How four families survived lean times


Because I couldn't meet my self-imposed cash budget of $500 in the month of October, I had to use other sources to meet our overage. But despite having lived under tight financial circumstances throughout some periods my life, I have always had enough to get by and things haven't been (well, usually they haven't been) too stressful for me. But I wanted to talk to people who had difficulty finding ways to pay when they went over their budget, so I reached out to my friends to get their perspectives and see what I could learn from them.

Frida (not her real name) was the first to respond and wanted to specifically mention that her family's problems were self-induced. She says, “We made a couple of financial mistakes about three or four years ago and we're still paying for those mistakes, literally and figuratively.”

To compound their financial problems, Frida and her family are farmers; so their income comes in November, January, and March. She says, “The stretch from March to November is the worst. It's not only the longest stretch between major checks, it's the time of the year with the biggest expenses (real estate taxes and quarterly estimates on income taxes).”

To help make it through the lean months, Frida sometimes had to borrow from her children's savings accounts, put groceries on a credit card (normally they keep a zero balance), or both.

Angela (also not her real name) was not a farmer, but she and her husband were young college students when their first child came along. Even with Pell grants and loans, they were struggling to make ends meet.

“Sometimes,” Angela admitted, “if an unexpected bill came in, we had to make a choice between diapers, or food for the baby, or food for us.”

Another friend, Jo, recalled her childhood: “My parents were buying our house on contract with one annual payment. We always knew when the payment was coming up because we ate things like saltines and peanut butter, so we could scrape together enough money.”

I also interviewed Jo's mother, Donna. Like Frida, Donna also raised her family on a farm about 30 years ago and it was tough.

We all have to eat

No matter what the circumstances are, we all have to eat. To keep their food budget in check, Frida watches grocery ads and tries to buy only what is on sale, especially meat. She says, “I've found that, many times, chicken is actually cheaper than the better ground beef. I don't buy cheap ground beef, because more of it gets thrown away by way of the fat content.” Along with watching her meat consumption, she has made a conscious effort to buy more beans.

Also, some members of her family have to eat a gluten-free diet. “Gluten-free eating is harder to do cheaply, but when you have to, you have to. Fortunately beans, rice, and garden produce are all naturally gluten-free.”

Donna also watched sales. “We didn't eat much meat. I used some in casseroles, but decreased the meat and increased the cheaper ingredients.”

She continues, “I created menus from what I had on hand, and I bought food on sale. I tried not to waste anything.” She also did some math. “We participated in a lot of potlucks, so I calculated which dishes were less expensive to make. For instance, because of the food I had available to me, an inexpensive dessert to make was pie.

“But our budget was never a determining factor for whether we had guests or not. Somehow we always had enough for us and to be hospitable to others. I also figured out the cost of a serving of cold cereal versus a serving of eggs. That meant I didn't buy cold cereal unless I could get it for less than $1.50 per box.”

Sometimes they fed their families with food that wasn't purchased. Frida and her family have a large garden, so their cost for produce is mainly the labor involved. They also sold produce at farmer's markets to earn more money.

But it wasn't an easy way to earn extra cash. “I finally took a part-time job this spring, which makes far more than the produce has. Next year, we will most likely scale the garden back a little more. Honestly, I'm tired. It's time for other people to either grow their own produce or buy it from someone else.”

Angela didn't live on a farm when she and her family were going through their tough times, so they survived another way. “We made it by having a super poor diet. Ramen noodles, high salt, super processed foods.”

Financial stress takes its toll

But Frida and Angela's financial stress impacted so much more than just their food budgets. There are regular bills to pay too.

“I have to prioritize my bills,” said Frida. “I usually put them in order by due date and pay them in that order. There are some exceptions based on interest, late payment penalties, etc. For example, if a credit card company has a hefty late payment fee, I will at least make a payment on time and hope to pay off the balance shortly after. The additional interest is considerably less than a late payment fee.”

Financial stress also affects relationships. And Frida is first to admit that. “The first thing that usually happens is either a) I get grouchy (my husband takes the brunt of this) and/or b) I don't sleep well which causes more grumpiness. It then becomes a vicious cycle, because I not only wake up worrying about paying bills, but then I think about how I've treated my husband, and then … yeah, you get the idea.”

Angela also experienced the vicious cycle. “We just weren't sure where the money was going to come from and our checks would usually be gone before we got them. Credit cards were usually maxed out or closed. That resulted in unmanageable credit card debt that we finally paid off. There was a repeating cycle of stress and depression. Untreated depression!”

As I listened to their stories, I saved what I think was my most important question for the end: How did you find the courage to keep going?

