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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