Updated on 07.13.11

Making It on Very Little

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

Toni on Facebook suggests “I’d like to see an article on how the really working poor can make it financially. You know the ones who have already cut the cable, extra phones and still struggle with poorly paying jobs while going to college to improve their financial situation.”

There are many things that people can do in situations like the one you describe. However, some of these are hard for many people to swallow.

First, get your pride in check
A lot of hard-working people who find themselves in a situation where it’s almost impossible for them to get ahead financially are simply too proud to take the steps they should be taking to get out of their situation and put themselves on a better path.

Get over it. Most of the things I’m going to describe are things that were designed for people in your exact situation. They’re designed for people who are working hard to improve their situation but are finding it difficult to do so. The entire point is to get people on a better path, regardless of what some people use them for. The reputation of such tools do not define who you are. You define who you are by how you use these tools.

Use publicly-available resources
There are a lot of resources out there just waiting to be used by people who need the help. Here are just a few of them.

SNAP The federal government offers assistance for food purchasing for people of low incomes. These typically come in the form of a debit card that you use only for food purchases. It’s free food if you have a low income, which directly reduces the impact that food costs has on your monthly budget.

Food pantries A more immediate solution is food pantries, which exist to provide food for the working poor. The food pantries in our area always have plenty of food. Stop in and see what’s available.

Energy subsidies Contact your energy company and ask about programs for low-income individuals. Many energy companies will work with you to help abate energy costs if you can demonstrate need.

Churches Pastors and priests will help you. They’re often great sources for advice and also can point you to useful resources in your area for low-income individuals.

The key thing is that you’ve got to actually use these things for them to become useful. When you are using them, you can’t waste the financial surplus they create in your budget. You need to use that money to eliminate debts, save for future purchases (like replacement cars), save for education for yourself, and so on. The goal is to get yourself out of the situation you’re in and on the path to a better life.

The biggest reason programs like the above get a questionable reputation is because individuals in the programs make the choice to not help their long-term situation, whether it’s due to addictions, personal or psychological problems, or a lack of education. You are not defined by these cases. Your future is up to you.

Have a clear plan for getting out of the situation
Thus, having a plan is an essential key for success in these situations. Where are you headed? Where you do want to go in the future? For many people, education is the key, but there may be barriers to cross before going there. Often, there’s a pile of debts to overcome as well – car loans, payment plans for poorly-conceived purchases, and so on.

Some common goals that you may want to consider include debt freedom (or, in smaller pieces, elimination of each of your debts), getting an education in a topic you’re interested in (whether it’s trade school, community college, or even a four year university), or getting a needed medical procedure (such as dental replacements or eye correction) that will make you more marketable in the workplace.

Whatever ones apply to your situation, commit to them. Use every dime you save through the programs described above to achieve those goals. Get rid of your debts (and prepare for future expenses). Get an education. Do whatever you need to do to put your life on a better path.

Another important step is to seek out anyone in your life who is following or has followed this kind of path. Stick with those people and go to them when it’s difficult. This isn’t easy.

Good luck.

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  1. MattJ says:

    This comment thread could be epic.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    The county we live in has one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. & has ranked there for at least 10 years.

    First, I can say that most of those in our area who are “truly the working poor” don’t have the time or means to go to school, whether due to the money constraints or educational level completed. So if you’re a poor college student, you’re a step ahead already.

    Your one remaining phone (you say you got rid of your extra phones) should be either a land line with the most basic of plans, or an inexpensive, no frills pay as you go cell, used sparingly to keep that cost to an absolute minimum.

    The working poor in our area as a rule pay cash for everything; so if they don’t have the money, they don’t get it, whether it’s a nicer place to live (most share houses or apartments with a remarkable # of other people), eating out, going to a movie or renting a DVD. When they shop, it’s at flea markets, thrift stores, dollar stores, and yard sales, and they rely on the resources Trent lists for most of their food (plus WIC for women with infants) or barter services. They use public transportation or walk, maybe have a bicycle or one beater car they repair themselves. If they smoke, they buy 1 cigarette at a time (illegal, but the markets will sell them that way) if they have the cash. They are on Medicaid if they need medical care.

  3. Ginger says:

    Also, make a budget actually see if you are spending your money on necessary items and need help or if you are spending on wants and therefore do not have the money for needs.

  4. I’m going to go a little unconventional here and suggest student loans. You say you have a poorly paying job abd are trying to better your situation by going to school.
    In this situation, student loans are certainly designed to help you. Some of which maybe forgiveable if you qualify (which you might).
    Also, don’t saddle yourself with a low paying job while going to school if it isn’t in your field of study.
    If you are earning a low income, you might as well be doing it in a job related to your future career. Specific career-related experience will allow you to better compete for positions upon graduation.
    The bottom line is that you have chosen to try to better your situation by going back to school. This is an investment in yourself, treat it as such.

