Our Readers’ Best Tips for Living on Next-To-Nothing

updated May 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Anna Spaller)

At Apartment Therapy, we have an entire category called Budget Living where we funnel ideas and strategies for living and decorating when you’re tight on funds. But “budget living” isn’t a one-size-fits-all term. One person’s poor is another’s filthy rich.

When we published an article about living on minimum wage, our lovely readers came together with an outpouring of responses for making ends meet when it feels like there are miles between them. Some comments were heartbreaking, some were heartwarming, but most were just plain helpful.

Here are my favorite tips for those of us making less than a living wage:

Find Ways to Lower Your Bills

From kimithy:

Consider living with roommates, and/or negotiating your rent down. I’ve negotiated my rent down by extending a lease, providing awesome rental references, offering to do some repairs/improvements, maintaining landscaping vs. owners having to pay yard maintenance, painting/cleaning myself prior to move-in vs. them owners hiring crew to do so, agreeing to find the next tenant when I moved out, etc. MANY property owners are willing to take less rent in exchange for a tenant who will save them money in other ways, and save them the nightmare of problematic, damaging, or high-maintenance tenants. You can get creative with this – you could even ask to have a clause written into your lease that if after a year of paying rent early/meeting some other “good tenant” criteria, you’ll be rewarded with a rent reduction or one-time “thank you” payment. Just be sure to specify the amount in the lease, or you may find yourself with a $1/month reduction.

From Beltway Barbarian:

I’ve lived with other people (sometimes in rooms that weren’t bedrooms), ate once a day, collected leftovers/expired items from my food service job, and negotiated with doctors about services and payments.

From TheOwlInside:

I live in a basement apartment, which faces away from the hot afternoon sun. Therefore, I rarely turn on the air conditioner.

From dnnaoj:

If you have large heating bills in the winter, please put plastic sheeting on your windows from inside to create an air insulation layer. You will likely save $100’s a month which can be put to much better use.

From asergienko:

No air conditioning or extra heat in the winter (we have central heating but it is not always as warm as we would like – so we wear extra layers) and really I’ve traveled all over in Asia and Europe and it is possible to live without AC even in the summer

From RosieWho:

I only have basic DSL for my old computer, but I can make free phone calls with Google Voice (VOIP) – I have no landline. I have a VirginMobile cell phone that costs approx $7/mo ($.20/minute rate) which I only use sparingly and need for emergencies. I use my computer for entertainment, lots of free shows/movies online. And I have a very old TV, which only uses an antenna I made (see Youtube) – I get “over the air” shows from the major TV channels. I belong to a CD,DVD,Book swap club online.

Look for Charities and Other Local Help

From RosieWho:

For those of you with chronic medical issues/exorbitant meds: check out PANfoundation.org. I never could have paid for my meds/IVs (cost more than my monthly income!) without medical charities.

From Bison65:

Often times vets will have an “Angel Fund” that helps folks with low incomes, I’ve donated to it and it’s a worthy cause (we have two rescue dogs). Also,if there’s a veterinary school in your area they can be a good source for quality care and at a reduced price for those in need.


There is a Federal program called Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) that subsidizes utilities. A family of 2 would probably receive about 350 dollars paid [annually] to their utility provider.City Halls and Neighborhood Centers should have info on how to apply.I hope this helps someone.

From electrorama:

Caring for an elderly or disabled relative can qualify you for a stipend in some states. Please look into it. You are doing society a service as well as your mother. You should get any pay/benefits you are entitled to.

From RosieWho:

I found that PETA has a van (bus) that comes out about once a month in our area and will spay/neuter for free or a very reduced fee. Also, our local SPCA has a van that also comes out about once a month for spaying/neutering at a very low rate, also gives yearly shots at VERY reduced rates.

And Lisa in SC shared some helpful links to The Working Poor Families Project, FoodPantries.org, and EMPath.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

Shop Smart

From kimithy:

Buying in bulk and avoiding prepackaged food items. I rarely ate out. Taking home “throwaway” food at the end of shifts (when I worked in food service), or having a roommate/friend who works in food service or gets discounts they are willing to share with you.

