Do You Have a Desperate Measures Budget?

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If you’ve been involved, in any capacity, in the personal finance blogging world for any length of time, then you have at least an idea of how to create a budget, and of how important budgets are to your money’s well-being. But have you ever thought of creating a Desperate Measures budget to get you through difficult and unexpected circumstances?

A Desperate Measures budget is one that you will need to implement if something serious happens with your money, like a job loss that takes away the majority of your income, you encounter a huge unexpected expense, or to pay off a massive amount of debt. It’s different from a standard budget because it’s specifically designed to kick into action when you encounter extreme circumstances.

We started our first budget one year ago, along with a plan to track all spending, and we haven’t looked back. Budgeting and spend-tracking have absolutely changed our lives, and I would encourage you to research the two more if you haven’t already. That being said, the value of a Desperate Measures budget was brought front and center for me last week as my family and I shivered through the Polar Vortex that blanketed so much of America in frigid, bitter cold.

Although we had a propane fill (propane is how we heat our home, run our oven, and heat our water) scheduled for Monday, when the Polar Vortex was supposed to hit hard, the sub-zero temps preceding the super freeze had drained our tanks faster than expected, and we were forced to take every possible measure to limit propane use until the driver came on Monday. And then, he didn’t come on Monday.

This could have been a very dangerous and costly issue for our family had we not implemented our Desperate Measures propane “budget,” and it got me thinking that we should probably have a Desperate Measures financial budget as well. Here’s how you and I can create a budget that will work when we need to seriously reduce our spending due to some unforeseen circumstance.

Cut the Fluff – All of It


To create your Desperate Measures budget, the first thing you’ll need to do is to go through every expense, and take away all unnecessary expenses. By this, I mean ALL unnecessary expenses. Your Desperate Measures budget will have no entertainment monies, no clothing expenses, and no cable TV.

All expenses that are not crucial to survival (and no, ESPN does NOT fall into the “crucial to survival” category. 🙂 ) must go.

Dance class and soccer? Gone. Friday night happy hour? Buh-bye. In our case with the propane, this meant no heated garage for Rick, no matter how much his precious garage floors might have suffered. 😉

Take the Necessary Expenses, and Reduce Them Even More


Yes, you need food, but it does not have to be steak tar-tar. My parents have the perfect story about understanding what a true need is. When they were first married, before I came along, dad was a Marine stationed at camp in Tennessee. One month, money was tight. And by tight, I mean, we-are-seriously-broke tight.

They knew that they had to take desperate measures to make it through the month, so they went to the store and bought a giant box of macaroni, and a giant pack of cheese slices, and they ate mac & cheese for nearly a month straight.

Did it suck? You bet it did. It was decades before my mom could stand the sight of mac & cheese. But they did what they needed to do and cut their necessity expenses down to the bare minimum in order to make it through. Remember that, back in the sixties, credit cards were only issued to the elite, so, for most people, it was go-cash or go-home. Putting the groceries on a credit card wasn’t an option, so you had to do what needed to be done to live within your means.

In the case of our propane issue, for us this meant no showers, no dishwasher, and no oven cooking. We used the crock pot, the microwave and the air popcorn popper for three days, like it or not.

Get Extreme With Your Desperate Measures Budget


Your Desperate Measures budget needs to be a case of extreme cutting of expenses. It will require you to be brutally honest about what you actually need to survive until the emergency at hand is over. This is not the normal ” how to create a budget ” class, my friends. This is the ” How to create a budget that includes only what we absolutely, positively need to survive, as in food, shelter and water” class.

Look over your budget a third time and cut out anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for your survival.  This might mean a lot of rice, beans and pasta for your family, or a lot of staying home so that you’re not using gas for your car. Again, it’s important to remember that the point of this type of a budget is to reduce your expenses to true “necessity only” costs.

Hopefully, you will never have to use your desperate measures budget, and hopefully we won’t either.  But won’t it feel good knowing you’ve got a plan in place in case you ever do need it?

Have you ever made a Desperate Measures budget? What expense would hurt the most to cut?


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Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.


  • Matt Becker says:

    I’ve created this before but luckily never really had to use it. I definitely agree that this is a good exercise to go through though, if nothing else to help you see how much of what you spend on could really be deemed inessential. Even if you never have to use it, it can help you make the decision to cut out certain things that you realize don’t actually have a lot of importance in your life.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Great point, Matt. I think until a person has gone through an exercise like this, it can be hard to tell the difference between a true need and a true want. As scary as the propane situation was for us, it was pretty cool seeing how little we could survive on.

