Broke as F*ck: The Lifestyle Guide

I am broke as fuck. And I’m going to make it anyways.

Notorious BIG – Juicy by tktouz

Sometimes, life gives you lemons – or a trust fund, a full scholarship, and/or a good-paying job at graduation. And sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, you owe money to a lot of people, still work at your formerly part-time job from junior year, and/or can’t afford to eat and find yourself eating any form of communal food available in an effort to stay alive.

This is the third summer in a row that I am living paycheck-to-paycheck, eating on 10 dollars a week or less, and going without a slice of pizza for more hours in a row than 5. The past two summers, I made it. This one will be more difficult, but I’m going to make it nonetheless.

Being broke isn’t the end of the world. You can feel super alive during your broke periods by bumming cigarettes, picking wildflowers, and drinking a single 30-rack of Coors Banquet over a one-month period. If you have the right mindset and the right strategy, you can get through counting quarters for the bus, crying to your mom on the phone, and being pursued by no less than three different organizations for money. Being broke will be stressful, and it will be challenging, but you will make it.

Here’s how.

1. Ball on a Budget

The first thing you’re going to have to do when you’re broke is figure out how to survive. That means making a budget, and sticking to it. You’ll feel compelled to do this once you realize that when you go over one week, you have to go under the next week. Ramen does not taste good for more than six meals in a row, maximum. This is a proven fact.

Personal finance is no longer a course you can take for one credit or a phrase on a brochure at the bank. It’s your first priority at all times. Get into it!

isn't this so adorable

When you’re creating a budget, you’re going to want to base it off of the activity you do the most. For me, it is a tie between the money spent partying every weekend and the money spent grocery shopping every Sunday. Thus, I recommend a one-week budget and a one-week-track mind for you. Start by making a spreadsheet. Make the following columns from left to right: Starting Amount, Rent, Utilities, Food, Fun, Pay, Final Amount. Then, make a row for each week. It’s pretty straightforward, right? Start with this week.

How much do you have in your bank accounts, pockets, and Smirnoff bottle full of change?  Put that under “starting amount.” Then, put the amount you are budgeting for rent, utilities, food, and fun in your budget. If you have a steady paycheck, plug in all of those numbers in advance. If not, predict it as best as you can and plug it in or leave it blank until you can. Predict all of your final amounts as well. The idea is to predict your entire month or a series of months as far in advance as possible so you can budget to the last cent. (You’ll be glad you did this when you’re tempted to steal string cheese at CVS, and then discover you could have afforded a bag.)

Aside from making a budget, though, is the overall idea that you should be attempting to cut back on everything as much as possible. Have a Netflix account with more than online streaming? Cut it back, and if your roommate also uses it, ask if they’ll split the bill. Really super like eating the most expensive fruit at the store, and not bananas? Grow the fuck up. Absolutely need that gym membership? Spend two more hours a day having sex. Live on as little as possible. stop buying yourself coffee immediately. As in, right now. Are you sipping on a latte? Even worse. Start buckling down and making your own coffee. Make sure to keep iced coffee ready and maybe even keep a batch at work in case you get tired and think about caving on a one dollar large Diet Coke. Clip coupons, grab free giveaways, and follow the free pizza signs. You’re broke as fuck now: prioritize and figure it out. Only keep what you really need and set the rest aside for the occasional indulgence, like a strawberry milkshake at McDonald’s.

If you want help managing your budget and/or are the worst person to manage personal finance since Carmen Marie Rios ever in recorded history, you’re going to want to utilize these tools:

+ Spentable: An app (I know you might not have an iPhone/Android because you’re broke, but I do and I’m broke, so things happen) that manages your budget for you, so long as you’re honest about what you spend.

+ A website and app that tracks your multiple bank accounts and allows you to input your budgeted money amount for each period. will tell you exactly how much money you have after your shit is accounted for, and will prevent overdrafting, frantic calls home, and/or the use of loan sharks.

+ Online and Mobile Banking: You should be checking up on your accounts daily, and, if you have a smartphone – every time you spend money. Be responsible and accountable. You don’t want to pay fees for being late, being too broke to do the important shit, or having your gas reconnected so you can stop eating macaroni and cheese you made entirely in the microwave using nothing but noodles, water, and powder.

Actually, that brings me to my next thing:

2. Be On Top of Your Shit

When you’re broke, there are people that will be sympathetic to you. They include, but are not limited to: your mom, your relatives who still speak to you, a handful of your old friends from college, and your new roommate who just cooked a good dinner while you ate a bowl of rice again for the seventh time in the past four days. The people who will not include: your landlord and/or management company, any bill collection agency, your local grocer, and the bank branch manager at your most conveniently accessible location.

Being on top of your shit when you’re broke his important for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it empowers you to feel less overwhelmed and gain clarity and control in the midst of what feels like an ongoing financial crisis. Second, it allows you to more easily deal with unexpected costs or mini-crises that result in minor panic attacks including 300 dollars of mysterious fees in your student checking account. Third, it enables you to appear responsible and mature when necessary, such as when you accidentally overdraft and call your bank to kindly ask that they forgive you just this once. Don’t let being broke be a crutch.

