By Ashley Stahl, Originally Published in Forbes

Everyone’s familiar with the concept of being ‘broke,’ but what does it really mean?

It’s a bit of a taboo subject. The word comes from an old use of the word break, meaning impoverished… and connotes helplessness, disgracefulness, or embarrassment. It’s more similar to an idea of action, rather than circumstance — no one is born broke. It’s something that happens you you. You get wiped out, busted, or go bankrupt (the ‘rupt’ from an Italian word for broken). The Victorians used to say you were ruined.

Being broke doesn’t necessarily mean you have zero dollars to your name, and it’s not synonymous with poor. Poor means you never had money to begin with, whereas going broke means you lost money you once had.

So what does being broke look like in America?

A survey of over 1,000 Americans had shocking results: 86% of people said they were either currently broke, or had been in the past. That’s a huge amount of people! And 28% of millennials said they got to that point just by overspending on food.

On average, people considered having only $878 available either in cash or a bank account to mean they’ve gone broke. It may not seem like a small sum, but it’s 71.3% of the national average rent. Seeing as the classic rule is not to spend more than 28% of your income on housing costs, many people end up seeing their $878 dwindle away quickly.

There’s a gender issue when it comes to being broke, too. Men and women are actually more likely to go broke for different reasons — men, because they quit their jobs or bought too much alcohol; women, because they spent too much on food or had to wait for their partner to get paid. Generations also play a role. Millennials overspend on food the most, while Gen Xers are the most likely to be dependent on their partners’ salaries. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers are too generous, and went broke mostly by spending their money on other people.

Breaking the mold

Obviously, no one plans on going broke. Yet in today’s society, many people find themselves closer to the brink than they ever expected they’d be. Wages simply aren’t keeping up with steadily increasing prices, especially of food, which increases nearly 4% every year. It’s no wonder food is one of the biggest hindrances when it comes to financial stability, across all generations and genders.

There are ways to stop yourself from getting to the so-called breaking point, though. If the fact that 86% of Americans are or have been broke surprised you, maybe you would also be surprised to know two-thirds of Americans don’t keep a household budget. Maybe that’s why millennials end up spending 44% of their food dollars on eating out — not having a budget to stick to can make tracking your money insanely difficult. Other ways to curb your food spending is to pack your lunches, rely less on fast food, and don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Oh, and that coffee you buy every day? It adds up to an average of $1,100 a year (for Americans). Making your own coffee at home is a solid investment!

Going broke doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all for your finances. If you find yourself slipping like the majority of Americans, don’t panic. Start paying attention to your spending habits, set a budget, and create better habits for the future.

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