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6 Ways I Was Smarter With Money As A Broke Student


When it comes to my disposable income, I am the first to admit I can be an entitled, indulgent little brat. I only use French skin care, I love lingerie, and I consider holidays to be a basic human right. I am also very fortunate that I landed a good job quite soon after graduation and have been relatively comfortable in my 20s. So much so that when my partner and I relocated to Singapore, we noticed the cost of city living was quite high. I actually uttered, “We are going to have to be really careful with our budget this year, I think we can only afford holidays in South East Asia,” which may be the most repugnant thing anyone has said in 2016.

I let myself get away with saying “yes” more often than I should. The irony is that I didn’t complain half as much about my income when I didn’t have very much. While at University, money came infrequently and — thanks to the student loan company — quite inconsistently. Yet I rarely complained about it. Nowadays, everyone I talk to is unhappy with their income and feels that everything would be better if they were just making a couple of hundred dollars more. It seems if you don’t complain about your salary, you don’t value yourself enough.

Where does it end though? When we are taking sixteen first class holidays a year? Eating every meal at a restaurant? Being able to buy every makeup and skincare product a beauty blogger recommends before throwing them away after one use like snotty tissues?

I can’t help but think I had a lot more integrity when I didn’t have very much. I’m trying to distance myself from the way extra money can make you feel a bit whiny and entitled and not succumb to that dreaded lifestyle creep. I was a pretty cool, well-balanced chick when I was in my late teens, and even though I had no money, I knew how to live well. Here are some things I used to do when I was a broke student (but don’t anymore).

1. I would go days without money.

I remember very clearly doing this in the run-up to paying or receiving a large chunk of cash. Normally, this would be my bursary, which arrived around the time my next rent payment was due. I would always pay up to three months in advance so I had a roof over my head no matter what. I would sometimes not spend a single penny for three days in a row. My University town was small, and it was easy to get pretty much everywhere on foot, so there was no need for bus fare.

When I try to remember what I did on those moneyless days, I seemed to do a great deal of walking and reading. It was a seaside University town, so I would go to the beach or just wander around looking at things. If I had an essay due, I would go to the library and work. When I was hungry or I wanted a cup of tea, I would just walk back to my house and make something out of what I already had in the kitchen. I recall one moneyless day when I sat for five hours straight reading the complete works of Marjaine Satrapi in my University library and walked home feeling happy and full of thoughts and ideas.

I don’t remember ever feeling miserable or deprived going without spending. Oddly enough, I didn’t do it out of necessity because my bank account was empty, but rather to conserve the money I did have until my next influx of cash came along. It was a short but meaningful period of fasting — I didn’t go without food, but I wandered through my normal day to day life to see what I could do without money.

I stopped doing this when my paychecks became more reliable and sizable. I’m realizing that I could really do with going without money for a few days to curb my spending and see what free resources I have at my disposal that I am currently failing to utilize.

2. I did gorgeous, luxurious, simple things with my spare time.

As a student, my income was about 10 grand a year from a combination of financial support, infrequent hours at my University library, writing content for my stepfather’s educational website, and covering people’s holidays and lunch breaks at a boutique. I truly had bugger all money, but during my free hours, I was as relaxed as I only am on vacation now. I would sit in cafes for hours drinking a single cup of coffee or browse used books and records at the charity shops. I loved meeting up with friends and spending hours just talking. Or, if they were away, I wrote long, handwritten letters and made little parcels to send by snail mail.

3. I cultivated my mind.

I know that this was partially because I was under the influence of a University campus, where every day was an influx of new information, but I loved learning about absolutely anything and everything. My mind was perennial and hungry and I exposed myself to as many different authors, filmmakers and musicians as I could get my hands on. My money was limited and my budget was small, but we had a great University cinema and I would cherry pick the foreign films I wanted to see and made sure I put enough money aside as I could in order to see them. Some of those films are still my favourites to this day and I’m so glad I went to see them. I made myself get out into the world and see and read and listen to as much as I could, even if that meant free exhibitions or scraping together the spare change at the bottom of my bag so I could buy a ticket to see something.

