Creating A Bare Bones Budget When You’re Not Making Much Money

I’d like to welcome my friend, Nicole Rule, to the blog! She is the most savvy, money mentor I know – encouraging people to align money with their values instead of guilt.

Hey. I’m Nicole and I created Greatest Worth to guide women to live a joyful, courageous and intentional life, beginning with their money. I believe that joy, courage and intention are what we need now, more than ever. And money, believe it or not, is the best place to start. 

In the midst of this strange season of social distancing and change, money may well be a scary topic for you. Maybe you’re like my family and you’re working through a big loss of income due to the pandemic? Perhaps overwhelm and anxiety define your money situation in this season of uncertainty? Or possibly, you’ve decided to keep your head down and eyes closed, playing the “if I don’t look at it, then it can’t be real game” that our kids played when they were little?

But, in my 10 years of budgeting and 6 years of guiding people with their money, I know, without a doubt, that awareness of our money, regardless of the pressures, is key to moving away from stress and anxiety into calm and confidence. It is possible, day in and day out, pandemic or not, to make choices that allow us to pursue the things in life that we truly value – relationships with our kids and our spouse, our calling, our health, mind, body and soul, and even our home.

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, necessarily, we were running triage on our lives. We were deciding what was most urgent, attending to one need at a time, moving through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It was an upheaval of everything we’ve known, including our way of spending money.

READ: Four Steps to NOT Lose your Cool as a Mom

Like any upheaval, the change it has created in our money has both fear and opportunity with it. Fear as the uncertainty of the future feels fragile. Opportunity as we have a chance to create a budget that allows us to create enough space in our lives for us to breathe, even in an emergency. Think of an emergency budget like a lifeboat; it’s designed to keep you floating and get you from the crisis to where you want to go. 

So…It’s time to create a bare bones budget.


First, let’s be clear that this budget is NOT going to have heft to it. It’s skin and bones without the meat. It’s a budget that can sustain you in an emergency, but it doesn’t have any of the fluff that our “normal” lives so often contain. 

Think of this emergency budget as saying NO to all of the old wants that filled so much of your time and energy [the extracurriculars, the gym memberships, the coffee out followed by the dinner out] so that you can say YES to making it through this emergency and landing on solid ground. This budget is not forever – it’s a lifeboat, and lifeboats aren’t designed to long-term use. What’s exciting, though, emerging from this emergency with calm and confidence, a clear vision and connection to your values, will give you a running start on creating a life that is richer and more, well… alive than what you were before the crisis. 

For now, however, let’s talk about how to figure out what’s important in your emergency budget, and what to let go of.


Dave Ramsey calls an emergency budget “taking care of your four walls.” We like to call it ‘The Fundamental Four.’ These are the 4 expenses that you MUST budget for FIRST, so you can take care of your basic necessities. 

FOOD – groceries to keep you and your family healthy

HOUSING – mortgage/rent payment

UTILITIES – power, gas, water, sewer, trash, phone

TRANSPORTATION – car payment, insurance, gas

Those Fundamental Four categories are what will sustain you through this crisis. There’s not much else that NEEDS to be funded during an emergency. There are things we would LIKE: things like netflix, or saving for a vacation or take-out food. Awareness is the key to understanding what is a need and what is a want. Awareness, and honesty and, sometimes, a friendly pat on the back. 

Once you’re aware of the Fundamental Four, here are the steps we encourage EVERYONE to take with their money during this time of crisis.

STOP YOUR CURRENT MONEY GOAL – debt payoff, buying investments, adding to your retirement. There’s a possibility that you may get back to this, even during the crisis, but for now, stop everything until you’ve really assessed your situation. For example, it doesn’t make sense to continue contributing to your retirement funds when you don’t have any money in savings, one of you just lost your job and you need that income to pay your monthly bills. 

MAKE A LIST OF ALL OF YOUR EXPENSES, INCOME AND ASSETS – it’s time for some awareness on where your money is actually going. Make a list of everything you’ve spent money on in the past month. All of your regular expenses, but also all of the extras like ordering take out, or Starbucks runs, or all that stress shopping you just did (we all did it!). Then write down your total monthly income. Do they match? Are you spending more than you’re bringing in? And finally, how much cash do you have in savings? This will help you to see how you can supplement your income with your savings until you get out of this crisis.


