How to Stay Financially Afloat During Coronavirus

There’s really no way to write the beginning of this post that doesn’t sound like the 42 billion other coronavirus-related pieces of media you’ve read in the last few months. So let’s just get past all the repetitive “We’ve all been hit hard by COVID-19” stuff, and the “so much has changed in such a short etc. etc.” We know. We all know.

Instead, I’ll say I hope you’re staying as safe and healthy as you can. And I hope that this post can be of service to you if you’re in a rocky place financially. I’m going to offer up what bits of advice and resources I know of, plus provide links to other communities with helpful information. If you have recommendations, stick them in the comments or @ me on Twitter so I can boost them (I’m @MissSerenaReads there).

Let’s jump straight in.

Get Intimate with Your Finances

This should be your first step as you figure out how to make it right now. Even if you know your bank balance is negative right now, knowledge is power. Drill down into your finances. Calculate your immediate necessary expenses (shelter, food, utilities, healthcare, transportation, etc.) and add them up. That’s the amount you need to come up with to stay afloat right now.

Add up other recurring expenses that aren’t as immediate: credit card payments, student loans, subscription fees. These are all nice-to-haves. If you recently lost your job or had your hours cut, put any cash you can toward your necessary expenses. The nice-to-haves can fall by the wayside for now. No one likes to be in debt or pay late fees. But these are exceptional times, and right now you need to focus on prioritizing.

What do I do if I can’t pay a bill?

If you’re worried about paying certain bills, notify the company or person you need to pay as soon as you realize you can’t pay. It will also help to have documentation that your financial difficulties are due to the coronavirus. Pay stubs that show your hours were cut or an email from your workplace stating that they are letting you go because of their reduced revenue are great pieces of evidence to have on hand.

Thankfully, many people realize the financial difficulty that the virus is causing. Everyone from landlords to banks to utility companies are offering payment relief, or at least deferment until a later date. It’s in your best interest to reach out as soon as possible and let whoever is expecting a payment from you know you aren’t going to be able to make your payment. When you do this, state very clearly that your loss of income is due to the coronavirus. Most customer service lines have to follow strict rules, and if you aren’t specific, they may not be able to offer you all the resources their organization has set aside for people impacted by COVID-19. Unscrupulous organizations may try to skirt the law by claiming that you didn’t say your financial difficulty was due to the virus, therefore they can’t help you. Don’t give them that opportunity!

Once you let them know you aren’t going to be able to pay, ask what kind of relief they can offer you. Be willing to ask for more than they offer. If they say they’ll defer your payments for 30 days, for example, ask if they’ll do 90. The representative you’re talking to may not be able to comply with your request, but it’s absolutely worth asking. Many utility companies have existing relief programs for customers who can’t pay and have expanded those services. Others are instituting new programs in light of everything happening, including making some services like internet and electrical entirely free. Take advantage of what’s available to you.

Lastly, don’t forget to be as kind as possible when talking with customer service representatives. This is an extremely stressful time for everyone. Being patient and kind benefits us all.

Everything I pay for feels necessary! How do I cut down on expenses?

This advice is pretty standard pre-pandemic advice, but it is truly evergreen, so I don’t mind repeating it.

First: Cancel any extra subscriptions and other excess spending and look for better deals. I won’t tell you to cancel Netflix and Hulu because that would just make hunkering down at home miserable for most of us. Still, subscriptions are definitely worth evaluating, and it’s also worth looking into whether you’re getting the best deal. For example, my partner gets both Hulu and Spotify as a bundle for $4.99 a month, which is a huge savings for us.

Take advantage of student or senior discounts, and ALWAYS check Google for coupons for anything you’re about to buy. That goes for groceries, video games, Disney+ subscriptions, ordering takeout, clothes–you name it, there’s probably a coupon.

If you are currently on SNAP or Medicaid, you qualify for a reduced-price Amazon Prime subscription that comes out to $5.99/month. That would mean paying no extra shipping costs for anything on Amazon. You’d also get access to a huge variety of Amazon services, from audiobook streaming through Audible to grocery delivery through Amazon Fresh. You can read the full list of services you get with a Prime membership here. You can also pay for an extra add-on, Prime Pantry, and get free delivery on orders of pantry staples over $35. (Ideal when you’re trying to avoid going to the store, or your local stores have been completely wiped out. You can also use your EBT card to pay for SNAP-eligible items on Amazon in some states (full list of states here).

