Living on a Tight Budget Simply and Successfully (+ Tips)

by Miranda Jackson

Living on a Tight Budget Successfully photo

Are you struggling to get by while living on a tight budget? Here’s a system that can help you make ends meet when there’s usually more month than money.

For many of us, budgets have gotten much tighter this year and you may be left wondering if you can continue to get by until your financial situation improves. Currently my debt takes up more than half of my monthly income, so I can understand what it is like living on a tight budget and the struggle to make ends meet.

A number of months ago I started using a budgeting system that has made all the difference in helping me live within my means without getting me deeper into debt. Maybe it can help you too if you’re struggling to make it on a tight budget.

How do you survive on a tight budget?

I’m not going to tell you surviving on a tight budget is easy. It takes diligent tracking of your money and a dedication to controlling spending. But these skills that will be essential to your success now in getting by on a tight budget can continue to help you stay ahead financially long after you turn your current financial situation around.

And just what does it mean to live on a tight budget? For most of us, it means cutting down to a bare bones budget for a while and maybe even finding an additional source of income. It means temporarily giving up some non-essentials and finding new ways to save on those bare essentials. And to do that, you first need to set up your budget.

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Track every penny when living on a tight budget

If you don’t already track how much money you have coming in and going out as well as where it is going, you need to start. You may find that your budget is not quite as tight as you feel like it is when you actually take a good look at it.

When I first started keeping my budget, every time I spent money I wrote it down in a little notebook. At the end of the first month I was surprised to see I had spent $210 on fast food! And I even love to cook and am an avid coupon clipper. I could immediately see that staying out of the drive-thru could create more room in my budget.

Tracking your budget can be as simple as using a pen and a piece of paper, or a little notebook like I use, or you can use an app or spreadsheet. Just make sure whatever you use, that it is easy enough that you’ll stick with it.

We won’t get into how to create a budget in this article, but you will want to make a list of your essential expenses (those bills you have no choice but to pay) and your non-essential expenses (streaming services, restaurant visits, etc.). You may have to estimate some of your them, such as food and clothing. Look at past banking and credit card statements if necessary.

Once you have a good estimate of your monthly expenses, subtract that from your income. This will give you a good idea of how tight your budget actually is before you start using the tips below to loosen it up. Are you overspending in any category like I was that can give you the extra cash you need each month?

Then begin cutting the budget. The thought of this might make your cringe, but keep in mind that it will be key in getting your finances turned around so you’re not living on a tight budget any longer than necessary. Below you’ll find my tips to get you started. No matter whether you are single or dealing with a tight family budget, these tips can help you get started making a little more room in a tight budget just the same.

Also make a goal to spend a few minutes each week researching how to trim just one of your budget categories a little bit further. In a few months you’ll be left with a manageable budget. Or subscribe to one of The Dollar Stretcher’s free weekly newsletters, The Dollar Stretcher or Financial Independence, and get money-saving ideas delivered straight to your inbox that can help you stretch your budget.

Tips for trimming the food budget

We all have to eat so food is an essential expense, but many of us spend more than necessary on this budget category. Here are some things I do to cut my food costs, but you can also find hundreds of food cost-cutting tips right here on The Dollar Stretcher website or by doing an internet search.

  • I plan all of my meals so I can plan to stay within my food budget. I typically start with the weekly sales flyers to see what foods I can buy that will allow me to cook cheaper meals. (See Mastering Meal Planning: Time and Money-Saving Tips for Beginners.)
  • I practice portion control, especially when it comes to snacking. The less I eat, the less I need to buy.
  • I only do one big grocery shopping trip once per month and then make a few smaller trips a few times per month to grab perishables such as veggies and milk. I have found that the fewer trips I make to the store, the more I seem to save since it limits my ability to impulse shop.
  • I never shop without a list and only buy what is on the list.
  • I keep a list of prices for frequently bought items so I can estimate how much my grocery list is going to cost. If it looks like I am going to go overspend, I can remove things from the list instead of ending up over budget at the check-out counter.
  • I do clip coupons (paper and digital).

Tips for saving on toiletries

One of the hardest areas for me to cut was my toiletry budget but these are some of the changes I made that greatly reduced this area of my budget. Once I get my debt paid off, I will go back to buying some of these, but others I have not missed. I could have been saving money on them all along.