Don’t let it come to this:

td bank eventually came back and made it all up to me, it was great

Fine Print: If you’re struggling to really make ends meet / get through this at all, feel free to pull all the stops and be uncomfortably honest with the rest of the world about your situation. Also, please do not hesitate to ask people for help along the way if it means the difference between making it and not making it. Just know that in the end, you got three people.

Aside from being on top of your shit financially, you should also work immediately to do the following things: establish routines and regimens, find a journal, and discover how you can take care of yourself. Being broke or struggling financially can be extremely stressful and result in anxiety, drunk texting, emotional posting on Tumblr, and loud crying in communal areas while you are babysitting someone’s children. Prevent that. Establishing a routine will remind you that you have a purpose, a direction, and an end goal every day, as well as the fulfillment of achieving tasks and feeling accomplished. Writing down your emotions and having them in general will keep you sane, and will make for a good memoir when you’re famous. (This is part of my life plan.)

When I began a job in May of 2011 – which ended this past May – my predecessor told me, “find something that relaxes you.” I kind of scoffed at her, or maybe rolled my eyes. It was really rude, and I got kicked in the ass by karma for it because one week later I was crying on the sofa feeling like I’d done everything wrong I could ever do wrong in life. I soon discovered that taking Eli on long walks, making sure I always had my warm morning shower, and drinking coffee when I woke up could ease some of the stress I experienced every day in that work environment. Know what keeps you cool, calm, and collected – and commit to practicing it. Make space for it in your budget, make room for it in your life, and make it a priority.

Do what you love – and fuck the rest. Also, definitely watch Little Miss Sunshine. It will help.

3. Give Your Money to Someone Else (Like A Bank)

Banking and maintaining your banking well is going to be a benefit to you. If you’re a student, run to the nearest bank that gives you the best student checking deal and attempt to never reveal your graduation date. If you’re not, go to Find A Better Bank dot com to figure out who will serve you best without ripping you off. Also, maybe go to your local pride parade and see which banks march! That’s always fun.

via ASQuall on Flickr

Managing my money by using mostly cards has made my life one hundred percent better for the past four years. The gifts mentioned above of online and mobile banking make it completely and totally feasible to control your finances from your phone or your laptop. Plus, seeing numbers is often easier than managing cash, and a lost card is replaceable – but not a lost twenty, ten, five, or wallet.

I refuse to give you advice on whether or not to use Direct Deposit. Often, it will enable you to access a checking account for free if you’re depositing a certain amount each month. But if not, sometimes waiting to deposit checks until you really fucking need them is super helpful to the broke and often tempted. That one is up to you.

Next: Food, fun, and being happy.

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. This was exactly what I needed right now. I’m about to quit my job and make my life mine again, and it is terrifying. This was practical, heartfelt, and motivating. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Carmen! You’re awesome!!! I’m really fucking broke right now and it sucks. Reading your article has cheered me up. Thanks :)

  3. Oh my Holy Jesus Christ on a pink haystack! This post could not have come at a more opportune time!

    I just seriously spent the last three hours wallowing in self-pity because I’m broke broke broke! (The worst part is I’m not actually in a bad spot in life. I’m just broke and freaking the fuck out)!

    Then I grew tired of wallowing and I was all like…let’s go surf the interwebs and see what Autostraddle has to say.
    Then…BAM!!…Here this is all up on the first page like a shining beacon of hope! :D I’m still freaking out though! :P

  4. I agree with almost all of this.
    You guys, I don’t even have a room right now. It would probably be best described as an alcove, and is really just a continuation of our apartment’s living room. But I don’t have to pay as much rent this way, so I’m not complaining.

    Food consists of a lot of rice, pasta, beans, and other legumes. Carrots, cabbage, and bananas are also cheap in my area right now. Also frozen corn- $2 for a 2-lb bag, guys! And dried beans are even cheaper than canned- $1-2 per pound in my area. Onions are usually also cheap.
    My neighborhood grocery store has also helpfully labeled things as being “WIC approved,” which I’ve determined is usually code for “Hey, this is the cheapest thing we have of its type”

    I’m keeping myself entertained by riding my bike for ridiculous amounts of time& distance, and reading. There was a table at my city’s pride just giving away tons of free books! Also I can use the library when I run out of books from pride (once I pay the library the late fine I owe them).

    • i was also going to say dried beans are cheaper than canned. and healthier. and taste better. but do take longer, so be warned.

      • Yeah, the taking longer part is my only problem with dried beans- basically they require planning, which is something I am not good at.
        I recommend red lentils for anyone who is bad at planning- same delicious goodness, but super quick, easy, and require no planning whatsoever. Other lentils are good for if you didn’t plan and have a bit more time.