From Liz@LamentingLizzie:

We purchased a cheap chest freezer on craigslist and stock up on clearance meats/frozen veg. This cuts our food cost down to about $20/week… Try and get a chest freezer, eat only at home and only clearance food. Get a roommate or two. Try not to have kids.

From AtomicAn:

Bought my clothes on half off days at the local charity thrift store (50cents a piece)

From mgirl:

I bought the most nutrient-dense food I could for as little money as possible (e.g., chicken livers)

From theprbudget:

Cheaply shopping for household and bath/beauty products at stores like Dollar Tree and Dollar General has been a lifesaver.

(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

Enjoy Cheap Thrills

From MariM1:

I never thought that cleaning would feel like a treat. It does. I never thought that moving furniture around would help, it does.

From Xarcady:

The library was my entertainment center—no Netflix, no buying new books.

From CharlotteK:

Thank you, Xarcady for mentioning the library. Keep public libraries free, support them if you can. They are a critical resource, not only for entertainment, to those who can’t afford to buy books, go to the movies, etc. Computers skills training & job search assistance is also often found there. [And often internet access, as well!]

(Image credit: Sandra Rojo)

Scavenge for Things You Need

From Krys_:

I grab things from people when they’re going to throw them away, and I go to nice neighborhood trash days to see what stuff they’re throwing away—all of my furniture (and my bike) is in great shape, nice, and was all in the trash once.

From ellabee:

If you live near an expensive college, check the curbs at the end of spring semester. Some well-off students discard a lot of stuff in good condition rather than carting somewhere for the summer.

From Diane F:

If things get really rough, try Dumpster diving.

Sell Your Stuff

From visualeyes:

I have sold almost everything I don’t absolutely need; via yard sale, Craig’s list or local second-hand music & bookstores. No more iPod, DVDs/CDs, art books, unnecessary furniture, accessories etc. It takes so much less time to clean my house these days.

(Image credit: Hannah Puechmarin)

Live Well, But Live Simply

Here’s some beautiful life advice from DanishMom:

My parents did the best they could with what they had, and have been a very fine example. What they did was this:

Keep the house clean and tidy.

If anything broke, they fixed it the best they could. That taught me to be very creative, and it always makes me proud of what I make, because the solutions you come up with when you are forced by circumstances are much better than anything your could ever buy.

My mother knew how to sew and knit, and there was never a missing button or a hole, she would fix it immediately.

If the soles of our shoes were worn down, our dad glued on new soles, made from old tires.

Our shoes were shined once a week.

Clothes were dried outside, which still is common here.

We had a freezer. Freezing bread and meat in the right sized portions, so that nothing would spoil.

Never use money you don’t have. If there is something you want, buy it at the end of the month, if you still have money left. It is okay to say in a shop, no thank you—I cannot afford that.

Save. Just a little.

Make your own meals. Make soups/bone broths.

Always bring a lunch pack. A little leftover from yesterday is a treat.

Grow parsley, chives or basil in your windowsill and use it in your kitchen.

Create a community where you help each other. Maybe someone needs their fence fixed and would love to make you a cake in return.

Cut your husband’s hair yourself. A cutting kit with a machine and a scissor costs less than two visits at the hairdresser. Girls grow your hair long.

When I was small most of my clothes were used and I actually was ashamed of that even though they were nice. Today I see this trend has changed here in Scandinavia. It is common to buy second hand and to accept hand me downs. No one seems to be ashamed of that now.

My shame has actually turned into pride. Every human is worth the same, rich or poor, and we have to learn to take pride in ourselves no matter how much money we have. It is a shame that we are not equal but it is nothing to be ashamed of!

Cleaning, washing, fixing, maintaining and mending does not cost much, but makes you keep a sense of pride in difficult circumstances.

A million thanks to everyone who offered their advice, encouragement, and support to their fellow readers and citizens! I’d love to hear any other wisdom you all have to share.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Re-edited from a post published 8.6.2014 — TW