“I Can’t Even Afford To Eat”

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I receive comments on my blog everyday. Some are happy, some are angry, and some just hit my heart like a ton of bricks.

Today, I received one of those comments.

Cant Afford To Eat

A reader came across our story of how we survived on $14 an hour. In that post, we break down the exact budget we used to live on $14 an hour during our first year of marriage. It was a tight budget, but we made the most of it, and even saved a little money at the same time.

Marie dropped by in the comments section to tell me her story. It weighed on my heart, so I wanted to post it here, and my response to her to try and give some hope to her situation.


I can see how 2 people can do it on their incomes. I am single parent of a college student and I make under 13 an hour. I have house and utilities, college, car and I am broke every week after I pay all my bills, maybe $25 to live on for 2 weeks. I have to work at least 2 days a week overtime so I can buy food. There are no deductions I can get, I already checked. So what is someone like me suppose to do? I can’t get ahead. I can’t even afford to take a vacation let alone buy food to eat. It should be against the law for us to be put in this situation, they have all kinds of tax breaks for rich people or people that don’t work and we are paying for it. I have to suffer because I have to take care of all the people that choose to not and live off of the system. They are better off than I am. What kind of self worth does someone like that have? I could not, in my head, ever lower myself to that level.


Marie is in a tough spot, it’s easy to see why she is losing heart. With her responsibilities and income, she can barely put food on the table.

I wanted to address her situation, and ended up writing out 6 steps she could take to help get her head above water and start to take back control of her financial situation.

My Response:

Thank you so much for reaching out, my heart hurts hearing your story and struggle here.

Here are a few things I’d look at, because it seems you won’t be able to keep your head above water here without some major changes:

1) Find a support community. Single moms are strong, but having a support team around you will give you that much more to help build you up. Local Christian churches are HUGE into helping those who are in difficult situations, especially single moms. Find a local church you trust and lean into their resources for helping give you the support you need. This is HUGE!

2) As much as it hurts, college is not a requirement to live. Skipping groceries to put your kid through college is NOT the right move here. They will need to find work and help pay their own way thru, even if it takes a year or two longer. This will also build EXTRA hustle and character to go and kill it in the professional world when graduated.

3) Make a basic budget, with ONLY the necessities listed. That means, Food, Shelter, Transportation, Clothing. No extras, no eating out, no entertainment (until your situation stabilizes). Do everything in your power to say “NO” to anything outside of this budget. Check out my “Emergency Budget” post HERE

4) Car payment needs to go. This means finding a way to sell it, pay off the loan, and have cash to buy a basic used car to get by. We’re talking a $2k – $3k, 10-year old Honda Civic or similar car. If you are upside down on the loan, I’ve put together a full guide to getting out of your car payment, including upside down loans – In the meantime, if possible, find alternate transportation to work and back. Car gas and insurance can cost a lot, even with no car payment, so having an alternate to car commuting would be ideal.

5) After you do the above (I know it will be tough, these are HUGE changes, but necessary), it’s time to find more income. I’ve got a list of 20 things here – https://www.roadmapmoney.com/2013/03/20-ways-to-make-money/
There are also some great side hustles you can find HERE and HERE. The point here is to get some extra income to build a cushion and savings to help you get back above water.

6) TAKE. A. DEEP. BREATH. I just dropped some monumental tasks in your lap, but you’ve fought and struggled and made it this far, I know you have the power to make these changes and take back control of your financial life. I’ve struggled to make ends meet, worked 3 jobs before, and have counseled people out of debt, and the one thing that helps all of them win is HOPE. Do not lost hope here, there is always a way. It’s all about how much effort and life change you are willing to make to get there. Take it 1 step at a time.

I hope this helps, I know what I asked of you is difficult, but it’s better than the alternative of drowning in debt and not being able to put food on the table. You are a single mom, you already have 10x more built-in hustle than any regular human being, and you are far stronger than you even know.

For any of you that are struggling to get your money in order, realize that there is ALWAYS A WAY.

It may not be easy, but it is possible.

I hope this post can show that no matter your situation, there is always opportunity to take back your financial life.

Comments:  Have you ever been in a situation where you were unable to pay all your bills? What did you do about it? What are some tips you would have for Marie here?

Jacob Wade

Jacob Wade

Jacob Wade has been a nationally-recognized personal finance expert for the past decade. He has written professionally for The Balance, The Spruce, LendingTree, Investing Answers, and other widely-followed sites. 
He’s also been a featured expert on CBS News, MSN Money, Forbes, Nasdaq, Yahoo! Finance, Go Banking Rates, and AOL Finance.

