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Home » Frugality

What is the US Poverty Line & Could YOU Live Below it?

Last updated by on 52 Comments

I keep a close watch on all of my expenses and take a bit of pride in how low I’ve been able to drive them.

Our (wife and I) average expenses over the last few months has been around $1,770 ($21,240 per year).

If I deduct my effective property taxes from my expenses and subtract the cash back credit card rewards I am getting (often 5%), the average drops to $1,630 per month, or $19,560 per year. This is consistent with my annual average over the last few years.

Getting down to this level made me curious as to whether my expenses were actually below the 2014 U.S. income poverty guidelines.

Why? Well, I have no intention of applying for any of the federal benefits one is eligible for when their income is below (or even at exceeding multiples of) the poverty line, such as the National School Lunch Program, Food Stamps, Home Energy Assistance Program, etc.

US poverty line

Rather, I wanted to see how close I was. What does the U.S. government view as “poor” (or at least poor enough to be eligible for federal assistance). Am I living below that level? Could I live below that level?

When I polled readers a while back on whether they thought saving money or making money was more satisfying, the result was a 45% – 55% split – 91 votes for saving money, 109 votes for making money. I tend to side more with the saving money folks because I get a thrill out of saving money and being self reliant that making money just doesn’t match. It’s a bit of a game to me.

So what is the poverty line? Let’s start there…

The 2014 U.S. Poverty Line

The numbers adjust every year, but you can see the below chart below for 2014 U.S. poverty guidelines, for the 48 contiguous states (Alaska and Hawaii carry higher levels).

2014-US-poverty-guideline

As you can see, the level changes with the number of household members. For a family of two, the poverty line is set at a household income of $15,130 per year.

As of the last Census in 2010, 15.1% of the U.S. lives in poverty.

Are Our Expenses Below the Poverty Line?

At $19,560 annually, we’re not quite there, but we’re close. Could we get there? Yes.

We’d have to cut about $4,050 annually, or $337.50 monthly out of our expenses.

As it is, I feel like our lifestyle is far above the poverty line. We cook up great organic vegetarian meals, enjoy an occasional bottle of wine or homebrew, have a nice home in a desirable community, 3 pets, cell phones, internet, bikes, clothing, TV, computers, car, backpacking gear, and even take nice cheap vacations. In our view, we are not living deprived. And we certainly don’t feel impoverished in any way.

The sacrifices it would take to cut $370 per month out of our expenses would not be too painful. It would probably come from a mix of cutting some entertainment, changing our diet slightly to accommodate a shift to more bulk food purchases, reducing our HVAC energy consumption, re-evaluating our insurance levels, and appealing my property taxes with city hall. These are all things that are on my to-do list.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of opportunities to drive your expenses lower without sacrificing quality of life. When you do that, you become more immune to economic factors that are out of your control. And you might even have a little fun in the process.

Could you Live Below Poverty Level?

Regardless of your income levels,

  • Are your annual expenses below the poverty line? If so, do you feel poor or deprived?
  • If your expenses are above the poverty line, could you get there with effort? How would you do it?

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About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


52 Comments »
  • Mike says:

    I spent $19,233 last year ($1602 per month), 172% of the poverty level. I have fixed expenses of $1156 monthly for rent, utilities, food, gasoline and insurance. So it is currently impossible for me to live on $11,170.

    I think my easiest cut would be rent. I currently pay $756, I could easily cut that to $400 or less if I had a roommate, and a lower rent apartment. If I did that I could live at the poverty level.

    I wonder how roommate and poverty level works? Roommates generally are not supporting each other financially. Does each roommate get to live on $11,170? Or would the poverty level still be $15,130?

  • Julie says:

    I could spend below 11k, if I was trying to. Currently, my spending (according to Mint.com) is $15k a year, with 30% being for food, 20% for rent and 15% on gifts for my family. I could easily cut back on food and gifts, if I needed to for some reason. My rent is extremely cheap and I would barely be saving money if I moved back in with my mom (rent free).

    I agree more with Ramit Sethi from “I will teach you to be rich”–I’d rather make more money than save a bit of money. Sure, I could cut back on my $5 breakfasts in the mornings or buy cheaper gifts, but that really wouldn’t make me happy and wouldn’t save me much anyways–I don’t have any debt to pay off and I’m saving plenty.

