How to Survive When You’re Beyond Broke

After finishing up my masters, it felt like it took forever to find work. When I finally got a job, I had a ten-day window to find a place in New York City, pack up my stuff in Virginia, and move to start my new job. It was my first real adult job and I foolishly signed a lease without ever considering how much of my paycheck would be taken out for taxes.

Fast forward to the end of my first month when my mom came to visit and I realized that my savings were all-but-gone and I was spending paychecks long before I got them. By the time all my bills, student loans, commuting costs, and rent was paid, I only had $200  a month to cover groceries, going out, clothes, toiletries, and any emergency expenses. I wasn’t able to break my lease or move and had no wiggle room in my contract to ask for additional money. Yikes! As awful as it was, I managed to survive completely on my own. While I’ll never do it again, it completely changed my perspective on money and changed my spending habits for the better.

Budget! Budget!

It’s time to go over your spending with a fine-tooth comb. I cancelled my gym membership, Netflix, and cable, stopped buying anything brand name, and started shopping exclusively at discount stores and sales. I kept a spreadsheet of my income and budgeted, to the penny, what I could and couldn’t spend. Oddly enough, knowing that I’d have to go in and track every single expense helped curb my spending too. I had to think, “am I even going to remember what this was when I go to log it?” While I stuck to a simple spreadsheet for the most part, apps like Mint and Clarity.

Be Honest With Friends and Family

Time for an ego check. Your friends are still going to want to go out and your options are to continue to spend more than you have or be real about your situation. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair to expect they’ll change their habits, but let them know what you can and can’t afford. And let them know you still want to spend time together! Sure, I had to turn a lot of amazing experiences down. But it made the time we did spend together that much better because we were totally focused on “us” rather than a movie, or shopping, or some overpriced event.

You should also be honest with your family. If you are in trouble, talk to them about your options. I sat down with my parents and told them exactly where things stood. I didn’t want or ask for money but I did want to talk about a safety net just in case. Thankfully, it never got to that point but I needed to know it would be okay if I needed to move home or ask them to pick up a bill for a month or two. It also helped around holidays. Instead of getting things that were nice, they gave me gifts that were 100% useful like grocery store gift cards and toiletry items.

No one wants to admit they’re struggling or ask for help, but just being real about where you are in life shows people that you trust them and they’ll be far more inclined to offer some assistance.

Change Your Spending Habits

I love to cook so realizing that I could no longer afford the organic veggies or quality cuts of meat was brutal. But it also meant I got to hone my skills in the kitchen. My favorite hack was Costco gift cards. I don’t have a membership but you can still shop there if you have giftcards. I would give friends and family money to purchase them for me so I could skirt around the annual dues. I’d buy meat and vegetables in bulk and do a massive meal prep and freeze about a months-worth of food at once.

I also made a rule that I couldn’t buy any clothes unless it was an absolute necessity. Sure, I wanted new cute clothes but it was not going to kill me to wear something I already had. Unless it was essential to my work, I didn’t need it.

Assess What You Can Let Go

Early on I did an audit of what was really essential for me for the year. I didn’t need cable and knew I could survive on slightly slower internet. I could find other ways to work out. Eventually I realized I didn’t need all of the clothes in my closet and purged things that weren’t totally necessary for me to survive. I sold some of my clothes online and took others to resale shops to get a little more cash to keep me going. The Clarity App was also great at telling me what reoccurring expenses I had that I honestly didn’t know about.

Take Another Look at Your Living Situation

I didn’t have the option (or time/flexibility) to break my lease so I stayed put. I did, however, start listing my place on Airbnb. Thankfully, home is a short/cheap bus ride away so I was able to visit family and make some cash! It’s a little trickier if you live with roommates but see if this is an option that they’d be fine with.

One of the other tenants in my building got slightly discounted rent by doing some basic maintenance (taking the buildings trash out to the curb, serving as the contact for building inspections, and basically being the liaison between the tenants and the landlord). See if your building is willing to lower your rent in exchange for services that help the building and other tenants.

Have a Game Plan

As with all things in life, have an exit strategy. Knowing when you can make some positive changes will motivate you to keep your chin up and power through. I knew exactly when my lease was ending and made a timeline of when I should start to look for a cheaper place, start to sell the furniture I knew I couldn’t move, and start looking for a job closer to my home to cut back on commuting costs.

Set a goal based on money if you aren’t in a situation dependent on your lease date. How much would you need in your bank account to get out to a better place? How much time do you need to get there? Make a goal that’s attainable and something that will motivate you.Being an adult is tough and it’s definitely not easy when you’re starting out. Trying to balance life between an entry-level/low paying job, high rent and scary student loans can be tricky and overwhelming. But trust me, you can do it! Keep your chin up!

6 thoughts on “How to Survive When You’re Beyond Broke”

  • Ohh… I remember when I moved to DC for my first entry level job. It was hard to keep track of my spending habits, but it totally helped me survive with my low paying job. Even though it’s been almost four years, I like to keep track of my income and expenses. These are great tips! 🙂

    • I agree! I think once you get used to budgeting and being frugal, it’s easy to maintain. I definitely still splurge from time to time, but I am so much better about my money now!

  • These are some great ideas for spending habits when you don’t have a lot to spend. I think that no matter how much or how little money you have, it’s super important to always track your spending.

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