Help a Reader — What to Do When Money is Beyond Tight?

by Katy on September 5, 2016 · 31 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy! Click HERE to read the original post which has 130 comments with some great advice and ideas!

One of the great things about The Non-Consumer Advocate is that it has evolved from a traditional blog to a genuine community. There are often conversations between readers within the comments section, that occur without any of my input.

And the conversations on The Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook Group? They’re insanely fantastic, sometimes it’s all I can do to a word in edgewise! It’s pretty common for readers to pose questions about sustainability, gardening, simple living, how to get a particular used item or, you guessed it, money issues. And while I’m thinking through how to best answer the question, a dozen or more readers will jump in with really thoughtful answers that knock my socks off. I often get great ideas and inspiration from the group.

But sometimes, a reader will write a question that begs for a larger audience than the 14,054 current members, and I bring that question over to the main blog.

Today is one of those days, so please help Amy, who is asking for ideas on how to get by on a very small income:

I’ve been an on again off again frugal person with more on time than off. Currently I find myself in a situation of almost an impossibly TIGHT budget. I’m talking $100 a month for food and a few necessities for 2 people hopefully that will increase a bit after the first of the year. A little background, It’s just my hubby and I plus pets (2 small dogs and a very old cat) . About 6 years ago hubby was in an accident and suffered a brain injury which left him unable to work. We were doing okay with his WC income and SSD but then the Social Security people said they goofed up the math and overpaid him so for the next 2 years they are withholding his SSD to make up for the overpayment. It’s crazy and it frankly it makes my brain hurt to think about it. Anyway I’m here to learn and to share and maybe we’ll make it through this tight spot in better shape than we entered it.

Here, I’ll start:

Amy, first of all, I’m very sorry to hear about your husband, I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you. My family has been in situations where our income hardly covered our expenses, (husband in school, me working part time with tiny children) but we always knew it was temporary.

Here are a few ideas to bring your expenses down:

  • Stop buying most anything disposable. This means paper towels, paper napkins, plastic silver wear, Kleenex.
  • Stop buying drinks when water will do. This means soda, juice, alcohol, and the like. Make coffee and tea at home, and keep a pitcher of tap water in the fridge, so there’s always a cool drink available. Make ice tea from tea bags instead of a mix. And it goes without saying, no bottled water!
  • Buy your food wherever it’s cheapest. This might mean fruit from one store and cereal from another. And certainly say goodbye to any brand loyalty. Buy whatever is on sale that week rather than having a set grocery list that doesn’t waver. This means only buy strawberries in early summer, pears in the fall and asparagus in the spring. Look into ethnic grocery stores, as they often provide great bargains. Also, take a look at dollar stores.
  • Eat less meat, and embrace the bean! Dried beans cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker are the best protein bargain in town. Vegetarian chili, lentil soup, black bean burgers, rice and bean burritos and enchiladas are all tasty without sacrifice.
  • Study all of your set expenses. Are you paying extra for low deductible home owners insurance or add-ons on your phone line? Call your insurance agent and let them know if you’re driving less and ask about any new discounts. Call all the customer service numbers and negotiate lower rates. I have done this, and it’s easy! If you have a cell phone, then cancel your landline.
  • Get to know your library for what they offer beyond books. DVD’s, CD’s, audio books, whatever. And then, (this is important here) return everything on time.
  • Take advantage of all the free events that your city or town offers. Concerts, movies, museum nights, readings, lectures, dances performances, etc. There is no reason to sit at home just because you have no money.
  • If there’s something that you need, see if any of your friends or family have an extra one. Facebook is great for this. And if it’s something you just need to use rather than own, see if you can borrow it.

But sometimes employing frugal practices is simply not enough, and you need to be bringing in more money, in which case you should consider:

  • Sell unused items from your home. It doesn’t have be a priceless object, as unwatched DVD’s, books, electronics, furniture, clothing, video games, sporting equipment and kitchenware can also plump up your bank account. Try Craigslist, as it’s free without the annoyance of shipping.
  • Start using Swagbucks for your internet searches. This website gives out points (A.K.A. “Swagbucks”) for searching the web, which can then be used to buy different items, (although I always choose the Paypal gift cards.) You won’t get rich from this, but you might as well earn money something you’d be doing anyway.
  • However, be aware that your government benefits may cap the amount of income you can bring in, so be careful here.