  5. While I’m definitely not broke now, I’ve been there and been really good at it.
    -Buy ramen-type noodles in bulk (Chinatown), add diff veggies and seasoning every time and it doesn’t get unbearably monotonous as quickly and is way healthier for you and if you’re veg/an, doesn’t include secret animal products.
    -The Homegoods sections of Marshall’s/TJMaxx/Ocean State have really underestimated food sections, they are unquestionably WHERE IT’S AT if you are vegan/gluten-free/fancybroke.
    -Poorluck burrito night! Everyone gets assigned a item to bring and suddenly there is a burrito bar.
    -Become a modern merchant. If you have a smartphone, go to goodwill/thrift/junk places and amazon the books’ prices starting with the oldest looking. You can use this kind of technique with a lot of stuff, but past books it’s safest to focus on stuff you know, whether it’s coins or pottery or horses.
    -Don’t pay for things you don’t have to. Stop paying for toilet paper and paper towels for sure, just go to college campuses and steal it. Some colleges have free tampons in their bathrooms; raid that shit. Feel free to feel like a secret agent. Sometimes colleges have freebie days/freebie boxes, ask around.
    -If you wear make-up, utilize the little known CVS policy of beauty product returns. Make-up, skin stuff, sunblock, hairstuff, basically anything. “It’s not my color,” “It made me break out,” “Smells weird,” “I just don’t like it,” etc. Return it within 60 days w/ receipt and get CASH, without receipt whenever for store credit. My grandmother did this forever.
    (Some of these things involve falling on a shadier side of morality, but personally, screwing corrupt corporations and the for-profit education system is not something I give a fuck about.)

    • So what are your ramen secrets? I get migraines from the MSG in the seasoning packets, but I think the noodles are actually quite yummy. And I am indeed really, really broke.

  6. Some solid advice in this article, a few other things I disagree with. My 2 cents, in random order :

    -It’s great if credit cards is what works for Carmen and other people to manage their money efficiently, but for some others they have the opposite effect, so don’t hesitate to experiment yourself where you fall on that point. Some folks don’t fully realize how much they spend when they just put their card in a machine and see a number printed on a ticket afterwards, but actually taking bills out of your wallet and handing them over makes it much more concrete (I’m that way).

    -This one is going to sound really stupid but : make more money. No seriously, an astounding number of people don’t realize that jobs aren’t the only way to make money. Basically, if you know how to do something – anything – that not everyone can do, there’s someone out there willing to pay you for it. And if you really don’t have any skills or talents, some are really easy to learn.
    Whether it’s knitting cute stuff while babysitting or watching TV and selling it online, cooking/baking food and selling it door-to-door at your campus, reading tarot cards to patrons at the bar, building/fixing furnitures, proof-reading and correcting schoolpapers, or speaking a foreign language… there’s monies to be made with that. (But you know, just keep it reasonably legal)

    -I’ve seen alcohol mentioned quite a few times in this post, and this baffles me a bit. If there’s one thing that cost a bunch and doesn’t provide you with any benefits whatsoever, it’s alcohol. If you don’t know how to relax and destress without drinking, find a new way – meditation, sports, video games, yelling obscenities at passerbys, plenty of choice. If you don’t know how to socialize without alcohol, stop going to bars and college parties and join a non-profit or a club and hang out at free places/events in which people are doing interesting stuff. If you don’t have fun when you’re with your friends if you’re not drinking… maybe it’s time to find new friends.

    -The part about budgeting your food and shopping was solid, I’ll just add one thing : don’t just look at the price, weight it against the nourishing value of the food. A cheap pizza can be tempting, but if you eat it all in one go and feel hungry 2 hrs afterwards that’s money badly spent – for the same price maybe you could have bought a pound or pasta or a bunch of eggs that would have lasted you for days. Diet coke is even worse – whether it’s Coca Cola or the cheapass imitation, it’s still a bunch of gas and chemicals for a grand total of 0 calories. Actually just avoid diet-anything altogether, it rarely is cheaper than the real stuff and your body needs fat (yes, is doesn’t matter how much you weight : fat is always good. Wanna drop pounds? Cut out the carbs).

    -A variation on the 1st part of the article, for people like me who aren’t comfortable with cards and automatic payments and/or find it easier to budget on a monthly basis :

    step 1 : calculate your incompressible expenses for each month (rent, taxes, internet, bills, car insurance etc).
    step 2 : write checks for each of these things. If you’re paying some of them on a weekly basis (like rent), do four checks for each week.
    step 3 : put all these checks in an envelope.
    step 4 : every month on your payday, send all the checks. ALL of them!
    step 5 : once it’s done, on the same day, estimate your variable expenses for the month (groceries, gas, transportation..). Pick a comfortable number in your estimated window and put that money in another envelope.
    (optional but recommended) step 6 : send off a small amount of money to a separate bank account. Same amount every month, stick with it. You’re not allowed to use this money for groceries or fun : that’s your emergency fund.
    step 7 : Tadaa! Now you’ve got your ass covered and your mind at peace for the month. Any remaining money is to spend at your leisure – if you’ve got any left at the end of the month, it’s your call whether to add it to the emergency fund or carry it over to the next month.

    -Almost forgot this one BUT super important, kinda ties back with the part about shopping :
    no matter whether you got it at 10% or 80% off, if you bought something on sale that you wouldn’t have *at least* seriously considered buying at full price or didn’t REALLY needed, you didn’t “save” any money – you SPENT some. <- That type of thinking drive me crazy. Crazy!

