Real Tips for When You're Actually Broke

Frugal Tips for When You’re Actually Broke

Life is rough, y’all. And, for some reason, a lot of personal finance bloggers just don’t seem to… actually get that. I see the same tips over and over, just in a different order and said a slightly different way. The intended audience never seems to be people who are actually legitimately struggling to find enough cash to get by. That’s where I’m coming in, my friends.

I’m in a decent financial position right now, but given that I live in San Francisco and my costs of living are pretty astronomical, I constantly feel like I’m walking on a razor’s edge. If my budget goes absolutely perfectly this month, I’ll have exactly $23.65 left over from my monthly paycheck. I’m proud that there’s anything left over, but that is just too damn close to zero for my liking. I know a lot of you are dealing with even tighter situations.

So, here are some money tips that I hope will help you get through your struggle season the same way they’ve helped me.

 

Make Your Bank Work for You

Make sure the bank you’re using is actually your best option. A lot of us use the really big banks. A lot of us also know that banks seem like they’re trying to squeeze every last penny out of you through various fees. It doesn’t have to be that way, though! I highly recommend thinking about what you want and need from your banking services and searching for the banks that will provide them at the lowest cost. Search tools like Find A Better Bank can help. I also recommend looking into local banks and credit unions.

You often get far better benefits at a smaller institution like a credit union than you would from one of the biggest banks. If none of the smaller banks near you seem more appealing than your current institution, don’t sweat it. If you’re a student, think about signing up for a college account. Many banks grandfather in college accounts so that you’ll never have to pay banking fees. I bank with a Wells Fargo college account and between their robust mobile and online banking tools and the lack of fees, I don’t really feel the need to make a major switch.

I did do some research on high-interest savings accounts last year, though. Paying interest is one thing big banks aren’t all that great about. I use Synchrony Bank for my emergency fund. Synchrony runs entirely online. They also don’t charge me any bank fees, and they didn’t require more than $1 from me to open up my account. Also, they have some of the best interest rates for savings accounts in the country (1.75%! Crazy, right?). There are a lot of other great options out there for high-interest savings accounts and everyday checking accounts. Everyone’s needs are different, and you might require things that I don’t, like easy access to a local bank branch or an ATM close by. Do your research and figure out where you’re most comfortable putting your money. 

 

Budgeting and Organizing Your Finances

Get organized! There are a ton of ways you can track your finances. YNAB (an abbreviation for You Need A Budget) is super popular, but it costs $83.99 a year. I definitely do not have that kind of extra cash for budgeting software. I prefer Mint. Mint is totally free. You link your various financial accounts to Mint–everything from your bank accounts to PayPal to retirement accounts to student loan accounts–and it takes in all that information and tracks your spending each month. I love this because I really struggle with math and numbers. It does require some tweaking to personalize things and make sure every transaction is being properly categorized, but that’s well worth it to me.

Once you figure out how you’re going to track your spending and see where your money is going for a few months, start creating a budget. Sitting down and estimating your expenses for the upcoming month based on your standard spending is ten times more helpful than saying “Okay, we’re only going to spend $X a week on groceries,” with X being a number you randomly pulled out of the air, and then inevitably going over because you underestimated. If I look at how much we spend on groceries historically, it’s pretty stable. You’ll find that’s true for a lot of your spending categories. Use your historical spending to help you figure out your budget and where you can sustainably cut back.

 

Save Where You Can

Be frugal, but don’t brutalize yourself. This ties into tracking your spending above. Don’t scrimp on things that matter to you. Having one-ply toilet paper makes me miserable, so I opt to pay an extra $5 at Costco for the bulk pack of the cheapest two- or three-ply. Make sure every dollar is being utilized wisely for you personally. Sometimes, you have to save every possible penny. But don’t feel guilty for spending a little extra money on things that genuinely improve your day-to-day quality of life. You’re broke, but you still deserve joy. Do what you can to make your journey to financial stability more bearable, but don’t go all “treat yourself” and go completely wild. Enjoy the little things you can afford. (And don’t forget that it’s Treat Yo Self Day, not Treat Yo Self Year.)

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Don’t pay full price on anything you don’t have to. Now, I am aware that we live in the real world. I totally use coupons and discount codes and rebates wherever I can. But I also know that sometimes you need that new pair of work pants, and you have the kind of body shape where thrifting for those pants just isn’t an option if you don’t want to wait 6 months. Still, it’s super important to always check and make sure that you’re getting the best deal possible. Utilizing local thrift stores for a lot of your clothing needs is great, as is digging through clearance racks. Signing up for emails from your favorite retailers is also a great idea. They’ll notify you of any sales that are going on and sometimes give you extra discounts if it’s been a while since you purchased something.