Now your turn. What money saving/money earning advice do you have for Amy to help her through this difficult period of her life? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Denise September 5, 2016 at 11:13 am

Once a month I volunteer at a local food bank neighborhood giveaway. I live in s large city and there is at least one of these events at least once of week and usually more. Often the volenteers get first pick of the donation as a thank you for their time. this maybe a good way to get food at no cost. You can also go to your local supermarket and ask for any left over or almost expired items. The thing is if they are going to set aside something for you , you need to show up to claim it. Another way to earn free food is to work for a Mysteryshopping company like Trendsource. All legitament mystery shipping companies do not ask you to pay to sign up. I hope this helps.


susan September 5, 2016 at 11:14 am

It would be worth the time invested for Amy to find out if there is a food pantry or food bank in her area. We had to do this several years ago while still in New Jersey. My husband had been injured on the job and wound up on Social Security Disability. This was during the recession that started back in 2008 as well, and my job options became very limited as well. If it wasn’t for the food that they provided for us for a year or so on a monthly basis, I am not sure what we would have done.
I really only had to purchase the essentials, such as skim milk and OJ, bread, eggs, and paper products and detergent. Hope this helps!


Martha September 5, 2016 at 11:20 am

Check with your utilities for programs to help low income families…we donate to a Warm Fund to help offset heating bills for folks in your situation. Be there done that….you can get through it! Do not hesitate to ask for help!


Ja September 5, 2016 at 12:13 pm

This is possible! I did it last year. I thought my food budget was low but I cut it even more.
* Rethink every cent you spend before you spend it.
* Look for free food like apples on the ground or leftovers that no one wants from events that you attend.
* Don’t spend over $2 per pound for meat.
* Figure the cost of a recipe and see where you can cut quantities or cost.
* Do not eat out or grab a beverage or snack out. Ever! Take drinks and snacks when you leave your house.
It does get easier after time. Hoping for the best for you!


Krystal September 5, 2016 at 12:27 pm

I agree with the food bank idea–food banks are a perfect supplement to your budget in a time of crisis. Also, if you have friends with gardens, by all means, check with them. See a fruit tree that nobody is picking from, knock in their door and ask! I have given away plenty of cherries.


Patti September 5, 2016 at 12:50 pm

There are two blogs that I love to follow for frugal tips. This one and one called “The Prudent Homemaker.” ( She has EXCELLENT tips for stretching a food budget. I believe she was spending less than $400 a month for 8 or 9 mouths to feed (my numbers may be off). She talks about saving on real essentials and gives a large variety of bean recipes and such.
Start with the “Living on Food Storage” articles and go from there.


Penny September 5, 2016 at 12:53 pm

It is quite cheap and quick to grow some veg like salad, radishes,etc.. You don’t need a garden for those: any pot or box with a bit of soil will do and you can put them on a window sill if need be. There is still time to sow these unless you live in a very cold climate but, even then you might be able to do it indoors.


Lea September 5, 2016 at 1:13 pm

An easy way to cut your food budget is watch your food waste – be honest about what you eat (no buying spinach because your’re “supposed to!”) and make meals from your pantry/fridge/freezer first. Then go shopping, buying only what’s on sale at the lowest price possible. Use web sites like All Recipes where you can put in your ingredients (both what you have and what you don’t!) to find recipes to use things up.

A really good resource for beyond tight finances living is The Prudent Homemaker ( She has a lot of good ideas. Her decorating, etc. style isn’t mine but there are still loads of great ideas to be had on her website!

Best wishes for both Amy and her husband. Tight times with no end in sight can definitely wear a person down!



Ginny September 5, 2016 at 1:17 pm

You may have already done this – but go over every single bill you pay – every one! Call each company, ask if there is a program to help for low income residents. Some states have utility programs to help with heating and cooling. Do you have a trash pickup bill? Can you switch to a smaller can? Sometimes companies will work with you. Methodically look at every single expense… And find out if there is a food share program near where you live… You can also call churches in your area – usually they will know of all the local programs that help with food. Two blogs: A Working Pantry and NaNa Pinches Her Pennies both focus on building a pantry and preserving food. NaNa is an older woman who gets much of her food from food banks and cans what she can – she aims to eat healthy food from food banks – go and read her past posts – she is inspiring! Good luck!


Susanne g September 5, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Are you eligible for food stamps, ie. SNAP? As a single person with a very low social security retirement, I receive benefits which are fantastic. Maybe you have already checked into this, but there’s no shame in applying for and using the card when you actually need the food. Food banks, soup kitchens are even in my small town.

If you qualify for food stamps, you may also qualify for HEAP which is a heating benefit that goes directly to the utility for your account.

Does your state have a bottle bill? Pick up redeemable bottles and cash them in. Walk around, they are everywhere. You won’t get rich, but you will clean up your streets, keep plastics out of waterways, and make a few bucks.