There are other grocery stores that allow you to use EBT to pay online, too. Food Stamps Now has a great roundup of stores that let you use EBT online, and also information about how to use EBT online.

It may also make some sense to get “family plan”-style accounts and share with friends and family you trust to chip in regularly, lowering payments for everyone. On the flip side, if you’re single and currently paying for a family plan, evaluate whether you should switch to a cheaper plan that suits your needs better.

You should also get really comfortable with saying no to yourself. Stress buying is very real, and especially with the world being a terrifying disaster, it’s very easy to say “You know what, I deserve this!” and buy something you truly do not need. (RIP my bank account after the month of March. In my defense, it was my birthday month, but I might have overdone it a little.) Maybe you do deserve it, but if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it! You also deserve to be financially solvent. Find other ways to manage your anxiety and give yourself that little endorphin high.

Most importantly: get shit for free! My friends, there is a wonderful world of free stuff out there, thanks to the internet and libraries. (I know, I know, I’m a freak about libraries. But they’re really cool and offer so much more than just physical books!)

In my city, public library branches are currently closed, but there’s a ton of electronic content available. That may be true for you, too. I use the San Francisco Public Library and have access to ebooks, audiobooks, movies, music, and comics on Kindle, Axis360, Overdrive, Libby, Hoopla, Kanopy, and OverDrive. There are also tons of e-learning resources with information on everything from learning Mandarin to painting in Photoshop. Not every library system is as well-equipped, but if finances are tight, looking into library resources can mean reducing your entertainment budget to $0. (Or at least just the cost of internet.) (Which you might also be able to get for free, or at least super cheap.)

You should also take a look at local buy-nothing groups on Facebook, who may be able to provide you with items you need but can’t afford. Freecycle, the free section of Craigslist, and Nextdoor’s free section are also great places to get free items. On Nextdoor, you can also ask for help and see if your neighbors are able to offer assistance just by posting. Nextdoor also set up a “Help Map” feature where you can  In my neighborhood, people have been offering to go to the grocery store for high-risk neighbors, walk people’s dogs, do free housekeeping, and do phone check-ins. Reach out to your community. People are doing their best to come together and create a safety net right now, and it never hurts to ask.

I know how much staying alive costs. How am I supposed to afford it?

This is the real question. It’s relatively easy to cut costs and get your finances down to brass tacks. But covering rent can seem impossible when you’ve been out of work for three weeks and you have no idea when it’ll even be feasible for you to find work again.

In the short term, I’d suggest applying for jobs in industries that are still hiring. Most grocery stores, delivery companies, and warehouses are hiring in huge numbers right now, and if that’s work you’re willing and able to do, now is a perfect time to apply.

There is also a coronavirus relief bill coming down the pike, and many Americans will qualify for the stimulus checks the government is going to send out. You can read more details about the bill, whether you qualify, and the amount you may receive here: F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Plan.

If you haven’t already, you may also want to get your taxes filed. Tax refunds are a lifeline for many of us, right now most of all. The government will also be using your tax information from 2019 in order to figure out whether you qualify for the checks mandated by the coronavirus relief bill. If they don’t have your 2019 tax info, they will use your 2018 tax information, which may make a significant difference in how much you receive. Even if you didn’t make enough to technically need to file taxes, it’s still in your best interest to do so for 2019.

If you’re unsure of how to file your taxes or find the whole thing confusing and nightmarish, I highly recommend using FreeTax USA to file your return. It’s completely free (except for the cost to file your state tax return, which can be paid for with your return). It uses plain language and simplifies the process as much as possible. I’ve been using it for several years and can’t imagine using anything else at this point.

While we’re still on the topic of government-related income, you should also take the time to apply for unemployment, SNAP, Medicare or Medicaid, TANF, and any other government assistance programs you may qualify for. While that money may not add up to what you’re used to bringing in with a regular paycheck, it can help keep you in your home and stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.

That assistance is likely to not be enough, though, so I’ll talk about ways you can make money. These aren’t get-rich-quick schemes, but ways you can make a little money here and there that will hopefully add up.