Frida responded, “I don't really see any options.” They can't sell the farm or their house, for a couple of reasons. Besides getting a new part-time job and driving older vehicles, the only option she mentions is to keep plugging on.

She says, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that's SUPER encouraging.”

In your toughest financial times, how did you keep the lights on and food on the table?

More about...Food, Frugality

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Mr. Frugalwoods
Mr. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

Going mostly meatless is the number 1 way to reduce your food spending. Meat is sooo expensive. Same for cheese. We’re meatless during the week, and have some meat on the weekends. It’s a good compromise, and we _really_ enjoy that weekend meat! Another good way to shave some money off the grocery bill is to optimize breakfast. A bowl of rolled oats is healthy, hearty, easy to make, and only $0.10 / serving. Serving the entire family breakfast for under $0.50 means you have more room in your grocery budget for other meals. And really, is cereal _that_much better… Read more »

Rebekah
Rebekah
5 years ago

Check out The Prudent Homemaker’s blog for ideas on cutting your grocery budget and living frugally (not affiliated at all).

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

When we were experiencing hardship we relied heavily on canned items and bread. Nothing went to waste and all luxuries were cut with only the essential remaining. We can all get by if we find ways to supplement our income. I was able to find ways to make money online and it helped to get out of poverty. I think by having a frugal and entrepreneurial mind you can get yourself out of hardship.

Tina
Tina
5 years ago

We experienced our hardship in 2008 when my husband lost his job. We were a few days away from going to our local food bank for food when my husband found a job. Ever since then, we have tried to keep our grocery budget in check. 1) I only buy items on sale or if I can price match the items. 2) Menu plan and use up your leftovers(leftover mashed potatoes makes great potato cakes the next day) 3)Watch your expiration dates. If we have too much milk, we have cereal for dinner.(and the kids love it!) 4) Know sales… Read more »

Beth2
Beth2
5 years ago
Reply to  Tina

These are very good ideas, though the deep freeze times seem a tad long. Sales on pantry basics are fine, but prepared foods, even on sale, are rarely cheaper than homemade items. This commenter shows how planning and avoiding food waste are key.

Petrish @ Debt Free Martini
Petrish @ Debt Free Martini
5 years ago

I agree the stress from finances is a type of stress that hits you on another level. Before having a budget I was so stressed out and I never want to live like that again.
Its amazing how much you can stretch your budget when you have too.

Rail
Rail
5 years ago

We live in the land of plenty and the day to day luxuries that we take for granted in the U.S. would be praised to the highest in many countries. Running hot/cold water, central heat, a non dirt floor and electricity are truly wonderful and we take them for granted here. When I was real hard up in my younger days the furnace stayed at 58-60 degrees, lights were hardly ever on, no cable TV, magazine subscriptions/daily paper, and use the telephone sparingly. Of course in 1994 there was no internet or cell phone either. A large garden, feeding out… Read more »

MarLeigh
MarLeigh
5 years ago

I still get shivers thinking about it. Our worst year was 2009. We have been self employed since 1998, but the bottom fell out and we lost 90% of business when the economy tanked. (Electrical contractors) That year our little family of 3 only earned 17000.00. But of course we had the bills from our previous income, a house, my car, his truck, utilities, food, etc. It was insane. How did we do it? We didn’t. It meant that we burned in the summer and froze in the winter. We turned on the water heater for showers and the dishwasher… Read more »

Zambian Lady
Zambian Lady
5 years ago
Reply to  MarLeigh

You did well to let go of cable. Whatever bit of money one saves goes a long way in the long run. I never understood the need for it when I was in the States as I had almost twenty free channels. That was more than enough as I also had internet.

sues
sues
5 years ago

Last year I was suddenly laid off, just as my husband’s construction job usually slows down. In addition to losing my income I also had to return the company car I had been driving. We had parked my husband’s truck several years earlier to save some money. So we went about 6 weeks with only one vehicle, until the other one could be registered. That was a huge savings and since we live in the country I would NEVER have dreamed we could be a one car family but we made it! Since I am naturally frugal, we had some… Read more »

Daphne
Daphne
5 years ago

I was raised by a single mom who, until I was seven, was putting herself through school. We had very little but it didn’t feel that way. We went to a lot of free events like movies in the park and we ate very simply. All our clothes were hand me downs but we always had what we needed. Now, as an adult, after several years of excess spending, I have learned to keep a budget like my mom did so many years ago. Keeping a budget is the one thing that has made the biggest difference in our spending.… Read more »

Neel V Kumar
Neel V Kumar
5 years ago
Reply to  Daphne

I am an adult and I still wear hand me downs from my uncles. Many of these items are as old as me and still look and feel new. And my uncles are glad to get some space in the closet.