    (yeah, if it isn't obvious by now, I kind of have a lifelong experience of being broke as fuck lol)

    • If you like the envelope method here but you’re more of a card person (like I am), this may be of use to you.

    • Yes! Everything here. Despite the fact that I’m inching towards thirty, I still do not feel “grown up” enough and have subsequently cut them, frozen them, or drowned them in a lake.

      Envelopes are the key to my salvation.

  7. very good article!! one tip that always helps to me out when i am considering a splurge item is to think of it in terms of work hours. like a $30 dress is 3h of work, and then i don’t want to buy it.

    • This works even better when you calculate how much disposable income you make per hour. Say I make $10/hour and I work 40 hours/week, 160 hours/month. $1600/month, say you lose $200 to taxes etc. 4 weeks/month, that’s $1400/month. Rent/bills are $1000. So you worked 160 hours to earn $400 disposable dollars. That means you’re only earning $2.50/hour of disposable income. So that $30 dress really took you 12 hours to earn.

  8. This is great, Carmen! I am only sorta broke these days, but still trying to keep myself on a budget and I gotta say, it’s HARD. I have not a lot of self-control, apparently. Also, I am majorly impressed by that food budget… I aim for $25-30 a week in groceries, and I mostly eat a lot of eggs and quinoa and peanut butter and tortillas. Though I have a physically active job and bike/run around a lot, so I find I have to eat more than I would if I just sat around on the computer all day.

    Things that have helped me now/in the past: having a job that provides a shift meal, even though it’s boring eating the same five things all week. Going to gallery openings/any event that advertises free food. Exercise – bike/run/walk – you can make it a social thing if you want. is a great way to get things you need like clothes or household items.

  9. Great article! But I would like to say that pets are not inexpensive. They can be, but any pet from a tiny mouse to a Great Dane can rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars in vet bills. As the pet gets older (a mouse is older after only about 18 months), the vet bills often increase. Even a young pet can have an expensive issue. Please don’t get a pet if you’re broke, but instead take the author’s advice of volunteering at your local animal shelter to get your pet fix.

    I have to live like I’m broke so I can afford my dog’s vet care. He is worth every penny.

    • I just KNEW that somebody would make this point while I was composing my comment below that says pretty much the same thing. You beat me to it! :)

    • yeah, my recommendation for having a pet when you’re broke is to foster one! I’m not sure if all pet adoption/foster agencies are the same, but many will provide you with everything you’ll need. for folks in the CA bay area, I had a great experience fostering a cat from Hopalong– they give you the food, litter, litter box, scooper, cat carrier, medication if the animal gets sick, etc. it really costs you nothing.

  10. This is a really great article. Even though I’m no longer broke, I’m still very frugal and super conscious about how I spend my money.

    There is one part I have a problem with.

    “At the end of the day, remember that the only things necessary for you to live happily ever after are any combination of stable interpersonal communication and relationships, doing it frequently, owning a pet, and/or finding a source of personal fulfillment in your average every day activities – and that all of these things are free or have extremely minimal month-to-month costs!”

    This would be a great point if the “owning a pet” part were removed. Pet ownership is a huge responsibility, and is by no means free or even minimal in the expense department (I’m talking about dogs/cats here). As somebody who worked several years as a vet tech, I’ve seen my fair share of clients who couldn’t afford treatment and their pets suffered as a result.

    I understand that sometimes things happen and circumstances change, but I strongly believe that people should stick to fish and avoid buying a dog or cat until their financial situation is stable.

    A great alternative is volunteering at the ASPCA (as was mentioned in this article) or fostering! If you foster an animal, you get the benefits of pet ownership with less of a commitment both with your time (dogs and cats live forever and fostering is temporary) and your money (most rescue organizations pay for the food/vet care/etc). Plus, lots of the time you end up fostering baby animals. So basically you have kittens for a few weeks and they go to their permanent homes and you get new kittens to care for. UNLIMITED KITTENS YOU GUYS. I’m more of a dog person myself, but baby kittens are super adorable and that’s pretty much universal.

  11. also, if you do your food shopping at the end of the day when the shops are nearly closed, you can get so much discount fresh shit. sometimes this is discount because nobody wanted it (ex: frozen whole squid with an unpleasant look in its eye, broken sausage rolls without pastry, all forms of quark) and sometimes because it’s about to go out of date. and you can freeze the discount stuff if you don’t want to eat it all at once.

    sometimes if you go to a butchers or a fresh fruit/vegetable shop ask if they have anything they are throwing away you can have ‘for the dog’. i am not too proud to eat food one step up the food chain from industrial wastebins. i get huge quantities of about to rot tomatoes from the veg shop near me and then i make a cauldron of pasta sauce and freeze that motherfucker till i want it.

    for freezing, you waste less if you freeze small portions rather than massive ones so you only thaw what you need. nobody on earth enjoys hacking at an enormous tray of frozen pasta to get out one portion. you can use ziplocs if you are fancy, or you can use silver foil if you are not.

