How I’ve Lived On An $800 Monthly Budget In The City

November 20, 2012

Living On A Budget



Before I begin talking about my two years as an uber-broke grad student and tell you my secrets, I want to first say- for you diehard frugal folk, I’m not expecting this to be ground breaking stuff, I know you’ve heard this before or do it yourself.  My point in telling this is not to wow you with new frugal hacks, but illuminate what’s possible- especially if you’re holding back on a dream because you’re “too broke.”

Secondly, I want to say that while frugality did help me live on $800 of income a month, luck and savings were necessary to get me through, I’m not perfect and life doesn’t listen to budgets.  There were months where my emergency fund (that I had saved by working all through undergrad & during summers) was necessary to cover all of my bills. I wish I could say I was perfect each and every month- but I had months where I failed- this is why I’m a huge proponent of saving while you can to build an emergency fund.

Finally, while I did take out student loans (only to cover sky-high tuition) my goal was to stay consumer debt free and not take out any extra loans or credit cards to pay for food, fun or rent.  Of course, my situation and thus, my tactics, are not applicable to everyone, nor would I expect them to be.  I was a single lady with only one fur-baby (a rescue pug) who lived in a  a major city with public transit.  Obviously, it won’t work for everyone (heck it no longer works for me as I live in a small town now) but perhaps some of these tips would be helpful for you!


cut your rent expenses


One of the biggest drains on a very small budget is when we tell ourselves what we “need” to have without realizing the accumulating costs.  Some of my friends ended up with $10k in consumer debt after graduating because they “needed” their own space-  so they also “needed” to completely furnish that space.

I had two roomies, no door to my bedroom (a curtain, y’all!), no dishwasher & I had to use a laundromat a few blocks over.  I did though, get to live within walking distance of campus for about $350 a month with utilities.  Yes, $350 a month total. My two years in Chicago was not glamorous but I was able to graduate without credit card debt and heck, with a few hilarious stories.

Would I recommend everyone strip down to perkless living?  Well, if you have to, you have to. Most of the time, especially if you’re young and studying, you can live off less than you think.  One of the easiest cutbacks is simply to find a cheaper apartment, or share one with roomies even for just a year.


demand your discouts and be mindful of hidden extra expenses


At the time I lived in Chicago as a grad student, I asked to use my student discount everywhere I went. Before I bought anything locally or before I made a big-ticket purchase on tech gadgets or contracts, I checked to see if I could get a discount. Doing so got me discounted entertainment tickets, car insurance, a discount on my cellphone bill and my MacBook Pro (ahem, not in my $800 a month budget, thanks!) was much cheaper!

Additionally, there were several instances where my university attempted to charge me for things I didn’t use or need- like access to the health center. I contested this with the Bursar’s office and saved nearly $1000 a year since I was still covered (sort of) by my stepfather.  Several times, I had to call my phone provider and ask why my student discount mysteriously disappeared or what the extra data charge was.  Additionally, there were times when I was nearly nickled and dimed to death by city living-  truth be told, sometimes you have to sit out the cocktail hours and overpriced cab rides.  Does it suck sometimes? You betcha. Was it worth it?  You got it.


never buy if you can borrow!  buy used only when you have to!


There is a lot of pressure to own things and to buy them ourselves in the emotional high of an impulse buy or lure you in with the idea that you’re still getting an awesome deal.  Living on $800 of income a month my job brought in was tough, I couldn’t even buy second hand some months!

I know it’s been said- but libraries are a godsend!  I used the library to get all my DVDs, CDs and almost all the books I needed for classes, business research or fund my curiosity about frugality and personal finance.  Not only did I shave $400 off of expenses each semester, but free books for business meant I could eventually learn tactics for a side hustle (more income!)

It is more important than ever to stoke your curiosity & learn new skills – best of all if you can do it for free.  In addition to books and DVD’s to entertain and explore, I also got by through borrowing    major items or being resourceful when things weren’t needed- I ended up with a free bicycle, appliances for my apartment when friends moved away & winter items without having to buy. Yes, you have to get crafty and a bit lucky… do your best!


to save money you have to spend time...fact!


Everything you’ll ever want or need costs either money or time to acquire.  For example, even extreme couponers, though saving a ton of money, report that saving money is their part to full time job.  I eventually sold my car to take public transportation, and while it saved me a lot of money, it often took a long time to get from place to place.  If you take shortcuts on meal planning and opt for restaurants or Lean Cuisines to save time- it will cost you money though you save time.  I learned this early on and often struggled to put it to practice as a busy grad student- but I would try.

