4 Ideas to Live Simply and Cheaply When Times Are Tough

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” ~Basho

When I was a little girl growing up in the big woods of Maine, my mother used to say that gifts do not always come in the packages we expect. In many ways I’ve tried to live by her words, knowing that even during the rough times there are diamonds I can find if I look for them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the fact that, exactly three years ago, my husband Dan and I packed up our small car and journeyed west to Los Angeles with our dog, Hopper and cat, Ellison.

It was the very beginning of the recession. I think I speak for many of us when I say that we had no idea how devastating this “downturn” would be. Dan’s job in Portland, Maine had been put to part time. So we decided to try our luck in the land of milk and honey.

When we arrived in L.A., we had driven across the country from Maine—traversing mountains, deserts, and forests. And we were starting over.

That week I became pregnant with our first child. After that, things got harder. I was sick in bed for much of my pregnancy with an unusual condition, and Dan was the only one who could work.

But I made the best of it, because I remembered what my mom had told me.

My books became my best friends. I re-read the entire Little House on the Prairie series from start to finish and learned that, as a child, I had missed a beautiful part of Laura’s narrative: It’s actually a love story about the deep love Ma and Pa have for each other and how they help each other get through both the best and worst of times.

By the fall, I stared to feel a little better and was able to work at a small doggie couture shop for a few hours each week. And Dan’s job prospects were cooking. Even though we were on a budget, we found a way to buy the very basic essentials we’d need for a new baby (car seat, glass bottles). Everything else we got as hand-me-downs.

As the holidays arrived, I was starting to enjoy the idea of just being a mom for a little while. And in January of 2009, our son was born.

Two weeks later, the recession hit my family hard. We tried to make it work for a while, but with a new baby and no income, it was impossible. Then one evening my mom called and offered us a lifeline: “Come home, Cait,” she said. “You can live with me.”

I had never wanted to end up at my mother’s for more than a visit. But gifts…right? So, finally, with our dreams feeling crushed, we packed back up and journeyed, once again, across prairies and through cities, home to Maine where we moved in with my mother.

It was there, in the quiet simplicity of being a family coming together, that I really learned the truth what my mother used to say. As we baked bread and planted the garden; made big pots of soup and blessed our food before we ate, I often found myself humming the old Shaker hymn:

“Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, we will be in the valley of love and delight.”

And although this time at home with mom was not a gift I ever wanted—or even expected to come in a package that looked like this—it was the gift I needed.

Here are my top tips for living cheaply and simply when times are tough:

1. Simplify food.

Soups are one of the best ways to get through tough times. There’s a saying in Maine, “It’s what you do what with you got.” And, sometimes, well, when you don’t got a lot, you can pull off soup.

We often bought bulk beans at the health food store and made turkey chili that was mostly a bean chili with only a little ground turkey for flavor. Lentil soup with lots of carrots and potatoes and tomatoes is another tasty staple. Serve soups with a big hunk of homemade bread, and you’ve got meal so satisfying it feels like a gift.

(Editor’s Note: You can find 100 cheap recipe ideas here. This list is intended for college students, but once you get past the ramen section, there are a ton of great ideas!)

2. Simplify personal care.

You don’t need all the expensive creams and lotions that advertisers tell us daily we need.  All you need is some organic extra virgin coconut oil. My family uses the Whole Foods brand. It’s very delicate on our skin and we slather our bodies and faces with it in the shower and at night. Also, it’s got natural antifungal and antibacterial properties so it’s great for skin that’s dry, flaky, itchy or has acne.

(Editor’s Note: You can find a ton of homemade house cleaning and hygiene products here.)

3. Buy used.

When we were living in Los Angeles with a newborn baby and were totally broke, we were very lucky to have a wonderful kids’ thrift shop called Eden’s Green Closet right around the corner from us. Now, in Maine, we frequent resale shops for almost everything we need (even gifts!)

The Salvation Army and Goodwill are great places to find terrific hand-me-downs. In a country full of stuff, and with many of us having more than we need, someone’s always unloading great gear that needs recycling.

