It doesn’t matter if your tax refund is even tinier than you’d feared, or your accountant (i.e., TurboTax) has informed you that you finished the fiscal year in the red: Tax Day on April 15, along with the weeks of paperwork and midnight calculations leading up to it, can be—and, in fact, almost always is—a time of great financial anxiety. The cri de coeur of all dutiful taxpayers across the country? “I’m broke!”
For the actually broke and feeling-broke, few things give as much comfort as a story about someone even harder-up. That’s right—here comes fiction to the rescue: These heroes and heroines from classic and contemporary tales will stun (and entertain) you with their adventures in penny-pinching and privation. And if their struggles don’t improve your outlook about your own financial situation, at least they’ll inspire you to open a savings account.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man could learn something from his fellow superheroes Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, both of whom have managed to amass net worths in the billions (and win spots on Forbes’ list of the 15 richest fictional characters). Parker, on the other hand, while never without food or shelter, lives on meager earnings from his freelance photography side-career. Until recently (when he took a lucrative position at a think tank), his net worth, according to Newsarama.com, amounted to a paltry $350.
The Joad family
The Grapes of Wrath, the original Route 66 road trip tale, tells the story of the Joad family’s perilous journey to California. There, in the midst of the Great Depression, jobs, land, and bright futures await—or so they think. Not for the faint of heart, Grapes is a grueling and eminently unsentimental tale of hardship—financial, physical, and spiritual. But, there’s a reason the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1941 and remains one of Steinbeck‘s most widely read: It’s a grand and realistic tale about human endurance—one bound to make any tax season woes seem minor by comparison.
Times are tough in District 12: Until Katniss becomes a flame-dress-wearing celebrity of Panem-wide fame and acclaim, she and her family subsist off goat cheese, burnt bread, and whatever game she manages to bring back from her hunting trips. Depictions of Katniss’s circumstances at home might seem dreary in comparison to the illustrious descriptions of the Capital or the Games’ opening ceremony, but this heroine’s poverty has a function: Underneath all the action and suspense, the Hunger Games trilogy is a subtly political tale about what happens when economic inequality goes unchecked.
4. Oliver Twist
“More, please.” Need I say more? Little orphan Oliver is the end-all-be-all of down-on-luck protagonists. His odyssey through the underworld of London workhouses and pick-pocketing gangs has inspired readers for generations, showing how generosity and ethical integrity can survive in the face of destitution.
Despite, or because of, his mother’s Puritanical insistence on thrift and his siblings’ relative financial success, Chip Lambert, the unofficial hero of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, is notoriously awful at keeping his books balanced. After getting fired from his job as a professor on the cusp of tenure, Chip sinks into a bohemian existence (in gauche terms, unemployment) whilst living in a decidedly non-bohemian apartment and outfitting himself with non-bohemian furniture and clothes. In other words, he racks up bills upon bills, most of which his sister pays. By the time he jets off to Lithuania to participate in a corrupt (though lucrative) scheme to defraud investors, he owes her a whopping $20,500.
The Weasley family
Of all the spells in the Harry Potter universe, you think there’d be one that would allow wizards and witches to create wealth out of thin air. But no: Ron Weasley and family are proof enough that, in matters of money, magic falls short. The Weasleys are teased at Hogwarts for their shabby appearance, and their home (“The Burrow”) is a disheveled—not to mention architecturally precarious—sty. Still, is there a single family from the series you’d rather spend time with? Though the Weasleys’ lack of resources sometimes causes them embarrassment, their humble circumstances help to create an important contrast between their family and such menacing millionaires as the Malfoys.
Good things come to those who wait, and boy, has Charlie waited. When the hero of Roald Dahl‘s classic novel opens a Willy Wonka-brand chocolate bar to find a golden wrapper (securing his place on an exclusive tour of the famed Willy Wonka factory), his family is living in a practical flophouse, with all four invalid grandparents sharing a single bed. And while the rest of the rich brats on the tour let their greed get the best of them (you just had to have some of that chocolate, Augustus Gloop, didn’t you?), Charlie remains behaved and appreciative—an attitude that, in the end, will win him far more than just a golden ticket.