Guide to Tight Budgeting: 11 Strategies

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · August 12, 2023 · 11 minute read

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Guide to Tight Budgeting: 11 Strategies

If your budget is tight, you may find yourself juggling when you pay bills, skipping savings plans, and living paycheck to paycheck. However, while it may seem as if that’s just the way it has to be, there are likely some ways to budget and save better during these times in your life.

Maybe you are a recent college grad with educational loans to pay back and you’re looking for a job. Or perhaps you are navigating some major medical or dental bills in addition to your usual living expenses. Or you might simply bring in a lower income or live in an area with a sky-high cost of living.

Whether you are dealing with a brief budget crunch or some ongoing financial issues, you can take the reins. With the right intel and tactics, you can make the most of your money and stretch further.

Here’s what you can do when money is tight.

Does Budgeting Help When Money Is Tight?

Budgeting can help when your money is tight. By drilling down and seeing just how much money is coming in, what your basic living expenses are, what your discretionary spending looks like, and how your savings are growing, you are better in touch with your money.

You can then move ahead and finetune things to make your money work harder for you. You might see ways to economize or eliminate some expenses or otherwise improve your cash flow.

What follows are 11 strategies that can help when money is tight.

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1. Getting Honest With Your Budget

When most of your income already goes to essentials, you may wonder if there is really enough money left over for a spending plan.

But taking a close look at your monthly spending can be especially key when money is tight because the less money available, the more important it is to keep those dollars under control.

To get a full picture of your spending, you may want to actually track your spending (every cash/debit/credit card transaction and every bill you pay) for a month or so.

You can do this by carrying around a notebook or saving all of your receipts. There are also a number of apps that can make the process of tracking your daily spending easy.

Once you have a sense of average monthly spending, it’s a good idea to compare this to what’s coming in. You can look at your bank statements for the past few months to get an idea of how much after-tax income you are taking in on average per month.

Comparing what is coming in vs. going out will help you know exactly where you stand when money is tight can be a critical first step toward easing the strain.

2. Finding Ways to Save

Here’s the next step when you are tight budgeting: Once you have a good sense of your monthly spending, you may want to group expenses into categories, and then list them in order of priority, starting with the essentials and going down to the “nice to haves.”

Once you’ve established which expenses are the most important, you can start looking for places to reduce overspending. Cutbacks may not feel fun, but they can be extremely beneficial when money is tight.

For example, if you are spending a lot on restaurants and take-out, you might consider cooking at home a few more nights a week.

Or, if you tend to be an impulsive buyer of clothing, it might make sense to institute a short-term spending freeze on new clothes or a freeze on spending money at a certain store for a period of time.

If you want to save money on streaming services, you might consider ditching that pricy cable subscription and signing up for your one favorite platform. If you love buying the latest best-sellers, It might be a good time to renew your library card and borrow instead.

You may also find you’re paying for memberships and subscriptions you no longer need or want. These are line items you may be able to scratch from the expense list completely.

3. Negotiating With Service Providers

It can be hard to save money when your budget is tight, but you might try to see if you can reduce some of your monthly “fixed” expenses.

Some of those recurring bills (like cable, internet, cell phone, car) may not actually be set in stone.

It can take little research — and nerve — but you may be able to negotiate for a lower rate from many of your providers, especially if you’re dealing with a company that’s in a competitive market.

Before you call or email a business or provider, it can help to know exactly how much you’re paying for a service, what you’re getting for your money, and how much the competition is charging for the same or similar service.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you are communicating with someone who actually has the power to lower your rate and, if not, ask to speak with someone who does.

You may also want to let providers know that if they can’t do better, you may decide to switch to another company.
Worth noting: You can also try to negotiate medical bills. You may be able to explain your situation and get a reduction.

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4. Cutting Back on Bigger Expenses

If you’re tight on money right now, it can also be a good idea to take a look at the big items in your overall budget.

For example, is your car payment too high? If so, perhaps you could lease a less expensive car, or buy a used vehicle to cut monthly payments.

If rent is eating up too much of your income, you might want to look into finding a cheaper place to live that’s still nice, taking in a roommate, or moving in with friends. You might also consider moving nearby to a place where the cost of living is lower.

These options may be the last steps you take as you look for ways to reduce expenses, but they really can help you save a sizable amount of money every month. The lower you keep these costs, the easier it will be to live well within a tight budget.

5. Knocking Down Debt

Having too much debt can make for an especially tight budget, and it can also hurt your chances of achieving financial security down the line.

That’s because when you’re spending a lot of money on interest each month, it can be harder to pay all of your other expenses on time, not to mention grow your savings.

Reducing debt may seem like a tall mountain to climb when money is tight, but choosing the right debt reduction strategy may be able to help you chip away and slowly improve your financial situation.

•  Since credit card debt typically costs the most in interest, you might consider tackling these debts first, and then move on to the debt with the next-highest interest rate, and so on.

•  Another approach is to pay the minimum toward all your accounts, and then pay any extra you can afford toward the debt with the smallest balance. When that debt is wiped out, you can move on to the next smallest balance, and so on.

•  If you can qualify for a lower interest rate, another option might be to take out a personal loan that consolidates all those high-interest debts into one more manageable payment.