  • Mark says:

    Pretty much impossible here (NY Metro area) without moving to the ghetto or public housing. Rent on a small 1br apt in a semi decent neighborhood is roughly $15k a year. In the past I’ve paid as much as 12k for a basement studio apt over 1.5 hours from the city. And that’s JUST rent. In my current situation where I need to pay for oil heat, it’s 2-3k alone each year, just for heat. For heat! If you have a car anywhere in NYC, expect $200 a month or so in basic insurance premiums.

    The cost of the most basic things is so outrageous here, I wonder why they dont have a separate formula for expensive cities.

    • Julie says:

      It helps to have a significant other in those cases–everything becomes half as expensive. I’m in NYC, though in a rent controlled apartment so of course it’s a LOT cheaper.

      • Mark says:

        Rent control is great….if you’ve lived in the same apt for decades. My parents have lived in the same apt for 40 years, and their rent (650/mo) is literally 25% of what it would be on the open market (2500ish)….and honestly, it’s not even that nice of a neighborhood and its still an average sized 1br apt.

        Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help any young people starting out on their own or anyone that needs to move for any reason. Minimum wage is still like $8. If you only worked a single full time minimum ot near minimum wage job, you still couldn’t support yourself. You absolutely need roomates, family or public assistance if you’re not making at least 30K a year.

        I’m sure there are places where one can survive, maybe even live a decent life at the poverty line….NYC absolutely isnt one of them. 15k is abject poverty. Unless you hve some other assistance or outside help, you’re basically choosing between eating and a roof over your head at that point.

  • Megan E. says:

    Interesting topic to look at. Although I think your math is a bit off, as I believe that is gross in the chart and you are looking at expenses (or net).

    When I was in grad school, I had (gross) around $15,000 but net I was probably under $11k. I ate well and lived simply.

    Now? We couldn’t really do it…not without cutting back on EVERYTHING and only having food and our house and 1 car with small amounts of gas. So it’s doable in theory but hopefully not something we’ll have to put into practice!

  • Natalie H says:

    I’m currently living at about 150% of poverty line. I still feel that I’m wasting a lot of money. However, I grew up poor, and I understand the difficulties involved. If you want a good read on the subject try _Nickel and Dimed_ by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a middle class look at how difficult it is to live poor. I can personally attest to most of the contents, but she barely scratches the surface. The inability to make bulk purchases or pay ahead make poverty a trap.

    Examples include: you can’t afford to pay for a full month’s rent at once, so you pay for a weekly, at an additional 20% cost. Your weekly doesn’t include a washing machine, so you have to pay per load. You can’t afford to buy multiple sets of work clothes, so you have to wash every day. And on, and on, and on. It’s not fair for people who have the money to establish themselves, pay off the house, pay off the car, and *then* lower expenses to compare to someone who’s wage has always been the same as their current expenses. The lower wage worker hasn’t had the opportunity to make those “investments.” Don’t forget how much money is tied up in those things.

    • Rachel says:

      True, and Nickel and Dimed is an excellent book.

    • jeretta says:

      you are so right i aagree i was trying to say the same thing

    • Catherine says:

      When I was in community college, I attended with almost exclusively middle class students who drove while I took the bus. One difficulty I encountered was being in that environment was difficult to try to explain your problems. I was taking a karate class and I could only afford one Gi, which was about 45 dollars. I would take it home and wash it once a week or so, but not everyday. One day the instructor spoke to the whole class about how gross it was to not wash your Gi everyday..but I knew he was thinking/talking about me. That is when I realized my trouble and I felt it was too hard to explain so I didn’t. Most of the other students went home to middle class homes with washers and dryers and could wash their Gi’ everyday. But every-time I washed something it cost 5.00. You can’t hand-wash a GI and have it be dry the next day. It is a huge thick canvas heavy thing. I was the only one there who couldn’t afford not to be “gross”. I was the only one without a cell phone. I had to stay at school all day because the bus took two hours (though I only lived 1/2 hour away by car). I didn’t have any friends at all. I made people uncomfortable. It’s better when I am in my own neighborhood then I am not such a freak.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    With a family of 3 living in California I don’t think we could pull this off. However a few years ago when I was single, I think I could’ve easily done it and I saved lots of money to boot even w/ a low salary compared to most of my peers and colleagues.

  • Joe says:

    Hey.
    Not a Facebook or Google+ user, so I’ll leave my question here. I’ve been following your blog for a long time and I love (most of) your articles and thought processes. You mention homebrewing every-so-often. Have you been able to financially justify homebrewing? If so, can you break it down for me?

    My father and I brew our own. For his birthday, I brough him the ingredients for a Froach Heather Ale. Altogether, the ingredients cost $50. So in material alone, I’m ready above my $1 / bottle threshold (5 gal batches) that I use to determine if the beer is a deal.