In 2018, Jacob quit his job and his family decided to sell everything (including their home) to take off on an adventure. They traveled the country in an RV for nearly 3 years, visiting over 38 states, 20+ national parks and eventually settling in the sunshine state!

29 thoughts on ““I Can’t Even Afford To Eat””

  1. 2015 was the first time in my life that yes, I can relate to this situation. We’re currently months behind on our bills, paying only whichever one sends us letters threatening to cut off our services and/or charge us a pentaly fee. (I can’t pay the balance, why do you think I can pay a fee?)
    I am working a second job now, so hopefully the worst is behind us, but who knows. My fiancé’s schedule is all over the place, so his paycheques can be drastically different each time. And I’m barely making $14/hr and we have to catch up before we can get ahead.
    Speaking from experience, there always seems to be something else you can cut from your spending. When I was first laid off 2+ years ago, we thought we had cut back all we could but as our finances continued to get worse, we learned otherwise! Now I’d love it if we could go back to how things were at first.
    I hope Marie and others in similar situations are willing to make some tough decisions and are able to releive some (or all!) of their financial stresses. It’s not a fun way to live…

    • Thanks for sharing Amanda. Being behind on bills can make you feel so deflated, like standing at the bottom of a pit with no escape ladder. But there is always hope, as long as we are alive 🙂

      You are approaching things correctly, you pay for necessities first, and anything outside of that does NOT get paid if you don’t have the money. Bill collectors can get angry all they want, but if the money isn’t there, they do NOT get paid. You feed your family, give them shelter and clothe them first….all others are second priority.

      I pray your second job and fiance’s position can solidify and help you keep climbing. This is NOT a forever problem, you will get there, it’s just hard when you can’t see the finish line yet.

  2. At one point in my life, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, ran a seasonal business, and carried a full load in graduate school. ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Even today, I am winding things down as I approach (early, I’m in my 50s now) retirement but I still work 2 part-time jobs (one pays the bills, the other is something I enjoy), I sold my business but still work for the company that purchased it, am helping my husband launch his new business, handle the administrative duties for his existing business and I continue to take classes and work on self-improvement. We’ve never been rich but also never felt as though we had to do without. To this day, I do not buy something unless I can pay cash for it, the only exception being a new vehicle but then we always pay them off within 2-3 years. If we can’t do that, then we view it as something we can’t afford. Live within your means and beneath your seams, like granny said! Develop your own hustle and make things happen. No one will hand it to you.

  3. You gave some great advice Jacob. Depending on the area, she may consider renting out a room (or Air BnB?) Really, having the college kid help with finances is a must. Where is Dad?
    Also curious to what they are actually buying for groceries. Are there cheaper alternatives?We live really cheap, by utilizing the 50% off stickers and really stocking up on sales.

    • Kathryn,
      Renting may be an option, depends on if “housing” is owned or rented. Not sure here.

      As for “where is dad”, I would assume this is a non-factor, as a single mom, getting “dad” to pay for anything will NOT happen, and will just bring more heartache, in most cases. It’s an unfortunate reality 🙁

      And yes, a good grocery strategy, meal planning and shopping sales could go a long way here. I think cutting some of the big things first will help her get her bearings and be motivated to do those things. When in a situation like this, it’s hard to think about strategy, let alone planning out meals and the like. But finding a great way to buy groceries for 50% off will definitely need to happen, and can help propel her forward 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Man, I feel that pain – been there and done that (although not under the exact circumstances). Cook at home – yes, sandwiches or cereal can be dinner and eggs are a great budget stretcher; get your clothes, housing things 2nd hand – goodwill/salvation army; check out local food banks; play games at home – you can get a deck of cards or used games at 2nd hand stores; get on a written budget which includes savings and don’t vary from it; google free stuff in your area – parks, museums, furniture, etc; make a gratitude journal and count every one of the blessings you do have (and trust me, you have plenty, but you need to acknowledge them, e.g. health, safety, love….); make games out of every one of these things so that they are fun and not a burden; count your blessings AGAIN and find another way to bring in money – babysitting; dog walking; cooking for others – anything you have a particular talent for (and you’ve got ’em, everybody does). Best of luck. Been there and done that and it is tough, but it is NOT insurmountable.

    • Thank you for the tips Jim, love to hear more ways to save money. And you are correct, there is ALWAYS a way. Sometimes tough to see through the anxiety of the situation, but hopefully these tips and help clear that up 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Great tips on how to make more and spend less! What has worked for me to keep my hopes up is to focus on what is in my control. Don’t spend any more time thinking about the government or other people-it is a waste of brain power and energy.