    • Also dumpstering. If your local grocery stores/restaurants don’t have trash compactors, they can be a wealth of delicious free food (including infusions of fresh fruits and vegetables that are too expensive to purchase when broke as fuck). Sweetbay in Central Florida and Rouse’s in Louisiana/New Orleans are options if you live in those areas; if your area has a Food Not Bombs chapter, they are probably very knowledgeable on dumpstering (just make sure you’re not competing with them for food!). Of course, the necessary disclaimer – this shit can get you arrested for trespassing if you are caught by assholes. But if you can make it work, it can exponentially increase your food options.

  12. this is so great and timely, especially the recipes. I was about to eat bean and tortillas for the eleventyith day in a row- now I have something else to make!

  13. Food–buy bulk food, day-old bakery items, loiter at catered events at universities/libraries/museums/galleries.

    Shelter– if you’re totally homeless try to get a dogsitting gig, or borrow a friend’s, and hangout at the park all day advertising your skillz.

    Security–Assertive hellos, smiles, and a can of bearspray.

    • If you live in the west and have access to a Winco, GO THERE NOW. RIGHT NOW. They have the best, cheapest bulk food section with free recipe cards telling you how to use the bulk food.

      If you don’t live in the west, HA! I’ve finally found something that is better here than anywhere else. I rub your nose our wonderful Winco-y goodness.

  14. “Don’t use your financial problems as a reason to stop taking care of the people you love and giving back to them in any way possible.” Carmen, I want to hug you right now. This is phenomenal.

  15. Really great article!

    I just wanted to add an idea: If you’re using disposable pads/tampons it really saves a BUNCH of money in the end if you switch to using menstrual cups or cloth pads! Plus it’s better for the environment and supposedly better for your health.

    • Problem with reusable menstrual products is there’s a lot of startup cost. $60 (yep, that’s what I paid, I live in Australia) for a cup I use for 5 years is a great value over time, but if I’m spending $20 a week on groceries, that $60 is probably insurmountable.

      • I really recommend sea sponges (they’re sold by Jade and Pearl, but I’m sure there are other sources–I’d google something like menstrual sponge). They are so much cheaper than cups, I find them WAY more comfortable, they are reusable for a long, long time, and when you finally do get rid of them they’re completely biodegradable. You can also wear them during sexytimes without any sort of discomfort. I can’t even tell when I have one in, and sometimes just forget.

        Of course, you have to do what you’re comfortable with, and if you really like tampons and think they’re worth the money, USE THEM. They can be really damn convenient.

      • I cut up old flannel sheets or pajamas & fold them into pads. They are super soft and basically free so if I am out someplace I can treat them as disposable.

  16. Thanks for this – I needed it right now.

    Also you posted Regina Spektor so basically I have to love you forever. I don’t even get a choice. :)

  17. Carmen! I am almost positive I saw you on the metro this morning. As someone who did Americorps for 2 years, these are all excellent broke tips. But now I have a real job! And I take all my friends out to dinner! You could come too sometime, on me.

    • I definitely saw you (Carmen) at the Spoken Word poetry event at HRC the other week but it didn’t dawn on me till later. Next time, I will definitely say hi!

    • i like free dinner but am embarrassed because today i wore one pair of my many pairs of floral shoes and leggings

  18. Thinking more about this, I have a couple things to add:

    1) Drive less. If it’s possible for you, bike/bus/walk. The main reason that I’m not living paycheck-to-paycheck on my crappy wages is that without a car I’m not paying for gas, insurance, or car repairs. Sure, it sucks to show up everywhere sweaty and out of breath, but I’m in a much better place financially. And in better shape!

    2) Take care of yourself and your stuff. Seriously, nothing will break your budget like an ER trip because you didn’t pee after sex & have a kidney infection now (this happened to my roommate) or having to buy a new bike because you didn’t lock up your old one, AKA your only form of transportation, and it was stolen (happened to my friend). Drink water, floss your teeth, and triple-check that your phone is somewhere safe before you jump in the pool.

  19. The BEST broke food: Miso soup!!!! It’s SO cheap and tricks you into thinking you’re soo full and healthy =)
    step 1: boil water
    2: add pinch of wakame
    3: add dissolved miso
    That’s it!
    (dissolve the miso w a little hot water separately before stirring it into the soup because then it won’t be clumpy).
    you can also add vegetables! or tofu! or anything.

    also, brown rice+gommashio= actually delicious!
    (gommashio is roasted sea salt+roasted ground up sesame seeds.)
    those brown rice and miso soup can be eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner, and if u do will even out to about 40 cents/meal. =D

  20. I admit to never having been on the edge of desperation, and even if I was, there were people I could (probably) call, but I do have some tips from my life of a person on a budget.

    -Drink a shit ton of water. Not only is it good for your overall health to drink lots of water, it’s also a good filler. It’s important to remember it has no calories so it is not a substitute for food, but it will placate your hunger temporarily, and it’s free at most public places, like your place of employment! I heard if you’re not peeing clear you’re not drinking enough water. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, do it anyway.

    -Brew your own alcohol. It takes a relatively small one-time capital investment(tip #3, make yourself feel better by saying snooty things like “capital investment”). You can get a water-cooler jug and an airlock for a few bucks. Not only is it one of the best dollar/drunkeness, but all your friends will think you’re super cool. Plus, if you have a windfall and can afford to brew you can host parties and charge admission of a buck or two, and you’ve made back your money and were the cool kid with the party.