This post deals specifically with a bunch of different ways you can earn money from home. It covers a ton of bases–everything from credit card reward churning to Amazon Mechanical Turk to Redbubble. I’ll talk in a bit more detail about some of the stuff mentioned in that post below based on my own personal experiences, as well as a few more.

I also cover some different ways to organize your finances and make some extra money in this post.

Swagbucks

One of the first things I’ll mention is Swagbucks. Swagbucks allows you to fill out surveys and earn cash back in the form of “swagbucks” or “SBs.” You can then redeem your SBs for gift cards or cash in the form of PayPal deposits. You have to reach specific SB amounts in order to buy the gift cards–you can’t cash out with 5SBs (or 5 cents) for example. At the lowest, you’ll be able to get gift cards in 500SB (or $5) amounts. PayPal can take the longest to save up for since you need 2,500SBs ($25). You definitely won’t get rich with it, but I have actually used it to pay bills in the past. (I actually just checked and I’ve earned a little over $140 on Swagbucks since 2018 with some periods of heavy usage and then many months of not touching it at all.) 

If you use my code to sign up, you earn 150 SB (or about $1.50) just for signing up, and Swagbucks kicks back some of your earnings to me. Also, use it on a laptop or desktop computer if you can. Swagbucks can be really glitchy, especially on mobile. I recommend focusing on doing surveys, which will garner you the largest return on your time investment. You can also shop online with the Swagbutton (trust me, I hate the name just as much as you do) browser extension and earn SBs that way, and use referral links on the site to earn points when you shop online. It takes a while for shopping referral SBs to make it into your account, though. You can also earn points by printing coupons, signing up for new services and websites, and playing games, but those options require you to spend money you likely don’t have right now. Sticking to surveys is going to be the most worthwhile use of your time, in my experience.

Ibotta

Ibotta is one of my least favorite ways to earn money, but still worth mentioning. It takes f o r e v e r to cash out, especially if you aren’t uploading literally every receipt from literally everywhere you shop every time you shop.

Still, I’ve managed to cash out with it once before, and every little bit helps. You can also use the different bonus bundles they have on the app to boost your earnings. You can cash out once you hit $20, and it only takes a couple minutes to upload your receipts.

Etsy

Etsy can be a great way to make extra cash, especially if you’re a crafter. I ran an Etsy store for a while selling solid perfume, and I can attest to the fact that the platform is really great as both a seller and a buyer. Etsy has a really solid overview of how to get started selling. It may require some startup funds depending on what you decide to sell and whether you have the supplies to make it and mail it out to customers, but it can make you a decent chunk of change once you get started. Also, I’ve heard some rumors that there’s kind of a huge market for hand soap right now for some reason, so now’s as good a time as any to learn how to make it and cash in.

eBay

If you have a lot of extra stuff lying around that you no longer want and that might actually be worth something, opening an eBay store is a great idea. You can research prices by searching for the same or similar items that are already listed on eBay. You’d be surprised at what sells. Just make sure to factor shipping costs into your prices if you decide to offer free shipping!

Self-Publishing

I wrote a post a bit ago about the self-publishing process. With people hungry for things to do during self-quarantine, it’s a good time to self-publish content and earn a few extra bucks while doing it.

Fiverr

If you can offer a service that can be delivered entirely online (think writing, editing, digital art, logo design, making videos, etc.), you might want to offer your services on Fiverr. Fiverr is a digital marketplace where freelancers can offer their services. I have used it in the past, and while I won’t necessarily recommend it as a great option for long-term income, it can be a good way to gain experience, build relationships with clients, and build a portfolio. I recommend checking out the Fiverr forums to talk with other freelancers and get a better idea of how to use the platform.

Use Your Free Time to Build Self-Reliance

As we start to run into supply chain issues, we’re beginning to see shelves empty at the grocery store and everywhere else, too. Easy access to goods isn’t necessarily guaranteed now. Right now, it makes sense to look into alternative solutions. Grocery store empty? Maybe start growing some of your own food or sign up for a local CSA. Out of paper towels? Use rags and towels in the kitchen instead. Can’t get outside to exercise? Look up routines you can do at home online, or find videos on YouTube. No hand soap available at the store? Pick up some bar soap from an Etsy store, or learn to make it yourself.