  5. Kris says:

    When I was scraping by, there were also low income options for phone service (I live in California). I had a discounted “Lifeline” rate with my phone company. That, combined with my discount on utilities really helped.

  6. Jim says:

    I’m a Pastor and let me say that we, in general, do want to help people. That’s part of the gospel of Christ. But please don’t call a church randomly and ask for $800 for rent or $1,200 for car repairs. There are very few churches that have those kinds of resources. First approach the Pastor of the church you attend. Second, ask if there is some benevolence funds available. Third, don’t ask for the moon!

  7. The issues facing the working poor are vast and complex – and so too are the public and private support systems that are intended to help them.

    Perhaps a better project would be to consolidate all of the public and private resources available to the working poor into an easy to use website where the individual can find all of the assistance that he/she qualifies for. From there, it would be a matter of building a plan, plugging in the available resources, executing said plan, and moving up out of poverty.

    I haven’t read any statistics on this, but it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine someone in this demographic missing out on 80% or more of the opportunities available to them as a result of not being fully aware of their options.

  8. Tanya says:

    It’s great that food pantries in your area have plenty of food; in my state, and other places, food pantries are struggling just like everybody else. My understanding is that, like churches, they want to help but they have limited resources so they try to help the people facing emergencies and dire situations. Our community has food drives regularly to help keep the food pantries stocked so they can help people. We also have backpack programs at schools and meals at the Boys and Girls Club through the summer to try to keep up with the needs of people in our community. I imagine more communities than not are like ours.

    If you have the means to buy an extra bag of groceries now and then for the food pantry, do it. Every little bit helps and is needed – and no, I don’t work for a food bank. I just see what’s going on in the world.

  9. kristine says:

    Michael- I agree! The truly poor do not have laptops, and the library is long wait to use the internet. And if you don’t know where to start…

    One well-known aggregate site would be a huge service to the working poor population! 911 once meant nothing- it was a huge push to have one single number for all emergencies, no matter the state. We need the same kind of organizational and publicity push for public resources for the working poor.

  10. Adam P says:

    JD at Get Rich Slowly has a wonderful post for people who are truly down and out and about to become homeless/starving with all sorts of links to resources and the comment thread is wonderful as well with advice. I’d link it but end up in moderation hell.

    I truly believe that the problem with many people who are down and out/homeless is that they have untreated/undiagnosed mental illness which prevents them from being able to help themselves.

  11. kristine says:

    A big fan of Suze, I just noticed and clicked on that category. The first article is one disagreeing with her stance that an 8 month emergency fund should trump debt repayment, as the recession was predicted to end in 2010. The article was written in April 2009. Any thoughts? The reality has sure changed since then!

  12. Meg says:

    We were there until a few years ago (husband out of work plus health expenses and my earning power was low until I got my degree). What we should have done differently was to let family and friends know in detail what would help. Buying the kids shoes (its hard to find 2nd hand that are right). Rides on the 1 day of the week that sharing a car didn’t work. Lending tools and skills.
    Having friends in the same boat helped. Whoever was near the discount bread place would get huge bags and divide it up among 3 families. We compared dental school clinics and spoke up about expensive school picture packages.
    Having middle class friends with access to information and contacts helped. Those who are the most desperate are sometimes surrounded only by others in the same situation.
    So now we don’t give much money, but we do provide resources (recommend for jobs, transportation, invitations to events, information, childcare, community garden support, etc)

  13. almost there says:

    Walter Williams wrote a column years ago on how a couple both earning minimum wage could live a comfortable life and own a home. I don’t believe children were in the mix though.

  14. Bookaunt says:

    Re: churches as sources of help -it isn’t just the pastors, priests, or other leaders! Are you members of a religious congregation with relationships with other members? A congregation often functions as a member support system and a ready-made network to find out about job openings or other resources. During our “poor period” we were often the recipients of fellow church members’ generosity. On the other side of that time in our lives we try to be alert for opportunities to “pay it forward”.

  15. The equivalent of 9-1-1 actually exists. It’s 2-1-1 and operates in many communities, offering information on everything from how to get glasses for your kid to where you can sleep once you’ve been evicted.
    Do a search for “2-1-1- Call Center.” I’d put in the URL but it might trigger some kind of spam filter.
    Incidentally, I wrote that article for Get Rich Slowly. You can find it by searching with that site’s name plus the headline “Unemployed? Underemployed? Here’s how to get help.” It contains a lot of links to the sites you need, from SNAP to rental assistance programs.