6. Starting an Emergency Fund

It might sound crazy, if not impossible, to put cash into savings when money is tight.

But here’s why you may want to make putting a little bit away into an emergency fund each month a priority: If you’re living on a tight budget, just one unexpected expense—like your car breaking down or a visit to an urgent care clinic—could put you over the financial edge.

If you start putting just a small amount aside each month into an emergency fund, it won’t be long before you have a decent financial cushion that could prevent you from having to run up high interest credit debt the next time something unexpected rolls around.

Good places to start–and grow–your emergency fund include: a high-interest savings account, a checking and savings account, or an online savings account.

These options typically offer higher interest than a standard savings account, but keep the money liquid so you can access it if and when you need it.

7. Spending Only Cash for Everyday Expenses

There’s something about plastic that can make it feel like you are not really spending money.

While it might not be practical to pay your rent or utility bills in cash, switching to cash (and leaving the credit cards at home) for other expenses can be a great idea when money is tight.

The reason is that paying with cash places a harder limit on your spending and helps you become more aware of your choices. When you can literally see your dollars going somewhere, you may find yourself becoming much more intentional in the way you spend it. This can be a very good thing when money is tight.

Groceries and entertainment can be great categories for going cash-only. Cash can also be a good option for clothing and the (occasional) restaurant meal.

Another benefit of cash is that it’s more difficult to get into debt since you can’t spend cash you don’t have.

8. Starting a Side Gig

Once you’ve done some basic budgeting, it may be clear that additional income could help ease things while money is tight.

Sometimes all it takes is some extra time and energy to earn some extra cash, whether it’s selling things you no longer want or need (and decluttering at the same time), taking on a low-cost side hustle, or using your talents to pick up some freelance work.

Some ideas for generating extra income include:

•  Selling things on eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace

•  Having a garage sale

•  Creating an Etsy store and selling homemade goods

•  Driving for a rideshare or food delivery service

•  Giving music lessons

•  Renting out a room on Airbnb

•  Walking dogs

•  Cleaning houses

•  Babysitting

•  Handling social media for small businesses

•  Selling writing, photography, or videography services to clients.

9. Traveling for Less

Just because you are on a tight budget, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to travel. But you’ll want to spend some time looking for deals and perhaps using points or miles to whittle the cost down. Racking up and using travel rewards can help you get more for your money.

Also, consider the kind of trip you take. Sure, it would be nice to work your way across Europe or Asia, but you can have a wonderful and more affordable vacation by sticking closer to home or visiting America’s National Parks. Camping is almost always a bargain, and exploring a historic town or beach that’s just a few hours’ drive from your home helps you avoid costly airfare.

10. Saving on Insurance

Insurance is important to have, but you can often save via two tactics:

•  Conduct an online search to see what rates are available for coverage that matches what you already have.

•  Look into bundling your insurance if you don’t already. That typically means getting both your home and auto coverage from one provider for a tidy savings.

•  See if you can lower your premium by paying once annually vs. monthly.

11. Using a Budgeting App

There are many different budgeting techniques available that can help you manage your money. Typically, budgets help you identify your income and expenses, track your spending, and fine-tune your cash flow so you are able to pay all your bills, have some fun spending, and also save.

If you like using pencil and paper or a journal, go for it. But you will also find lots of digital tools to try, whether you are the kind to adopt a line-item budget or prefer a different method.

For instance, there are dashboards that help you see where your money goes. There are round-up apps that round up purchases to the next whole dollar and put the extra bit of money in savings for you. What’s more, your bank may already offer these kinds of tools for free. Take a look; consider changing banks if they aren’t available; or download (and potentially pay) for what you need online.

Saving Money With SoFi

If money is feeling tight right now, you may be able to regain a sense of control by taking a deep breath, sitting down, and digging into how your income, spending, and saving all line up. Then you can take steps to reduce unnecessary spending, negotiate to lower monthly bills, chip away at expensive debt, and even start building a financial cushion.

Looking for a simple way to manage your spending and saving while money is tight? Consider opening an online bank account.

Interested in opening an online bank account? When you sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, you’ll get a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), pay zero account fees, and enjoy an array of rewards, such as access to the Allpoint Network of 55,000+ fee-free ATMs globally. Qualifying accounts can even access their paycheck up to two days early.

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What does a tight budget mean?

A tight budget is one without much margin for error; you might also think of it as living paycheck to paycheck. It may be hard to save or to afford discretionary expenses, and an emergency (a major medical bill or the loss of a job) could prove difficult to manage.

How do you run a tight budget?

If you have a tight budget, it’s important to track your income, spending, and saving carefully. Then, you can look for ways to better manage your money, such as cutting spending, negotiating bills, using apps, and starting a side hustle.

How do you fight money anxiety?

There are various ways to lower your money stress, including when you are tight on money. You might start slowly building up your emergency fund so you feel more prepared for uncertain times. You can investigate ways to rein in spending and/or bring in more income so your money isn’t so tight. If you are carrying considerable debt, you might refinance, take out a personal loan to pay it off and then possibly have a lower interest rate, or work with a nonprofit debt counselor for solutions.

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