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By the author of The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living and What to Eat When You’re Broke
I don’t know if you’ve ever been so broke you didn’t have any money to spare – not so much as a single dollar. I hope you haven’t, and I hope that nobody reading this ever has to face it.
I’ve been there, and it’s absolutely brutal.
I wanted to write about what that was like today. I’m not sure whether this will help anyone or not. But maybe someone who is going through it will read it and breathe a sigh of relief to know it’s not just them. Perhaps someone who’s never had to deal with it will gain some understanding of how soul-crushing it is and will find a renewed sense of compassion for those who are struggling.
Maybe it’ll help somebody, someday to know that your life won’t be like this forever, even if you don’t see a way out right now.
Shopping when your budget is this tight.
Whether you have money to spare or not, you still have to have a few basics. So, you go to the store hoping you can stretch your last $20 across enough food and toilet paper to get your family through until the next time you have money.
You start off with the things you really can’t do without. Maybe you need a pack of toilet paper. Maybe it’s that time of month and you or your daughter needs some supplies. Maybe you need formula or milk for a little one. You grab that first.
You do the math. You round up to account for any possible tax and you subtract your dire necessity from your twenty bucks. The last thing in the world you want is when you’re buying those tampons to have to make a scene at the register and have the checker take something off the bill because you don’t even enough money.
Now, you go and try to stretch what’s left as far as humanly possible. Minus one dollar for the cheapest pack of pasta. The price of a can of sauce has gone up to $1.70, taking more of your budget than you’d expected, but it’s still the cheapest meal you can put together. You subtract that too.
You go through the store, looking for deals, looking on the last day of sale racks, searching for whatever you can find to make the money stretch across a little bit more food.
Now you’re standing there in line, at the checkout counter. Nervously, you go through the contents of your cart and you add it up again. You think you’ll have about 20 cents left over if you’ve done your math correctly. Please let me have done the math correctly, you whisper to yourself.
You put things on the conveyor belt in a specific order. The thing you can most live without goes on last, just in case you’ve miscalculated. You hold your breath as the clerk scans your groceries. You watch the screen with bated breath…Please…
Something has rung up at a different price than you expected. While somebody else might not have caught it, you’re watching extremely carefully because you’re scared that you’re going to go over the cash you have on hand. The dilemma now is whether you let them know that the item was marked 40 cents lower than it came up on the register or whether you put something back.
You decide to put it back because what if that thing rings up too high, also? “Sorry,” you say to the clerk. “I changed my mind on this.”
They nod. They’ve seen it before. They know you didn’t change your mind, but they don’t say anything.
You leave, your heart pounding.
Driving when you have no extra money
You’ve linked this shopping trip with your route home from work. There’s a grocery store that’s a little bit cheaper but it’s out of the way. You’ve made the choice to get the slightly more expensive groceries to reduce the risk of running out of gas.
There will be no extra trips to the store. You won’t be going any place besides work, home, and school because you won’t have the money to refill the tank until the following week. You are going to live on a wing and a prayer, hoping your gasoline stretches far enough. Hoping nobody needs to be picked up from someplace further away than expected. Hoping that nothing comes up where you have no other option but to drive.
On that last day before you get paid, you see the needle has crept over to the E. Again, you start doing math in your head. “If I have 1 gallon of gas and my car gets 24 miles per gallon in the city, and I’m driving mostly on the highway, and work is 11 miles each way….Maybe…maybe I’ll make it.”
All the way home, your heart is in your throat. At every stoplight, you fight back the panic as it seems to go on and on, eating up your precious fuel. When you get home and park the car, the stress isn’t over. There’s still the trip to the gas station that will be the same high-stress ride.
Living when you have no extra money
Then there’s the gauntlet of everyday life. Life is full of things that are “just a dollar” that you don’t even notice until you don’t have a dollar.
Someone is taking up a collection at work for a worthy cause. “It’s just a dollar,” they tell you cheerfully. You tell them you’re sorry, but you don’t have any cash with you. You ask if you can bring it Monday, cheeks hot with embarrassment. “Sure,” they reply.
Your daughter wants money for pizza day at school the next day. Or chocolate milk day. Or a field trip. There’s always something, it seems. Some reason why children need to bring money to school. Just one dollar, the school tries to keep it cheap.
“I’m sorry,” you apologize to your daughter. “We’re not going to do that this week.” She’s angry. She thinks you’re mean. She doesn’t understand and you don’t know whether to tell her and stress her out, or not to tell her and just let her be mad.
Someone knocks over the gallon of milk that was supposed to last all week. It’s Tuesday. There’s no money to get more milk and that means the breakfast of cereal you’d planned for each day is now null and void. What the heck are you going to feed everyone for breakfast? What about that box of macaroni and cheese you were going to make? Don’t you need milk for that? Will they notice if you use water in the cheese powder? Your mind is racing a mile a minute trying to solve this series of dilemmas while you console the person who knocked over the milk. You know it was an accident but what the heck are you going to do now?
You skip lunch so the kids don’t have to. Maybe you skip dinner so the kids don’t have to also. You turn off the lights compulsively. You nervously do math in your head, constantly wondering what else might pop up before this week is through. What can you cut? What can you save? What can you re-use? What can you skip? Does everybody know?
The stress is relentless.
If you’re in this situation, you may have bill collectors phoning you constantly. Just the sound of your phone ringing fills you with dread and anxiety because you know it’s going to be someone demanding money you just don’t have. You could be ignoring a potentially serious medical problem because you can’t pay for the care. You might be letting your kids stay home alone after school because a babysitter is absolutely out of the question – you can barely afford to eat, for heaven’s sake.
You may be wondering when the other shoe will drop and when your electricity will get shut off. Or when your car will get repossessed. Or when you’ll be evicted and potentially living in that car. How will you tell your children? How will you tell your family?
How will you survive?
There is not one more thing you can cut. And everything you need costs just one dollar – and it’s a dollar you just don’t have.
If you’ve ever been in this situation, you know.
If you are reading this and it sounds familiar, you’ve been there. You know exactly what I’m describing.
I want you to know that even though it seems like you’re never going to survive and there’s no way out of this cycle, at some point, things will change. Life will get a little bit easier. You may not have tons of money to throw around, but you’ll have an extra dollar for your son to buy a slice of pizza at school. You’ll be able to put gas in your car before your running on fumes and fervent wishes. You’ll be able to replace that spilled milk, you’ll be able to eat more than one meal a day, and you’ll be able to go to the grocery store without compulsively doing math in your head.
Maybe you’ll change your living situation. Maybe you’ll get a better job. Maybe a roommate will move in. There are a million ways that things can change, and I don’t know what will change for you. But eventually, something will. And then life will get a little bit easier.
Until they do, try to find the space for some gratitude, even though it might be really hard right now. Try to do things that help you relieve the constant agonizing stress. Just going outside and looking at the sunshine or listening to the birds can make a world of difference.
You’ve made it this far. You’ve gotten through every broke period in your entire life. You’ll get through this one too.
I know you will.
Just hang in there.
Have you ever been so broke you didn’t have a single dollar to spare?
Have you ever had any of the experiences outlined in this article? Have you ever felt this level of financial stress? How did you break the cycle? Are you dealing with this currently? Do you have any words of encouragement for people going through it now?
Let’s talk about it in the comments section.
Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, adventure-seeking, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites. 1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty; 2) The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived; and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. Her work is widely republished across alternative media and she has appeared in many interviews.
Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books, 12 self-published books, and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses at SelfRelianceand Survival.com You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.