Is there any idiom or expression in the English language that describes a situation in which the budget goes tight(er) and one becomes poor? In my mother tongue, they say "X happened and their bread gets thinner/smaller," implying on a situation in which the individuals should eat less as the result of economic hardship. Is there any phrase similar to this in the English language?

  • Any political -ism, if you're being satirical. Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 4:40
  • 'high (or higher) off the hog' is idiomatic for having more (usable/available) money, but unfortunately 'low(er) off the hog' which should be the opposite is not idiomatic. I use it anyway. Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 9:04
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    Title asks to be driven to the poor house but it doesn't match the context.
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 19:28
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    "Tighten your belt" is the most typical. There's a pop song "money's too tight to mention..."
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 21:20
  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Also: the cupboards are bare, e.g. "I wish I had something to offer you to eat, but we haven't done our grocery shopping this week, and I'm afraid the cupboards are bare" (freedictionary). Living from hand to mouth, struggling to make ends meet or to keep the wolf from the door. Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 6:47

12 Answers 12


I've heard the expression "water down the soup", as in "The budget is pretty tight this week so we'd better water down the soup." It implies trying to stretch your resources. Adding more water to a pot of soup will get you more servings, although they will be less filling and nutritious. It's along the same lines as "spreading the butter thinner" mentioned above.

When I do a search on the web for this expression, all I get are links to cooking sites. However, there are various historical references to people watering down soup or making soup out of otherwise non-food ingredients in order to try to survive famine conditions, such as the French Army during Napoleon's retreat from Russia, so that might be a possible origin.


You can say they had to take their belt in a notch (or two)

From the Free Dictionary:

take (one's) belt in (a notch (or two))

To reduce, restrict, or limit one's budget or expenses; to live more modestly or make financialsacrifices. (Alluding to having a thinner waist line due to having less to eat.)

With your mother out of work, we're all going to have to take our belts in a notch or two for a little while.

The other commenter already mentioned the closely related 'tighten one's belt'.

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    But if you can't make ends meet, taking your belt in a notch or two becomes problematic?!?? Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 16:44
  • @EdwinAshworth I wondered the same and figured: "I can't make ends meet" must've meant "I can't stand it, I want to avoid it at all costs" if "make ends meet" means the belt is wound so tight that the end of the belt meets the end of (the notches?). This is silly and seems more likely to refer to time up different deadlines, ins and outs; still rather morbid. Or as I heared it, at the end of the money there was still month left
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:12
  • They're conflicting metaphors. Your belly gets smaller so the belt needs shortening, but as costs increase/income decreases, you need to try to stretch your resources. Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 13:09

"X happened and they found themselves unable to make ends meet."

make ends meet - To earn just enough money to pay one's bills.

  • To make ends meet, Phil picked up a second job delivering pizzas.
  • After the large income tax hike, many people suddenly found it difficult to make both ends meet.
  • Since I lost my job, I’m finding it harder to make ends meet.

— Farlex via The Free Dictionary

  • You know, until I read this I had always interpreted it as "make ends meat". I feel like a dummy
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 12:29

If you say that someone has been put through the wringer /ˈrɪŋə(r)/ or has gone through the wringer, you mean that they have suffered a very difficult or unpleasant experience. It's possible that the experience is about great hardships and getting poorer. But the idiom in your mother tongue is still more specific, I think.

By the way, a wringer is a piece of equipment used for removing water from wet clothes by squeezing them between two rollers.

If you have to spend less money than you did before because you don't have as much money, you can say that you have to tighten your belt.


Money pit is a term that refers specifically to the situation (what causes them to become poor) instead of the effects (they have to tighten their belt or whatever)

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    A money pit is a specific thing (such as, say, a yacht, or a classic car) which has high expenses. A money pit is just one reason you may have to tighten your belt. It could be due to reduced income, say.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 21:21

You can say "X happened and after that they had to pinch pennies".

  • However, "penny-pinching" can have a negative connotation. It describes the action and not the cause; so it can be a synonym for "miserly," or at best "thrifty," neither of which carry the intended implication of "poverty-stricken." "He lost his job and began to pinch pennies" is reasonable, but so is "He got hit on the head and began to pinch pennies." (Whereas "He got hit on the head and had to tighten his belt" is less sensical.) Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 15:59

A close parallel, the expression '[to] spread the butter [ever] more thinly is sometimes used. Though not easy to find in idiom dictionaries, an example from The Death of the Church and Spirituality Reborn ... Reverend John Littlewood:

The customary practice ... has been to ... spread the butter ever more thinly.

and one from Saxo Group tradingfloor.com:

Russia spreads the butter ever more thinly in 2016 _Nadia KazakovaNadia Kazakova

Russia oil and gas expert

Russia's budget for 2016 sees drastic real wage cuts for civil servants

Real wages already down 8.1% in 2015 / 2016 pay freezes set against likely inflation rate of 6.5%

Military spending cut slightly, but real pain among the population

Government effort to shore up social securities payments hints at cohesion fear ...

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    But that was a different problem – Bilbo was a have rather than a have-not. Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 13:15

to get a shrinking slice or a thinner slice of the pie

This is an economics term. It is used all the time. It is not an obscure idiom.

Here is an example of its usage:

A Shrinking Slice of the American Economic Pie [title]

Workers are getting a thinner slice of the American economic pie even with strong growth, robust hiring, rising corporate profits and the Trump administration’s tax cuts.

Bloomberg Business

shrinking slice of the pie https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-24/a-shrinking-slice-of-the-american-economic-pie


Far more alarming, though, is the struggle over resources that is starting to take shape among the billionaires in Putin’s orbit. In January, I quoted Elena Panfilova, now the vice president of Transparency International, who predicted that the elites will start to cannibalize themselves as they fight over a rapidly shrinking economic pie.

shrinking economic pie


Another phrase that might work is cut your cloth accordingly, which means that you have to make use of the (usually limited) resources you have.


  • Peter lost his job, so his family had to cut their cloth accordingly.


N.B. This phrase is common in the UK, not sure about elsewhere.


Behind the eight ball, which means to be in a difficult position with little chance for escape. This idiom is a reference to the game of pool, or billiards.

  • That expression may not be widely understood, though. (At least: I wouldn't have done so if you hadn't explained it.)
    – gidds
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 8:02
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    "Behind the eight ball" doesn't really have anything to do with money or one's budget getting tighter, though. It's just a generic idiom about hardship, synonymous with "between a rock and a hard place," "in a pickle," etc. Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 15:55

For convenient and poetic contrast against a windfall (good fortune):

An ill wind

A misfortune.

This sense is most commonly (if archaically) seen explicitly alongside "windfall" in "(ill) wind or windfall": Food price hikes: an ill wind or windfall?


Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Is an English idiom, it means, stealing money from one place, to pay it elsewhere, with the obvious effect of no real improvement in the situation.


  • The government, in taking tax on cigarettes, are ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ - when that money is later needed for healthcare costs.

  • When you take money out on your credit card to pay your basic needs, are you not ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul?’, he said.


  • surely peter and paul are popes, and if you rob one, the successor will come take it back with fees? At least the chronology fits, though uncertain: Petrus,1st century, Paul I., 8th century; incidentally we have supposedly abandonned roman camps ij brittain from around the 1st, and the holy roman empire with charlemange from the 8th. Coincidence? Talk about payback.
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:40
  • According to the link I provided, they may have been bishops, but Peter and Paul may have been chosen for alliterative purposes, also people were used to hearing ‘Peter and Paul’ as they were disciples and saints. @vectory
    – Jelila
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 22:42

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