How to Live on Nothing: Surviving Temporary Poverty

This is a comprehensive list on how we are getting by on very little money, trying to live as writers but without any real income. This applies to anyone who has been or is broke. It is supposed to be helpful and humorous.

We (my husband and I and our dog and cat) have no money, hardly any at all, but we are getting by. We are living on the very little money that we make everyday giving private English lessons in Prague. We moved from New York City to Prague five months ago. I was drinking too much, and then I was just too out of it, to know that the dollar was really low and that we would not be able to live off of our small savings. We are writers and we are attempting to live our lives as writers, by writing. This writing thing is something that most of us just can’t do after a long, hard day at work; in my case, as a waitress or bartender, or in my husband’s case, as a carpenter. Here in Prague, though, you have to speak fluent Czech to get a decent job in any of these areas. So we are lucky, because we are essentially forced to live as writers. It is such a tragedy that some people never write or make it as writers simply because they have to work.

I hope that some people can benefit from this piece; either by getting ideas, laughing a little, or by relating and therefore feeling less hopeless. This is an attempt to convey how we’re living. We smoke and we eat just enough, and we wash our bodies, faces, hands, and hair with a bar of soap. We run out to the store with the money we make after every lesson to get something that we really need, like a pack of cigarettes, some milk, or eggs and a couple of rolls for breakfast. This is based solely on my own, present experience and in no way am I recommending that you do things my way, for my way has never proved to be the easy way. I don’t know what it’s like to be really poor with no way out and no one to borrow money from, and I feel terrible that people are forced to live that way. We are out of people to borrow money from but we are not poor people. For us, being this broke is quite a recent occurrence. We are waiting to hear back from my husband’s agent about the sale of his brilliant book. So here is a comprehensive list on how we’re getting by on nothing:

  1. Stay Home

    We stay home almost all of the time. If you don’t leave the house, you can’t spend any money.

  2. Economize

    We buy what we can in economy size. It’s always cheaper in the long run.

  3. Buy Pet Food Cheap

    We found the cheapest place to buy pet food. This pet shop sells the cheap crap and the good stuff. We got lucky here; they open the big, economy bags, which are just too big for single people, old people and people without cars to carry home (and too expensive for us), and they break them up into their own plastic packages and sell them. So we buy, say, two bags of crap and two bags of the good stuff, take them home, and mix them up. So our animals eat balanced and innovative meals, just like us.

  4. Simplify

    We now have simple pleasures, such as walking in the park or in some unexplored part of Prague, reading, playing chess, and Internet related adventures.

  5. Cover Important Expenses

    We make sure we pay the Internet bill, which is six hundred Czech crowns (35.58 U.S.) a month. The Internet is a magical universe where we read the news from many sources, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, our emails, an array of short stories, Czech language sites (to help us learn), where my husband writes his blog (Colin Broderick), where we listen to This American Life, where we can play with a thing called
    , and so on so forth. Our Internet experience would be an extensive list.

  6. Do Laundry Differently

    I do our laundry with dish detergent (which was an economy size purchase). Seems to work just as well. Why is laundry detergent so expensive (everywhere)? We were lucky enough to get a washing machine with our apartment. I hang all of our clothes around the place, particularly on the heaters. I shake massive amounts of dog hair off of clothes and sheets on our balcony. Yes, we are very lucky because we have a balcony.

  7. Quit Drinking

    This curbed our main expense.

  8. Buy Cheap Cigarettes

    I normally smoke (and love) “Gauloises”, but these days I smoke “Start’s”. Start’s are thirteen Czech crowns cheaper than Gauloises. That is seventy-three U.S. cents cheaper. I’m not joking, seventy-three cents is precious to us right now.

  9. Don’t Eat Out

    We obviously have not gone out to eat anywhere, not for a long time. I never thought I would, but I got used to it. I dream about seared tuna, sushi, hummus and falafel, or even a small box of pizza. But honestly, I really do enjoy our simple and cheap homemade meals, and more importantly, I know that it’s temporary.