    Looking forward to that blog entry!!!

  • JP says:

    I think this is a pretty awesome way to look at things. Our expenses (2 of us) for what we are consuming are right above this mark at $17,880 even in the fairly expensive city of Austin. The key to this for us has been to say no to a mortgage. We were able to buy a house in cash after working our tails off through college to stay out of debt, and going even crazier for a few years afterwards.

    Here’s our quickie budget (note, this doesn’t include gifts to our church):

    $500 – Food & entertainment
    $300 – Property Taxes (This one hurts the most because I can’t do anything about it)
    $140 – Utilities (this drops big time in the winter)
    $250 – Gasoline/Vehicle Maintenance
    $75 – Gifts. Some for Christmas, and then birthdays, etc
    $125 – Misc expenses (home repairs, postage, medical, etc)

    The awesome thing is we lived dirt poor for a few years and told ourselves it was so we could have a mansion, never work again, etc, etc. Now, we can easily do it, but found that we can do everything we want to on this amount. The budget above even includes gas for our boat to go water skiing 1-2 times a week. Now we can just parlay all of our savings into investments and real estate.

    • Robbin says:

      I notice you don’t list paying for health insurance and auto insurance. I live in Austin as well.

      In addition, if you rent, you will not qualify for any place unless your monthly gross at least three times the monthly rent.

  • CR says:

    GE – what is the breakdown of your $19,560? Does that include a mortgage pmt each month? Or was that excluded because it’s equity?

    My expenses average about $20k per year…and that’s only for one person. I am surprised (and impressed) your average is so low, GE, for TWO people.

    My top three “spend” categories are 1) rent, 2) travel, and 3) Auto. Close followers are food, “dining out”, and clothes. I really think of myself as a ‘saver’, but apparently I am not as frugal as I thought! I have a new goal to work towards, though I know I couldn’t get down to $11,150 without downgrading significantly in where i live (both from a safety and a location stand point). I currently only pay $650 for rent (w/ 1 roommate) and bills are included. Compared to my peers, that is pretty low (I live in the north texas area about 10 miles from the downtown area of the city).

    I guess it’s time I re-evaluate my budget and figure out more areas where I can save. Challenge accepted :)

  • Tim Richmond says:

    This definitely is a good way to look at things, but it also puts things into sort of a sad perspective. A lot of people have to live on that amount of money or less– I have not seen too many posted comments about having a low quality of life. You do, of course, offer good tips for maintaining good quality of life while spending less.

  • VERY POOR FAMILY says:

    I admire that you are not using government assistance because our family is a family of 6 with 2 dogs, and we use government assistance, even though the programs do not really provide enough assistance. Right now, I may am receiving Social Security benefits, but Im currently without a health insurance. My children and my husband are covered, and that s only thing matters to me because anything can happen to my children. I am not that worried about me because Im relatively healthy as I rarely go to doctors and emergency room departments.

    We are still struggling to flourish in this economy, and my husband is struggling to find a job due to his disability. I was a working “student” mom until I decided to stay at home to be here more often. Im currently studying pre-pharmacy, and hopefully, I can achieve this as to become a pharmacist to be able to provide for my family.

    We may have basic necessities and “luxuries” such as cell phones, cable, and so on, but I dont think my family are happy as they want more out of this life like with bigger house and fancier stuff. I believe it is due to the society in US that many people feel deprived due to the standards of being “wealthy.” I believe I will be more comfortable with being humble without those “fancier” stuff to fit in the society, but it is hard to teach the new generations of children how to live simple.

    Anyway, I just want to tell you that I truly admire you for taking care of your family well without using any of government assistances. You are an excellent mother and a wife. :)

  • Phil says:

    I live way under the poverty line but I’m not under any illusion that since I can do it everyone else can too. All it takes is one disaster when one lives on the edge to change one’s life from comfortable to misery. Whether that means a blown furnace (that happened to me) or a random serious health ailment.

    I personally think that the poverty line is way too low. The big deciding factor is health insurance. Unless you get it cheap through your employer or qualify for government assistance it does’t take much to wrack up a bill large enough to eat up an entire savings. Also the poverty line does not take into account how much it cost to get to work. In my case I have to go 40 miles one way for a part time job. There is just nothing closer. Half of my income goes to just getting to work.

    When the government came up with the idea of the poverty line in the first place health care was much cheaper and commuting more than 10 miles to work was unheard of. Also housing was much cheaper then.

