If you’ve never feasted regularly on ramen, you have a friend that has. If any generation of Americans has seen a falling of fortunes during their pursuit of higher education, it’s ours. Growing up, my family could afford vacations, theater tickets, and piano lessons. I am now in graduate school and paying for my own education. A great deal of my weekly calories depends on my knowledge of lentils and crock pots. I do well by global standards, but in comparison to my expectations growing up, I am scrambling. I’ve learned over the years on my own that some pleasures in life that seem only accessible to the rich are achievable on a limited budget, too.
1) Pick a luxury
One of the first things people do when they are trying to shop on a limited income is buy cheaper things at the grocery store. When switching from brand name products to generic ones, or from more expensive to cheaper (or frozen) cuts of meat, this makes sense. Those things don’t take away from your quality of life in a meaningful way. Think about which things feel special and you truly enjoy. Cheap tea doesn’t taste that good, cheap soap smells like chemicals, and bad chocolate is mostly just wax. Spending less on these things will make you feel poor in a way that cheaper meat never will. You may pay a few extra dollars when you buy the good stuff, but the cost is negligible when, for example, spread out over twenty good cups of tea. You don’t have to go crazy, but picking a few small luxuries that make you happy can make all the difference.
2) Never forget that you still have access to art
A good thing about the modern world is that you have relatively easy access to every piece of music, media, literature and art that has ever been produced. The wealth of humanity is at your fingertips, literally. And who doesn’t have someone else’s Netflix password?
Making time to read, listen to music, or watch movies that were good enough to make top-rated lists not only broadens your knowledge but gives you a feeling of culture attributed to the wealthy. The public library is a great resource if you are near one. They have everything from CDs to graphic novels. And if a library does not have something on the shelf, they can usually order it for you from another library in the system.
Even if you cannot physically get to a library, you can access a lot of digital content online if you have a library card. Most libraries have digital books you can put on a tablet, audio books you can download to your phone and streaming movies you can watch online. There is often a wait for more popular materials, but you can put digital items on hold and get an email when it’s your turn. Being broke does not mean you can’t listen to Beethoven, or Rhapsody in Blue or the latest Taylor Swift album.
3) Go to public events
Your access to free public events really depends on where you live. Plus, not everybody lives in a city or has reliable transportation. But if you can, go to festivals or outdoor concerts, or see Shakespeare in the park in the summer. If you live anywhere with any kind of natural beauty, go out for walks and hikes. It can be hard to find the time in our busy schedules, but it is so worth making the time for it.
One of the hardest things about being on a tight budget is feeling like you can’t afford to go out and have fun. Make sure you do not give up on exploring and having adventures even if that means just walking around looking for something or someone new.
4) Spend time with your family and friends
If you have a place and can cook (or not, we all start somewhere), have people over. Nothing makes you feel rich like feeding the people you care about. There is a reason foods like spaghetti are traditional for gatherings. And if you can’t cook, potlucks are amazing. Or, if you don’t have a place where you can accommodate guests, then organize a group hangout somewhere else. Picnics in the park can be the best part of a weekend. Finding a way to share meals can take a bit of work, but it is incredibly important for both our own sense of self and the relationships we’re building with the people around us.
5) Give to Others
If you really want to feel like you are wealthy, pick your favorite cause or charity and give what you can, whether that is money or time or experience.
You do not have to be rich to make the world a little bit better, whether you’re helping out at an animal shelter once a month, or giving a few dollars to a soup kitchen. When money is really tight, you might not even be able to swing a $5 donation, but when you can, that money adds up. Many charities run primarily on small donations and hands-on help from dedicated volunteers.
I understand that not everything suggested in this article is possible for everyone. Not everyone has free time, or access to a library, or reliable transportation, or lives somewhere with public events, or has the luck of living near friends and family. Everyone faces different challenges.
My hope is that these ideas show that some things are too important to give up. Enjoying small pleasures, seeing art, having adventures, spending time with loved ones and being charitable are not solely the privilege of the well-off. These are essential human joys that are worth hanging on to, regardless of circumstances. A lack of wealth should never impoverish the soul. Whether your bank account is comfortable or empty, find the things that make you happy and hang onto them.