  10. I am so lucky because it seems you can still get a “loosie” in Prague. A loosie is a cigarette sold from under the counter from an already open pack for small change. I doubt if you can get one in New York anymore, but they were everywhere when I was a teenager (over ten years ago).
  11. Look For Cheap Offers

    We eat cheap breakfast cookies with our coffee in the morning called “Dobre Rano” (“Good Morning”). They are delicious. In New York I would buy myself a muffin or a cookie, or even cheaper, a Nutrigrain or Snickers bar. The idea is to briefly curb that initial hunger, by eating something small, and then try and hold out for as long as you can. The less you eat and the more used to not eating you are, the less you need (and the more grateful you are for what you have). We eat eggs with onions and potatoes and rolls, or pancakes made from flour, eggs, milk and sugar, everyday for lunch. We eat simple, cheap dinners like pasta with onions (with tomato sauce on a good day), potatoes and fish sticks, big pots of vegetable soups. Here in the Czech Republic, there is a whole array of great powdered soup packets available. I’m sure there are some good ones in the U.S. And vegetables are cheap, and so is the marvelously fresh bread.

  12. Stock Up

    We buy our stuff at the supermarket rather than the potravinys, which are the small, inclusive shops that dot so many of our streets. Just like New York, shopping at the grocery store is always slightly, if not significantly, cheaper than shopping at the deli.

  13. Experiment

    My husband is cutting my hair tomorrow with some dull paper scissors. We’ll see how that goes.

  14. Switch It Up

    If you are tired of recurring dinners, there’s always a way to switch it up. For example, today we had about seventy Czech crowns, which is about four dollars and fifteen cents (U.S.), and we had to figure out dinner. We had a can of corn at home, which is always a smart buy. We also had two large carrots and some bread at home. Yes, vegetables are the key to broke-ness; they are cheap, yummy, filling and good for you. And bread, dear God, how much I love the bread. So I bought some imitation crabmeat sticks, which are available in every supermarket here, some kind of mayonnaise fish salad and two nonalcoholic beers. At home, I fried up the crabsticks, boiled the carrots, heated the corn and piled fish salad onto two thick slices of bread. It was one of the best dinners I ever had.

  15. Use Home Remedies

    I ran into a great website about uses for olive oil a little while back, which really helped me. My hands had been itchy from our cold, often brutal winter, doing the dishes, washing my hands often, but I ran out of lotion. So I put a few drops of olive oil onto the roof of my hand and rubbed it in. It worked beautifully. Then, the cat threw up some hairballs, so I dropped some olive oil into her food (and brushed her), and that was it, problem solved.

  16. Supplement

    t Bar soap is not good as a supplement for shampoo or face wash but it’s better than nothing.

That’s it for now. I need to get this out there, because maybe I can make a little money of it.

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Published in: Personal Finance


RSSComments: 32  |  Post a Comment
  1. One of the most beautiful things about life is actually experiencing life ! I love this little story, because it reminds of things that I used to do when I was running around the world alone and at times with some one I could share it with. It’s always better to share it with the one you love.

    I’m a bit jealous , because for me it sounds so romantically beautiful, you, Colin, your pets and Prague. Love you, love your story….. Kim

  2. Could save even more by quitting the smoking and doing away with the pet!

  3. The article has reawakened my dreams of becoming a writer. Years ago at school I have admired writers for living romantic adventurous lives full of changes.

    Most af all I remember the story of Jaroslav Hašek, who wrote the stories of the soldier called Švejk (Shvake). One day he has left his flat telling his girlfriend he was going out with trash. So he went wearing his pyjama, bathrobe and slippers but came back in three days. As an excuse he said he met his friends and went to a pub with them.

    Your story reminds me of the time when I first left my parents’ home and began to live on my own. I was also hunting every cent, buing economy packs. For dinner I would eat some sardines with onions and bread sometimes with a littel mayonnaise.

    Sometimes I dream of becoming unemployed to be able to stay at my lovely home as long as possible, to make only the most necessary amount of money to pay the rent and some food. The place I call home is the place where I arrive late at night in order to get up early in the morning to go to work. No walks around parks, no reading books, not writing anything appart of official commercial correspondence.

    Renata and Colin, you are temporary poor but it is only temporary. But you have won the most important thing though it’s hard. You have won freedom. You have won time for yourselves. You can enjoy the most precious time of being together. You can read, write, research and think. You can teach people about the real values of life.

    Hold on in what you’re doing. I wish you to have as many students as you can handle. I also wish you good success with Colin’s book. I am looking forward to read it too.



  4. The problem with loosies in New York is that they were always Newports…been about 8 years for me! I love it…I miss you…I have not so great news but I will email you. p.s. I’m sending this to everyone I know!! xxoo

  5. I hear what you are saying about the fresh bread! That is one of the things I miss from my country, it’s so expensive in the USA. Good luck with becoming a successful writer. I’ll send this to all my friends!

