What Does Hand to Mouth Mean?

Hand to Mouth Definition

Definition: Having only enough to survive.

Origin of Hand to Mouth

This idiom is quite old and dates all the way back to the 1500s.

To understand this expression, it can be helpful to imagine the following scene. There is a very poor man who doesn’t have any money, or even any food, saved at all. He has only enough food for his immediate hunger. Every time that he needs to eat, he must go find food. This man is living a hand-to-mouth existence.

Some sources say that this idiom comes from a period of famine in Britain. At that time, there was so little food that whenever people found some form of sustenance, it went straight from their hands to their mouths. They didn’t dare save it for later.

Examples of Hand to Mouth

define hand to mouthIn the following example, two friends are discussing their business.

Kerry: So, I know most businesses have a hard time during their first year. However, what I don’t know is how they get through that difficult period. We’re making hardly any money. In fact, on most days, we’re losing money.

Christine: I know. I’ve put so much of my time, resources, and money into our business. My family and I are living hand to mouth. I don’t have any of my savings left. I’m not sure how I’ll pay for their next meal.

Kerry: Yes. Things have gotten really bad. If business doesn’t improve by the end of this month, we might have to declare bankruptcy.

hand to mouth meansIn this dialogue, two friends are talking about the bad economy.

Arlena: I can’t believe we are still in a recession. I thought that if I graduated from a good college that I’d be able to get a good job with a nice salary. It turns out that I did get a good job, but it barely pays me enough to live on.

Nyima: Me too! It’s a shame that we both work so hard yet aren’t even able to save money for emergencies or retirement.

Arlena: I don’t like living hand to mouth like this.

More Examples

The example below is from an article about the American economy.

  • So there is no hope that starving today will feed you tomorrow. In this recovery from the Great Recession, almost half of America is living hand to mouth. –New York Post

This excerpt is about a lawyer who quit his high paying job to become an educator.

  • But unlike many kids in his situation, Russell escaped his hand-to-mouth upbringing with scholarships to elite schools, eventually becoming a corporate lawyer. –New York Daily News


The phrase hand to mouth means to live with just enough for the basic, immediate necessities, and no more.