Pinching Pennies – How We Survived On 12k A Year & Got Through Our Toughest Financial Years

I graduated high school in 2009. My boyfriend and I were both financially independent from our parents, though he is a few years older than I am. Around 2010 or 2011 were our tightest financial year or two by far.  My boyfriend was laid off from his factory job for part of that time period, and we were both trying to get through college. I was blogging but I was barely making any money. While we are still not quite in the middle class, we live much more comfortably than we did in those early years. I look back and am amazed that we got by sometimes. I thought it might be useful to share some of the ways that we cut corners and pinched pennies to get by. For reference, we were living on around 12k a year. For about a year we had foodstamps, though once we were both in college we couldn’t get them anymore. In Michigan you can’t get food stamps if both people are in college. When we did get foodstamps it was about $100 a month.

A really rough overview of our budget

1,000 a month

  • 250 rent
  • 200 car payment
  • 75 car insurance
  • 150-200 groceries (including shampoo and other household items)
  • 75-100 electric/heat
  • 45 internet
  • 50 cell phone
  • 7 Netflix (we had this about half the time. We cancelled it when money was too tight)
  • 40 gas
  • Total – 892 to 967. Leaving $33 to $108 for rare expenses like license and plate renewal, holidays, gifts, etc.

12k a year income - how to pinch pennies and cut corners


1. We had a cheap apartment. We moved to a bigger city with cheap rent ($500 for a 2 bedroom) and we had a roommate who got 1 bedroom to himself and his pets so we split rent in half. We also split other bills such as electric, but we bought all of the household items (like toilet paper).

2. We had one vehicle, so we only had 1 car payment (which was around $200).

3. We did not have cable. We did pay for internet because I was making money online from my blog (Though not much it was enough to make having internet worth it). However, for most people not having internet would make sense.

4. We bought almost no new clothing or household products. If you gain weight, or if you have children in the family of course this isn’t possible but we just kept wearing old clothes that we had had for 5+ years even though they weren’t particularly fashionable.

5. We limited going out to eat or to restaurants to our anniversary and birthday. Even then we would usually go to a fast food restaurant instead of a sit-down place to save money. We also used coupons at fast food restaurants when we did go. In our area once or twice a month we get a packet of ad/flyers for local restaurants with coupons.

6. We couponed, and only bought cheap groceries. We would buy ground beef when it was on sale for 1.99 a pound and then freeze it. We would buy tortinos pizzas when they were on sale 10 for $10 and we had coupons to save .25 on 3, making them .75 each. There are many grocery items that we buy now that we just would never have bought back then due to cost. Things like tortellini, greek yogurt, string cheese, roast, and so on. We bought a lot of potatoes because we could make baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes or homemade french fries so they provided a lot of variety at a cheap price, and they are very filling. We also ate a lot of sandwiches, eggs and toast as those were all very cheap meals. We would sometimes buy bananas or apples but we never bought berries or other expensive fruit.

7. We skimped on cleaning supplies. I would buy store-brand (or the cheapest name-brand I could get with coupons) all-purpose cleaner. I would use that in the sink, kitchen counters, bathroom sink and more. I bought a specific cleaner for the toilet but otherwise I used the cheap all purpose cleaner for almost everything.

8. We skimped on convenience products. We bought paper towel but we did not use it for cleaning counter tops or for using as napkins, etc. We only used the paper towel for really gross messes , such as when our roomates cat would puke. For almost everything else we would use towels or rags that we could wash. We could get 2 months out of a single roll of paper towel which seems crazy to me now. We used a set of reusable storage containers instead of ziploc bags. I used a washcloth to wash dishes instead of a sponge.

9. We didn’t update anything we owned. In 2012 we still owned one of those big, boxy TV’s. It looked outdated but it worked so spending money on a flatscreen would have been silly. Even if the boxy one would have died, we would have replaced it with a used one, as many people were upgrading to flatscreens and donating their old box TV’s so we could have picked up a working used one for next to nothing. We also still had desktops with boxy monitors. My monitor died that year and we bought a new thick one at goodwill for 1.99.

10. We shared one cell phone for a while. The only time we really needed to contact each other throughout the day was when I needed a ride to and from class. I was taking classes at night, when our roommate would be home. Ryan (my boyfriend) was home while I was at school too. So I would take the cell phone to class, and call or text our roommates phone to have him tell Ryan when I was ready to be picked up. When he went to work he would take the phone with him. Even though it was a really early smartphone (like a $99 one from around 2008) it technically could run a browser. It took 3+ minutes to boot up, but he could email me if he really needed to contact me. I was always at home and would check my inbox pretty regularly so we had that as a backup form of communication when really needed.

