Barbara Carlson never gave money a thought — until the day she ran out of it.

"I've always just spent," she said. "My first words were 'Charge it.' "

The flamboyant former member of the Minneapolis City Council and radio talk show host, Carlson, 80, is of a generation in which women were discouraged from paying attention to finances.

She was raised in Anoka by live-in help in a family where money wasn't an issue. And through two marriages — first to Arne Carlson, who later became governor, and then businessman Martin (Pete) Anderson — she never had to check the balance in her checkbook before going shopping.

"I grew up in a family where I didn't want for anything," she said. "My husbands were both successful, and I did pretty well, too. I had a great career in real estate before I went into politics."

She used to buy her clothes at the Oval Room, the high-end fashion outlet in Dayton's. Now she shops at the Second Debut thrift shop.

"It's run by Goodwill," she said. "It's a wonderful place."

She used to pick up whatever food piqued her interest while strolling through Lund's. Now she searches out the ramen noodles at Cub Foods.

"They're the best friend of college students and poor people," she said. "You can get a case for $3.40."

She used to live in a stately mansion on Lake of the Isles. Now she's in a 650-square-foot income-based apartment in a converted factory.

"It would be claustrophobic if it didn't have 15-foot ceilings," with walls that she has decorated all the way to the top with art, wall hangings and other "treasures" she has uncovered. "I'm an expert on estate sales. I go Sunday afternoon, when everything is half-price. And if you wait until the end, you can get a grab bag — $2 for a whole bag full of stuff."

How have things changed so dramatically?

Some of it was circumstance, including a bout with cancer (removed via surgery), needing a kidney transplant (no rejection issues) and being swindled by a con artist.

"I knew her, too," she said with a sad shake of her head. "She took thousands from me, but she got millions from other people." (She eventually was caught and convicted, but by then all the stolen money was gone.)

These setbacks aside, most of her riches-to-rags story was fueled by her own financial nonchalance. "I take full responsibility," she said.

In 2002, shortly after she and Anderson divorced, her show was taken off the air by KSTP. She was on her own financially for the first time in her life. It was a train wreck.

"If I had to sit down and pay a bill, my head would explode," she said. "My father took care of the money. My husbands took care of the money."

So she hired an accountant — which leads to the obvious question: Didn't the accountant warn her that she was going broke?

"Every week," Carlson admitted. "Every week she'd give me a lecture: 'Barbara, you're spending too much money.' "

She didn't take the warnings seriously. For one thing, following her divorce from Anderson she had enough of a nest egg from the two houses they sold — the one in the city and the other a lake home — to last until about five years ago. But even then, she was hesitant to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation because "I had been taken care of my whole life, and I figured that someone would come along to take care of me."

A message to share

Carlson has never been shy about airing potentially embarrassing matters in public. On her talk show, she openly discussed everything from her alcoholism to her sex life. True to form, it was Carlson who approached the Star Tribune about revealing her money problems, hoping it could serve as a cautionary tale.

"I know there are a lot of women out there in the same situation I am," she said. "They've outlived their husbands, and they've outlived their money. I want to help them. If my story can help one of them feel better or help someone else avoid the same situation, I'll be happy. My message is that you can survive."

Carlson has a well-earned reputation for hyperbole, so when she says she's broke, there's an inclination to wonder if she's exaggerating. She's not.

"She's really broke," said Charles Leck, a friend of both Arne and Barbara since the 1960s. She's so broke, in fact, that he and his wife occasionally slip her cash, including money to buy Christmas presents for her grandchildren. "She has run out of money," he said.

Carlson also is well-known for enjoying the spotlight, which might lead some doubters to think she's telling her story more to get attention than to actually help people. For her, the attention and the helping go hand-in-hand, according to Harriet Horwitz, who has known Carlson for more than 30 years.

"Her heart is as big as her mouth," Horowitz said. "She really is" interested in helping people, "but she cannot live in a vacuum."

The flip side of the person who doesn't change when they strike it rich, being poor hasn't changed her a bit, her friends confirm.

"Barbara wants to laugh," Leck said. "She still says outrageous things to get a laugh." Added Horwitz: "She's either telling people what she thinks or telling them what they should think."

She still has an opinion on everything, from the current field of mayoral candidates — "I'm grateful these people are willing to run but I'm scared by some of the candidates" — to interacting with adult children: "Don't give them advice unless they ask for it," a rule she admits often breaking herself.

She still talks with machine-gun rapidity and veers off into verbal detours that lack segues but still somehow seem to make sense: A sentence that starts out about her divorce ends up being about Alaska.

And even though she plays the "little old lady card," she's still a force to be reckoned with. Greeting a visitor at the front door of her building, she nods toward her cane, says "Pardon my limp" and then takes off down the hall like a sprinter.

When she went broke, she did have one advantage over most of her cash-strapped peers: "Because of my political background, I knew about all the [public assistance] programs to help the elderly."

But knowing about them and swallowing one's pride to access them are two very different things.

"The most important thing I have to offer is that people need to ask for help," she said. "Women of a certain age have trouble asking for help. Don't be ashamed; never be ashamed. If you need help, make sure you ask for it."

It can be even harder with your offspring. The specter of the stereotypical senior who becomes a burden to one's children hangs over many of the elderly.

"I realize that I'll never be a street person" because daughter Anne and son Tucker (not the TV political analyst Tucker Carlson, although that's a mistake a lot of people make because of his parents' occupations) wouldn't let things become that dire, she said. "But I hate to be dependent on my children. That's not the way it's supposed to work. We're supposed to leave money to our kids, not take it from them."

A bad history

Her poor fiscal habits can be traced to previous generations, she realizes in retrospect. Her grandfather drove her grandmother from North Dakota to Minneapolis several times a year — this was before freeways, remember — so she could update her wardrobe. Her father, who ran a lumberyard, treated her lavishly.

"My mother almost died giving birth to my younger brother and was bedridden much of time" during Carlson's youth. "I became my father's surrogate wife. When he wanted to go out to dinner, he'd take me. And we went to nice places where I'd wear white gloves."

Her only source of income now is Social Security, half of which goes toward her rent.

She cashed in her city pension when she unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1997. Although she was elected to the City Council as a Republican, she'd broken with the party and faced the DFL-endorsed Sharon Sayles Belton as an independent. Nonetheless, after the primary narrowed the field to her and the incumbent mayor, she was endorsed by most of the Republican power brokers in the state — including the governor, her ex. Because she was trying to unseat a DFLer, she thought that Republican fundraisers would step up to help her.

"I'm still furious with the Republican Party," she said. "If I had my Minneapolis City Council pension now, I'd be fine."

It also must be noted that Carlson didn't fritter away all of her money on herself. She donated a lot of it toward helping homeless families, one of her pet causes since her days on the City Council in the 1980s.

Part of her financial straits come from the series of medical issues that kept her out of the workforce after she left KSTP. Now healthy, she has toyed with the idea of starting a new career.

"I'd like to work again," she said. "I would take people shopping at estate sales. I think I have pretty good taste, and I know how to save money. If I could make $100 a month, I'd be OK."

(The clients would have to drive her to the sales, however. She gave up her license three years ago "after I pulled into a gas station and hit three pumps.")

Despite her situation, the ever-effusive Carlson remains unrelentingly upbeat.

"Sure, I get depressed," she said. "Everyone does."

But she doesn't stay down for long.

"Life is good, and you have to make it as good as you can."