    -Learn a marketable skill. Maybe you have a degree but still only a crappy part-time job. Good that means you have plenty of time but not enough money. You can learn things for free online, crazy! Maybe learn a few programming language and so some contract work, people always need programmers. Plus every hour you spend learning is another hour not spent crying on your bed or giving into the temptation of going out and spending money.

    -Crash Weddings. I’ve never done this and you can be let your own moral compass guide you, but I do know people who will dress up nice, check the newspaper for wedding announcements, then show up for the free food. If you’re caught, turn to your buddy and say “I told you this wasn’t the X wedding, I don’t recognize anyone!” then calmly leave.

    -Party or food. A disclaimer, this should ONLY BE DONE is you have a steady source of food with a decent calorie and nutrient intake. YOU SHOULD NOT do this if there is any risk of malnutrition or if skipping meals is a normal thing for you. You should also bee warned that people tend to over eat after they skip meals. But are you going out tonight, maybe skip dinner. Drinking on an empty stomach means you spent less on food and alcohol.

  21. Good article, but I would add/alter a few things. Banks are for profit, which means their only goals are to squeeze every dime out of you (often without you realizing) and expand their customer base. If you are really looking to save money, put your money in a credit union! Credit unions are not for profit, community oriented, and almost always have online banking and other features that banks have. Chase may march in pride, but they’re actually awful and will try to squeeze every dime out of you.

    Someone might have mentioned this already, but definitely buy food in bulk. It might throw off a weekly food budget initially, but will be worth it over a longer period of time. A lot of food like boxed rice can have higher prices than bagging your own food in bulk merely because of the packaging.

    As far as volunteering goes, consider volunteering at a local farmer’s market if you’re fortunate enough to live near one. I did this last year and would often get the leftover not-good-enough-to-sell-but-not-totally-spoiled lettuce, chard, leeks, etc. at the end of a market day. Learn to cook weird vegetables, which are sometimes on sale at grocery stores because most people shy away from warty spaghetti squash, and you’ll be able to maintain a healthier diet. If a nearby community garden offers free plot space, you cheap healthy food and fun times digging in dirt! If you have to pay for a space, go in on it with a friend and split the harvest. If you share food with several other people, CSA boxes can be a great deal.

    Good luck, everyone! We will survive.

  22. this is so thorough and relevant and makes me feel like I can totally afford a-camp again! my additions:

    put PEANUT BUTTER in OATMEAL. in general, eat lots of peanut butter, try to get it without sugar added. be careful about the veggies you buy – iceberg lettuce isn’t really anything. DARKER IS BETTER(kale, chard, purple cabbage, etc.) stock up on FROZEN SPINACH when it’s on sale. buy in season. you don’t actually need fruit. when you buy food, look at CALORIES and PROTEIN and not just price. what has the most calories on the dollar menu? get that! whole wheat/brown rice/grainier = fuller longer. cook with lots of OIL instead of butter and/or cheese. start frying stuff (save and re-use the oil). DEEP FRIED CHICK PEAS are life changing. FRY BANANAS. get a FLASK and don’t buy alcohol at bars. POWDERED DRINK MIX is your mixer. vegetarian/vegan can be super cheap. CANNED MEAT is totally a thing. BAKE! if you have time or enjoy it as stess relief, make your own bread/tortillas/pizza dough. Make a bunch of pizza dough one day, let it rise, and freeze it individually. you guys, FOODSTAMPS. seriously, food stamps. there are tons of allocated but unclaimed foodstamps. if you qualify for them, you deserve them. I don’t know if this is real advice as there are lots of downsides, but BE A HOARDER. take free stuff, save for rainy day, sell it. LIBRARIES! to every potluck, bring this dip: ONE CAN BEANLESS TURKEY CHILI + ONE PACKAGE CREAM CHEESE melted together. buy ULTRABRIGHT toothpaste. it’s like #1 ranked by someone and under $1.

    I clearly am a little too excited about frugal living, very clear I have not had to do this my whole life.

      • Have you heard of falafel? It’s basically crushed up and deep-fried chickpeas! And it really will change your life.

        • Falafel is heavenly but I have not had good experiences trying to make it myself. Deep fried chickpeas are like the lazy falafel! but they taste more like deep fried hummus. yeah, just imagine that.

    • Seconding “be a hoarder”… I’m super happy about the Costco-sized allergy meds and razor cartridges that I bought when I had money last year and are now saving me lots.

  23. Huge fan of craigslist. Both for when I need something but can’t afford new price, and for when I need some quick cash and have to sell something off I don’t necessarily need.

    Also, Trader Joe’s. Holy shit a lot of their food is really cheap and healthy. $50 can get you 2 weeks worth of groceries if you shop right.

