10 ways to score dirt-cheap rent (© Creaps/Getty Images)

Who knew a pillow could be so expensive?

It's true, though – where you lay your head at night is likely the single biggest item in your budget. And if you're really hurting in these brutal financial times, it's worth taking a hard look at whether you're spending your rent wisely.

You may be able to save money – a lot of money. 

First, consider the more conventional options, including:

But if those don't work or your circumstances are dire, professional skinflints recommend the 10 options below. Some of them may be short on amenities, but they all offer a chance to preserve your dignity until your current crisis blows over.

1. Rent in the off-season. "You can rent cheap in a resort area off-season," says Rick Doble, co-author of "Cheaper: Insiders' Tips for Saving on Everything" and editor of the Web site Savvy Discounts.

A few years ago, Doble and his wife were in Spain in the autumn – past the prime beach weather at the oceanside resorts in the south. "So I just sort of walked in and said to the concierge, 'Would you rent one of these apartments for the winter?'" The cost (after a bit of haggling): $300 a month, including utilities.

Of course, you needn't go abroad. Doble lives near the beach in North Carolina. "All of those condos on Atlantic Beach are empty (during the off-season, which is pretty much everything but Memorial Day to Labor Day), and when you show up, that's found money" for the owners, he says. "Your rent could be almost nothing if you're willing to be there for six, nine months and then relocate."

What's your home worth?

How to find a place? "Think supply and demand, and seasonality," he advises. In other words, think about where the people ain't.

2. Sublet in the city. On a related note, look into a summer sublet in a big city, Doble says. Colleges are out then, and people flee on vacation. Renters wanting to sublet their place are often willing to take reduced amounts because, well, any money is better than none. Once, he says, "I rented a room for the summer in New York City that was about 12 by 16 feet for the equivalent of $300 a month as a summer sublet with all utilities." A reminder: You don't need much room. "All you need is a place to hang your hat."

Check Craigslist and bulletin boards in coffee shops, at colleges and in neighborhood Laundromats to find cheap sublets. And just ask around.

3. Try the Y. The YMCA used to be well-known for renting rooms to men. Many Ys have gotten rid of those rooms, but at last count, 89 nationwide still have some kind of housing aimed at lower-income folks.

Take the Mason Family YMCA in Memphis, Tenn., adjacent to the University of Memphis: It has 47 dorm-style rooms. Each room is modestly furnished with a bed, dresser, cable TV, small fridge and microwave oven. Each floor has a locker room and shower. There's Wi-Fi in the lobby. "It's sort of a Motel 6 model," says Director Cynthia Magallon Puljic. (The Y can rent to women, depending on whether there's enough room for appropriate privacy, Magallon Puljic says; it is the Young Men’s Christian Association, after all.) The cost: $340 a month, which includes membership to the Y’s facilities, including the gym, whirlpool spa, etc.   

4. Hit the hostels. Haven't stayed in a hostel since your post-college, beer-and-baguette-fueled Grand Tour of Europe? It's time to reconsider them. Many hostels have really cleaned up their act in recent years, and now have more amenities than ever. Many also offer private rooms for an additional fee. (Some but not all are part of Hostelling International.)

"I prefer to stay in hostels," says Stuart Schuffman, author of “Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in New York” and founder of a Web site on frugal living. "You get to meet people from all over the world."

Yet the price remains right. The Hostelling International Hostel in Austin, Texas, for example, charges $19-$22 per night, though hostel prices can vary widely. 

Schuffman's advice for any hostel stay: "Have a lock for your stuff."

5. Take care of a home. Caretakers of America, a nearly 20-year-old business, places a house-sitter in a home with the goal of helping it sell faster. The Denver-based company, which now operates in about 17 states, works like this: It matches up a person to live in an empty home while it's for sale and stages the home with that person's belongings (augmenting them as needed). The caretaker, in turn, pays a reduced rent and is required to pay utilities and keep the place in show-ready condition so it can be seen any time throughout the day by would-be buyers.

Everybody wins, says Cyndyn Bridge, the company's vice president. "There is no cost to our homeowners. They are basically getting a professionally staged home." Meanwhile, the caretaker pays "on average, about a quarter of what they'd pay if they had to pay full rent to live there."

Not only has the company seen more demand for its services, mostly from real-estate agents, but the mortgage crisis has resulted in more people who are out of their own homes and asking to be short-term caretakers, Bridge says.