How do budgets affect autocrats’ incentives to share or consolidate power? We estimate a dynamic model of autocrats who compose their ruling coalitions to maintain power and maximize rents amid fluctuating budgets. Even for unconstrained autocrats, we find that ousting (potential) rivals is costly and, when budgets are tight, reduces their short-term survival prospects. Despite these upfront costs, exclusion has overwhelming dynamic benefits during periods of prolonged austerity: autocrats reduce patronage obligations that they may struggle to afford amid austerity, increasing their long-term survival chances and share of spoils. By contrast, budget upswings have lasting positive effects on power sharing. Our counterfactuals indicate that budget shocks comparable to those generated by recent commodity booms increase the probability of inclusive ruling coalitions by 10 percentage points over 20 years. Case studies of Sudan and Liberia indicate that our model and results describe the tradeoffs and survival strategies facing real-world autocrats.