  • Justin @ Decisive Dollar says:

    I haven’t made a desperate measures budget before, but this is a great suggestion. It would never hurt to have this in your back pocket, just in case something terrible did happen.

    The hardest thing for me to give up would probably be the data plan for my phone. I’ve become so reliant on being able to access any thing at any time that not being able to do that would be a very difficult adjustment to make.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      I know that’s the case with most people these days, Justin. So many times we adjust our lives to fit the technology, and then giving up that technology does become much more painful. We haven’t given in to the smart phone technology yet, so we still can only access email at home. Sometimes this is a pain, but it’s also allowing us to have a cell phone bill that’s under $200 a year, so that’s motivating. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • travis@debtchronicles says:

    Vonnie and I went through this exercise once just to see what our monthly expenses would be if we truly cut everything but the bare necessities for life. It’s truly amazing how little you could live off of if you really really had to. It also reminds me of a time in College when due to some circumstances we had very little money for a week. We scoured the ads and was able to get enough food for the week for under $20. It was a lot of cheap lunch meat sandwiches and cereal, but we did it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Interesting, isn’t it, Travis? This is how we felt about the propane issue, and it really has changed the way we look at our expenses now. Lots more things are luxuries than they were before our desperate measures propane budget experience.

  • Pauline says:

    I could live on $200 which is minimal wage here without too much trouble as my house is paid, so eating rice and beans I think I’d even have some money left over. The toughest would be to cut internet to talk to my family and friends, but you can connect for $0.5 nearby so I could fit a couple hours a week maybe. Cutting travel would be hard as well.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s awesome, Pauline!! This is what good financial planning will allow. Nice to know that you could survive on such a small amount if you really needed to, isn’t it?

  • Jon @ MoneySmartGuides says:

    We have a very well funded emergency fund that will get us through most desperate times. My wife is more risk adverse than I am so she wants a larger emergency fund than most. I’m OK with this since it’s important to her and helps her feel at peace.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s really great, Jon, that you are supportive of her need to have a larger e-fund. It’s so nice when spouses are on the same page financially, isn’t it?

  • Kali @ CommonSenseMillennial says:

    Great tips, Laurie! We don’t use a “desperate measures” budget right now, but our current budget is broken down in such a way that it would be simple to eliminate unnecessary spending in one fell swoop. As far as costs go, I spell out each necessary bill (mortgage, insurance, utilities), and then I have a spot for flexible-but-still-gotta-have expenses (groceries, gas). All other expenses are lumped together in a category we call “everything else.” If anything happened, there wouldn’t be any agonizing about what we cut back on – that amount that is budgeted for “everything else” would be gone immediately. It means we have to be very mindful about spending throughout the month, as all of our wants come out of that one pot in the budget, but I like it this way – I have to make smart decisions and prioritize my spending because once that allocated amount is gone for the month, it’s gone!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s a smart way to budget, Kali! What an easy way to be able to adjust your budget quickly. Maybe we’ll try that!

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I have never made a “desperate measures” budget, but if I did I think it would start with calling the companies that hold my student loans and get all payments put on hold for 3-6 months. This alone would take a huge burden off our plate. Next I would do the things you suggested: cut cable, not buy any clothes, eat the food we have at home before purchasing more, etc. It’s difficult to think about this scenario – I hope it doesn’t happen.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Great idea, DC, about getting the student loans deferred or put on hold. Yeah, I hope it never happens that we have to use ours either, but the propane issue was a great test run for us.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    My desperate measures budget is moving back in with my parents. I had to do it for a month last year after my break up while I figured out my next step. It’s nice to have family an hour away and accessible via public transit.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s a smart plan, Stefanie! This is what I’m talking about. Obviously, it’s not the ideal situation, but it would be a huge money saver if you needed to do it.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I think our regular budget is a desperate measures budget =) Really, the only things we could cut more would be our grocery bill and Hulu/Netflix =)

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s awesome, Holly! We’re getting to that point too, and it’s a nice feeling knowing we’re doing all that we can to dump our debt.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    I love the idea of the desperate measures budget! When I have clients who are thinking about a career change that could possibly lead to less income, I tell them to do something similar. I make them live off the smaller amount to see if they can do it and then their savings grows with the money saved. This way they know if they can make the leap or not and save more money.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s a wise tip, Shannon! Smart move having them do that before the move to make sure they can handle the smaller budget. Thanks for sharing the wisdom!

  • Broke Millennial says:

    This is a little scary, Laurie. I’m glad your family had that desperate measures propane. I don’t have a desperate measures budget, just a nice sized emergency fund. I’m not in debt so that obviously helps. If I did have to enact desperate measures, eating decent food would probably be the first thing to go and like your parents, I’d survive on pasta and sauce.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Yeah, the whole experience was eye-opening, that’s for sure. Good thing you’ve got that e-fund well-funded, Erin. That is a wonderful start. Plus, you know where you’d cut spending down. Great plan!