    Focus on what is in your control and own it! IF you want to keep paying for college, think about that on the overtime days. “I am _choosing_ to work overtime to pay for college” Price out the cheaper car so you know the exact different and then make an active decision based on the numbers. What do I value more, this car or overtime? This type of thinking reminds me that I am in charge of my money and just feels better.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Dear Marie,


    I get it! I’m a single mom to a teenage son who is on the brink of college. I have worked for a meager salary trying to make ends meet and not quite making it — often not even coming close — many times in my adult parenting life. It sucks, it hurts, it’s hard, and it can be totally demoralizing.

    Here are some of the ways I got through and ways I would have considered had it been necessary:

    1 — As mentioned, seek out community support. This should/could take more than one form and may mean more than one avenue of support. Join a single mom’s group — see if you can find one that includes other moms of teens or adult children. Find help at your local church, mosque, or temple.

    2 — Find FREE alternatives to anything and everything in your life. Cut your internet and use internet at the library. Get DVDs at the library instead of using cable and instead of Netflix or Hulu. Air dry your laundry instead of using the dryer if you don’t live in a humid climate (FREE drying!). Collect FREE samples if you come across them and then use them — sign up for PinchMe.com for a few freebies periodically in exchange for answering a super short review of those samples (I was surprised by how good the samples are and how easy the review surveys are!). Read books and magazines from the library for free and be sure you ALWAYS return items on time (I write it on my calendar and put a reminder in my phone).

    3 — Food pantry/closet/bank: Visit your local food pantry. You have to eat. Period.

    4 — If you need feminine hygiene products, sign up for the mailing lists of every company that makes them (maybe consider a second email address as this can generate TONS of email). Some will send you free samples (you can even email them and ask for samples) and almost all will send you coupons. OR, consider cloth pads and learn to make your own (lots of online tutorials available).

    5 — If you have a primary care doctor and take/need medication, ask for samples. Tell them you really can’t afford to buy medications, even from the $4 medication program. Also, contact the manufacturers of any medications you use and ask if they have financial assistance programs, samples, or coupons.

    6 — Contact your utilities companies and ask about economic/income based plans. I was really surprised to qualify for a 40% reduction in our electric bill based on my income! Also, ask about equalized billing plans (where your usage for the year is averaged out so you pay about the same amount monthly over the course of the coming year).

    7 — Have your son apply for any and all grants and scholarships possible, even if they seem like a long shot. FREE money for college is available but few take the time to really look for it, apply for it, and follow the directions to qualify if they do apply. Talk to the financial aid officers at his school to see what options are available for grants and scholarships from the school, INCLUDING work study options.

    8 — Have your son get a job to start paying for some of his own expenses. My son loves chips and dip. It’s not in my budget so if he wants chips and dip instead of the food I buy, he has to earn money for it himself. He is learning financial responsibility as well as learning to weigh wants vs needs.

    9 — Take a hard look at grocery shopping habits. Can you buy your groceries for less somewhere else? Do you have a WinCo or Cub nearby or Aldi or Grocery Outlet? These stores frequently (but not always) have better prices than any other grocery stores. WinCo and Cub (not sure about Aldi) also have bulk bins for dry goods and they are almost always cheaper than packaged goods. I buy rice, dog food, pasta, baking supplies from the bulk section and buy enough for one to two weeks at a time and save a ton of money that way. I also use SavingStar.com and Ibotta (an app you can download to a smartphone, but maybe it can be used on a computer too?) for additional savings in the form of grocery rebates.

    10 — Can you earn money in non-traditional ways? Can you dog sit or dog walk in your spare time? Do you sew — can you offer tailoring or to fix buttons or to fix hems? Can you babysit or tutor? Often you can earn cash for these types of things and for some can earn a lot of money, depending on where you live. Tell your friends, family, and neighbors that you are available to do this kind of work or that you are available for odd jobs that they might have. Ask them to refer you to others.

    11 — Can you get a roommate OR move in to someone else’s home to cut the cost of your rent?

    12 — If you live in your own home or apartment without roommates, consider keeping the thermostat cooler in winter and warmer in summer. We do 65F in winter and wear extra layers and use blankets. We do 85F during the summer and wear shorts and tank tops.

    13 — Don’t use/buy aluminum foil, parchment paper, plastic wrap. Instead, cover food in the microwave with another plate. Use containers with lids to store food in the fridge and freezer.