This is just like it sounds. Categorize every single expense from the last month into these three categories: NEEDS, MAYBE NEEDS (for the expenses you’re not quite sure about) and WANTS. We’ll build your budget based on these three categories.


It’s time to make a budget. You can use budgeting software (Sam and I swear by YNAB or you need a budget. We’ve used it for over six years and love it so much we refer everyone to it. It simplifies budgeting and helps you to live without debt and within your means. If you use my link to sign up, we both get an extra month for free!) or you can use pen and paper.

If you’re using pen and paper, write down your monthly income first. This is the pot you’ll draw from for your expenses. The goal is to get that pot to zero every month, assigning every dollar to an expense, giving you clarity on where your money is and what it needs to do. 

Next, write down the series of NEEDS (or Fundamental Four) expenses and the dollar amounts you gathered for them. Be as specific as you can, but if you estimate, remember to estimate on the high side. Total the expenses on the line, and then subtract that amount from your income. If your income bucket is at zero (or negative), you’ll have to find some savings or increase your income to cover this!

Now, do the same for the next series of expenses – the MOSTLY-NEED category. Subtract the total of this from the previous income balance. Again, if your income bucket is at zero (or negative), you can subtract some of these mostly needs until you get to a positive number, or find more income/savings to supplement yourself for this interim. If you still have income to use, press on!

Finally, total up the WANTS category and subtract from your remaining income bucket. If you have money leftover you can add that to your emergency fund for now.

That’s the rough outline on how to create a functioning emergency budget that will guide you through this crisis. It will help you stay afloat and find some clarity to see this challenge as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe. An opportunity to be creative, inspired and in pursuit of the best version of who you are. 

If you’re looking for a more detailed, step-by-step process on how to create an emergency budget with your money, as well as super practical tools to help you find clarity and confidence with in all aspects of your life, you’re going to want to get your hands on ‘The Emergency Budget Blueprint: 5 days to create confidence and clarity in your life and money, especially during uncertain times.”

My husband, Sam, and I created this course because we felt called to share this information with anyone and everyone out there. We were so called, in fact, that we are offering this course on a “Pay What Feels Good” basis – pay anything, from full price to nothing – and experience the calm confidence, even in this emergency, that is available to you with some work.

Finally, a tip to help you move from budgeting theory to practice: 


Now is the time, more than ever, to become a home economist. Find ways to live frugally and create more space, or breathing room, in your budget. Meal planning is one way we’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years. I have a free menu planning guide that not only walks you through my exact process of creating a menu for the entire week (we’ve actually been using it to get groceries for two weeks so we can stay out of the stores!), but it even includes 20 of our family’s favorite whole food, frugal recipes that we come back to over and over again.


Despite the circumstances of this strange season, you are not alone. Those We’re All In This Together signs all over the place are telling the truth. Yes, your specifics are yours alone, but you’re not alone in your specifics. The anxiety and overwhelm that you may feel about your money are not the final option – calm and confidence are also available. An emergency budget is the key to keep you moving and centered.

Thanks for being here with me. I know this work of creating an emergency budget is work, but remember, we can do hard things! And, together, nothing can hold us back.

Nicole Rule is a money coach and the founder of Greatest Worth. It’s there where she guides people to make a life they love, starting with their money. The Greatest Worth system was born through her debt payoff journey of $100,000 in 26 months. It was through that journey that Nicole realized that creating the life of your dreams is based on 5 foundational pillars: HEALTH, WORK, RELATIONSHIPS, HOME + MONEY. You can listen to her speak on ALL the topics every week on her podcast ‘Your Greatest Worth.’

JoAnn Crohn

CEO/Founder at No Guilt Mom
JoAnn Crohn, M. Ed is a parenting educator and life coach who helps moms feel confident in raising empowered, self-sufficient kid while pursuing their own goals & passions.

She’s an accomplished writer, author, podcast host of the No Guilt Mom podcast, and speaker who appears in national media. Work with her personally in Balance VIP

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