Hahaha…? No, really. It can actually be done.
I was never a big fan by resort hotels anyway. And you will need to avoid those as the plague in order to avoid your wallet taking a major hit. Some of those resort rooms, suites or bungalows come with your own butlers (yeah, plural) and can easily set you back 10,000-20,000 USD per day. I dunno about your bank account, but that isn’t cheap to me.
There is a lot of competition among airlines to get you there, just shop around on Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak. It is when you land the dollars can start roll really fast, or hardly at all.
First of all, take the local ferry to Malé. You find it 200 meters by foot to the right after leaving the terminal. The ride to the tiny capital will cost you less than a dollar. Most locals seem to hate Malé, due to the high stress levels, incredible traffic jams and the general hustle and bustle typically experienced in a city. And it is the only place in the country that sort of resembles one, with 130,000 inhabitants on almost 6 square kilometers. Of course, if you leave in paradise, why pick the only island with queues?
Malé has a fair number of hotels, but few inexpensive ones. And again, you don’t want to stay there anyway. First, go shopping for groceries (the selection in local shops – if they even exist – is very limited), then take a local boat to one of the other 1,191 islands that make up 26 atolls. The slow boats that carry pretty much everything that the locals need are cheap, but take their time. Faster versions are available, but expect to pay 3-4 times more for the privelege.
Keep in mind that the Malives is a predominantly muslim country, which doesn’t exactly mean an abundance of alcohol. They still want tourists to keep coming, so there are two exceptions. You can obviously get it in the resorts, what else would the butlers be there for? Then you have the so-called safari boats. These semi-luxurious yatchs will either take paying thirsty tourists on small cruises, or be anchored just off the islands. You can in either case stop or board one to buy your poison of choice. Not exactly cheap (unless you are Norwegian), but it will do the trick. Just ask a local to take you out to the nearest one by boat. Just bring a bag so that you can hide the bottles when getting back. Many locals are not big fans of foreign drinkers on non-resort islands. The locals can also take you to a resort island if you are in need of a bar, or if you would like to enjoy one of the gourmet restaurants there.
You will find plenty of small hotels, hostels and guesthouses on many of the islands. But remember that the shops aren’t well stocked, and that there may not even be a selection of restaurants on every island. That’s why Malé exists. Do your shopping there.
The trick is to buy local. When it comes to food, transport and accommodation. And come on, think about it. Do you rather want to support local businesses and families or to contribute to making huge multinationals even wealthier? But surely, they higher local staff too? Not necessarily. They tend to hire the cheapest employees they can find, which often means people from other countries too. And chances are that amazing butler of yours stays in a room with 17 other employees. And that he is paid next to nothing. I met a couple of resort employees. They told me stories that made it even less appealing to stay in a resort. And what do you know, you will then even meet real locals and see the real country too.