    • Carol says:

      The poverty level changes each year. When it was created everything was much cheaper. I think a young healthy single person or couple would be able to live comfortably most places at the poverty level, but when you start adding children it becomes very difficult. The poverty level seems only to take into account food, but housing gets harder to find when you need more bedrooms and a safe place to live. Then clothing, entertainment, education, all much more difficult. All is based on affordable health care and having a suitable job, of course.

  • michele says:

    Okay well I make 400 dollars more than the poverty line. I move out of my condo in April and I can’t live on my own without some assistance. But I can’t qualify for assistance because I make to much! I’m A single mother and work 7 days a week averaging 60 hour weeks! I have no debt and just the basics no tv. No internet just my cell phone and a 10 year old car and no medical insurance. I live in Colorado..Even a 500 sq ft studio is 650….and its be and my 4 year old son

    • Julie says:

      For most single parents and some couples with children you must factor in daycare costs which can quickly eat up a budget. Most single parents did not happily choose to raise children on their own. Many single parents do not receive any support from the sometimes completely absent parent.

  • Chelsea says:

    Health insurance at full premium through a group plan at work: $550/mo (I am considered uninsurable on all private plans)

    Cost of medications and medical supplies with insurance: 250/mo

    Cost of doctor visits: $30/month

    Cost of hospital bill repayments: $70/month

    Monthly income: $931

    Monthly health costs: $900

    I couldn’t live on $31/month. I would die. I am glad that I do not live under the poverty line.

    • And? says:

      If you were spending that much money to keep anything else running, you would have rid yourself of it long ago. It doesn’t sound like you have much quality of life with if so much of your income is spent just keeping you alive.

      I’m all about modern medicine, but on the other hand, there is something to be said for natural selection…

  • Jay says:

    Obviously, Mr. Miller has never had a water heater explode in the middle of the night, a blown headgasket on an automobile while about 500 miles from home, gutters ripped off from the facia due to an excessive ice storm, a prescription that costs $120 a month that an affordable healthcare plan doesn’t cover, or any number of life’s little surprises that take a huge bite out of a family’s monthly budget. Oh, and the affordable healthcare plan; $600 a month for a family of two. We dropped cable, downsized to just one cellphone, eliminated the house phone, eliminated one car, gave the dog away, share an internet connection with a neighbor and stay awake at night thinking of more ways to reduce our monthly outlay of cash. Does anyone else have more ideas as to what we can eliminate or reduce so that we can live on the published poverty level of $15,140 for a family of two? That’s about $1262 a month… my utilities, housepayment, health, auto, home and life insurances erase that figure immediately. I have been entertaining the thought of selling the house and renting, but rent and renters insurance are as much if not more than my current housepayment. Anyway, it is silly to try and convince people that it is possible to live at or below the poverty line for any length of time. Life happens. All it takes is one hospital stay that the health insurer refuses to pay for that can push a person to bankruptcy. Good luck to all of you trying to survive in this economy.

    • Tara says:

      Absolutely agree! Just ask my mother whose heart nearly stopped beating and the insurance company won’t cover the costs. Her medical bills would be literally ten times the poverty line for her THREE days in the hospital.

  • Tara says:

    Living paycheck to paycheck at the poverty line is doable, yes. You can cover your daily expenses. You can even do it fairly comfortably if you’re lucky or if you live somewhere with a low cost of living. What this article fails to quantify is the STRESS of living that way. What happens when you get those unexpected expenses? What if your car goes? What if you get sick and can’t work. Can you afford health insurance? Can you afford the things health insurance won’t cover?

    I understand that the point is to live simply and save the rest for these expenses, but I think this article trivializes the plight of that 15% of people who doesn’t find living inexpensively a game.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      This article is not geared to those living at a poverty level income, and is not meant to trivialize the challenges of doing so. The point is that you can fairly comfortably live at a poverty level expense, and if earn above, it presents significant savings opportunity.

      Social commentary on the plight and stress of poverty is far beyond what this post was intended to discuss.

      • sbbama says:

        The point is you can not live comfortably on a low income in the US. Do you ever buy clothes, go to the doctor, pay health insurance or pay rent of 600 per month? Do you need an auto to make this amount of money and do you buy gas and maintain the auto?
        The real point is why do intelligent people posting on this website live on such pitiful wages. Why are profits going up and wages going down, what happened to the middle class?

  • Jim says:

    Heck my health insurance alone is 12k a year(self Employed, single dad to 3 boys). I currently live far about the poverty line, but have less free time and disposable income then many who live closer.

