If your car were to break down tomorrow and need a couple hundred dollars’ worth of repairs (plus towing costs), would you be able to afford it? Do you have to carefully track when your bills come to ensure that they don’t overdraw your checking account when they do? Do you anxiously await your next paycheck so that you’ll be able to eat something other than ramen? If so, you might be stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
Evidence seems to suggest that the majority of Americans are similarly struggling. One 2017 study from Career Builder says that 78% of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck. When you live in this cycle, all of your money goes toward your basic costs of living, leaving you little to none leftover to put into savings and causing you to worry about whether you’ll make it to your next payday.
Not only is this an incredibly stressful way to live, but it puts you at risk for serious financial troubles if you end up needing money for something outside of your everyday budget. What can you do when you barely have enough to cover rent, let alone contribute to your 401(k)? And how do you break out of this cycle?
Why Are So Many Struggling to Save?
It’s not just people who are irresponsible with money who have trouble. While very few of us are perfect spenders, there are many factors that can lead a person to live paycheck to paycheck. Consider those living in high-cost areas who spend half their income on housing expenses and have to allocate the rest toward paying for groceries and other bills. Or, consider workers in low-wage jobs with few prospects for advancement.
There are many reasons why people struggle to break out of this cycle. Some people are simply bad at managing their money or never learned good financial habits, while others have limited means or too many financial burdens for their money to keep up.
“Some are simply ill-equipped to manage their own money, while others are affected by stagnant wages and fewer benefits,” explains David Bakke, writer for personal finance blog MoneyCrashers.com.
Figure Out Where Your Money Is Going
Todd Kunsman, founder of the personal finance and investing website InvestedWallet.com, knows firsthand what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. Luckily, he was able to get out of the cycle by paying attention to his finances. He started by creating a spreadsheet that tracked all of his income, expenses and bills.
“This gave me the big picture and helped me realize some quick wins of where I could stop spending and save a few bucks. It might not be much, but it is a start,” he says.
How does he think he ended up in this cycle to begin with? While he counts having a low salary as a contributing factor, he adds, “the majority of my situation was by not evaluating my financial decisions. I had two student loans out of college and little in a savings account. I immediately got an apartment. One year after working, I got a brand new car. Now I have two student loans, a car payment, rent, utilities and still very little saved. Quickly, I ended up only having about $20-50 each paycheck which would go to food, gas and maybe some leftover could go to savings. Oh, and I still had a few hundred on a credit card too. Financial disaster waiting to happen!” he says.
When you’re going over the numbers of what you spend your money on, try to think critically about the types of things you’re spending money on, and whether you could be more sensible in the future.
Bakke also advises people to get a budget and work on reducing expenses first, then to start aggressively tackling credit card debt, so you aren’t wasting money paying interest.
Alex Tran, a digital marketing strategist for Hollingsworth, a national e-commerce and logistics company, used to live paycheck to paycheck. She said that people who want to get out of that cycle should be obsessed with where their money is going.
To do this, she suggests downloading your bank’s app and signing up for services that allow you to see your credit score and create a budget for free.
“Check your accounts every 2-3 days, make sure your credit report hasn’t changed drastically, categorize your spending in Mint (this will help you determine your budget and if you’re going over it). Once I became less afraid to see my bank accounts, I knew what I should do with my paycheck and 10 years down the road, what I could do because I decided to save rather than spend,” Tran says.
Work on Your Situation
At the start of the budgeting process, a lot of people will focus on minimizing smaller expenses, such as a daily coffee run, which is a good start. But when you’re looking for ways to improve your financial situation, you should evaluate every aspect of your budget, including some of the bigger things that might take more effort to change, such as your income and housing costs.
Lots of people wish they were in higher paying jobs, but it can be hard to make that a reality. However, keep in mind that with your finances, you’re playing the long game. Just because you can’t get a new job tomorrow doesn’t mean you can’t start working on skills to build your resume.
Kunsman says utilizing free or low-cost resources allowed him to switch jobs from email marketing to digital marketing and start earning more.
“I started taking free courses from Google on paid advertising, SEO and analytics. I also read a bunch of marketing blogs, started a blog and looked for other ways to learn more. Doing this led me to get a job at a marketing agency, which accelerated my skills and salary to the next level,” he explains.
Use the internet to your advantage. There are countless free, reliable resources available to anyone with an internet connection that will make you more marketable and teach you how to be successful in your search for a better-paying job.
If a big portion of your budget goes toward housing costs, look into ways you could spend less. While it’s not always ideal to have to downsize your living space, the money you save moving into a smaller apartment could end up being worth it. If moving isn’t possible, consider bringing in a roommate.