4. I didn’t spend money trying to impress others.

I owned three pairs of shoes during University: one pair of leather boots for the winter, one pair of wellington boots for when it rained, and one pair of German hiking boots for warmer weather. I don’t remember anyone making comments about my small wardrobe and shoe collection. I do recall one girl at a party saying she liked my choice to wear a sun dress with hiking boots because “it looked very French,” when in reality I just didn’t own any dress shoes or sandals. I was indifferent to people’s opinion of me and didn’t have time to worry about whether the way I presented myself with my limited resources was normal. I didn’t mourn the fact I didn’t own a blusher, I just pulled on my holey tights, laced up my boots and got on with my life.

As my tax bracket went up, the snide remarks started to soak in — those weird jokey comments that people make when they want you to know you’re being openly discussed. During my first job out of college, I decided I needed a small capsule work wardrobe of about four outfit; a few months in, a coworker told me she hoped I did my laundry regularly because if I wore my clothes more than once in a week, they might start to smell.

Now I’m very sensitive to comments from other people, and I spend way too much time worrying about what is “normal” for someone of my age and background. How much money should I be earning? How many exotic vacations should I already have under my belt? Should I own a dressing gown or a kabuki brush? Are people judging me by my phone or handbag? My broke 20 year-old student self might have slapped me, if only she didn’t have to run off and write an essay or reorganize the law library.

5. I regularly helped other people and did things for free.

I was very generous when I was broke, and I actually enjoyed helping the people around me. I’d cook meals for my friends when their student loans were delayed or give them half of what I had been cooking for myself. I’d give people a hand moving in and out of student halls. I’d give money and time to my University and organizations collecting for food banks and survivors of natural disasters even when I had very little money. I’d spend hours listening to friends, and sometimes strangers, and I’d do so with empathy. Now I just don’t have the spare time or the spare cash; three cleansers, yes, but helping other people? I’m just not earning enough to make any kind of difference to their lives.

6. I didn’t torture myself with comparisons to other people.

I’m sure there were girls at my University who had a lot more help from their parents, owned high end makeup, and could afford regular haircuts and designer handbags, but they didn’t bother me. Their lives were none of my business. Now I can get really quite riled up when someone the same age as me is wealthier and more successful, especially if that person is a woman. I am really quite embarrassed to admit I have hate-watched my share of YouTube videos where the vlogger is jetting off to L.A. and Australia on a cloud of money. It’s petty and naff of me, and it just feeds into this awful idea that every problem in the whole world can be solved by being rich. 

I have come to realize I had a lot more dignity and integrity when I was younger and had no money. At the time I was looking forward to my first job out of University where I would be earning around 15 grand a year, and I truly believed I would want for nothing if I had that. Now I earn more than double that amount and all I do is look around me and measure what I have against others. I expect that I will become wealthier as I get older, but unless I change the way I look at money and my self worth, I know I’m never going to be happy; whatever money I earn is never going to be enough.  

Phoebe Prentice-Terry is a writer, teacher and survivor of David Cameron’s various experiments in human misery. She likes Gin and Tonics, French skincare products, and is most proud of her collection of Wolford body suits.

Image via Unsplash

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  • katie_does

    Yep, yep, yep. This is my experience as well. Thanks for writing this, Phoebe!

    I’m trying to return to the no-spend days by actually scheduling them, 2 or 3 at a time, in my planner but it is so difficult to change a mindset once it’s sunk in.

