What Is a Shoestring or Shoestring Budget?

The slang term "shoestring" often describes a small amount of money which may be an inadequate amount to fund the intended purpose of its use in full. The budgeting process is where the term will most frequently appear, as in a "shoestring budget" or alternately as "on-a-shoestring." Examples of the idiom in uses may include:

  • The company financed the renovation project on a shoestring.
  • Jim is living in a small studio apartment because he is on a shoestring budget.

Origins of the Idiom Shoestring

According to Quora, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) list the first occurrence of the word in print as being from an 1882 issue of The Century Magazine. The magazine used the term as it described a card player saying, [He] could draw to a shoe-string, as the saying went, and obtain a tan-yard!"

Merriam-Webster further describes the connection of the term shoestring and its link to a small amount of money to the custom of early, itinerate peddlers. The wandering peddlers would sell, or trade for, small items such as needles, pots, and shoelaces, which were the most popular item. These traveling trinket sellers made a meager income as they charged little for their wares. Some believe that this is the origin of the connection of the termĀ "shoestring" to a small amount of money. Further, Merriam-Webster found the first use of the word as an adjective in 1859.

What Constitutes a Shoestring Budget?

While a shoestring budget is considered inadequate, it may be just enough when stretched. Much like a shoelace which breaks and must stretch to accomplish the tieing task, or leave part of the shoe unclosed, the same applies to money which must stretch to achieve the bare minimum. The practice may refer to an individual, family, or business spending. When an entity is living or operating on a shoestring budget, they usually have limited access to additional funding.

Real World Example

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) November 2018 food expenditures figures, the smallest amount a family of four may expect to spend on groceries is approximately $148 per week. This limited food budget called the "thrifty plan" by the USDA, would indicate a family who is, most likely, living on a shoestring budget.