  6. why would I want to live like that?
    not going out, not drinking, smoking… cheap cigarrettes… and still having two pets?
    My tip to live off little money: go to Asia, Africa or South America! Not to Europe!

  7. We want to live in Prague right now. Everyone is different, aren’t they.

  8. Wow! Sounds like you’re livin’ it up. Does Prague need a good piano tuner?

  9. Your title grabs me and pull me in to read this wonderful article. I don’t see poverty. All I see is your creative ways to live a truly rich life that you’ve set out. Wish you all the best.

  10. Thanks! You too!

  11. Any photos of this lifestyles? On the web?

  12. There are some pictures on my husband Colin’s blog:

    And a little announcement: Colin got a book deal.
    I think this should be inspirational to anyone. He’s very talented but we weren’t feeling so enthusiastic for a while there, and now, everything’s alright, everything’s better than alright!

    Thanks for everyone’s support! Love Renata

  13. There are some pictures on my husband Colin’s blog:

    And a little announcement: Colin got a book deal.
    I think this should be inspirational to anyone. He’s very talented but we weren’t feeling so enthusiastic for a while there, and now, everything’s alright, everything’s better than alright!

    Thanks for everyone’s support! Love Renata

  14. I’m going through the same thing, completely, and am doing the same things (agree with the bit about using dish detergent instead of soap powder, there’s no difference really). I’d add that you can also smoke roll-ups (a couple of hundred for the price of a few cheap cigs – Polish in my case, rather than Czech) and homemade soup has saved many a life.

    In Berlin, there’s lots of semi-hippies living on almost nothing and they get by through communal cook-outs. That would be so good for people everywhere who are temporarily screwed!

  15. ” What an interesting life we had while in Prague,” you will write or tell others often. Children, grandchildren, nieces, etc., And thankfully, you won’t have to be poor now. I have wanted to visit Prague for religious reasons. Visit the Shrine to Infant Jesus of Prague as my deceased mom did. Is it safe for a 55plus woman to stay for a while? I can teach English classses. Am certified teacher in NJ. And practical nurse and also live on social security and small pension check. How long can Americans live in Prague? How much for rent? in a favorable part of city of course. When is it best time of year to travel. Imagine cost of airline tickets very high.

  16. I am in Toledo, OH and we are very short on many things right now but I have found so many wonderful things that are free. We check out DVD’s from the library and we read a lot more. We walk around the park close by and I make a lot more from scratch and I have become very creative.

  17. Think you should give up the cigarettes. Waste of money. Not a pure way to fully experience life.

    Suggest maybe also trying living in a small town for a while, where amazingly, food becomes abundant and is shared by everyone. Plants, seeds and growing advice are always offered for the garden, which it seems in small towns, there is always room for.

    Trouble with bread is that it has very little nutrition. Catches up to you later with your health.

  18. My wife, two children, and I intentionally simplified our lives. We sold the business and our over-sized home. Now, I go to work for eight hours not fourteen. I spend the rest of my time attending classes and catching up on all that I have missed chasing the illusion of wealth that I bought into in my youth. I love to see others who have freed themselves from the prison of excess that we often create for ourselves in the US. Simplicity and community is the solution to the US society’s current woes.

  19. I agree with Tish, Sep 10, 2008 you have so little to live on why are you filling your lungs and not you belly? I speak as an ex smoker and would have said the same if I still did smoke.
    On the other hand we too are living very frugally at the moment and eggs are a huge staple along with powdered milk as it works out to be 22pence as apposed to 47p for fresh but I never use powdered fro making batters.

    If you would like I am happy to send you some of the cheep meal ideas that I use and you maybe able to adapt or incorporate into your meal plans just an offer nothing more.
    I like you also make extensive use of the net wouldn’t be without it for the world, you most probably know about it but have you heard of Skype free pc to pc calls high quality and free, I use it all the time to keep in touch with my American friend and very very simple to use.
    But all credit to you for trying to make a go of it so many say they will and never do. Best of luck.

  20. i’m lovin’ this ‘escape to freedom’ – a real courageous and inspirational way to live … perhaps one day i’ll find such strength to do the same … good luck all are and would-be
    freedomites !! x


  22. Bravo for you!

    I too have simplified my life — largely by force, but now, by choice.
    When I was so terribly ill, my darling husband bailed on me for someone healthier.
    For a time, I fell in to a depression, but eventually decided that I could do this, and I could do it alone. Not only do it, but do it well.