    As I read these things, I realize I am working far too hard for too little.

  • mom of 5 says:

    I manage to keep my family of 7 going on $2100 a month. It is super tight and we don’t get to go do a ton of activities, but I can certainly say is interesting and educational. We eat organic and gluten due to horrible food allergies and we homeschool too. We certainly love paycheck to paycheck. My husband works two jobs, but I couldn’t work if I wanted because we wouldn’t be able to afford daycare. When we bought our house 4 years ago my husband made 4 times his current income at one job and I worked full time. He was laid off and had to take whatever he could get and my job became obsolete (I used to be able to work from home and watch the kids.). All in all, we went from about $150, 000 a year down to $25, 000 without a reduction in house payment. We couldn’t afford the option we had for both control (due to my health issues) and the result is a large living family on next to no income. Our energy bill (on budget billing) is about $325 a month.

  • Rachel says:

    I began working and saving money when I was fifteen, and at 19 I was able to buy my own home, living below the poverty level. Now, two years and a promotion later, I make around $12,000 a year, and still live comfortably in my own home. I can afford to go out and even take the occasional vaccation/trip on that income. Of course, I have the benefit of free meals from my employer, so my grocery bill is about $30/month, and I drive a fully paid ’02. But I don’t feel deprived in any way. I have been extremely blessed.

  • T919 says:

    You mention “hubby had heart attacks”. How were they treated? You do or don’t have insurance? Did he not go to the hospital? I’m confused. You paid cash for the hospitals and Rx’s if any?

  • T. says:

    Now try to manage no income period. Ever wonder about the “No one left behind” comment? You did’nt build that! Example: The 99ers and beyond. Stress? Long term unemployed in some instances, more than two years or even three! I’m also referring to people who did not give up looking for work and continue. Some applied to over 200 jobs and still no results. Health ins.? Whats that? Something needs to change with the elimination of real jobs being exported out of the U.S. Where’s Congress? What’s really going on? At least I don’t have a mortgage or rent payment since I own. I’m going on two years unemployed and over 100 jobs applied for. Echoing the debate on gun control; we need real change! Happy job hunting! P.S. Unemployment insurance is poverty level. Thanks for the statistic. Something to think about. Gday,no worries mates!

  • Kwyjibo says:

    “Could you Live Below Poverty Level?”

    You need to replace the word ‘live’ with the word ‘survive’.

    When you’re forced to forgo a cup of coffee at a shop with friends because you’ll need that 1.50 for the bus in the morning that will get you too work but won’t bring you back home because you don’t have another 1.50…then you’re not living…you’re just surviving.

    This is how those of us in poverty really live. It’s not some freakin’ game of ‘oh I’m all set up with my house and car and SO who also works so we’ve got a nice bank account and a 401K so LET’S SEE HOW MUCH WE CAN SAVE!!! YIPPEE!!!!…’ kind of game, people.
    This is real life for some of us…not some banal choice.

    • Carolyn says:

      It depends on your definintion. At least there is a bus. Poverty levels in the US are still higher than the average cost of living for the majority of the world.

      As for the specific example of the bus, I haven’t had a car for 10 years. Do I walk a lot? Yeah, in fact I walked 8 miles yesterday; but I don’t have a choice. Do I let it bother me? NO. I am capbable of doing it, so I do… and I don’t feel like I’m just “surviving.” I don’t go without food or basic bathroom ammenties. I just don’t have a car, cable, etc. And so what? I don’t need a car, cable, etc to survive. I still breath, ambulate, sweat, and bleed without those things. :)

      And $1.50 for coffee? That’s expensive. If you make it at home, it’s pennies on the dollar…

  • manfred1946 says:

    Just a few words from across the pond,here in the U.K. we havethe same discussions with roughly the same outcom. our basic national wage is gbp 6.35 which is about 8-9 usd, it is as hard here asit seems to be in the USA, we have two main things that do differ , one good and one bad . petrol(gas) in the UK is now 7gbp, about 10 dollars a gallon. it fluctuates weekly but never seems to go down. and has a great bearing if you have to travel to, or look for work. the good is the National health service, all medicine is free, you may have to pay a charge for your prescription , currently 8gbp , but everything else , operations etc is free, it seems hard for most of us.

  • Shannon M says:

    Can you expand on your expenses?

    Did you and your wife pay for health insurance or did you go without it or did you get covered at a job?
    Did you pay rent or did you have a mortgage?

    And your income:
    Did you both work?

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