Now is a perfect time to get back into old DIY hobbies or pick up new ones. They could save you money in the long run and they’ll give you something to do while you’re stuck inside.

Get Involved in Mutual Aid

The coronavirus has brought a lot of us closer together, even as we’ve been required to stay further apart. Many of us have more free time on our hands. So why not use some of that time to help neighbors in whatever way you can?

There are tons of new mutual aid organizations popping up in response to the coronavirus crisis, often with the aim of serving the most vulnerable in the community. Right now, you may be able to offer help. Or you may be the one in need of help. Regardless, it’s a great time to reach out and get to know your neighbors (from a distance of six feet or more, of course). Start a phone tree or a group chat for your apartment building or street or town. Ask your neighbors (especially elderly and disabled folks who are more at risk) what they need and keep in touch with them. Stay in touch with friends and family, too. We all need people to reach out to right now, and it’s important to strengthen our bonds within our communities.

To find a mutual aid network near you, you can do a quick google search with a phrase like “mutual aid network [your city].” You can also check out It’s Going Down’s list of mutual aid networks.

Advocate for Yourself and Others

This might seem like a weird thing to add to a post about trying to stay financially solvent. In America, we’re often taught to prioritize ourselves and our families, but right now is a time when we need to stand up for our friends, neighbors, and vulnerable people in this country. Take the time to call your city council, write letters to your local and state representatives, and make calls to your senators.

You can advocate for eviction moratoriums, rent freezes, and mortgage freezes in your county that can help keep people secure in their homes during this crisis. You can also ask your representatives to prioritize continued cash aid to individuals and ensure people get the support they need to make it through this, on top of the relief that should hopefully be coming from the federal government toward the end of April. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but your voice does matter, and taking the time to make yourself heard could encourage changes in policy that will help millions of people.

 

 

 

Personal Finance Resource Roundup

There is an astonishing amount of personal finance advice out in the world. The sheer volume of it all can be overwhelming, and it’s often difficult to sort through it all, especially since a lot of it conflicts.

This post is a spot where I can list the budgeting resources that I have found helpful in my quest to manage my money, pay down debt, and achieve my financial goals. This list is meant to grow over time as I find new finance tools and resources. I’m constantly finding new people talking about finance in interesting ways, not to mention tons of interesting personal finance apps and budgeting tools, and it’s definitely worth sharing the best of them.

Quick disclaimer: My ideas about personal finance are a bit unique. I am pretty enthusiastic about personal finance. I’m sure my partner could live with never hearing me wax poetic about budgeting tools and high-interest savings accounts again. However, I am also a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. My personal finance obsession often works in concert with my political views, which is a whole other post in itself. That said, the core of my thoughts on personal finance is that your finances should reflect your own goals and values, whatever they may be, so take my opinions on all of these tools with a grain of salt.

 

Budgeting Gurus

The folks listed here are Big Deals in the personal finance world. These are the people who have talk shows and best-selling books, or websites that are consistently linked in personal finance communities. If you’ve heard financial advice before, it’s likely that one of these people originated it.

Dave Ramsey

The granddaddy of modern personal finance. My stepdad kept Dave Ramsey lectures on CD in his truck for years. Ramsey is all about living debt-free and paying for everything in cash. His “baby steps” are a great entry point into personal finance. I will say that I don’t entirely agree with the way he frames things, which falls into the “everyone can be a millionaire if you just try hard and be smart,” which I think ignores some broader systemic issues. However, the core of his advice is simple and fairly easy to work into your own life.

Suze Orman

I’m a big Suze Orman fan. I think she has a lot of really excellent advice to offer. I admire her no-nonsense approach and emphasis on doing what’s right for you. She’s pretty open about the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. She’s also a big proponent of women taking the reigns of their finances and really understanding their money, where it’s going, and what it’s doing.

That said, she isn’t always the most… sensitive… to the struggles of the average person (drinking coffee does not mean you are “peeing a million dollars down the drain”), and her advice can be a little overly blunt. I have personally found a lot of value in her advice, but your mileage may vary.