    Two years later, and here I am. I work part time, by choice. I’m healthy enough to full full time, but instead of having the big house & all the trimmings, I stayed very very small to protect myself in case I lost my job or got sick again.

    I don’t even own a couch! I don’t have a TV. Instead of my ‘old’ life of sitting around, watching TV, movies, playing video games and being antisocial, I now go out. I spend nothing. My main source of entertainment is an excellent digital SLR camera (that I won on a free ticket!) which I take out with me on long walks. Sometimes I’ll splurge and spend the gasoline to drive out to the river or a lake and I’m hoping to sell some of my photos by the year’s end.

    Like you, I can’t afford to go out to eat, and I’m healthier for it. My clothes I buy 2nd hand, unless I manage to hit an insanely good deal.

    The only thing that trips me up hard are my feet. …er pun intended, I guess. LOL. My feet are size 12 & 1/2, women. That’s 44 Europe, 10 U.K. I live in Canada. Canadians aren’t supposed to have big feet, and therefore, once every year or three, I jump the border and spend the day in Great Falls, Montana to buy my shoes. The trip costs about $50-70 in gasoline, but I save at least 3 times that, minimum, in costs by buying my shoes there, even taking in the exchange rate.

    In any regard, I admire your lifestyle, choice or not, and I wish you both the best. You need to sweet talk your readers in to showering you with Snickers bars. ;-)

  23. Ok, you knew you were going to be hit hardest in the comments about your lack of ambition to cut out the smokes, but you didn’t care. That’s what I like about that.

    I’ve lived poorer, but not safer (as in: under roof) or that introspectively. And yes I still smoked, the biggest butts I scavenged for.

    Seems like there is much love between you two! Good luck.

    -Rachel B.

  24. powdered milk sandwiches.
    invented when I was cleaning up from a hurricane, going a couple of weeks without electricity or being able to go to the store. it has a complete protein in it and is about as cheap as you can get, too. I made mine with mustard and pickle relish. I made my daughter’s with honey – hey poverty food is pretty tasty sometimes! we were in fits of giggles about them, it cracked us up, or maybe that was our nerves about to snap… but what do you do when there’s a hurricane in your bedroom, you gotta laugh and keep going. It reminded us of what we would do if we really were in a destitute situation.

    You are having such an adventure! Living creatively is the fun part of life, so enjoy your fantastic life you are making!!
    Cheers and best wishes to you.

  25. Great article with some good tips on living really cheap, I’m used to it and can relate! Booze definitely a big expense, and there are lots of cheap things to do…or things that cost nothing, often are better for you than expensive lifestyles

  26. I love the story, I would like to know what you guys are up to these days?

    I run a nice little (Well huge actually) all about alternative energy, living frugal, carbon neutral living and living off grid.
    Renewable Energy Projects & Tips

    Andy (UK)

  27. Thank you for writing this story. We have been struggling for the past year and as of this moment we have $6.72 in our pockets with three small kids to take care of…did I mention both of us are out of work at the moment. The sad part is that he has a Bachelor’s Degree and I have a very strong HR Management background. Anyway, I know things will work out for the best on your end as will ours. You both will be kept in our prayers and please keep writing.

  28. So was your husbands book actually getting published, or where you waiting on a reply? If you were waiting, did it get published? What is it called? Oh and I agree with a lot of the other people, if you were that broke what were you doing smoking, you sound like a couple of wankers to me.

  29. Alas Billy boffintop it is you who is the wanker, but, in answer to your question, YES, I did get my book published. Orangutan, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Available Jan 2010 everywhere books are sold. In stores now. We made it. We have a fourteen month old daughter now, an angel, and we live in Manhattan again. Life is good, just sold my second book to Random House due in stores Spring 2011. We had a wonderful time in Prague and we will be back there in the future. It was a memorable beautiful broke year. Thank you for all the wonderful comments. If you want the whole story start to finish you will have to buy the book. Byee for now.

  30. I read the lot
    I now realise how happy and lucky I really am
    But if it had not been for your story I would not have known
    I have a friend in Hollywood who just might be able to offer you a film deal
    Ask for Joey
    Say you got referred by Mick Poole

    Good luck to you both

  31. how is this year looking for you…touched by what you wrote
    how did the home hair cut go? i need to do the same

  32. very nice

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