If you're serious about budgeting, you have to be willing to seriously reevaluate the difference between wants versus needs...and then make painful changes in behavior.
As a single mother, I had several lean years. I had gotten into an entry level state job and had to basically start from scratch after more than twenty five years building a career in the private sector. I accepted a salary that was 2/3 less than what i had been making-- but the guaranteed raises I was looking at in future years would have me back up to where I had been in five years or less, plus all the other great benefits that come with working for the state. I went into it with my eyes wide open, knowing I was going to have to take a good hard look at what I was spending my money on, and to cut out everything that wasn't necessary.
-No more cable and internet, trash pickup was cancelled and I began bringing our small amount of weekly trash to my mother's dumpster, no more telephone. I traded my Blackberry for an old flip-phone that didn't have a media package. Good Will and Salvation Army became the places where I bought clothes. I planned for getting all my vegetables at local farmers markets on the weekends; what vegetables i couldn't grow myself in my raised bed garden. I froze a lot of my vegetables to get us through the winter, and stocked up on bulk ingredients using my Mom's Costco account. I eliminated packaged and processed foods and cooked our meals. We stopped eating take-out, and I brought a small coffee maker to work to use instead of stopping at a drive-through on the way in. I even went mortgage shopping and refinanced for a better rate. I basically cut out ALL non-essentials. When my old car was dying, I went on Craigslist and bought an 18 year old Maxima with low mileage and a few dings. And meanwhile, I had set up a direct deposit of a small amount of money from my paycheck to go into a savings account at a credit union a couple of towns away--it was easy to deposit into, but a real pain to take out of, since it was almost forty five minutes away. This started to build, and was so small that I was able to easily put it out of my mind.
Was it hard? Definitely. Sometimes I felt like I was working myself to the bone just to scrape by every week. Living hand-to-mouth is hard, and it really sucks. Sometimes I was mad, feeling like I shouldn't have to put myself and my daughter through such efforts--after all, I had already put in my time and didn't deserve to be suffering like this! But I stuck with it, and less than two years later, I found that it was beginning to pay off. I had gotten rid of all my credit card debt and a loan amount, gone through a couple of raises and was making almost five thousand dollars more a year than I had when I first took the big pay cut....and was emerging from beneath what had seemed like a huge weight of debt.
Americans these days have lost the ability to recognize what really is a luxury compared to what isn't; and even then, they are often unwilling to make sacrifices. Communications and technology are Americans' biggest blind spots, and these are two expensive areas of luxury that can be cut completely out of a budget, saving a few hundred dollars and even up to five hundred, not to mention the cost of the items themselves when they are replaced. People can learn to do without, and be ok; the trick is that you have to be able to recognize that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And realize that it's worth it, in the end. I sure did. And even more; I know that no matter how bad things get, economically, I know that I will always be fine. I've done it before, and I can do it again, if necessary.