Mr. Money Mustache

I am a lot less familiar with Mr. Money Mustache, but he’s incredibly popular in a lot of online personal finance communities. He’s all about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early for the uninitiated), which makes him a bit different from a lot of other personal finance gurus. He does offer some helpful ideas about money, and I think parts of his message about living more frugally and reducing consumption are positive. However, his advice is often coming from a place of relative privilege: he’s a white dude with a computer engineering degree who retired in his thirties and now lives off income from rental properties and other investments. He can also be a bit condescending about people still in the “rat race” or who use their money in a way that he deems frivolous. That’s not really my bag, but many appreciate his perspective.

 

Books

The books section is going to be a bit light for the moment! I tend not to read personal finance books very often. I’m much more interested in more compressed blog posts and forum discussions. That said, I am often on the lookout for more books about budgeting and frugal living, so if you have recommendations, let me know in the comments!

The Tightwad Gazette

This is a seminal work in the annals of frugal literature. It was Pinterest before anyone had even dreamt of social media. I’m pretty sure if I had to pick a writer who influenced my life most, it would be Amy Dacyczyn. I almost cried when my mom handed down her copy of the Gazette to me. If you like reading about hyper-frugal habits, you’ll eat this up. Much of the advice still holds up after several decades, and the sense of saving money and taking on DIY projects being fun is really infectious. It also acts as a bit of a time capsule.

The Wall Street Journal Complete Money & Investing Guidebook

I’m generally not a huge fan of the WSJ, but this book came into my life at just the right time. Someone left it on the bookshelf in the laundry room, so I was able to read it for free–and right as I was about to become eligible for my first 401(k) plan. It’s not the most exciting or entertaining read, but it covers the basics of investing and then some. It acts as a great primer for new investors, and offers a wealth of information for those who may want to dig a little deeper.

 

Podcasts

I listen to a ton of podcasts, but I prefer to use them to get my news or relax, so I don’t tend to seek out personal finance shows all that often. I would love to hear more recommendations, though, especially shows with more diverse hosts!

Bad with Money

The host of this pod, Gaby Dunn, reminds me a whole lot of myself. Bad with Money is a deeply personal podcast about everything from Dunn’s financial fears to broader systemic issues that affect people’s finances. She interviews a wide variety of guests about a ton of different finance-related topics. Sometimes, she’s asking an expert investor what a stock is and how one should go about investing. Other times, she’s drilling down into the injustice and cost of the American healthcare system. Some of the episodes are really informative if personal finance is still super new to you.

Planet Money

It may not be a personal finance podcast, but it can definitely help inform some of your financial decisions. It’s an often humorous podcast that delves into the numerous aspects of our lives that money touches. The number of topics they cover is pretty astounding. Their past episodes include “Is the NCAA An Illegal Cartel?” and “Shrimp Fight Club,” along with more serious episodes like “Counting the Homeless” and “Economics, Sexism, and Data.”

 

Communities

Currently, this is really just a list of Reddit communities. If you have some awesome corner of the frugality/personal finance/budgeting internet you’d like to share, please do!

r/povertyfinance

This community is all about people coming together to grind their way out of some of the worst financial situations. It can sometimes be a little grim, there’s also a ton of practical advice. Plus, the solidarity is comforting. There are a lot of people willing to lend a helping hand in this subreddit, plus some great stories about how the community has helped them.

r/frugal

There’s some overlap between this community and r/povertyfinance. The focus of r/frugal is a bit different, though. This sub tends to be more about choosing frugality out of a desire to save more or otherwise conserve resources, unlike Poverty Finance, where frugality is born of necessity. While there are WAY TOO MANY arguments about how much toilet paper is appropriate to use–the real answer is AS MUCH AS YOU NEED, OH MY GOD, WHY IS THIS AN ARGUMENT–there are some interesting tips, tricks, and hacks that crop up regularly. If you’re the type who’s into DIY and finding interesting ways to save a couple pennies, you’ll like this crew.

r/PersonalFinance

The PF crowd tends to be a bit more experienced with the basics of personal finance, and they’re usually working with a bit more money than the folks in Poverty Finance and Frugal. This is a great place for those who are a bit more middle-of-the-road financially speaking. It’s ideal for those not quite dealing with poverty but also not exactly in the position to FIRE. If you’re at the point where you’re getting more involved in investing or simply trying to figure out what to do now that you’ve got an emergency fund and a functioning budget, this’ll be a good spot for you.