    14 — Inventory your pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what you actually have on hand. You might need to eat some creative or weird meals, but nothing should be wasted — if you bought it, you should eat it unless it’s gone bad or is too far expired. If you find foods you bought a long while ago, consider never buying them again — if you bought it and didn’t ever eat it there was a reason why and that was wasted money.

    15 — Inventory food you THROW OUT. Put a piece of paper on your fridge or cupboard and write down every piece of food you throw away. Then, after the list has grown, take a look at it. Was it leftovers, stuff that expired, stuff that went bad/got old/moldy? WHY did you throw it out? Make a plan to really minimize throwing away any food.

    16 — Laundry — in addition to air drying your laundry, does everything need to be washed every time? Many people wear their jeans several times before washing. Same with bras. Can you get away with washing some things less often? We only wash socks, underwear, and t-shirts every time we wear them. We also use towels more than once before washing, and make sure to hang them up carefully so they dry out fully between uses.

    17 — Toiletries, detergents, soaps — can you use LESS of these items or water them down and still get the same effect? We’ve found that our shampoos, dish soap, and laundry detergent work JUST AS WELL with up to 50% dilution with water.

    18 — Get the book Tightwad Gazette from your library. If it’s not available, see if your library participates in OverDrive so you can get it as a digital loan. It has amazing ideas and resources that really saved us when money was so tight I was in utter despair at how to make ends meet.

    (((HUGS))) You aren’t alone, and don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

    • Malea,
      This is PHENOMENAL advice, thank you so much for dropping by to encourage and teach here 🙂 All great tips, and goes to show that saving money is all about thinking outside the box, knowing what IS and IS NOT a required expense, and then finding creative ways to SAVE MONEY on those budget items that are required.

  7. If she has been helping her son pay for college, I wonder if she is claiming the college tuition on her tax return? I’m a little fuzzy on remembering the requirements or if she is claiming him as a dependent but I know that for the first couple years I was in college and my parents claimed me as a dependent but didn’t claim tuition costs they could have and missed out on knocking down their taxable income.

    Jacob, you laid out some good steps. Ultimately it comes down to challenging your mindset on everything. I have never been in this situation but I can only imagine the toll it would take on you. Good luck Marie!

    • That is definitely key. Especially with the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the first $2,000 should be coming back, plus an additional $500 on the next $2,000 spent.

      And yes, this is a mental battle with some tough decisions ahead, but there’s lots of possibility here 🙂

  8. Great response Jacob. In those situations, ruthless prioritization is key. It’s crazy to think anything could be more important than our basic food and shelter, but we can so easily find ourselves in those situations without really realizing it. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of mindfulness and checking in with your spending every month to make sure it’s truly in alignment with your goals (based on your means of course). The other major ingredient here would be increasing income. The greater your means, the greater your flexibility to spend on your priorities.

    • Agreed 100% Stephanie. Getting everything on paper (or spreadsheet) each month helps make more informed decisions and can clarify your priorities quickly. And yes, next step is find ways to bring in extra income. There are so many side hustles out there these days that you can do from home, I know Marie will be able to make this happen!

  9. I talk to people every day, who can not afford to live or care for their families properly. It isn’t because they mismanage their money so much as, they work one or more very low paying jobs. I believe even when working minimum wage, you can save money buy cutting out things like expensive cable packages, smoking, soda junk foods, and turning off lights when you leave a room, etc. A budget is always a helpful tool, even when struggling financially.

  10. That’s just heartbreaking. More so since such a situation is not entirely unfamiliar to me. Back in the ’90s my parents and I had to survive on a little under $50 a month for half a year.

  11. I agree with all your advice Jacob. One other idea could be to looking into reducing housing costs. Refinance, get a roommate, sell the house and rent could all be viable options to lower monthly housing/utility costs.

    There are other unmentioned items that could factor in as well: cell phone, TV, internet, home phone, etc. All of these can be optimized to save hundreds of dollars a month. I am assuming all this has already been done, but some folks just don’t realize how much you can save if you go internet only and get a cheap cell phone plan like republic/cricket.

    Additionally, she could be paying for stuff out of her paycheck that she can eliminate/reduce such as short term disability, too much life insurance, etc. Send her my Marie my contact info if you like and I can help her perform a detailed analysis to see how she can squeeze out extra savings.

  12. I’m a secretary at a Christian church, and I’d like to add to point 1. We get many, many calls in the church office from strangers who need rent money, groceries, and help with utility bills. It’s impossible to tell if we’re dealing with real needs or scammers from a two minute phone call.