  • Mel @ brokeGIRLrich says:

    When I first graduated from school, I moved across the country without a plan , (stupidly) thinking a job would just fall into my lap. And that was my first experience with a Desperate Measures Budget. I figured out exactly what I would have to come up with each month to survive and not a penny more. And it was definitely miserable. I lived off Ramen noodles (and random freebies – I would seriously go listen to lectures/events at the nearby college because you could get snacks there – not so much because I cared about so-and-such architecture or some weird new science discovery), walked EVERYWHERE, used the Internet at the library, etc.

    It was totally horrible. But on the flip side, it was kind of amazing to realize I could do it. You can always stretch farther than you think.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Mel, what a valuable experience!! I often think about my parents and their mac and cheese for a month budget, and just the commitment it took to do that. Your story proves that people do and can live that way if they have to, Mel. Thanks for sharing!

  • lyle @ The Joy of Simple says:

    Hey Laurie and thanks for an awesome post ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s amazing what we can do when push comes to shove. Thankfully, I have yet been in the position of having to rely on a desperate budget/measure but if ever that day, or week, comes, you will find me in the graces of my close friends. And for that I am truly grateful to have people watching my back ๐Ÿ™‚ Hopefully, your lives have returned back to normal.

    Thanks for an isghtful post Laure and take care. My best to all.


    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s awesome, Lyle, that you have such a great support system! Yes, we are back a normal life here, which is nice. ๐Ÿ™‚ Have a great day!

  • Bryce @ Save and Conquer says:

    My wife and I both work for the same company, so we set up a baseline budget of the few necessities that we would have to continue to fund if we both lost our jobs. We added some funds to that and called it our emergency budget. We then made sure we had a year’s worth of that saved in our emergency fund.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s a wise idea, Bryce. Being you both work for the same company, it puts you at a bit more of a risk, I would imagine, so those extra steps are a smart move on your part – good job!

  • Andrew@LivingRichCheaply says:

    Great tips Laurie! Fortunately, we haven’t ever had to go to a desperate measures budget. I have seen some people in dire financial straits who don’t have a desperate measures budget and refuse to cut fluff even if in tough circumstances. Shelter and food are the basics and you cut the rest out and at least reduce as much as possible. It is tough but that’s why it is called “desperate measures budget”!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Oh yes, I have seen that too! It’s tough to watch others not making the necessary changes, isn’t it?

  • E.M. says:

    It’s a good idea to have a budget like this. I have thought about it before, and the best thing I could do is probably move in either with my parents or my grandma. Rent is our highest expense so it would have to go. I’m very lucky and grateful that I have family that would take me in temporarily – that would also eliminate the need to buy groceries as well. I also have an emergency fund that would cover my student loans.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      E.M., sounds like you guys have a great plan in place too, and I think that’s the important part. You guys having an e-fund and an option to move in with family is like the double bonus plan – good job!

  • Daniel says:

    If I lost my job, we’d have to cut as much as possible. I don’t think we’d necessarily cut our existing monthly expenses, but I do think we’d put a stop to most discretionary spending. No shopping, expensive trips, or restaurant outings until things turned around.

    I don’t think we’d cut cable immediately as we have a good deal there ($30/month) and it wouldn’t be until a few months down the road that I would seriously start worrying that it’s preventing us from reaching our goals.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      It’s great that things are fluid enough for you guys that you wouldn’t have to cut all unnecessary expenses, Daniel. Sounds like good planning on your part. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    We’ve been fortunate that we have never had to resort to a desperate measures budget, but I do think it’s a valuable exercise to complete. It can be an eye-opening experience when planning on how you would survive in a worst case scenario. It may also give you some much needed perspective, particularly if you’re currently feel deprived on your normal budget. You will see how fortunate you truly are and appreciate the things you can have/do now more than ever. My husband lost his job during The Great Recession and thankfully our emergency fund was in place to help us out. We, of course, still had to make cuts but we were able to keep life fairly normal for the girls.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s a really great point, Shannon, about giving a person perspective if they’re feeling deprived on their current budget. That is so awesome that your family didn’t have to change things too much when your hubby got laid off. That is the benefit of great planning, Shannon!

  • AverageJoe says:

    Wow! I love it! Our guest on last week’s podcast talked about “squeezing pennies so hard that Lincoln’s head hurts.” You’ve got that hereโ€ฆ.cut and cut and cut againโ€ฆ..

