England, and overspending culminated in Ban Breathnach moving in with her sister at the age of 61.

The good news?

The fruit of that journey -- Peace and Plenty -- is, possibly, one of the best personal finance books ever written. Ban Breathnach weaves together the story of her own financial tribulations with inspirational musings, practical advice, and -- this is where this book really emerges as a winner -- timeless quotes from such diverse sources as William Wordsworth, Million Dollar Baby, Maya Angelou, and a slew of women's magazines from the 1930s. The story of Dorothy Parker's lifelong struggle with money is probably worth the price of the book on its own.

Talking with Ban Breathnach

DailyFinance talked to Ban Breathnach by phone last week about her rise, financial downfall, and what she's learned from it.

The path toward her financial downfall began, ironically, with the breakout success of Simple Abundance. The book was released in November of 1995, and began as a strong word-of-mouth book. "There was something different about Simple Abundance because at that first Christmas women were buying like ten copies and giving it to their friends and families," she says. "In the spring, I was on Oprah and we talked about Simple Abundance."

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The book instantly shot to the pole position on the New York Times bestseller list, and stayed at number one for a year.

"Suddenly everyone in the world wanted me to speak and give money and raise money," she says. "There were just so many requests on my time that I needed people to help me. I always wanted to try and keep control but it just blossomed so quickly that there was no control. Suddenly I went from being a freelance mother to having nine assistants."

While her payroll was skyrocketing, her efforts to expand the Simple Abundance brand were flailing. She tried to launch a Simple Abundance magazine, but funded the entire start-up herself. The week she went to try to raise money to roll it out, the dot-com bubble burst. She says she lost a million dollars on that project alone.

"Every money mistake you could ever make -- I made," she says. "I hadn't learned business because women don't learn about money. I didn't know about business. I was a writer. I should have asked for advice."

A Return to Life's Simpler Pleasures

The writer who once enjoyed having Sir Isaac Newton's chapel as her own private writing sanctuary now enjoys life's simpler pleasures -- like antique sewing supplies.

"They're all tokens of the woman I would like to be," she says. "The woman I hope to still become. When I look at vintage sewing supplies, I look at a woman who took very good care of her family and herself. Who believed that beauty could be even in the commonplace. Who tried to surround herself with beauty as much as possible. The way that an inch and a quarter ribbon will be embroidered and wrapped on French cardboard stands. It just makes my heart flutter. I see more beauty in a vintage haberdashery shop than I do at Tiffany's."

"Thrift Is a Rich Word"

It's that decidedly old school focus that makes this book so great: the idea of thrift and not wasting as virtues, a way to live a good life -- not as a means to a materialistic end. "Probably the earliest mention of the word thrift was 'the condition of one who thrives,'" she writes. "But what made thrift such an honorable aspiration was that its bounty was not conveyed by celestial benediction or favor of the crown -- but rather through the everyday choices made by prudent housewives who were neat, clean, industrious, imaginative, honest, clever, enterprising, and generous."

Breathnach says she now views thrift as something wonderful. "We're given the stewardship over our lives" she says. "The word thrift was the right apportionment of energy toward all of life. It wasn't parsimonious and it wasn't frugal and it wasn't cheap. Thrift is a rich word."

Originally published