4. Get outside.

The recession is a great time to get some identification books out of the library and hit the great outdoors. Some good ones are the Peterson Field Guides—you can get them to birds, trees, the seashore, nests, etc.

Spending time outside and taking the time to ID the trees and birds and animals is a wonderful way to appreciate not just our own presence on the planet, but the beings with whom we share the woods, fields, rivers and oceans. Also, it’s completely free.

Of course these are just a few ideas. What are your top tips for living simply and cheaply?

Photo by criminalintent

About Caitlin Shetterly

Caitlin Shetterly is a frequent contributor to NPR and is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home. You can find Caitlin on her website at or at her blog, Passage West.

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  • Over the last year the economy has taken its toll on me and my wifes economy.

    I have wanted to surprise her and do things for her, but it has felt as though everything has to cost money.

    That was until I realized that it didn’t!

    I started spoiling her with cleaning the whole house before she got home, cooking a fancy (but cheap) dinner, giving her a massage, filling the house with candles and so on.

    You can do a lot with a small budget.

    And luckily things are turning so now I can afford to spend even more on my cheap spoiling efforts 🙂

  • Thanks a lot for post Caitlin, it makes a lot of sense to me.

    I have come abroad from India to study, till a few weeks back I was always under the perception that there are a lot of fun things i can do here but every form of fun costs money and since i can’t afford to have fun since i only have much for my basic needs (i don’t have a part time job and i have borrowed a lot of money from the bank and family) i started feeling that i must start to feel contented that i cant afford fun!

    But, i ve realised that a lot of the best things in this world comes for free!

    It makes me think, would i have gone to the park every week if i had too much money to spend on something else? Would i have seen the lovely route to my uni if i took the bus everyday?

    I ve started to enjoy the smaller things in life and to enjoy and be grateful for them wholeheartedly.

    This post just makes my thoughts more convincing to myself.

    Free hugs from Manchester!


  • Anonymous

    Great tips. I know that I have been cutting back a lot these days. Sometimes, it feels discouraging but I am seeing that I really waste a lot of time and money on things I don’t need. Thanks again.

  • Hedihorvath231

    She is truly lucky! Thank God you didnt have the money, so you gave from your heart.Your posting inspired me! Thank you!

  • Melanie

    II recommend scouring the newspapers, websites and magazines for free events. Art openings are a perfect free night out and often, the galleries serve wine and beer. Also, swapping clothing and home decor with friends is a way to freshen up an interior or your wardrobe for free. Some friends of mine do a soup swap, where each of them cooks a soup, chili or something similar, then they each divvy it up and split it with one another. How fun is that?

  • Magicloaf

    I’m fortunate enough to be able to take public transportation to work. However, I would still drive to the train station, rationalizing that it was only 3.5 miles from my house. Yesterday, I decided it was time to use mass transit to its full potential and take the bus to the train station. Turns out, it doesn’t add time to my commute at all. It’s such a feeling of freedom to not feel tied to my car as often. Of course I’m saving on gas, but I also have more time to read my library books!

  • Good for you and congratulations on finding the important things in life at a young age. I wish you health, happiness and a life of bliss as you travel the path of life. Learn the art and skill of making good choices and life will always give you what you need.

  • I love this post – I recently moved back in with my father. I, too, expected to stay out of the house once I moved out, but I haven’t been able to find a full time job since graduating from college. My dad offered up his guest bedroom a few months back and, though I was hesitant, I accepted his offer. Turns out, the support and love I’ve received from my family since moving home has been the best gift I could ever ask for. I’m learning to really enjoy spending time with my family and doing simple things like cooking a nice meal and watching a movie in the living room. I am still struggling financially, but I am happier than I have been in a long time. The little things really do matter, and those people who can find joy in simple pleasures will never be without.

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    Lovely Lee, thank you! Best, Caitlin

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    I love this. This is so beautiful Daniel! (I also love that your name is Dan–like my Dan!)

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    And your writing in has inspired me! Best, Caitlin Shetterly

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    A soup swap! I love it. This is a truly amazing idea…I’m going to try this. xxo Caitlin.