  • anna says:

    Oh no, I can’t even imagine what I would do with the propane story – you and your family are tough! Growing up, we were pretty poor, so I remember *a lot* of mac and cheese and canned pork and beans. I remember not being fond of it growing up, but now I oddly eat it occasionally as comfort foods (I guess nostalgia, or to be grateful for what I have now?). I admit a lot of our budget categories are pretty ‘supplemental’ – if we had a desperate measures budget it would probably only have 1 or 2 columns. Perhaps we’ll experiment with it – thanks for planting the seed, Laurie!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Might be a fun thing to try, Anna!! I know it really blessed us in a lot of ways, one of which was that it made us realize we don’t have it so bad after all. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Marie @ 4HWD says:

    I remember when I was married and we are desperately broke. I was married at the very young age and we need to live with my parents. At that time my husband was still pursuing his education, we had a very, very tight budget before.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      I can imagine, Marie! I’m sure you had to learn quickly how to manage on very little money. Thanks for sharing that experience – I appreciate it!

  • Raquel@Practical Cents says:

    I like this concept and in the past year I have been taking a really good look at our budget and really tracking our spending. I’ve been trying to slowing cut back here and there to get to a point where we are really getting some good value for our money. As you said you can be surprised on how little you need. Hardest thing for me to cut would be cable tv.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That is exactly what we’ve been doing, Raquel. It is amazing how little you can live on when you try. We dropped cable a year and a half ago, and haven’t really missed it too much. We have Netflix now, so that does help, especially with the long winters.

  • Prudence Debtfree says:

    No showers? For how long? I hope that your propane tanks are nice and full again. This is an excellent idea, Laurie. My husband and I have never created a “desperate measures budget”, and I think it would be very revealing to specify what is not essential, what is, and how to cut down on that. Your story about your parents and the mac & cheese reminds me again of how resilient previous generations seem to have been compared to us!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      3 days!!! It wasn’t so bad for the kids, but for me and for Rick, it was tough. You’re so right about previous generations, Prudence. They didn’t whine, or pull out the credit card, they just made do! We are trying harder to be more like those generations in that way. Thanks so much for stopping by. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    I’ve had to create a bare bones budget before, which from what I understand is the same concept. I actually didn’t end up needing to use it, but I’m glad I had it. I need to update mine so that if disaster strikes ( I hope it doesn’t ) I am prepared.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Exactly, Daisy. Yeah, it’s always, always good to have on hand, as we learned the other week. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Kay says:

    This would be an interesting and worthwhile exercise. I have not formally done this, but certainly have thought about what would go in worst case scenarios. We run a pretty tight ship as it is, but I can see that we would travel by car a lot less, cut the Netflix and probably the Internet too if necessary.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      That’s kind of where we are at, Kay. A tight ship, but it could be tighter. It is interesting though, to see just how little you can live on if you have to.

  • JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit says:

    I like to break my monthly budget into total expenses and barebones expenses. Although the barebones expenses are still a bit high because I’d lower my food spending drastically if the situation warranted it. By breaking it down that way I can see my both my base expenses and all of my monthly expenses and see what can be done to help lower the former and in turn lower the latter.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Kali had mentioned a similar strategy, JC, and I think that’s an awesome idea. That kind of a breakdown would make it very easy to see what would need to go, and we might try and re-do our budget in a similar format. Thanks for sharing!

  • Richard @ Frugality Magazine says:

    I’ve made a budget like this in the past. Luckily I live a pretty frugal lifestyle anyway so there isn’t *too* much “dead wood” to cut. Possibly one of my few “luxuries” is my monthly movie rental subscription. While I put it on hold over the summer as we’re out enjoying the sunshine more, in the depths of winter I’d really miss it!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

      Yeah, we’re in the same boat, Richard; super frugal most of the time anyway, but with a few little things, like a Netflix subscription, which here also, with our eternal winters, would be tough to be without. Thanks for weighing in – I appreciate it!

  • David says:

    While I have never had a desparate measures budget I have practiced for that type of scenario. Last year I tried living from my emergency food storage for a month. It was useful because I learned how quickly different things are used when replacements are not available. It also forces me to rotate my stock and will help reduce stress in a real emergency. I’m planning to repeat the exercise next month to help fine tune my food stogage and rotate supplies. I’m giving myself one luxury exemption this time. I will be buying fresh milk instead of using powdered milk.
    Three weeks into last year’s experiment nature threw its wrench into the works. A frost heave broke the gas line from my propane tank. It was five weeks before the ground thawed and I could dig it up to be fixed. I just treated the time without a functioning stove and water heater as more training for interruptions in supply chains.

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