The price of scrap and precious metal has dropped so low, but perhaps you have some silver or gold trinkets that are not important to you anymore that might bring in some money from a jeweler, or a junker that might be worth a few bucks in scrap.

Dog food cat food…I’ve lived in places where they have had pet food pantries, but rare. Perhaps your vet knows of something like this in your area.


Cindy September 5, 2016 at 2:25 pm

– move in with family or take in a tenant (ugh, I know- for me it would be a last resort)
– cut cable out- it’s not worth it
– put it out there that u need help- the universe will provide- hand me downs show up for the kids, garden surplus, handyman help…
-Trade for goods or services- I am a massage therapist and I have traded for hair cuts, the officiant for my wedding, even therapy!
– learn from YouTube to fix your toilet, cut your hair, clean your vents etc.
– cut your trash bill out and compost, burn paper and try for zero waste or share a service with a neighbor like Katie


janine September 5, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Are you absolutely sure that they did the calculations correctly? Sometimes Legal Aid or a law school program will take a look at your situation. Never hurts to double check!


Debbie September 5, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Along those same lines, even if the calculations are correct, Legal Aid could possibly help you to file for a waiver of repayment if the repayment would cause an undue hardship.


Madeline September 5, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Yes, immediately find the local food banks and go get some groceries each week. Amy, are you able to work at all? In my neck of the woods there is a big need for at-home caregivers, the schedules are flexible.

Prudent Homemaker is the BEST blog for eating well on a very limited budget. Do you belong to a faith community (church?) I love my non dogmatic Unity church and the Sunday sermons give me a spiritual and mental lift every week. And I’ve made kind and wonderful new friends there too.

Barter? Any skills you can offer your friends and community in exchange for something you need??

Two years sounds like a long time, but with a few of the strategies mentioned in the replies I bet you find a little wiggle room. We’re rooting for you!!!


Tammy September 5, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Hi Katy,

FYI, several of your links in this post have been E-404’d.



Sarah T. September 5, 2016 at 4:18 pm

I agree with Janine. I’d be calling and visiting the SSA. I get that they messed up, but that’s their fault, not yours. I can understand them lowering it to what you should be getting, but cutting you off for 2 yrs is cruel. You budget and sign contracts under the assumption that the money will be coming in. Fight for this and see what happens.


Tammy September 5, 2016 at 4:21 pm

Since it has been a few years since the original post, I was wondering if you kept up with Amy? How did those two years go for her and her husband?


Susanne g September 5, 2016 at 4:45 pm

I just finished reading all the other suggestions from the first posting and was wondering the same thing. It would be nice to know the outcome.


Chris September 5, 2016 at 5:57 pm

I live in a neighborhood of comfortable lives – I am amazed by the stuff people offer as free. 90% could be sold at garage sales or listed on craigslist. My best friend and I have been curb surfing and re-selling this stuff. I kind of feel like we should donate it rather than it ending up in the trash (aka grab this now cause the truck is coming tomorrow) but if we can get a few (or more) bucks for the items, she adds to her kids college fund and I offset retirement spending.

We also have a thing here in Mpls called “Fare for All” which for a set price you can buy veggie packs, meat packs, specialized items for a super discounted price. Know your Aldi’s prices cause you can do better especially for fruit/veggies. Use your library to track this stuff.

Use your library because it is the BEST EVER resource for information!


Jane in Seattle September 5, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Coupons. They are free and you can probably get them from a neighbor or the recycle bin . You can get things like shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste for free. You have to pay sales tax if applicable. Sign up for all the. Reward cards for the grocery stores. Some give free things every week. I’ve got everything from fruit juixe to kitty treats. This weeks was a free pizza. Blogs and Pinterest are full of recipes for dinners that are a buck or so. A family dinner for a small amount will feed two people twice. Lunch and dinner. Matching sakes and coupons can get your food 1/2 price. Or less. Hit grocery outlet often ifnunhace one, often expensive things will be fifty cents because they need to be eaten like now.
I have got everything from bacon to yogurt for a dime. Betty Crocker on line cookbook is free and you can plug in what u have and get recipes. Add high protein to your breakfast (eggs) and it will fill you up . Mt girlfriend eats two large meals a day. Brunch and dinner. Make bread and get yeast from scratch or start a sour dough starter. Soup is a good meal stretcher. Hope I helped.


Gladys September 6, 2016 at 8:18 am

I would recommend you to read books like The Complete Tightwad Gazette (Amy Dacyczyn) or America’s Cheapest Family (Annette and Steve Economides) where they give tips on how to stretch your budget and find ways how to be creative.