  • The skincare and hair care products I like are not cheap, but I did switch to brands that are often on sale and for which I can find coupons.
  • Instead of washing my hair every single day, I now wash it every other day and make a point of using less product. No one but me is the wiser.
  • I stopped buying face scrubs and now make my own. I cannot tell the difference between the scrubs I make and the ones I used to pay top dollar for at the store.
  • I never leave my disposable razors in the shower anymore and find that they last longer. And I no longer buy shaving cream. I simply use soap when shaving my legs.
  • I have mastered doing my own nails but will return to the manicurist once my budget improves.
  • I currently go 10 to 12 weeks between visits to the salon instead of my normal 8. If you wear a short style, this tip may not work for you. And as hard as it was for me, I have given up getting my hair colored for now.

Tips for lowering auto costs

There wasn’t anything I could do about my car payment but I was able to shop around for a lower auto insurance rate and lowered my premium even further by increasing my deductible. I currently have enough in my emergency fund if I do need to cover that higher deductible.

I am also very mindful right now about how much driving I am doing to keep gas costs down. I consolidate errands and try to make a game out of how many days I can go on one tank of gas. 

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Ways I save on non-essential expenses without completely giving them up

When it comes to non-essential expenses, you don’t have to cut them completely out but you really should find ways to cut way back on them. Here are some of the cuts I have made:

  • I canceled my gym membership after finding tons of free workouts online that help me stay in shape.
  • I canceled my audiobook monthly service and am going back through and listening to old audiobooks again for now. (See 7 Places to Find Free or Cheap Books and Audio Books.)
  • I canceled all of my streaming services with the exception of one that I watch in addition to Prime Video, which is included with my Amazon Prime membership. I may or may not renew Amazon Prime when my renewal comes up.
  • I put myself on a clothing allowance and the clothes I do buy are often found on eBay. I am always amazed at the deals I can find on there. (See 15 Fashionable Ways to Save on Clothes, Shoes & Accessories.)
  • I also have an entertainment allowance. This has been a tough area for me to control my spending but by doing so, I have been able to pay down a good chunk of my debt. (See When You Can’t Keep Up with Your Expensive Friends.)

I found the easiest way to not spend more than my allotted monthly entertainment allowance, and other categories on which I tend to overspend, is to use the envelope system for those budget areas I tend to overspend.

Controlling spending is essential when living on a tight budget

The envelope budgeting system is an ideal tool for controlling spending when living one a tight budget. I keep envelopes in my purse for my variable categories – one each for Clothing, Entertainment, Food, Beauty, Gas, Medical and Miscellaneous. Set up envelopes for whichever fluctuating budget categories you need to control. You might have envelopes for Hobby Supplies, Pets, or even Video Games.

I put my monthly allowance for each category into each corresponding envelope. If you don’t carry cash, you can simply keep a piece of paper with a running balance in each envelope. Once an envelope is empty (or a running balance gets to $0), I cannot spend any more on that category for the month.

For Clothing, Entertainment, Beauty and Food, I leave any extra at the end of the month in each envelope so I can treat myself in those categories on occasion.

I put any remaining Gas money away into a ‘sinking fund’ for future auto expenses, such as oil changes, and I put extra Medical away into a separate ‘sinking fund’ for potential doctor visits, cold medications during flu season, etc.

I use my Miscellaneous money for things like gifts, household items and anything else that does not fall into one of my other budget categories.

With my first paycheck of each month, I go to the bank and take enough cash out to fill each of my envelopes. I did have to contact my credit card companies and change my due dates on those bills to the end of the month so I had enough cash out of my first check to pay my early-in-the-month bills and fill my envelopes.

I also make sure I put money away out of my first paycheck into my emergency fund and into savings. These amounts are not a lot but they are adding up over time.

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How can I save money on a tight budget?

You might be hesitant to put money into savings when living on a tight budget, but you really should try to put something away, even if only $5 to $10 per pay period. You will be surprised at the peace of mind it can bring you knowing you have some cash put away that you can use if an unexpected expense comes up. And they will.

If you don’t feel you have enough money each month to pay bills and save, consider finding an additional source of income. It could be a very part-time job, a side gig or even doing surveys for cash online. Just find something that can earn you a little each month for savings. A day will come when you’ll be so happy that you have money in that savings account.

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With some dedication and self-discipline you can live on a tight budget successfully. It isn’t always easy and can really weigh on you at times, but if you keep at it, you will be able to improve a tough financial situation and get to a point where you don’t have to pinch those pennies quite as hard.

Reviewed October 2020

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