To save money and time I would batch recipes and try and make big portions to freeze or feast on throughout the week.   Additionally, at the apartment we didn’t have cable and opted instead to watch movies online for free, from the library, and eventually I got Netflix since at $10 a month it was still cheaper than cable.  Of course, being creative and frugal with entertainment isn’t as convenient as automatically paying for cable, but it saved us money!

Additionally, on the topic of either paying for convenience- I admit it’s not as easy to track down free yoga classes, open houses for businesses or other free events, but you get better as time goes on!  I had the Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Chicago and read tons of frugality books to learn to scope out free opps and clever ways to get items and services I needed for less- like visiting beauty schools instead of salons (took longer to get a hair cut, but that harkens back to the point)


Side hustle to make your budget doable


$800 doesn’t cover much- even when you work as many hours as you can to put together some extra chump change to have fun with. When I wanted to adopt a pug and donate extra as a “thank you” for the volunteers at the dog rescue, I did a fundraiser online and people pitched in to raise an additional $700.  Additionally, to cover the  adoption fees I paid myself, I sold some DVD’s and took up any quick money makers I could through quick side hustles like blogging, trouble shooting websites & selling makeup…yup, I sold makeup for a time to pay the bills!

As mentioned, I cut expenses by selling my car, cutting back unnecessary bills (like cable) and got creative with my side hustles.  Without cutting expenses (and yes, perks) plus the extra cash to cover holidays and illness- I would have really struggled.


Setting goals are key to staying sane on a tight budget


I made the early mistake of treating my frugality as a punishment. Yes, times were tight, but my perspective was all wrong.  I wasn’t in financial prison by tightening my belt- I was attempting to stay away from the jail that is consumer debt.  To stay sane and not become resentful of some of my “loan loving” friends, I rewarded myself for sticking to a budget by picking out the great thing I was going to do or buy at the end of the month- or I would give myself any extra side hustle money to hit up a sale.

My biggest advice to anyone who is attempting to cut their spending is this:  you are not budgeting to punish yourself, you’re freeing yourself.  Just like those of us that work out to lose weight and get healthy, sometimes it hurts to cut back on the treats, but the goal, no matter what it is, feels more important.

Make your goals the epicenter of your saving and spending- create a goal board or write post its to remind yourself of the “why.”   If you’re living frugally to avoid going into debt or pay it down, take time each month to celebrate your hard work- even if it’s just over a cheap bottle of something strong!  (wink!)  Take time to remind yourself what frugality and budgeting enables you to do, not what it prevents you from doing.   Honestly, without goals, I would have given up and totally fallen off the wagon.  Even if my goal was just to save enough for a pedicure or earn an extra $100 by taking up an odd job- it got me through the tough months.


My 800 dollar budget


A few notes: 

The “School & Misc” accounted for social events, birthdays or necessary items I couldn’t account for ahead of time (like a new umbrella when mine broke or a book I absolutely had to buy for a research paper)

One thing I wish I had been better at was couponing.  While I saved money by cooking at home, I know I could have done better by looking for deals- though typically both my time and storage space was severely limited.  “Extreme couponing” wasn’t an option without a car and in a shared kitchen with 3 people.

Were there months I went over budget? Oh yes.  I admit I wasn’t always staunchly frugal and would succomb to a “let’s celebrate surviving midterms” beer & pizza night that wasn’t in my grocery budget or I wouldn’t plan ahead financially for an invitation to attend a school event.  I tried to stay as close to budget as I could- and while I was usually successful, I had a few dismal failures!


 Have you ever had to live on an insanely tight budget?

How did you make it work?


24 comments so far.

24 responses to “How I’ve Lived On An $800 Monthly Budget In The City”

  1. Audrey says:

    I’m living on a very, very constricted budget while I go back to school so this post was really helpful for me that it can be done. I know it’s going to be hard but there’s hope for anyone who has a tough financial situation to navigate through.

    • Shannyn says:

      Yes- I struggled and failed several times in trying to adhere to a very, very austere budget. Find joy in what you can and forgive yourself if you slip up or overspend…which is easier if you can use an emergency fund. Good luck- I will be posting more about student frugality soon 🙂

      • mike says:

        your advice is sort of solid except for one thing –
        never buy a new vehicle 2-3 years old pay cash for it its a depreciation asset from day one the day you drive it off the lot , all debt is bad none of its good the credit company’s are evil and enslave people set your self free live with in your means and save and invest and side hustle also dont take out lones for college pay as you go with good grades and grants suckers take out lones they never will pay back as long as they live because they are clueless how much that sucker is going to cost them over their life time. other wise good site nice advice also dont become a over consumer shop a holic keep up with the jones because they are living a lie and when they lose their job they are history

  2. Janine says:

    I’m so happy you posted this! I just moved out and living on a student budget, sometimes I just want to buy things for myself but I know I shouldn’t! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Shannyn says:

      I know you can do it! Yes, there will be temptation… do what you have to in order to stay positive and get through it! Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a month where you find a wicked sale or forget that a birthday was coming up- unless you have to rely on a credit card or something to pay for it! I luckily saved for an emergency fund that helped protect me against myself.