Ben Badgley
Ben Badgley
4 years ago
Reply to  Daphne

I too still have no aversion to wearing hand me downs. Have a few things left behind from a step-father, shirts, shoes, pants. He went on along back in 2005 if I recall correctly. Also got some things from a grandfather that went along. Sometimes, I may pause in wearing his items. Lot of good memories of him surface and it brings a lot of sentiment in realizing I’m filling out his clothes. My wife works at local branch of a thrift store chain. She is seemingly always bringing in clothes for us to wear. Some we return as re-donations… Read more »

Kim
Kim
5 years ago

I remember about 20 years ago when my husband and I couldn’t afford to get haircuts in the same week. But we kept our belts tightened determined never to go into debt again. We paid cash for everything. Eventually we both got good jobs and 2 modest inheritances. We continued our frugal ways and are now looking at a comfortable retirement in a few years.

Hope for better days got us through. Where there’s life, there’s hope!

Jason
Jason
5 years ago

What about the option of a food bank? I wonder if this was an option for these families? This can help those who need to cover off food. Maybe there isn’t one in their area…? Good for you for chugging along – I keep steadily working on my debt too….Good luck!

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago

Hmmm, what hasn’t been done? Not using a/c in 100+ F heat, drinking hot water without tea bags, inviting friends over instead of going out, and so on My favorite way to penny pinch though, has to be on the grocery bill. Not drinking anything but water, boiling dried beans, rice, natural flavors only, rolled oats, and cooking from scratch (a vegetarian / vegan diet) are some of the cheapest ways to eat. I have to say, I lost a large client last week, so I had to cancel a trip plan and had to put off some much-needed personal… Read more »

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

Some folks mention a budget and that’s very helpful, but when you have, as Dave Ramsey puts it, “more month than money,” prioritizing is key. Always, always, always pay rent or the mortgage first, before anything else! It gets tempting to delay it since it’s usually such a large chunk of one’s income, but it’s the key to the rest. After that, utilities – that home’s not nearly as wonderful without heat or water or electricity. After that, car costs – loan payment, insurance, gasoline – and/or other transportation such as a bus pass. Then food; this comes lower on… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago

Luckily I haven’t experienced such hardships. I’ve gone through “voluntary poverty”…forcing myself to do extreme type things to conserve money, but I still had sufficient income and could stop whenever I wanted to. Some of the extreme things included living without heat or AC for a year (I live in FL, so it was do-able). I borrowed oil heaters from family for the winter and dragged the animals into my bedroom at night so we could all keep warm. During the day the blinds were opened to let in sun and the heaters got moved into the living room. My… Read more »

Momma Lotte
Momma Lotte
5 years ago

I have gone through very tough times. We lived in NJ when we first got married, a baby on the way, a teenager on hand, and a new business. That by itself was a lot to handle. Things quickly went south as we were swindled out of our business and my stepson wanted a custody change all at the same time our daughter was born. With all this I found myself retaining not one, but many attorneys for civil court, criminal court defending against false charges, bankruptcy court against a false bankruptcy filed against us, and family court. Remember I… Read more »

Kellie
Kellie
5 years ago

My husband lost his job in Spring 2008. I had daily panic attacks until I started babysitting in the home. When things were the toughest, we were the most disciplined and actually did rather well that year. He was unemployed or underemployed for a total of 15 months. Since he got a great job, we have slowly (sometimes faster than others) crept back into credit card and consumer debt. It stinks! I’m the saver, so the burden is mostly on me to fix it (that’s super fun, let me tell ya!). Some of my best tips are to make sure… Read more »

DealForALiving
DealForALiving
5 years ago

Honestly the first thing I did when it hit the fan was to pray so that I could calmly assess the situation and figure out how to pick myself up off the ground.
Because of that, the day after I lost my job I jumped right into my new 9-5 of finding a new job, and was back to work in a couple of weeks.

Lina
Lina
5 years ago

Don’t do what we did when I was laid off for a year (2009) and underemployed for 1.5 years. We hardly changed a thing. We used our credit card to bridge the gap to maintain our lifestyle. We told ourselves having credit card debt was ok since pretty much the whole country was experiencing the recession. After a few life changes we finally realized our ways needed to change. Our unsecured debt climbed to $25000. Took us a long time to pay it off. What idiots we were. In a way I’m thankful we went through this experience because now… Read more »

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