An Open Letter To Anyone With Nothing Left To Cut From Their Budget

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a lot like me: desperate to do anything you can to stay afloat when you’ve already trimmed the fat from your budget.

I’ve read a lot of articles that advise me to “give up my morning latte” in order to start saving and honestly if I read one more, I might get sick. I know a lot of millennials fulfill the stereotype that these articles are targeting with obvious advice, but frankly, there are just as many of us who have never lived that lifestyle.

I can’t save $2,000 a year by cooking my meals; I’m already meal planning and meal prepping my way through life.

I can’t save $200 a year by programming my energy-efficient thermostat; I’m already bundling up into the fall so I don’t have to turn the heater on.

I can’t save $5 a day by skipping my morning latte; I don’t even drink coffee!

So what can I do? What can you do?

You might be lucky enough to move back in with your parents after graduation, but more often than not, people take jobs away from home. Living rent free, while desirable (for some), isn’t always an option. I know for me, I couldn’t do the work I do anywhere else. Unless I wanted to put my career on hold, going home is impossible.

So for many years, I lived with roommates. But in one of the top five most expensive cities in the country, that failed to bring my rent costs down significantly. Even in a four-person house, I still only saved about a $100 a month compared to the cost of living alone. 

Transportation is another area the articles often point to as an easily fixable spending leak. Between car payments, parking costs, gas, maintenance, and insurance, there’s a literal gold mine to be saved by giving up your car. If you even have one to begin with, that is. Personally, I don’t even have a driver’s license, let alone a car that I could sell. And I’m already extending my commute time by taking the bus instead of the subway because it saves me $30 a month in fares. You can cut down transportation, but only to a point. Eventually, you still have to get around, and unless you’re comfortable and have the time to walk several miles a day, you’ll probably have to pay some amount of money to do so.

Side hustles are touted as a great way to increase income, and they are a viable option for many people. If you have experience with looking after kids, dogs, or people’s homes, or you have a car to drive for a rideshare service, then those are great ways to bring in extra money. But if you don’t have those skills, then it seems you’re left with surveys and/or transcription work, both of which can be more time-consuming than economical. A single ten-minute audio file (which would pay about $5-6 for transcription depending on the site) could take you an hour to type if the audio quality is poor. If you’re taking on a side hustle after a full-time job, it needs to have a high dollar per hour ratio, like babysitting, dog walking, bartending, etc. in order to be effective. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option; you just may not have the requisite skills.

The hard truth is that, eventually, you’re going to hit a wall with your finances. You’ll reach a point where you’ve done everything you can do to trim your budget, and you’re just going to have to accept that and get comfortable with it. You’ll have trimmed all the extra coffee trips and clothing splurges you never indulged in in the first place, and that’s going to have to be enough. At least for a little while.

I’ve been living on a modest income for the last few years. I’ve reduced my expenses in a lot of ways to keep myself afloat. But that’s pretty much all I was able to do until very recently: float. I got by and was maybe able to afford something extra here or there, but I wasn’t saving, and I used to feel so guilty about that. It made me physically uncomfortable to see my bank accounts so low, even if my savings balance was relatively consistent.

But my inability to save wasn’t my fault. I did everything I was supposed to do. I budgeted. I monitored my usages. I cut out unnecessary “splurge” things. I ate at home, lived with roommates, and shopped in bulk. I side hustled. I did everything right, and I still hit the wall.

So I accepted it, and I continued to get by. And now that I’ve been promoted at my job (and given a raise), I know that I can live without that extra. I know that I can save the new income I’m bringing in, or use it to pay down my student debt. I haven’t been able to shake my financial guilt for the last few years, and at times, it’s been really hard to say to friends “I can’t afford that.” But I’ve done it, and it didn’t kill me, and I know I can continue to do it for the sake of my financial health. And hopefully, that means that this time next year, things will be even brighter, and I’ll finally be able to say that I feel like I’m in a good place financially.

So don’t give up hope when you hit the wall. Accept that you’re doing everything you can do, and be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished. Keep your chin up and stay afloat until you figure out how to increase your income — but don’t beat yourself down over things that are out of your hands. Just do the best you can for as long as it takes for things to get a little easier. And then, don’t give up your frugal habits when things finally do ease up; use that strength you’ve built as a foundation for your future.

I know you can do it, because — like me — you’re already doing it.

Bree Ross is a twentysomething paralegal in Washington DC. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, runs a personal blog called Sublunar Reflections, and watches way too many superhero TV shows.

Image via Unsplash

  • Allie Cleve

    Thanks for this article, I also hate it when the advice I’m given is to cut out eating out and morning lattes because I already don’t do those things! I actually made a list once of all the things I could cut out of my budget if I absolutely had to (like if I lost my job) but it only came to about 150€ a month and frankly the quality of life those things add (I’m talking Netflix, the occasional bottle of wine at home, buying meat to cook with, etc) far surpasses their cost! So for now I’ve decided to stop beating myself up about it and continue as I am and when my income does increase I can put that increase into my savings.

    • Ros

      Thanks for mentioning this! I’ve got a similar list, and came to a similar conclusion. Literally, the list of things that increase my quality of life but could be cut works out to less than 4% of my family’s monthly expenses. Like. I get that cutting Netflix and not having a 4$ bottle of wine would save 12$, and if I didn’t have 12$ I’d do it, obv, but advice that boils down to “remove all joy from your life to save 100$/month!” isn’t all that appealing.

      (That said, my husband got laid off 2 weeks before the start of my last maternity leave, and knowing how much we COULD cut was a lifesaver. Good knowledge.)

  • cee_nilke

    Great article! Your honest tone was really refreshing–especially because you managed to make the whole article neutral-to-positive without ending on a “surprise, then I won the lottery/invested in Bitcoin/etc.” ending.

    Also, as a fellow DC resident dependent on this city for my career path, I sympathize a lot. Actually was betting you were in DC and thus really pleased to be vindicated.

    • Anne Pearl Herman

      This! I agree 100%. I appreciated the structure of your post so much. You took us through your thought process so we as readers could arrive at the conclusion on the same page as you. Thank you for posting and for presenting a refreshing perspective.

  • Jeanna

    I’m definitely in this boat. I feel like my only option is to make more money, which is a little hard when you’re already working one job, but I’ll figure something out eventually. The hardest part is keeping your head up and continuing to move forward despite everything, but I’m doing my best.

  • Great article. I’ve also found that spending money in some areas of my life has a positive flow on effect to others. I could save over $600 a year by cutting out a gym membership but it keeps me busy after work, makes me happy and in general when I feel good in my clothes I have less desire to spend money on clothing. I find a lot of money articles only focus on the bottom line and not that you might potentially be more miserable/spending money because of this like you illustrate.