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We don’t have much money, but want to improve our lives. Where do we start?

Having a meaningful life isn’t reserved for the ultra-wealthy.

An illustration of a man and woman under an umbrella (the handle of which forms a dollar sign), which is shielding them from giant raindrops. Paige Vickers/Vox
Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

On the Money is a monthly advice column. If you want advice on spending, saving, or investing — or any of the complicated emotions that may come up as you prepare to make big financial decisions — you can submit your question on this form. Here, we answer two questions asked by Vox readers, which have been edited and condensed.

My husband and I were two very broken people when we met. Terrible past relationships had left us broke and isolated, with no savings, no support systems and tons of legal and medical costs. He was retired, and gets about $2,450 a month in Social Security and pension. I am currently unemployed, in my late 50s, and looking for a job that I can do which will hopefully pay more than minimum wage and will offer medical insurance, which I need.

We are living in a temporary rental, which at $1,400/month is the cheapest we could find, share one cell phone that has a monthly cost of $40, spend as little on gas and food as possible, never go out, and want to do more than just survive. While other people our age seem to have nice homes, retirement plans, savings, investments, multiple cars and take vacations, we are one step away from desperation.

We managed to pay off all our debts and don’t have any children, so those are the only things we have in our favor, but at our ages, I am terrified we will wind up homeless at some point. We can’t afford to move anywhere, don’t have anything worth selling, and live in a place where there isn’t much opportunity or community resources. The stress of barely making it is killing me. Is there anything we can do to improve our lives, even a little?

Yes.

There are many things you and your husband can do to improve your lives — and most of those things cost very little money.

But before I offer my advice on how to step away from desperation, I want to offer my congratulations. You and your husband have made it into middle age with no debt. This is rare. Roughly 75 percent of Americans carry some form of debt, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center, and a 2023 study from Northwestern Mutual indicates that 35 percent of Americans are carrying more debt than they’ve ever managed in their lives.

You and your husband also share a cell phone. This might be a net positive, all things considered. While smartphones have done a lot to connect us to employers, loved ones, and the larger world, much of what gets installed onto the typical smartphone is designed to make us feel anxious and unsatisfied. The less time you spend on your phone, the less you’ll feel like you don’t measure up to all of the people your age who appear to have the things you feel like you need — nice homes, retirement plans, savings, investments, multiple cars and vacations.

I suspect many of those people exist only on your phone, after all. If they existed in your life, as your friends, you’d probably be spending time in their homes. You might be sharing meals and conversations. You might also be sharing stories and jokes and struggles, and you’d probably learn that those people with the nice houses are also worried about money. They’re probably carrying a mortgage and at least one car loan. They might not have enough extra cash to cover a $400 emergency. They may even have paid for their last vacation with a credit card — and even though their points may have helped them save money on their flight, the interest on their balance has long eaten up the value of the reward.

But blah blah blah, nobody cares, let’s get to the part where I help you make your life better instead of telling you that all of those people with the things you want may secretly have it worse.

You want to do more than just survive.

What, specifically, do you mean by do more? Do you want to go out to restaurants more often? Is that the biggest dream you and your husband can come up with? Or is that the kind of smartphone-generated desire that you’re using to distract you from the fact that you don’t know what you really want?

You and your husband could do nearly anything with your time. You could write an autobiographical novel. You could study chess openings. You could get in on the pickleball trend. You could make every recipe in Leanne Brown’s famous (and free) Good and Cheap cookbook. You could have a picnic in every park in town, or pick a specific tree in a specific park and draw it every Sunday afternoon. You could check out every Tony Award-winning play from the library and read them aloud to each other.

Of course, if you really want to get the most out of your Tony-winning play readings, you’re going to need a few more people. So you and your husband probably ought to make some friends. Easier said than done, I know — but you’re going to have to start doing it, especially because you told me that you don’t have any other support system.

The people who are most likely to interest you — that is to say, your future friends — will be most likely to gather at places that allow them to do something you’re also interested in. Sports leagues, animal shelters, community theaters, churches, political organizations, etc., etc. (If your area doesn’t offer anything worth doing, then you need to prioritize moving no matter how much it costs or how long it takes.)

This brings us back to the question of what you want to do — which is, interestingly enough, the question you asked me to answer for you.

If it’s really and truly restaurants — if that’s what interests you most of all — then get a job in a restaurant. You’ll meet other people, you’ll earn more than the minimum wage (in most cases, and if the restaurant isn’t offering more than minimum wage, it won’t be a good place to work) and if your employer doesn’t offer health insurance, you can always get a Marketplace plan. Many of the restaurants that are worth working at will offer some form of shift meal, which gives you the opportunity to eat more interesting food — and once you’ve made a few friends and built up a little expertise and reputation, the rest of the opportunities you’re hoping for will be more likely to come your way.

And those people you’ll meet, in the next year or two? They’ll be the ones who can help you, if your fear of becoming homeless ever becomes a realistic concern.

Just make sure you’re prepared to help them in return, even if all you have to offer is a lumpy sofa and an encouraging word.

You gave the wrong advice to the letter writer with ADHD. You should have advised the writer to set up automatic payments and direct deposits. Automation is one of the best strategies for managing ADHD, and focusing your advice on dopamine missed the point.

Thanks to all of the people who wrote me with some variation of the above. It was the biggest response I’d ever gotten to an advice column, and the fact that everyone who wrote in offered the same answer to the letter-writer’s question suggests that the letter-writer should consider automating as much of their finances as possible.

That said, the reason I didn’t specifically mention automation in my advice is because it didn’t seem to be the letter-writer’s core problem. Here’s what they wrote me:

The results [of my ADHD-related financial issues] tend to be getting down to nothing each paycheck, credit cards and similar are a nightmare, and stupid amounts of stress when I’ve treated myself and then remembered I need to pay for a psychologist appointment.

Automating the psychologist payment won’t prevent the letter-writer from spending the money before the payment is due — and although one respondent suggested that the letter-writer solve this problem by checking their bank balance every morning, that isn’t necessarily guaranteed to work. Unless the bank automatically subtracts all of your upcoming automatic payments from your available balance (my local bank does, my big-name bank doesn’t), the LW isn’t going to have an accurate sense of how much money they can spend.

YNAB could be helpful here, since it allows you to give every dollar a job — which means you can subtract not only this month’s psychologist payment, but also every forthcoming psychologist payment. This gives you a better sense of how much money you can spend on discretionary purchases per month, and if you overspend one month it automatically deducts from your discretionary budget for the next month.

Unfortunately, the letter-writer mentioned that they’d already tried the allocation method and “the world got in the way of the allocations.” That’s why I ultimately focused my advice on what I perceived to be the core issue: how to prevent unnecessary purchases from derailing the necessary ones, and how to stop the treat-stress cycle.

Thank you for giving me the chance to revisit my response.

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