Vickie September 6, 2016 at 8:37 am

Addressing the SSD issue – Amy, I would like to suggest you file a hardship complaint with Social Security. If this was their fault, you have the right to file a complaint and request that they reduce the amount of re-payments, so your husband will still get a check, just a reduced amount.
Quite honestly, you have a good case for a suit against them, since this was not your fault. You should be able to find an SSI attorney that will give you a free consultation on that, but you can check with Social Security first and tell them that’s what you want to do. They can mail the paperwork to you, if they don’t have it there in the office.
My grandson has been on SSI while my daughter went to college and they “determined” an overpayment on him, due to some back child support that she received. She was able to file a hardship complaint and they reduced the repayment of the SSI to smaller payments, so she was still receiving a check. The government will try to take as much as they can from you, if you let them, but they made the mistake so you have the right to file a hardship complaint.

As for the extreme frugality, everyone here gives excellent suggestions. I use Dollar Tree and Dollar General as much as possible, especially for staples.
*Big Lots sells a large pack (either 9 or 12) of 1 ply toilet paper and it lasts much longer than 2 ply.
* I can buy a large bottle of Dawn dish soap at DG for $3 and it goes a long ways. I buy FOCA or PINOL powdered laundry detergent in the large bag (11 lbs), they also sell them in 4 lb bags and it will last me for months. I only use 2 small scoops (about 2 tbsps) for each load, since my clothes aren’t that soiled and same for hubby. I buy a large bottle of white vinegar and pour 1/2 cup in the fabric softener cup on the washing machine. Vinegar not only eliminates odors, it’s a natural fabric softener and helps eliminate stains too.
*I buy packages of beans and rice at Dollar Tree and I can make a lot of things stretch with those. Eggs are a good way to stretch things too. You can mix stew and rice together for a good meal. Basics make things go a long way.
*Gas – if you buy 100% gas for your car, it will last longer in your tank. Hybrid or Flex fuel cars run on ethanol, but regular car engines can gunk up on it. I know it’s cheaper, but it’s not as economical. However, if you live in town and can ride a bike, take public transportation or walk that’s the most economical way to get around.
*I buy my clothes and most of my shoes at the Goodwill or Thrift store. It’s much cheaper than new. If there’s some household item I need, I always check there first.

We have cut out almost all sugar from our diet. I do make sweet tea for my grandkids when they visit, it’s much cheaper than pop.
It’s hard to be on an extremely tight budget, but it is doable and we are all here to cheer you on.


CJ September 6, 2016 at 9:47 am

When money was really tight for my family, I sold plasma. It worked out to about $150 a month. The money may vary by location, and not everyone can do it, but if you can, it sure can help!


Mrs. Picky Pincher September 6, 2016 at 10:28 am

When I was first out of college, my food budget was about $100. Granted, that was just for one person with a hamster! Mr. Picky Pincher and I have had great success with cooking exclusively at home.

Staples like rice and beans are cheap and filling, and can really make your budget stretch.

If you’re really down on your luck, you can also let your needs be known to others. I’m not ashamed to ask for help (especially if I’ve already exhausted all of my other options), and I think a lot of people would be willing to help out, especially given the situation of the reader’s husband. So if you can, make comments to family, neighbors, or friends that food has been a little tight. You might be surprised at people’s generosity.


Melissa September 7, 2016 at 11:03 am

I’m not sure what you believe, but if you are a praying woman, get on your knees. God is in the small stuff too. I’ve been known to pray for kitchen sinks, vehicle tires, and flooring as well as my basic needs. It is a leap of faith and a growing experience to ask God to supply your needs and trust Him to do so. Also, I’ve been here and I know how hard it can be. It wears you out, but if you can find one or several things to be thankful/grateful for every single day, it will transform your thoughts and situation.
Wishing you the best!


LisaC September 7, 2016 at 1:44 pm

No fast food, no snack food.
A cheap snack is popcorn, not the prepackaged kind. Buy a bag for a dollar or so and pop it in a pan or in a paper bag in the microwave.
Be honest with friends, they care.
Tell your church.


Alexandra September 8, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Stretching food is an ongoing skill to learn. I recently found myself being tempted to put a whole half of an onion into a dish instead of saving the other half. I realized how often I do this in the name of efficiency but the dish is just fine with the smaller amount of onions or whatever. I just didn’t want to put it away but then I thought how great is was that I could save on my onions or again whatever I was using. It seems so little when I buy onions for .50 a lb to save half of one. Especially when we the recipe would be good with the extra onion. But if the recipe is fine without, AND I practice this day in an day out, I’m saving money over time, little bits yes, but that is what this is all about. Those pennies add up and really, really do make a difference.