If you do a lot of your shopping online, get the Honey extension for your browser. It tries a bunch of different coupon codes and tries to get you the best deal. It’s saved me a bunch of money over the years. (Also, if you use this code, we’ll both get an extra $5 from Honey!) A lot of people also highly recommend Ebates, but that’s one I haven’t used yet. Ibotta is great for getting a couple extra pennies back from your grocery trips, and they also offer rebates for lots of other things, too. You can cash out once you’ve earned $20 in rebates. If you use this code, you’ll get your first $10 just for signing up, and I get a little cash, too. I’ve never made much off of this, but it’s a nice little extra boost once you’ve made enough to cash out.

Check to see if the grocery store you go to most often has a loyalty or rewards program. I shop at Safeway and have saved thousands by using their Club Card over the years. I select digital coupons in their app each week and it applies them automatically. I know FoodsCo has something similar, though not as robust. Your grocery store might, too. Always worth checking! Also, definitely look to see if wherever you’re shopping has a clearance rack. My local store just started putting out a day-old rack for baked goods and it’s all super cheap. It’s a cheap way to treat myself or get baked goods that are still pretty dang fresh but heavily marked down. There’s also a clearance rack that has all kinds of stuff marked down due to minor damage to the packaging. Little things like this add up over time and can help you significantly reduce your spending, so always keep an eye out.

 

Increasing Your Income

The most important tip I can share: work on increasing your income. Everyone likes to talk a big game about helping you save $10,000 in just a few easy steps! But for the majority of us, that’s just not feasible, and it’s not a productive way to think about money. Sure, you “saved” $2 on that shirt, but you still paid $15 for it. Or, you were able to cut your grocery spending down to $50 a week for a family of 5 (power to you, honestly), but the money you’ve been saving keeps going to other necessities, giving you a net of $0 “saved.” If you’ve been stretching every dollar every way you can think of and it’s just not enough? It’s time to think about increasing your income. This is way easier said than done, of course, and in some cases, just plain might not be possible. But it’s worth taking some time to explore your options. Gunning for a raise or a promotion at your primary job is our best option, especially if you’re dealing with a physical or mental illness. Even an extra dollar an hour can make a huge difference.

If you’re one of those people with boundless energy, or who are just so incredibly determined you can work in all conditions, consider taking on a part-time job. This can be a huge sacrifice if you’re already working full-time (or more!), especially if you have a family. I would also not suggest this as a long-term solution. Working too much is a great way to burn yourself out and make things even more of a struggle. Still, there are a lot of great options out there with flexible schedules now. You can drive for Lyft or Uber, use dog-walking apps like Wag, or make deliveries with services like Doordash and Postmates. Most of these apps allow you to work at any time and don’t have specific numbers of hours you have to work. This can be a good solution if you need money but also need the flexibility.

Make sure you’re utilizing any special skills. Upwork is a vast freelance marketplace that’s perfect for those of us who might want to take on an extra bit of work for a short period. (Note: Make sure to do your research on standard rates of pay in your industry before accepting any job! Your time is worthwhile, and working for pennies doesn’t make sense in the long-term.) Fiverr works similarly, but as someone who has used Fiverr in the past, I can’t say it’s a particular favorite of mine. Lots of people have made it work for them, though, so if you’re willing to put some time and energy into it, it might be worth your while. Crafters and DIY-ers should definitely check out Etsy. I ran an Etsy shop for a while while I was in college. If you can find your niche, market your products well, and price your products properly, Etsy can become a great source of income.

If your response to that last paragraph was “I don’t have any special skills. I’m screwed,” don’t give up hope! First off, refer to the part-time job paragraph above. Second off, maybe now is a good time to further your education. If you don’t have a degree, get one! Even an associate’s degree can open more doors for you. Check out your local community college and see what kind of certification programs and degree paths they’re offering. Keep in mind the kind of jobs that are in demand in your area, or the area you’d like to live in in the future. Also, don’t forget to keep in mind jobs that you’d like to do. It’s probably best not to spend money on learning how to work in a field that’s going to make you miserable. I studied English Literature because that’s my true passion in life, and even though everybody (including me) jokes that getting an English degree is just me begging to be broke forever? It’s simply not true. I got a good job right out of college with solid pay that covers all my basics. It really just depends on how you market yourself and your education. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

As you explore further education, make sure to look into every possible scholarship and grant available to you! Taking out loans sucks and should be a last resort. If you do have to take them out, try to go federal–the interest rates are usually much, much lower. If navigating all that stuff feels too complicated, talk with a counselor or someone in the financial aid department at school. They can help walk you through it.

If your situation ever gets truly dire and you’re really struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to local charities or see if you’re eligible for programs like general assistance, SNAP, or WIC. That’s what those services are for. They’re there to help you get back on your feet. Whatever guilt you might feel, brush that aside. We all need a helping hand sometimes and there’s no shame in asking for it. You’re worth helping.

