I am broke as fuck. And I’m going to make it anyways.
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.
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!
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.
+ Mint.com: A website and app that tracks your multiple bank accounts and allows you to input your budgeted money amount for each period. Mint.com 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:
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.
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.
4. Eat Pray Love
Shopping on a budget for food is by far the most depressing activity of all of the broke as fuck activities, including selling your old shit to strangers and sharing a room for the first time in five years. You’re going to see so much food you can’t buy, shouldn’t buy, and would never desire to eat. The only problem? Sometimes food from the last category will fall into your life – but only rarely will food from the first two ever show up to dinner.
I go through my broke periods on a 10 – 15 dollar a week sliding scale food budget, meaning I shoot for 10 and refuse to go over 15. I do not eat lavishly or fancily or really all that fresh, but I do find that I live on surprisingly delicious, simple, and quick meals.
When you go shopping on a budget, think week-by-week just like your spreadsheet. A loaf of bread and cheese will last one week, but a bag of rice will last a bunch. So stagger what you buy and make investments with your money! For example, you could easily buy pasta, sauce, bread, cheese, and canned veggies at once with this budget. And depending on how much you eat, that could mean that next week you don’t need a lot of veggies or pasta, and you can invest instead in a bag of rice. That bag will last you all summer, or, if you eat it twice a day, a little over two weeks. I promise. Buy enough to get by in a week, but don’t buy lavish or short-lived items only. Take shopping as a challenge and try to plan accordingly. How long can you make 10 bucks last, after all?
Also, get in the practice of reflecting on small to large purchases to decide if they’re worth it. The hint: often they’re not!
Always look for the cheapest kind of something and the cheapest form of everything — canned over frozen, frozen over fresh. Buy store brand and buy what’s on sale. Remember staple items when you’re living on a budget, and to sometimes revert to childhood. Try eating a banana and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at work, or making a simple bowl of pasta and sauce with some bread and melted cheese on the side.
My favorite purchases include: artisan breads, store-brand pastas, plain white rice, canned mushrooms, canned string beans, canned tomatoes (diced, not pureed or anything weird), avocados, bananas, provolone cheese pre-sliced and pre-packaged, small tortillas, UTZ anything, Ramen, store-brand macaroni & cheese in a box, and Celeste personal size pizzas. When I come into extra money I spring for pre-bagged apples, artificial meat via Morningstar Farms, string cheese, and store-brand Diet Cola. And my ultimate advice? Be a vegetarian when you’re broke. Seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat deliciously, though! See the following:
Get Baked: Broke As Fuck Edition
+ Broke Lunch: Pasta Salad
You Need: one box of pasta, one can of three bean salad
This is super easy. Boil tri-color pasta (I love wagon wheels but haven’t bought them in a while) – the whole box. Drain it and then rinse under cold water so it isn’t hot to the touch anymore. Then, add a can of Three Bean Salad (try the Hanover brand, it’s only two dollar by me) and mix it well. Even better than eating it is knowing that you can eat it like four more times this week! Never again will you dream of going home and having to cook. Now, you can dream of going home and eating amazing things.
+ Broke Dinner: Rice and Beans, Tortilla Pizza, and Veggies
You Need: rice, Goya Sazon seasoning, one can of red/black/refried beans, tortillas, cholula, cheese, canned veggie
Rice and beans is the cheapest thing ever. Seriously. And beans? PROTEIN? Honestly. How much luckier can you get?
Boil about three cups of rice and use one packet of Goya Sazon and one can of beans. Prepare the rice with spices and the Sazon, and then use a pan or skillet to season the beans and warm them up. Mix them together once they’ve both cooked completely. This will feed you dinner twice and lunch twice, unless you’re not eating just this as a meal. If you aren’t it will last forever.
In the image below I have prepared rice and beans with pizza-style baked tortilla and broccoli with cheese. I lived in a house, so stuff like olive oil and spices were readily available. I was living on 10 dollars a week when I made this. I ate it 5 nights in a row.
I made the pizza-style baked tortillas by slathering corn tortillas in butter on both sides and throwing them in the oven at 350. I added Cholula as if it were pizza sauce on a pizza, grated cheese, and spices before baking. I baked until it was crisp, and sometimes I also divided those into slices and dipped them in refried beans as a snack.
The broccoli was from a can.