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    We can truly make our lives easier by just simplifying! Who needs all the crap out there that’s for sale!!??

  • Caitlin Shetterly

    Thank you!!! I love what you said here. Yes, we can find true bliss in just being present and not spending any money at all! Best, Caitlin.

  • I heartily agree with #4. Nature is my saving grace, my salvation from stress and worry. I moved to a new town about a year and a half ago and it is between two wetlands. Birds of all kinds find their way into the neighborhood and I am now trying to identify them. I never thought of myself as a bird person before. They are beautiful and fun to watch. And the more we know about the who and what of Nature in our backyards, we will be all the more concerned about saving it!

  • Quedita

    Those are wonderful hints! For skin care, I actually like Safflower oil better than olive oil – it doesn’t smell as much and it slides on my skin better. You can use baking soda and vinegar for most cleaning jobs – like floors, sinks, etc. You can brush your teeth with baking soda if you can stand the taste (I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it.) I don’t think there are any better pain relievers than plain aspirin and plain Tylenol and you can alternate them every two hours (that’s what Excedrin is – a mixture of the two plus caffeine.) I make big gallons of green tea instead of soda pop – and it’s supposed to prevent cancer! I love your soup idea – and I also make big batches of beans and rice or lentils and rice, with just a little meat as seasoning (optional.) It’s really fun to start thinking of ways to save – and practicing your ideas. I know I’m happier living simply than I am when I’m over-spending.

  • Seva

    great points, good basic information that a lot of people have forgotten over the years. the only thing that tugged at me as being not helpful was the coconut oil suggestion, since i know more than a few people with coconut allergies. maybe mentioning extra virgin olive oil or another thing like milk would have been helpful (and thank you to the editor for providing links to pages WITH those other suggestions!).

  • Melanie

    Enjoy Caitlin! I think if someone has a big kitchen, you could even do this as a group activity. Talk about too many cooks in the kitchen! 🙂 Melanie

  • I just heard about that coconut oil yesterday! Now, after your post, I’ve got to try it. Thanks!

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  • Bette

    Use the library.  Pay cash for everything you really need.  Learn to bake.  Spend time in nature.  Show gratitude for everything that you do have.  Keep a positive attitude.  Meditate.  It’s amazing what you can do for free.  Hug your pets.  Smile.

  • this is lovely and inspiring. I married my wonderful husband at 20 years old and these past few years have been very difficult for us (now I’m 23). we both come from well-off families (particularly me, I was used to having anything I wanted at any time, but not in a spoiled way! my sister however… :-P), so we had a tough transitional phase when we started living on our own. slowly we started to simplify our life and our things and we’ve realized it’s made us happier than we were when we had it all.

    I laughed SO HARD when I saw you mentioned soups. one of the first things we did to save money was cook our own meals. as we learned to cook, our meals got better and more intricate and complex. I took up baking again, a much loved hobby as a kid. But the simplicity of soup… I used to make a big pot of minestrone soup (with whatever veggies were in season and beans that I’d cooked myself and any spices I thought would taste nice) once to twice a week. my husband took it to his job (as a teacher) and I ate it at home for lunch every single day . that minestrone and its memories (we don’t make it much now living at his parent’s house) are still so symbolic to us of the turning point of when we started to live simpler. then we slowly eliminated shampoo, expensive soaps, lotions, body washes, and hair products, plus I started to make my own cleaning products (baking soda and vinegar — I’m tellin ya!), some on purpose, some by accident. we started to read more and really think about what we needed and what we didn’t need before we bought it.

    anyway, we’re bouncing back from those hard times. even though we’re now earning less than a few years ago, we’re spending less and saving more. when we buy something, particularly something expensive (this means more than AUD$25 lol), we think really hard about whether we truly need it. we spend our money on good food, movies, music, books, and coffee instead of TVs, furniture, and expensive personal items. we make sure we have time for each other. we try to think of ways to live even simpler and spend even less money so we can work less and have more time for each other. our families don’t get it, unfortunately, but our lives have improved so much by doing this that we could never look back. Glad to see others think like we do 🙂