  • Jack

    Wow this really really got to me….in a good way.
    I also think back to the time that I had no money, and just made do. I’d clip coupons for movie rentals, stroll around the lake, and make popcorn with the airpopper at home. I try to recreate these days on weekends but inevitably it ends with an $11 pint of icecream from a local shop, or a sporadic purchase from a store I pass.
    I’m going to bookmark this and read it over later for inspiration <3

  • Sara

    Really excellent article speaking to the perennial social issue of whether money can buy happiness – like the debate over the Princeton research study which showed that after $75,000/year, more money really didn’t make a difference in the satisfaction in peoples’ lives. I have been recently reading some economic theory on relative deprivation (I’m a grad student) and I think so much of it involves comparing yourself to those in your peer group, in real life as well as on social media. Obviously this is a subject that is worth more than simply a comment in a box, but if we were friends in person, I would definitely want to speak with you at more length about this!

  • jdub

    I’ve found it’s way easier to be frugal and responsible with money when you literally don’t have it. Back when I needed to, I managed to make $150 last 2 entire weeks between paydays, which included buying gas and groceries for myself+food for my dog, and still kept up a social life.

    Now that I don’t need to be nearly as strict with my budget and have a partner who also makes pretty good money, I find it’s more difficult to stop myself in general. I know if I need to, I can just buy my lunch a few days in a row instead of buying groceries to last the week (for the same ultimate cost!). I shouldn’t, but the fact that I literally have the money in my account is enough to make my brain scream out TREAT YOSELF! repeatedly, and I have to actively quash that stupid impulse.

    • So true. It’s a lot easier to say no to a night out or dinner at a restaurant when there simply isn’t any money in the account. I find myself easily cajoled into going over budget or dipping into savings these days because of that voice in the back of my head that says, “wellll technically, we can afford this, go on”. How to re-calibrate one’s brain to think in leaner terms is the tricky part…I’ve tried hiding the money away from myself in separate accounts that are harder to access, etc, but nothing has really stuck.

    • GBee

      Completely agree. I recently got a pretty large salary increase and I am trying to not let it mess with my budget. I hope in a few years I can give myself a break (within reason) but I have to remind myself that I was SEVERELY underpaid for a few years (and unemployed for some of that time) so this money is really just a chance to catch up.

  • alyjarrett

    I think everyone can relate to lifestyle inflation, but it would have been nice to see some action items of how you plan to combat it (e.g. contribute 10% of income to charity, increase 401(k) contributions). Ultimately, your financial behavior comes down to inner contentment and a strict understanding of wants vs. needs.

    I highly recommend reading “The Millionaire Next Door” or early retirement bloggers like Mr. Money Mustache: they remind me that external depictions of wealth mean jack shit if you don’t have the net worth to match them. I’d rather actually BE rich than simply LOOK rich. And trust me, the Joneses that people are so desperate to keep up with are most likely broke.

    One of my favorite money mantras is this: The poor drive Hondas, the middle class drive BMWs, the rich drive Maseratis, the REALLY rich drive Hondas.

    • Jean Livingston

      Love that mantra. It’s true.

  • D. Broussard

    I relate to this so much. A few years ago I didn’t have a dime to my name. I moved back home with maybe a few hundred bucks, and within a month of moving home I was making 3.50 more than I previously was. Six months after that pay increase, that number increased even more.

    It became easy to justify turning my love of Starbucks coffee into a complete obsession with coffee cocktail drinks paired with a find from Barnes and noble. Now, I am currently back in school, finishing my degree work, and I am struggling, floundering even, in regards to frugal budgeting. I’d like to think I can return to my frugal, healthier habits of home cooked veggie and lean protein dinners as opposed to fancy meals out, but only time will tell.

  • I related so much to this piece. It’s something I’ve been feeling about my own life lately. Just what I needed to read right now.

  • AJMoneyMatters

    I can so relate to this as well! I went to a private uni here in Aus where many students are financially privileged but I had to work my butt off to pay for my degree out of my own pocket. In a society where many people are focused on looks and what they have, I learned not to be affected by those things anymore and it was such a breath of fresh air. You kind of just end up doing your own thing and not worrying about spending your money just to impress people or increase your social circle.