+ Broke Dinner: Mac and Cheese, Garlic-ish Toast, and Salad
You Need: a Mac N’ Cheese box, two slices of bread, cheese of your choice, salad stuff to your preference
This meal, which I made last week and put on Instagram, required as much effort as being asleep. I made Kraft Mac n’ Cheese and added all-purpose seasoning, mustard powder, and a slice of real cheese. I never put butter in my Mac n’ Cheese. That powder dissolves in water, for God’s sake. Everything else is just fancy.
I made a salad with iceberg lettuce, carrot slices made with a carrot slicer, walnuts my friend gave me, cheese I broke into pieces from slices, and poppyseed dressing – store brand. Today I made the same thing and threw canned tomatoes in. Oh My Gaga.
Finally, I heated a slice of Ciabatta with half a slice of cheese and added garlic, onion, and magic. I couldn’t get my oven to work well, but I bet you could.
For step-by-step directions and other broke recipes, check out the Tumblr I started when I was very fucked up and broke for the first time, Simmer and Smoke.
5. Have A Good Time
Having fun is important when broke because it might be your only outlet for happiness when you lose all your energy working all day, stop being able to go out, and find yourself with a laptop that has no functioning speakers and no DVD copies of most Wes Anderson films.
Just kidding. Kind of.
Let’s start with spirits, assuming you have time and/or any leftover money for consuming alcohol. Drinking can be complex when you’re broke, but you can do it. When you go out, stick to happy hour or drink specials, and do not splurge on anything fancy. You are not too proud to drink Bud Lite at the Drake After Party. That’s what being broke is like. Alcohol is a stupid thing to waste money on, especially when you could be spending that money on stuff like food or transportation.
Also, Jello Shots.
Consider drinking at home. It’s efficient and minimizes the costs of going out. Also, consider throwing BYOB events so that you can maintain a social life and your budget at the same time.
Once you’ve sobered up, try to find cheap and free activities nearby to partake in to mix up your routine a little. If you’re in a city like, say, Washington, DC, you could go to any number of free museums or cheap-as-fuck lesbian parties. And even if you’re not, look out for stuff like free movie screenings, free small-time concerts, and anything that looks like it includes tabling AKA free stuff. Do not be too proud to go to your university’s free graduation events purely for food and wearing all of the wrong things.
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! Give and receive many hugs and you will make it. Also, cuddle with my dog. Or maybe pick strawberries and then go to IHOP, where endless coffee is like, two dollars.
As a reminder, protests are free and often include the opportunity to meet others, be featured in news photographs online, and be hilarious. They are always free, and sometimes you can meet ladies at them. Also, if you like free stuff you like protests. Especially if that free stuff you want includes stickers of any kind.
Other free / cheap / worth it activities include lounging at a public pool or the one at your friend’s apartment building, volunteering at the ASPCA so you can pet the animals all day, taking a bike tour of anywhere, taking a lot of photographs, decorating and redecorating your room, painting your nails, taking long spa showers and indulging in stuff you already own, melting into the couch and watching Under The Tuscan Sun on VHS, exploring your neighborhood, listening to Nico, reading books you bought at thrift stores because they had pretty covers, going thrifting and checking out estate sales to pick up old issues of National Geographic.
Also, I know I’ve said this already, but day drinking with friends is always the cure for being broke. Always.
6. Give Back
I have found that the following things remain true despite scientific and basic mathematical evidence otherwise: when I stop thinking about my weight I am able to eat anything I want, when I let go of my need for control everything works out, and when I share and give to others, I never find myself too broke to function or without the things I need. When I share my cigarettes the pack always lasts as long as I need it to, but sometimes when I don’t it disappears. And despite being broke, and quantifying everything I own and use based on how much it costs per unit, sharing and giving always makes me feel good.
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. Got some extra tips today? Buy a round. Did mom send you birthday money? Share the love by buying a handle for the pool party. And if you get a job, get promoted, win the lottery, or come into an inheritance, an accidental drug dealing situation, or old war bonds, live it up with the people who matter most.
(Lucky) 7. Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down
Do what you can, and live like you must, and give up what you should – but keep what you love. Being broke is something you will hopefully grow out of, so get something out of it while you can. Learn something about yourself and the little fire inside that never goes out. When you feel frustrated write about it so you can put it in your memoir. Never give up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but only when you seriously need it, and attempt to do all you can to free yourself from any anxiety and/or stress caused by piles of bills, your gas being turned off five days before you move out of your apartment, or carrying 20 pounds of dog food in one hand so you can continue buying in bulk from a store two miles from your front door.
Be really fucking proud of yourself every night when you go to bed.
You’re gonna make it.