11. We have a large family with a lot of kids. For nieces/nephews birthday parties I’d shop clearance or get a fairly cheap toy ($10-$15) for kids under 10 or so. This I struggled with feeling bad about a little bit, but younger kids can get as excited about a $12 Playdoh set as they would a more expensive toy.

12. We did small celebrations for holidays. We would buy each other a stuffed animal and $5 worth of candy for Valentine’s day. Ryan was adamant about not going dirt-cheap on birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas so for those we would spend $40-$50. Other than those three we just celebrated Valentine’s day. We don’t exchange gifts for Easter or sweetest day, etc. Even those birthday and Christmas gifts were often practical. I asked for a winter coat for our anniversary one year because I had been using a jacket that wasn’t really protective enough for our midwest winters. I got Ryan shoes for his birthday once because the soles were separating from the shoe and his feet were getting wet.

13. When I had freetime I took surveys, did Swagbucks, and similar programs. The surveys were terribly boring – often 15+ minutes needed to earn a dollar or two. I would often do a few a day, so I could make maybe $40 a month or so that way. It was mind-numbingly boring and I stopped doing them as soon as we could breathe financially but those gift cards helped us bridge the gap sometimes.

14. We paid bills on time. When money is tight and you’re young and a little irresponsible it’s easy to forget to pay a bill on time, but they add on fees really quickly. After paying late fees a few times we quickly learned that being late on just one or two bills per month and having those fees added on could put us in a position of not having enough money to get by. Wasting money on late fees just was not an option. We also completely avoided credit cards because we knew how quickly those can get you in trouble.

15. We didn’t go to the movies or spend money on recreation, at all. We would go to local parks and have a picnic sometimes, or have a BBQ with family members but otherwise we mostly stayed home. We live in Michigan so we would tag along to lake michigan sometimes, which was fun and free seems how we rode with family members. We are naturally homebodies so thankfully this wasn’t too difficult for us. The hardest part was not going to the movies as we both enjoy movies. Even now we only go a couple times a year, though we would like go to pretty regularly it’s just not reasonable use of our money still.

16. We lucked out in many ways. We didn’t need vehicle repairs during those years. We’ve had vehicle trouble since, and it’s always frustrating but I always remind myself that I am so glad it’s happening now when we have some discretionary income and not during those years when we literally had no money that was not needed for other things.


17. We neglected routine things. We kept our old glasses instead of updating our scripts. We pushed the limit on how far we could go between oil changes. We had really old windshield wipers that didn’t clean the window very effectively. We went without wiper fluid for quite a while. I let my hair grow for 2+ years straight, and I just cut my bangs myself (it looked pretty bad!). Ryan even let his hair grow out for a while, then he had me shave it at home.

18. We borrowed a lot. Our landlord would never flat-out refuse to fix things for us, but he’d just put off doing it for so long that we would give in and fix things ourselves. We had a sink that would regularly get clogged and we borrowed a snake from a family member multiple times to fix it. When we needed to shampoo the carpet, we borrowed one from Ryan’s mom. When our pipes froze, we borrowed an electric heater from someone else to thaw the pipes under our sink.

19. We used birthday and Christmas money on necessities. This is another one that I feel bad about, but there were times that I would get $50 cash for Christmas and I used it towards bills or groceries because I couldn’t bring myself to use it on something fun when we were barely able to cover essentials.

20. I reused gift bags, and didn’t use cards for birthday gifts. I would buy gift wrap for Christmas, and then for spring birthdays I would wrap presents with it inside out, leaving it plain white. For kids I sometimes do this and then cover the outside with stickers to “decorate” it. With really close family I would just use a grocery store bag to hide the gift in instead of buying wrapping paper. My dad has always done the “gift in a shopping bag” thing so it didn’t feel out of place for my family.

I’m so glad that we only had to live this way for about two years. Ryan got a new job, and I was able to turn my blog into a true income. We wouldn’t have been able to continue to maintain living that way in regards to putting off oil changes and other essentials for years on end. However, these tricks and shortcuts got us through tough times without debt (aside from school debt). The little things add up to a lot when money is really tight.

Do you have any additional ways to cut corners and pinch pennies when money is really tight? Share in the comments below.


See more posts like this: Budgets

Comments 2

  • Jacqueline

    Instead of using expensive cleaning supplies, I use vinegar or baking soda. Coconut oil is great to polish my wood furniture.

  • Debra

    I raised 2 girls with erratic income and sometimes months with nothing . I have done all of this and when money comes continue them and saved .
    Give me something new for the retirement Years!

Leave a Comment

* Your email address will not be published.