This is Why It’s So Hard to Save Money When You’re Broke

how to save money when you're broke
Matt DeTurck under Creative Commons

Smart financial choices today will help you save a ton of money over time.

It seems obvious, right?

Tips for stretching your budget and cutting back always seem to include things like skipping your morning latte, buying secondhand clothes or finding a Groupon for your next haircut.

But what if you drink the office coffee, haven’t bought new clothes in 10 years and cut your hair at home?

Sometimes there’s nothing left to skimp on.

So where are you going to find the extra money for that bulk purchase or to stock up when the essentials are on sale?

Anyone who’s lived below the poverty line understands this issue.

For everyone else, a study by a University of Michigan professor backs up the experience with data, reports the Washington Post.

My favorite thing about this study is it’s about toilet paper.

What Toilet Paper Can Teach Us About Saving Money

Professor Yesim Orhun and Ph.D. student Mike Palazzolo analyzed panel data from more than 100,000 American households. They tracked purchases of toilet paper over seven years.

Toilet paper is nonperishable, and we consume it pretty steadily. We don’t go without it just because we’re strapped for cash, like we might go without new clothes or haircuts. And we don’t use more when there’s extra in the house — unlike, say, food.

Toilet paper is also something people with less money pay more for.

But why?

Toilet paper is technically cheaper in bulk. When you have a cushion of money (i.e., your expenses won’t drain your account before next payday), you buy the 24-pack.

But the 24-pack costs more in the moment than the four-pack.

When you only have enough money in your pocket for the four-pack and your family’s bathroom needs TP, you’re not going to wait just because the math says the 24-pack is the smarter choice.

“Having more money gives people the luxury of paying less for things,” as The Washington Post puts it.

Being Broke Isn’t Cheap

I can relate.

For four years before taking this full-time job, I was pretty consistently dead-broke and without credit.

I bought the four-pack.

Honestly? Sometimes I bought single rolls of toilet paper at a convenience store because I didn’t have a car to get to the four-pack.

Now I have a steady paycheck and a handle on my monthly expenses. I’m building savings and working to build my credit. I pay my bills ahead of time, and there’s more and more money in my bank account with every paycheck.

Now I buy the 24-pack.

I also buy the big bottles of shampoo and multipacks of bar soap. I stock up on grocery staples when they’re on sale. I purchase flights when they’re cheapest, instead of waiting until I have the money.

I celebrate these victories — yes, I celebrate the backup shampoo in my bathroom. And I’m thankful for my job every time I open a kitchen cabinet.

We know the common sense money-saving strategies — even when we can’t afford them.

But we get by with what we have, and sometimes that doesn’t include the luxury of making smart financial decisions.

How Do You Get Ahead When You’re So Far Behind?

See also: Our ultimate guide on how to save money

Personally, I was able to get ahead and buy the big shampoos and the 24-packs of TP because I got a new job with consistent pay.

I wasn’t getting ahead when I was poor; I was getting by.

Sometimes, finding a higher salary is the ultimate solution. But in the meantime, you can make money on the side, and do small things to save money when the typical advice doesn’t apply to you.

I had to get creative, especially with food. I became great at making meals by combining small leftovers and turning whatever was left in the cupboard into, usually, a stir-fry.

I was also smart about free food. When I worked in food service, I’d make my shift meal a variety of fruits and veggies — things that are expensive individually in the grocery store.

Probably my biggest savior was just gifts. Not handouts — I mean Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, etc.

A Starbucks gift card can buy a few meals. Target sells groceries. And you can regift or sell gift cards and other gifts you won’t use.

These desperate hacks are usually subjective. When the typical advice doesn’t work for you, you get creative to save money.

We’d love to hear some of your strategies!

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post,, Writer’s Digest and more