    Also, also, there’s this pub down the street from where I live that has SAVED MY ASS so many times. From 7-9 they have free hotdogs (like those big Costco hot dogs with all the condiments) with any drink, and free popcorn and pretzels all night. Their cheapest beer is $4, and their cheapest well is $5, so for $4 you can have booze, a few hot dogs and some popcorn and pretzels. Which is highly unhealthy but more than enough to get you through till lunch the next day when you spread some peanut butter on some Ritz crackers and contemplate the state of your adulthood.

    • I got my bed on Craigslist. FOR FREE. I wrote in the wanted section that I really wanted a new bed because I was using the same bed that my grandma had before she died in 1986 and my kitties had discovered a hole in the boxspring and liked to hide in it and I was quite sure the mattress was slowly killing me and the bedframe was also very, very broken. A few weeks later, I got a call from a girl who was moving to Mongolia and wanted to give me her bed. Her three month old (this is brand new to me!!!) bed with an amazing supportive and unsullied mattress and beautiful though slightly princessy bedframe. I had to convince my uncle to drive me to pick it up and haul it to my apartment, but it was one of the greatest achievements of my life.

      And yes, I have done my best to sully that mattress since I obtained ownership. Of course.

  24. Sometimes being friendly with your landlord/lady helps when you can’t pay your rent on time. Also, cutting back on expensive coffee and fast food really helps. I know that because I do that and I also live on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis. It is also noteworthy, and embarassing, that I have been postponing opening a savings account after being employed for 4 years now. Not a very wise thing to do, shame on me. Taking vitamins and eating healthy may seem expensive but really, it us much more fucking expensive to buy medicine when you get sick (also, you may skip work hence lose a day or two from your payroll), meds are not covered by health insurances so…..

    • Yes yes, I was just going to say that vitamins are important and that I recommend budgeting for them. They’ll keep you healthier and fill in some of the nutritional gaps that ramen leaves.

      Also I love you Carmen.

  25. I’m a student and broke as hell sometimes. I feel really bad when I can’t even pay for a photocopy. At least in the long run, I’m saving trees? So this is very necessary right now. YAY.

  26. When I was poor (like, when you shift from ‘which meal of the day will I choose to skip’ to ‘which meal of the day will I choose to eat), the best things I learnt were:

    – learning how to make dal, red lentils were the cheapest for of protein I could find
    – when all you have is rice, and not even much of that, turning it into rice porridge (congee), and it goes further
    – learning to bake bread, and buying bread just before closing time
    – exhibition openings = best free social activity. free attendance, heating/air-con, roof, defined activity (ie. not loitering), free beverages and snacks

  27. I have been to the USA 3 times in my life, and every time my last stop is always to Target so that I can buy cheap ass groceries. A single box of cereal is three times as expensive up here. It’s the (sad) highlight of my trip.

  28. Also, the barter section on Craigslist. Right now we’re having our house cleaned and our lawn mowed at no cash cost because my partner has a marketable skill. Me, of course…not so useful, so I cook the beans & rice.

  29. Focus groups! If you live in the DC area, you should look into Shugoll Research. I’ve only done one focus group with them, but it was pretty interesting–looking at PSAs about substance abuse for a gov’t agency, AND I got paid $100 bucks for my 2 hours.

  30. Also, team gay, seriously I recommend a local credit union over any big corporate bank. They are increasing numbers of them, and sniff around even if you’re not a resident or you’re in school or whatever.

    Also: Food banks can be really okay, but also Food Not Bombs (which is, like, an anarchist food bank) does free meals and free markets with dumpstered organic veggies, and they are totally swell. Check them out in your area.

    And while the feds are trying to cut funding for food stamps, they are highly excellent.

  31. zomg where are all of these lesbian parties in DC ;~; I feel like there’s a DC that is so far underneath my radar it may as well not exist to me.

    • DC is paved with rainbows and glitter; it is magical.

      Also-carmen, awesome article per usual. In my destitute college days I would crash any food-providing function regularly and make friends with the kids who didn’t eat but had “mealpoints” to give away like literal candy.

  32. Also also.

    A really great way to make money at odd hours (in between your internship and job when you have a gap) is through sites like and

    This is how I quit my job and am doing fun salary-less internship things.


  33. Love this and commenters’ ideas! Since I’ll steal them, I’ll share some.

    BOOKS: Besides libraries,places that take used book donations throw some damaged ones away.

    HEALTH: Some Ys have sliding scale fees down to zero based on income. Planned Parenthood (for guys too!) and clinics have similar policies.

    GUINEA PIG: Dental and salon schools have supervised students perform services cheap- but take more time.

    VOLUNTEER: help a cause (especially if using their services). Sometimes a meal or free show is included in an event.

    CLEANING: The right combo of baking soda, lemon, and distilled vinegar cleans almost anything.

    Buy spices at bulk bins (even Whole Foods does this for pennies) to try different flavors.

    Bakery outlets: bread $1-2, and may have other foods. or other co-op: Make a lot of one meal and trade.

    Recipes <75 cents/serving (you do need basic cooking skills):

    Quick-cook oats: Hot water & a tight lidded container (not plastic)= ~10 cent serving, plain. Also good in muffins.

    Chili: (2 cans kidney beans, 1 white, 1 black, small can tomato paste, 1 can diced tomatoes, 1 can corn, sauteed onion, garlic & green pepper, cumin, chili powder over rice). Freezes well.

