7 Money Tips for the Dirt Poor

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Most money tips are aimed at the middle class. Here are some for those just scraping by.

A Vice article going around argues that money advice is for the middle class, not the poor. The article says most money tips are only applicable to people with enough cash to make real financial choices. Besides, if you're poor, you need life's little luxuries every once in a while to keep your spirits up.

I found myself nodding along to most of the points in the article, but something tickled at the back of my head. The author made $23,000 a year and was on Medicaid. That's rough. But ... I've made less, had no Medicaid, and lived in New York City. And I managed to pay the rent, eat, get around, find entertainment, and even save a little.

I lived with a lot of people in the same boat, and honestly ... some of us managed our money well enough to live on without going into debt, and others couldn't make it. Unfortunately, Vice is right: most savings articles are aimed at middle-class people, not the poor.

So here are some tips I found for living poor that really did make a difference to me. Should anyone have to live like this? Maybe not, but you gotta play the hand you're dealt sometimes.

1. Consider alternative living arrangements

friends living together coop

© DGLimages/Shutterstock

Rent is really what sinks people. Most people are used to a certain standard — having their own rooms or living in certain neighborhoods, for instance. But if you are truly struggling to get by, those things aren't always luxuries you can afford. Besides, if you are constantly worried about getting evicted, the stress seeps into the rest of your life.

Sharing a room may not be ideal, but it goes a long way toward keeping a person afloat. This technique might be most common for single young adults, but plenty of older adults and families take advantage of co-ops and other co-housing.

Location matters too. When I moved to a new place, I would figure out what bus or train lines went near my job and look for apartments in cheap neighborhoods on those lines.

But whatever you do, DON'T move into a place without a kitchen. You'll end up blowing all your earnings on restaurants.

2. Rice and lentils

fried rice

MaxPixel/Public Domain

Speaking of cooking, big bags of rice, beans, and lentils are nutritious and will get you far. Eggs are another good ingredient to pick up, packing in plenty of protein and fat for a fraction of the cost of meat. If you're vegan, chose tofu or beans, not veggie burgers.

If you can use these simple but nutritious foods as your bases (supplementing them with oil, veggies, fruits, and other basics), your food budget will be tiny, making the occasional restaurant treat much more doable. Avoid anything pre-made.

3. Put on a sweater

A girl once told me she was just barely keeping up with rent. But she'd crank up the heat in the middle of winter so that she could hang out comfortably in a T-shirt.

Clothes, people. Long underwear and sweaters are nearly as cozy as furnaces. Also, did you know you could wear hats and scarves inside?

4. Pot lucks

potluck dinner

© K Martinko -- A Mediterranean-themed potluck at my house last summer

Everybody needs a little entertainment, and it makes total sense that someone on a shoestring budget would want to go out for dinner or to a bar every now and then. But if good food, drink, and community is what you're after, a pot luck can be just as fun. During my dogs days, I would only go out to eat or to a bar once every couple months, but I had plenty of good food and company.

5. Trades and free activities

dance class cheap tips

© Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

You can always find ways to pay for entertainment, but with a little creativity, you can find alternatives for cheap or free. If you want to take a dance class, for instance, you can always approach a dance instructor and offer to clean the studio every now and then in exchange for a free class. Lots of businesses are open to these kinds of trades. Libraries sometimes offer free movie screenings. And there are tons of free meet-ups.

6. Thrift stores

CC BY 2.0. jeffk/Creative Commons

jeffk/Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0

You Treehuggers may already know this one, but it bears repeating for anyone who doesn't: Thrift. Stores. Are. The. Best. I've come away from them with new outfits for a few bucks. But avoid upscale "vintage" stores that charge almost normal prices. Goodwill and Salvation Army are always good bets. These stores often have furniture and other household supplies too.

7. Friends

friends camping cooking over fire

© Just dance/Shutterstock

I had a friend who worked two low-paying jobs. She was so exhausted each day, she'd need to blow off some steam. So every evening, she'd meet up with a friend or two, and they'd each drop at least $50 at a wine bar.

If hanging out with your friends means spending money, then it'll be hard to save without feeling like you're missing out. It's SO much easier to have a community of like-minded spenders who go on camping trips and host dinner parties instead of hitting up restaurants or clubs.

By the way, fun fact about nearly all these tips: they're good for the environment. Cooking at home, buying used clothes, avoiding using heat, and sharing rooms all slow down the industrial machine, creating less waste and a healthier planet.

Edit: Two Treehugger readers suggested some more great tips: grow your own food (even if you just have a windowsill, you can plant some nice herbs and spices) and go carless (this depends on your needs of course, but I've lived in cities and countrysides around the world without ever needing a car).