      I did though, learn how to navigate the library system like a ninja and master the at-home spa day! If I can do it, you can too!

  3. Kate says:

    Hey! When you say “insurance” combined with Roth IRA is that health insurance or did you go without? That seems like insanely cheap health insurance–just curious!

    • Shannyn says:

      Ya, I went without health insurance for a bit (still am) since due to the nature of my program, during the second year I wasn’t “full time” and I turned 26 during the summer.

      The insurance I had was renter’s insurance- we had some issues in the neighborhood and I paid about $8 a month for coverage up to $10k, I also had life insurance.

      • Kate says:

        Gotcha we’re going without for now (with the option to opt in with my old work insurance if something major happened) but we need to do something by the end of the month if I’m not really, really close to a job that includes it. 🙁 It’s so wicked expensive.

        • Shannyn says:

          I agree- that’s why I’ve had to opt to live without it for awhile. I did have a dental emergency in October that required a $300 visit and have been taking my vitamins, etc. for all other needs… it’s just not fun to be without insurance and I hope you get some soon! Good luck doll!

  4. Lina says:

    I lived in Chicago four years…and you did great-Chicago is terribly expensive.

    • Shannyn says:

      Thank you! It was a real struggle sometimes, but I was very proud that I made it work. I’m going to be moving back to Chicago in a few months, this time with a bit more money- but I bet the frugality tactics will still apply!

  5. Dana says:

    I had some months like this in college and after graduating. I ate top ramen there for awhile!

    • Shannyn says:

      Haha I ate rice and beans for awhile Dana! I’m finally getting better with meal planning but I had to get totally utilitarian for awhile!

  6. […] writes about how to live on $800 a month. It’s doable you […]

  7. Pauline says:

    I had a $500 scholarship during my first year of college and a double class load that made it difficult to work part time. Rent was about $150 and most of the rest was food. All my friends were living on campus with the same budget so there was no pressure to spend. We used to cook for 5 people and rotate who was hosting. Mostly pasta and sauce but we had a good time!

    • Shannyn says:

      Dang Pauline, you are crafty! Great job on divvying up the work load and saving money on food- teaming up is one of the best ways to cut down on food prices!

  8. kendrrat says:

    I’m trying to live on a tight budget right now, and it is not easy!

  9. Lacey says:

    I’m a full time student, married and living on one income. We live about 4 miles away from campus since my hubby runs his business out of our home. We wanted a larger space, which meant moving away from campus. I use public transportation which sn’t too bad, but takes time. I use my bus commute to study or listen to Veterinary podcasts.

    I transitioned from military to full time student and took it rough this semester. It was a complete culture shock and transition. I’m thinking next semester will be better and I’m starting to think about summer jobs.

    • Shannyn says:

      Being a student means two things- high expenses each semester and little, if any time to earn any money! It can be rough, but if you’re reading blogs and listening to podcasts (both free) to help you reach your financial and career goals, I know that was one of my biggest tricks to keep motivated and informed!

  10. Jenn says:

    I served as an Americorps*VISTA for a year right after I graduated college, and I had basically the same budget you had, haha. Luckily, I was in West Virginia, where the cost of living was a tad lower, but even so, that year really helped me develop some awesome frugal habits that I use to this day, even on a larger budget! Great post! 😀

  11. Maya says:

    thank you so much for this post! I have had similar ideas but I definitely hadn’t considered that being on a budget is not a punishment it’s a way to keep myself out of debt. I’ll be attending grad school in the fall and I can’t wait but I am nervous because funds will be tight. Definitely worth bookmarking!

  12. Kayla says:

    Wow! It is crazy how far someone can get on a small monthly rate like that. Very impressive that you were able to experience and deal with life in a big city by yourself. Was it hard to maintain a social life while always working and worrying about money?!
    Check out our blog if you get a chance! It consists of inexpensive healthy meal ideas, at home and easy work out tips, thrifting ideas, and ways to stay social on a budget!
    Thanks 🙂

  13. Ginger says:

    Thank you so much for ur post it helps me a lot to know there’s hope…I am a single mom of a 13yr and a 9month old living on 800 a month in new jersey it’s extremely tough

  14. Jamie Louise says:

    I actually made a post about my own version of how I lived on only $800 a month with two kids! 🙂
    Very doable – even in Colorado. Just tough and you have to be strict about the budget.


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