    Black beans and rice: 3 cans (6 c cooked) beans, sauteed onion & garlic, cumin, rice. Freezes well. Optional: cheese, salsa, lime, mango, cooked sweet potato.

    Split pea soup: sauteed onion, split peas, water/broth, lemon, carrot. Eat w/corn muffin & apple.

    Pasta marinara: Sauteed onion and garlic, large can tomato puree, small can tomato paste, dried basil and oregano. w/2 boxes pasta, 50 cents/ meal. Sauce freezes. Can be used as pizza sauce on bagels from a bakery outlet too!

    Fried rice: Stirfry cold cooked rice w/soy sauce, garlic, sugar/ honey, small cut veggies (edamame for protein).

    Scrambled eggs with frozen veggies and toast or in a burrito. Add a bit of cheese.

    French toast with canned peaches.

    Snack on hard-boiled eggs, homemade apple slices (lemon keeps from browning) or carrot/celery sticks, homemade oatmeal cookies or banana/carrot bread.

  34. I’ve learned a lesson lately. OPEN ALL THE MAIL IMMEDIATELY. Even if it looks like a bill and you don’t want to see the bill because bills are depressing and make life sad. Because it might be a check that from that company that overcharged you for your prescriptions by eighty dollars and now you have eighty dollars to spend on a very cute girl or on food and shelter. This is always good.

  35. This article is GENIUS! Thanks for all the advice and I love how you have meds and a beer next to your food lol.

  36. I’m planning to move out and hopefully go to uni in two and a half years, so I’ll save this til then. thanks!

  37. Carmen, this is golden! I have been broke far too many times in my life so I know for a fact that all this advice is top of the line i.e. very useful and feasible. I especially love your food recipes. I’ma try me some of them for sure!

  38. Seriously, thank you. My dad has been hounding me to make a budget for years, and finally I just made one. I work full-time and am only moderately broke, but I feel like I can breathe again. A fancy one. On GoogleDocs using formulas and color-coded boxes.

    It predicts my spending based on patterns and lets me know if or when I will be negative. Anyone who wants one, I’ll send it to you. Email me: [email protected]

    You just have to input the money values in the right spots, and BOOM! You’ve got your budget! Or you can tell me what you spend, and I can set it up for you.

    And for the record, I think Carmen is talking about a debit card, not a credit card. If you have to remember your spending habits, money won’t fly out of your hands. I know I am much less tempted to spend my money when I can’t see it.

  39. I might print this and stick it to my face. I really needed it. I’m getting ready for a month away (tightbudget) followed by moving out again, so I am about to go from being broke but fed to just plain broke.

  40. This is really helpful!

    One tip I would add is that if you suddenly get lots of money, put that shit in a savings account prontissimo. It’s really easy when you’re broke to suddenly see a huge checking account balance and be like “yay! I am rich!” and then spend it all (this mentality is the reason most lottery winners go broke within a year, in fact) so it’s better to keep most of it out of reach until you really need it. If you’re like me, you generally think twice about transferring money from the savings account for non-important matters, whereas you’re not as protective of what’s in your checking account.

  41. So, what do I do if I’m broke AND brokenhearted? Sex, cuddling, and other pursuits that will remind me of, you know, ANYTHING, are not going to work for either exercise or entertainment. Having fun is kind of iffy too. Sorry to be so pathetic but if anyone’s got any experience-based advice like “make sure to X every day” or “I find that Y is a conveniently distracting routine” I would sure appreciate it.

    • Just be with your friends. All.the.time. Like, I found that alone time was the worst of it. Going to sleep and waking up in the morning. So my advice is to surround yourself with people that love you and appreciate you and think you’re the shit just the way you are. And just keep doing that until it hurts a little less. Spending time with friends is FREE. As are the coffees and/or dinners they buy you because they empathize with your present pathetic self. Oh, and breathe. Everyday. That’s free too.

  42. If you look like getting broker, immediately set up a weekly movie night/drawing club/fetish discussion group at your place so you can still have friends even though you can’t afford to go out any more.

  43. This is excellent advice, especially the last one. I have to admit that I was a little afraid it would be an article on how to bum money and food from your friends and steal at big departement stores, but instead it’s really solid advice. Thanks!

  44. This is perfect, literally just what I needed to be reading right now! Thank you!

  45. definitely got a lot out of this but really the most important thing i took away was the fact that you have awesome hair

  46. Some things I haven’t seen mentioned here:

    Wash your clothes by hand! I do it in my bathtub by stomping on them. I do this while drinking wine, pretending I’m stomping grapes, surrounded by nubile women.

    Make your own cleaning products! There’s tons of recipes online, and it’s dirt cheap.

    Grow a fucking garden! Educate yourself on edible weeds! There’s stuff growing on any city corner that’s edible after a good soaking in vinegar water.

    Beg or borrow a bike, don’t take the bus!

    Lastly, never, NEVER buy anything pre-made if you can make it yourself. The one thing I’ve learned being fucking broke throughout the years is that saving money requires investing a lot more time in daily living…but damn, it’s way more satisfying.

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