  16. Jessica says:

    I grew up living this way. The first thing you must do is get your priorities straight.

    Food: not potato chips and pop. Nutritious food that will keep your belly feeling full. Peanut butter. Oatmeal. Wheat bread. Bananas and apples.

    Entertainment: not the latest gaming system. Puzzles. Board games. Library books.

    Transportation: not the biggest SUV on the block.

    Housing: Not in the richest neighborhood. Not the biggest place. Think of it as a place to eat, sleep and shower.

    If people see you frittering your money away on junk- gadgets, toys, fancy clothes, manicures, hair styling, takeout… they will stop helping you.

    Also community resources like freecycle and craigslist… people will list excess garden produce, outgrown clothes and toys, household appliances they non longer want, books and magazines, crafting supplies, textbooks et cetera. Craigslist also has a barter section. Bulletin boards in public places also often offer these.

    Check with your kids’ school or your health department or university for health care and food programs, as well as clothing pantries and supply closets.

    And if you can give, give. I give away all our useful outgrown and unwanted items. I could go through the hassle of trying to sell on ebay, Craigslist or a yard sale but I know people in my community are hurting. So I give away instead. I also donate regularly to a domestic violence shelter (all those free deodorants I get playing the ‘drugstore game’) and food pantry (all that free pasta I get with coupons). You don’t have to give $$$$ (though that can help too). You can give your kids outgrown clothes and games and toys to another family so they don’t have to hoof it down to Goodwill and pay $$$.

  17. Adam P says:

    Sorry Donna I didn’t mean to not give you credit for your post at GRS!

  18. kristine says:

    Donna, that’s great! I wish that it was as well known as 9-1-1. I read personal finance books and blogs, and newspapers, and the online community newspaper, and watch local news. Sadly, this is the first I have ever heard of 2-1-1! I could have really used it years ago!

  19. Carole says:

    Peop;e who have normal or above normal intelligence can often work themselves out of poverty by various means. The problem is with people who aren’t so bright and didn’t have good role models. These people exist and they need to live, too. I don’t know what the answer is.

  20. Brittany says:

    The problem isn’t innate intelligence, Carole. The problem is the second half–not having good role models/leadership growing up. Intelligence is a cultivated trait. I know a lot of dumb adults. I’ve worked with kids across all socioeconomic lines over the last 8 years, and I’ve never met a dumb kid, just a lot of kids who had never been taught values that lead to success or how to make positive decisions, and didn’t have many models to discern these things for themselves. Every “rags to riches” success story I’ve heard has one thing in common–the kid had a strong adult in his/her life that encouraged these positive traits and helped him/her grow their skills, intelligence, and positive decision-making ability, whether it was a parent, a grandparent, a coach, a teacher, etc.

  21. Christine says:

    Dollar Stretcher – stretcher.com – is a free e-zine published weekly on Mondays. It’s filled with practical, money saving advice.

    ‘It’s your money or your life’ by Joe Dominguez is an introduction to a new way of living your life and using your money.

  22. Maura says:

    One of the biggest expenses is housing. There are affordable housing apartments in most parts of the country. They are sponsored by HUD, or USDA, or may be built with low-income tax credits. Look for one in your area. Some are restricted to seniors, or farmworkers. You have to have income below a certain amount, depending on the number of people in your household. If you qualify APPLY now! They may not have a unit available now, but you need to get on the waiting list. For people in a HUD property or UDSA property your rent is no more than 30% of your income. Call your local Housing Authority and see if you can get a Section 8 voucher. If their waiting list is closed, call them regularly to see when they will open up the list. Many landlords will accept Section 8 vouchers, which pay part of your rent. If you have a disability, local social services agencies may be able to help you get low-income housing. With low-income rental housing and food pantries or food stamps, it can take a big financial burden off a family.

  23. Maura says:

    Also for prescription drugs, look into the very inexpensive generics offered by WalMart and Costco. Some drugs that are patented are going off patent this year, or next, including lipitor and advil, which will make them much cheaper. And some drug manufacturers have a program to help low-income people.

  24. JuliB says:

    Catholic churches will usually have a St Vincent dePaul ‘conference’ (group). They can sometimes help with an urgent bill, a voucher for clothing, or food (be it in the form of a gift card at a grocery store) or actual food from a pantry. There are no religion checks at the door :) . However, it is all at the discretion of the group. We have a food pantry (I put away the food from the monthly food drive) and we do give gift cards for the grocery store, as well as help with an occasional bill. So if you are in need, please call the closest Catholic Church.

    Another place to consider if you have an important need is ModestNeeds.com . I donate there monthly and help to fund many requests.

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