Get a Side Gig
“I am the queen of side gigs,” Tran says. “I teach yoga, work a full-time job, do marketing projects/freelance on the side and write for various publications because it’s my passion. I find things that I can easily commit to and not stress over. I do things that are fun and bring value to my life.”
If a little bit of extra money each month would provide enough of a cushion for you to start saving for the future, it may be worth it to take on a side hustle.
With the abundance of gig economy apps out there, it’s easier than ever to score part-time work. If you love dogs, consider walking dogs for cash on the weekends using an app like Rover. If you have a car and some free time after work, you could spend a couple hours every weeknight driving for a ride-hailing app. Or, if you have a hobby that you’re skilled at, look for ways to monetize it through freelance work.
“This can also protect you in job loss, where you still have some income coming in and are building a buffer of funds during a job search,” Kunsman says.
Ask and You Might Receive
Not having money can be a cruel Catch-22: Sometimes, you don’t have enough to cover your bills, so they’re marked late and begin accruing fees, making it even more unlikely that you’ll be able to pay them off.
Avoid this punishing spiral by being unafraid to ask for help when you need it. It may seem unusual, but many times your creditors will be willing to work with you; after all, they’d rather have you pay your bills than have to send you to collections. If you know your payment is going to be a little late, talk to them ahead of time to let them know what’s up, explaining your circumstances. They may waive the late fee or push back your due date. The key is to be proactive and talk to them before it becomes a problem.
Likewise, figure out if you qualify for any social programs or government help. Situations like yours are what they’re there for.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Check out government programs like unemployment, food stamps, subsidized housing, etc., if you are eligible. Look for low-cost business courses at community colleges, senior centers, libraries and community centers to improve your skills. Attend networking events and reach out for better career opportunities,” recommends Sharon Marchisello, author of the personal finance book “Live Well, Grow Wealth,” which is based on her experiences living frugally, saving, investing and retiring early.
When Tran was trying to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, she was always looking for programs or deals that would help.
“Find low-income or income qualified deals. For example, in Seattle and New York, we have income qualified housing. If you make middle-income, you can qualify for reduced housing in these areas. There are also deals for internet, cellular/landline phone service, food programs (EBT), reduced rates for students and low-income [people] at parks and museums, education stipends and grants, and much more. You just need to look for them,” she says.
Be Ruthless About Cutting Costs
Do you really need cable? In this day and age, probably not. What about Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime? Oh, that one might hurt a little more. Opting for a cheaper phone plan? Life will go on, but it might be a little less enjoyable now that you can’t watch funny cat videos anytime, anywhere.
If you’re really serious about carving extra room in your budget to start saving, that money has to come from somewhere. Start by looking at all the things you regularly spend money on, and find areas where you could cut back. You don’t want to make your life miserable – if you really need a streaming service subscription, maybe limit it to just one, with the cheapest plan available – but you do seriously need to consider whether certain amenities are worth the budget space.
“Take extreme steps in the short-term. Maybe you cut the cable and get your TV needs from Netflix alone, which is a huge money saver,” Bakke says.
Additionally, see if there are lower cost swaps you can make. Look for cheaper car insurance or trade in a gas-guzzling car rental for a more fuel-efficient model. Limit yourself to eating out once a month or go out for lunch instead of dinner to get better deals.
Pay Yourself First
“Most people get paid, pay their bills, spend a bit, then save whatever might remain. Many times there is not much left to save, if anything. Instead, put a savings plan in place and save a percentage of money first, then pay your bills,” Kunsman says.
By making your own savings your first priority when you receive your paycheck, you not only ensure that you’re building a safety net, but you make it less likely that you can reason with yourself as to why you need to spend those leftover dollars on something rather than tucking them away for the future.
Even if you’re only able to contribute a little bit, you’ll slowly be building up that safety net, which could end up being a vital part of what gets you out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. Ellie Thompson, CEO of Money Therapy, a financial consulting company located in Washington, D.C., explains why.
“Starting an emergency fund is essential to getting out of your paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. Why? So you can pay cash for your unexpected expense instead of reaching for your credit card, furthering yourself in debt. Start funding an emergency account that you put money in every month until you reach $1,000. You can start with small amounts – even $25 a month can make a difference,” she says.
The Bottom Line
Getting out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is easier said than done. These are just some of the ways people have helped themselves out of the cycle, but depending on your situation, your experience may vary.
However, remember that achieving financial security happens like anything else: one step at a time. Just because it feels overwhelming or even impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Having just a small emergency savings fund can prevent a flat tire or leaky roof from becoming a financial disaster – and that is money well saved.
Have you ever lived paycheck to paycheck? Do you have advice to share? Tell us in the comments below.
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