    Our advice is always the same. If you’d like money from this church, please come on Sunday. Please get to know us, and let us get to know you. There is a deep well of generosity sitting in these pews, and we’d love to help genuine needs. But we cannot and will not throw money blindly into a situation before we understand it.

    So, yes, please. Come and be a part of the church body. Let us help you in many ways besides money. Christ offers us an abundant, whole life, and we’d love for you to be part of all that– friendship, fellowship, spiritual growth, and generosity.

    End of sermon from the church secretary.
    And amen.

  13. I agree with your point that paying for her son’s college is not an option right now. I haven’t had a chance to review your other ways to earn money quickly, but is donating plasma one of them? It may sound farfetched, but you can get a decent amount for donating. My husband did it once while we were in law school and he got over $100 for 2 sessions. We don’t do it often, but if you were desperate, it does bring in quick money.

  14. Marie, have you changed your deductions on your paycheck? Check w/payroll, perhaps you might take more home each paycheck. I’d look into cheaper housing, cheaper vehicle and I agree w/the point about the college being one son needs to step up on and making even small savings, shelter, food and transportation the main focus of the budget. Clothes buying should fall to the minimal side where only worn out items that HAVE TO BE are replaced. Debt repayment comes last, food comes first. I wish you much luck and prosperity!!

  15. Maybe scour Craigslist and Freecycle HOURLY for free stuff you could then sell at a garage sale for free? Your son could help with this. You arent going to get rich but food money is good money. Also, offer up the items for Barter, and barter for fresh fruits and vegetables and dry goods. Someone might love to trade 5 boxes of pasta for that free lamp you picked up. Been there… It is very very hard. If it is just impossible to go on, contact your local community legal services to explore whether a bankruptcy can help you get a fresh start and relief from bill collectors, etc.

  16. I remember a time when I was searching the couch cushions for change so that I could get a Jumbo Jack from Jack in the Box. It was a tough time, but it was enough to motivate me to want a better life. I hope Marie is motivated to take the steps you outlined because they will set her up for success.

  17. I read this post and the comments once — then went back and read it again. Marie, I’m guessing you know about some of these suggestions and tips already…but you’re. Just. Plain. Tired. Of It All.
    You need to give yourself a chance to rest, so you can think the situation through more clearly. Can you allot 15 or 30 min. each day to put on some music, maybe light a candle, just close your eyes and relax? Perhaps let yourself read a chapter a day from a favorite book? (I’ve found that 15 min. in the Bible helps me, as well. Try Proverbs.)
    I’m also guessing that you are not sleeping well either, worrying about this. Somehow you must give yourself a chance to calm before you go to bed. Perhaps some lavender scent, sprayed on your pillow? (Or maybe a nicer pillow?) A more comfortable throw? The fan on, so you can’t hear outside noise? An extra 30 min. or hour before the alarm needs to go off?
    This seems pretty basic, after all the great advice from other commenters. But it can help you get through what seems like an impossible situation. I know, from experience, that anything which helps you think more clearly can jumpstart the solution to your problem.
    Now go tell your son he’s entering adulthood — and it’s time for him to start taking responsibility for his own life and finances! (Good luck, my dear.)

  18. I understand the difficulty is decisions of what to buy with not enough money beyond basics. I was in that position:
    1. My job did not pay enough for any unexpected expense, so I began social security as soon as age 62 because that paid 30% more than the job I had. I could then begin paying off unexpected debts.
    2. A college student living in my house was forced against her will to sign a complete lie about something that never happened, just because I had a different religion. (She continues sending messages of love and wanting to return to my house, but banned by a relative who controls her life.) For my time in jail for something that never happened in my 70 years, I increased my mortgage $30,000. Without assistance from people who knew I was innocent I would have to sell my house.
    3. Despite my difficulty paying, I DO NOT EAT CHEAP FOOD !) A major national discussion the last few years is about loss of weight. I like responding, “My weight has not changed 5 pounds in 50 years. I DO NOT EAT JUNK !” The most dangerous addictive drug in the world is SUGAR.
    4 I do not need to pay for drugs. My VA health care covers other things, but those I refuse. I use herbs I studied about since my father used and rarely ever need to see a medical doctor. I used them to stop prostate cancer, but also had to avoid dairy products and sugar.
    My work in most states and 20 countries did teach me the poverty and ways to maintain healthy lives. (Longest was Japan, because of the food they eat, more walking and less driving cars.)
    Most of my food all summer is from my garden. The rest of the year is more beans and brown rice, but I still buy organic vegetables and fruit. I eat some salmon in my salad, but other meat seldom.


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