For more resources, or just a place to commiserate, make sure to check out the Reddit community r/povertyfinance. I also recommend checking out r/frugal and r/personalfinance. Dave Ramsey and Mr. Money Mustache are also great resources. Some of these are more helpful than others depending on where you’re at in your financial journey. Use what works for you and disregard the rest.

What are your favorite financial tips for making sure you get by every month? Share in the comments, and link me to your favorite finance blogs and resources!

Real Tips for When You're Actually Broke

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18 Tips for College

18 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting College

I feel like I was more prepared for college than most people are. I had been dreaming of a place where I could sit and discuss books at length in an academic setting with other people who were equally invested in the subject matter since I was in the second grade. Once I realized college was where I could do that, I spent a lot of my time researching what I would need to know. Even though I feel like a lot of my life experiences had prepared me for things like living on my own and handling school, from the academics of it to all the bureaucracy.

Still, there are a few things that I wasn’t prepared for, and I think they’re well worth discussing. These definitely aren’t the only insider tips about getting through college in existence, but they are the ones that kept me sane for four years and still help me keep it together now.

18 Tips for College

 

 

1. Be flexible. Sometimes, you don’t get the class schedule you wanted and you have to scramble to find something else to take. This will not ruin your semester. Nor will realizing you’re crunched for time and can’t complete assignments with the level of quality you usually consider your best. Do what you can, and move on.

2. Use your syllabus to ground your schedule. This is extremely helpful if you regularly use a calendar or a planner. When you get your syllabi, start penciling in the dates assignments are due and when exams are supposed to take place. You’ll be thankful later when a paper is due in two days and you completely forgot it even existed, but your calendar reminded you.

3. You are allowed one major screw-up with each individual professor. Use it wisely. Some professors are tougher than others, so this may not always work, but I’m adding it here because I think it’s important to let all of you know that I screwed up pretty badly more than once while I was in college… and everything was fine. Did I forget the day of the final for my Comparative World Lit class and not go? You bet. Did I not realize I was supposed to turn in my Human Sexuality paper on the last day of class? Of course! But despite these mistakes, I passed both classes with flying colors. Why? The professors knew I cared about the coursework, and I reached out immediately to ask for help. They were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Be consistently good and people will forgive your mistakes.

4. This one is super important. Never forget that your professors are people. If you’re struggling, talk to them. Not every professor is flexible or willing to work with you, but the vast majority of them are, especially if you’ve proven yourself to be trustworthy and consistent. (See #3 above.) Your professors are there to teach you specific material, yes, but they are also available when you need extra guidance, whether it’s with coursework or other life stuff. They are people, and most of the time, they care about you and just want you to succeed. Most professors aren’t trying to set you up for failure.

5. Write your schedule and to-do list down regularly. I’m not a huge fan of pre-organized planners, but I always carry a notebook everywhere to write down assignment details and notes that would help me compose a to-do list. When I was working shift jobs, I always put my shifts into Google calendar, along with my class schedule for the upcoming semester and any important due dates for different papers. Whether you use bullet journaling, a day planner, a calendar app, or just a plain old composition notebook, getting stuff written down somewhere you’ll see it is hugely important. Figure out what works with you and do it consistently. Organization often feels like half the battle in college.

6. Create a class schedule that works for you. I lived super close to campus, so I preferred to have my days really spread out. 2 hour breaks between classes were ideal, because I could walk home, eat, gather my notes for my next class, and then walk back. I also liked loading most of my classes into one or two days because that made scheduling work a lot easier. And, after I stupidly signed up for a 9 AM class my very first semester, I promised myself that I would never take a class before 11 AM again. Your freshman year, experiment a little to figure out what’s best for you. This is your education. Figure out what kind of schedule will help you learn best.

7. If you have to take out student loans, start paying them down ASAP. Future you will thank you. I put a significant amount of money toward my loans while I was still in school. I made a small dent in my loans and kept my loan interest in check, and I also created the habit of paying my student loans regularly. Now that I’m in repayment, it doesn’t feel like a huge deal since I’m already used to putting a significant portion of my income towards my loans. Even if you can only afford to put $10 toward your loans and it all goes to interest, I’d say that’s worth it. It’s a super important habit to build!

8. Consider a more minimalist lifestyle. I’ve been in the same apartment since I moved into it before freshman year started, and I’m grateful to my past self for not buying a bunch of crap I’m just going to have to get rid of once I move. Really think about what you’re bringing into your space, especially if you’re living in a dorm and have to pack up at the end of every semester. Check out this post I wrote about the decluttering challenge I did last year. I highly recommend trying one of your own if you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed by stuff. Clutter makes it that much harder to succeed in school, and it makes life ten times better not to have it around.