Rachel H September 9, 2016 at 7:54 am

Amy, pray, pray! Ask your friends and church members to pray, and practice all that has been suggested. Praying moves mountains!


A mom September 10, 2016 at 9:02 am

Hang in there! My broke strategies in addition to the above are:
*Shop the dollar store for food – dollar tree marks down eggs to 25 cents right before the sell by date. Cheapest protein ever!
*Feed your pets people food (a little google fu will explain how to balance nutrients)
* Wash clothes in the shower rather than spend $ at a laundry mat if you still have hot water. Soak clothes in a plastic tub with a bit of detergent over night. When you shower, stomp on them in the bottom of the tub and rinse. Wring out & hang out on the line. You can “wash” about a half load each day you shower.
* If you like children, babysit! Have the parents pick you up & take you home to save gas. For $5 an hour you will not get rich, but every bit helps.
* Pet sit when people want to travel. You can offer a better option than boarding & can still go home to feed your pets and care for your house.
* Clean houses – again you will not become rich but I can REALLY show a house who is boss in 2 hours & generally charge $50 a visit so it works out to $25 per hour
* Drastic measures ahead! You can use an empty dish soap bottle filled with water as a bidet after using the bathroom to wash up with soap and avoid the expense of toilet paper
* Can you shut off one utility? Depending on your climate & type of property, you might be able to make due. Where I live (urban midwestern area) we can shut off the gas & live with just electricity. To have an account with the gas co. is $48 per month simply for the “service” plus charges per therm & taxes. The electricity is only $26 / month for service plus charges & taxes per kw hour. So for really battening down the hatches for a year to afford school for our child when I was out of work we had just electricity. I used radiator space heaters to heat the house (found two on freecycle) the units above and below us insulated ours well. We were REALLY mercenary about our electrcity useage (no t.v. or computer or ANYTHING plugged in when not in use.) This might not work in a stand alone house because the pipes might freeze but in a multifamily unit it worked. I boiled water in an electric tea kettle for dishes, hand washing, & little house on the prairie type baths & hair washing. Eventually we scored a “camping shower” off of craigslist in the free section. It is a strong large thick plastic bag that you hang up and fill with water (some cold & some from the batches boiled in the tea kettle) that allows you to take showers. Cook in an electric skillet & with a crock pot.
* Can you sell your car and get a bike? Or use the bus? You know that old saying? When you find yourself falling, dive! No car means no insurance, maintenance, or gas costs. No license or title fees. Bike repairs are so much less expensive than car repairs.

Mark your calendar, it is only for two years. You can count down the days until you have your husbands disability income again.


Ellie September 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm

I know I’m a little late to this post, but I had a thought I don’t think anyone else mentioned:

Consider putting a “wanted” request on Craigslist or Free Cycle for pet food and cat litter.

Sometimes people who have lost thier pet have left-over supplies, and would be happy to help other pets. Explain that you have pets and are in a tight financial spot, and ask nicely if anyone can help. You might also reach out to your vet and the local animal rescues, who might also be able to hook you up with a person trying to get rid of pet supplies. It won’t be a reliable source, but every little bit helps, and who knows – you may luck out with a big bag of something now and then.

Although it seems ghoulish, it’s really not – somebody who lost a pet and isn’t getting another one right away might actually be happy to be able to help another person’s animals, rather than have to see things go to waste. I know this because I was on the other side of it – years ago I had a bunny who died, and I wasn’t planning on getting another bunny. But I had left over food and litter, and felt bad just throwing it away. I wound up calling a small-animal rescue organization, and donating the food and bedding to them.


Jessica in New York September 23, 2016 at 7:56 am

Hi Amy! I am not a lawyer, and what comes next is not legal advice. It is based on my own experience and that of others I know.

This practice under which Social Security asks for money “back” and deducts it from future checks is shockingly pervasive. Benefits are started on a “temporary” basis, and then removed or reduced.
It is possible, even probable, that if your husband is genuinely impaired, that you can fight this ruling successfully. If you do so, you will get a one-time lump-sum check to offset the backpayments you are owed, and then will be restored to the normal level.
1. First go to your local social security office. Explain your situation to them: that your husband is injured, permanently, that his injuries have been sustained, and that you do need the full level of benefits restored. Write down whom you have spoken to and what they have said as to why the benefits were cut.
2. If they are unable to help you, you should contact the office of the Regional Chief Counsel of social security in your region. This chart lists where the offices are located: Call the one closest to you, and ask to speak with the “attorney of the day” or the “on-call attorney”. This person is qualified to help you!

Best of luck!


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