 

Budgeting Tools

Everyone has their own favorite budgeting tool. And there are TONS out there, most of which I haven’t tried. Below is a list of digital tools I’ve enjoyed using.

Mint

This is one of the best-known budgeting tools out there. It’s a free service where you can input information for all your various accounts. My Mint lists the balances for everything from my main bank account to my student loan balances. It’s a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your financial situation. It also offers the ability to set savings goals and create budgets. Plus, it offers spending and income reports and allows you to compare your finances over time. However, because I do a lot of my financial planning on the go, I have noticed that the app’s mobile functionality is pretty limited. The desktop version (which you can access through your browser) is much more complete, but I find it clunky. It’s not as intuitive as I would like. Creating a budget on Mint can be kind of a pain, and making adjustments as your needs change is even harder. Which is is why I’m a total convert to this next tool…

YNAB (You Need A Budget)

YNAB is another popular budgeting tool that offers both mobile and desktop browser versions. It is also not free–and, at $6.99/mo, not necessarily cheap. However, after just a month of the free trial, I’m totally in love with it. It’s similar to Mint in that you attach your various accounts to it in order to aid your financial tracking. What makes it different is that it follows the “give every dollar a job” form of budgeting, or a “zero-based budget.” That means that by the time you’re done budgeting, there isn’t any money left without “a job.” The whole goal is to know exactly where every last cent is going.

The budget that you set is also extremely flexible. If you overspend in one category, it’ll ask you to cover that overspending with money from another category. This kind of living, adjust-as-you-go budget is exactly what I was missing with Mint. With YNAB, I get a simple overview of my finances and an easily-adjustable budget. I haven’t yet shelled out the $6.99 a month for it, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to someday.

 

Low-Threshold Investing Tools

While you may be interested in investing, you might find yourself in a position where you only have a couple extra dollars to invest at a time. With some investment options requiring that you have a minimum of $1000 or even more to start with, it can feel like investing is out of reach. But there are some tools that have cropped up more recently that have made it a whole lot easier for those of us without much to plunk down.

Robinhood

Robinhood is a free app that allows you to invest in the stock market. You can start with a very small amount of money. I opened my account with just $10. (I think you might be able to start with even less.) The app makes it very simple to purchase stock. You can also invest in ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds). Overall, this is a great app to begin investing with. Just remember not to invest any money you’re not willing to lose, to try and stick it out even when the market is looking bad, and to try to diversify your investments as much as possible.

If you use this link to sign up, we can both get a free stock!

Acorns

If you’re interested in a more hands-off investing approach, Acorns might be more your speed. The idea behind Acorns is that you’re investing your small change–so you spend $3.79 at the store, and then Acorns rounds the purchase up to the nearest dollar and invests the extra $0.21. It’s a pretty clever idea based on the fact that spare change can add up quickly, but is still small enough that we won’t necessarily miss it if it’s gone. Acorns waits to make any transfers from your bank or attached card until you’ve hit $5. So, really, you’re investing in increments of $5 (or more, if you make larger transfers manually). The app then automatically invests in a specific portfolio based on whether you’re a more conservative investor (i.e., you want a return but you’re risk-averse) or a more aggressive investor (you’re able and willing to risk a bit more for the chance of greater returns). It’s a really simple, relatively painless way to invest.

If you use this link to sign up, we both get $5 invested into our Acorns accounts.

Motif

The way Motif is set up is a bit different from other investment platforms. It does offer the ability to buy and sell stocks, but Motif’s main focus is on investing in… well, “motifs.” Motifs are collections of stocks based on a particular theme. So, for example, you can invest in a motif called Cleantech Everywhere that invests in companies focused on green energy and technology. You can also choose to invest in motifs meant to represent larger sectors of the economy, like Casino Gambling or 3D Printing. There are a huge variety to choose from, and you can even build your own motifs. This makes it easier to know that you’re investing in companies and industries that reflect your beliefs. The big difference is that it’s a bit pricier to invest in motifs–you have to put in $300 minimum to buy into one. This can be pretty prohibitive if you’re just getting into investing, but the peace of mind of knowing you’re not investing money in a company you disagree with is pretty nice.

 

Have a finance resource you’d like to share? Feel like I missed something? Let me know in the comments!

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.)

via GIPHY

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 your 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