9. Your local library is an extremely valuable resource. If you’re an English major, the library will probably have all the books you’ll need for the semester, along with tons of other helpful resources. Many libraries (especially if you’re in a large city) put on events pretty regularly. They also offer classes on everything from budgeting and money management to coding, making your own lip balm, and yoga, all for free. You may also be able to get into some local museums or other local attractions for free with passes obtained from your library. Most libraries also have extensive resources online. I’m able to get tons of audiobooks, movies, music, comics, and video games for free through my library. Take the time to get a library card. It’s free and it could save you a ton of money.

10. Speaking of libraries, your school libraries literally have degrees in how to research things. Ask them for help. I had more than one professor take advantage of the awesome library we had on campus and sit us all down with librarians who taught us how to use the university’s databases properly, as well as the basics of research. Even though I considered myself a strong researcher at the time, I still found a lot of their tips helpful and continue to use some of them to this day. If ever you’re working on a research paper or another project that requires finding X number of sources or that you just need to know more about, go talk to your librarians. They can help you find everything you need and then some.

11. Learn how to research! This goes hand in hand with #10, as your university librarian can probably teach you a lot of basic researching skills. This will save your butt in the future, both in college and in the rest of your life.

12. Good writing covers a myriad of ills. Knowing how to write and communicate well can sometimes cover up the fact that your paper’s argument isn’t all that strong. Taking the time to learn how to write well will help you so much, through college and beyond. But work on those arguments at the same time, though. Critical thinking skills are also super important.

13. Don’t feel stifled by research paper format. Whenever I read the papers my peers wrote, I was kind of stunned by how… boring a lot of them were. They were super formulaic and even if their arguments were strong, they just weren’t discussing them in a compelling way. I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to have fun and be creative while getting your point across! You’re allowed to your own opinions! (Caveat: some professors really just want you to regurgitate what they taught you about the material. Those professors suck, but do what you gotta do. That said, most professors don’t really care what you’re arguing so long as you argue it well and have evidence to back it up.)

I highly recommend figuring out what argument you want to make and then just rolling with it. If it’s enjoyable for you to write and research, it will likely be enjoyable to read. Also, play with your papers’ formats and structures. The five-paragraph essay is a great starting point, but by the time you’re a sophomore in college, you should have moved beyond that. Look at the papers you’re reading in your field, especially the ones focusing on theory. (If you’re majoring in literature, that’ll be most of what you read anyway.) They don’t follow the five-paragraph format. They use whatever format it takes to make their argument. Those are the kinds of examples you want to try and emulate.

14. Learn how to study in a way that works best for you. Experiment with different methods. Different courses and exams may require different tactics, but overall, you should have a basic study method. I preferred to thoroughly read the material and make notes (even if they were silly, like writing “omg” in the margins when I was annoyed with a character) so that I knew I was staying engaged. Class discussions would allow me to cement that knowledge. My partner struggles more with that kind of intense focus, so he uses a method called junebugging. This method involves jumping around from one task to another, but knowing he always has to come back to his main project. There are tons of different study methods out there. Figure out what works best for your brain and your courses.

15. Avoid unnecessary shortcuts. You are paying to learn (or, at least, someone’s paying for you to learn). So learn the material. Don’t just learn it for long enough to do well on the test. If you actually take the time to absorb what you’re learning long-term and put it to use, you’re ten steps ahead of most of your peers.

16. When you’re giving a presentation, remember that no one wants to see you struggle. Everyone is rooting for you. Watching someone stumble and shake through a presentation is hella uncomfortable. I shake really, really bad when I present. It always helped to remember that even if people noticed, they weren’t judging me for it. I could just take a deep breath and keep going.

17. In the same vein, make sure to practice your presentations out loud, preferably more than once! This is extra helpful when you’re working in a group. Even if it’s right before the group presentation, meet up and take a few minutes to run through it together. All of you will be so much less nervous. If you’re going solo, practice it to yourself in the shower or while you’re doing other mindless tasks. Then practice it in front of your roommate or someone else you trust a couple times. Actually moving your mouth and saying the words before you get up in front of the class will greatly improve your presentation technique and soothe your nerves. You got this.

18. Know your limits. Don’t take on too much. You will burn out, which makes everything ten times harder. Yeah, I worked 55 hours a week and took a full courseload at school and lived. My depression and anxiety also got really bad and I was stressed to my limit all the time. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still recovering, even though it’s been over a year! Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many commitments. You need time to relax, spend time with friends, and recharge however you need to.

That’s all 18 tips! There is so much more I could say, but these tips are the most important. If you take nothing else from this post, remember these three things: ask for help when you need itlearn how your brain works and work with it, and make time for self-care. College can be hard. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

Do you have any questions about college or tips to share? Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

18 Tips for Surviving College