How Can I Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck?

April 23, 2021 Updated: April 23, 2021

Dear Carrie: I’m a single mom with a decent income, but I’m always living paycheck to paycheck. How can I break that cycle and start to save, not only for an emergency but also for my bigger goals like retirement and maybe even a home?—A Reader

Dear Reader: Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t uncommon these days. Recent studies suggest many Americans are doing just that, which makes it next to impossible to save and invest. Overspending can be part of the problem, but even more often, people get squeezed through no fault of their own—low wages, unpredictable income, and high costs for essentials like childcare, health care, housing, and college. On the other hand, even people with high incomes can find themselves caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

When you’re in this situation and just barely making ends meet each month, it can seem as though you’re on an endless financial treadmill. So how do you jump off? It’s a combination of attitude and action. First realize that you can do it. Then take these steps to make it happen.

Start by Tracking Your Spending, With an Eye Toward Saving

To get a handle on your money, you first need to know where it’s going. Tracking your expenses—for at least 30 days—will give you a realistic picture of how you’re spending and help you prioritize and make changes.

Start with essential costs for housing (rent/mortgage, utilities), food and insurance, and work down from there. Is savings on your list? If not, it should be. In fact, it’s the essential that’s going to break the paycheck-to-paycheck pattern. So one of the first important steps is to make savings a priority. It’s OK to start small. Research from FINRA and SaverLife shows that households with as little as $100 in savings are generally more satisfied with their finances. The key is to save consistently.

Now take a closer look. What are you spending on nonessentials? Ordering out or multiple streaming subscriptions may be nice-to-haves, but these are the things you can control and cut back—and you can move that money to savings.

Take a Good Look at Your Debt—and Your Attitude Toward It

It’s OK to borrow. I’ve talked before about good debt and bad debt. You can barely get by without a credit card these days. Most students need to borrow money for college. Most homebuyers take out a mortgage. That kind of borrowing can make sense.

The danger comes when you borrow too much or use borrowed money to pay for an unsustainable lifestyle. New research shows that some people get into trouble because they think of borrowed money as their own. But it’s not. It’s the lender’s. And eventually, the lender wants that money back—with interest.

High-interest consumer debt like credit cards is just about the worst kind—and will keep you on that financial treadmill. So if you have it, the next step is to get out of it. How, exactly? Again, it’s that important combination of attitude and action.

Start by cutting down on using cards. Pick one or two and put the others away. Commit to using cash or a debit card whenever possible. Then come up with a realistic repayment plan, focusing extra money on your card with the highest interest while paying the minimum on any others. Set up automatic payments where possible. Debt consolidation can also be a solution, but make sure you understand how it works.

As for paying down debts when you’re really pinched, prioritize secured debt, like a mortgage and car payments, over unsecured debt, like credit cards. If you’re struggling, talk to your service providers and lenders to let them know of your situation.

Most of all, don’t take on more debt—no matter how enticing the offer.

Expect the Unexpected

When you’re juggling to pay for what’s happening now, it can seem impossible to put anything toward what might happen in the future. But if you don’t, the unexpected—a job loss, accident or illness—could put you in an even bigger financial bind. That’s why an emergency fund is a must for everyone. While I encourage people to target three- to six months’ worth of essential expenses in a rainy-day fund, if you’re just starting out, aim for $1,000 to $2,000.

And while you’re thinking about emergencies, don’t forget about insurance. Health insurance, auto insurance, and homeowners or renters insurance are a must, and possibly disability insurance. Sure, there’s a cost, but insurance can save you money by protecting you from financial disaster. Shop around and get the right coverage in place.

Look for Ways to Increase Income and Opportunity

If you’ve cut expenses to the bone and you’re still having a hard time saving, look for ways to increase your income. This can mean part-time employment, side hustles or turning a hobby into a money-making enterprise. Consider improving your skills with advanced designations, higher education or training that can make you more valuable to an employer.

You might even be able to make more with your current skills. The Federal Reserve has a new tool to help you look for higher-paying jobs similar to the one you have. It’s worth checking out.

Avoid Lifestyle Creep

Not living paycheck to paycheck means you have extra money—not just to spend but to save. That’s where your mindset is especially important. For some people, having more money automatically means spending more. It’s called lifestyle creep. Don’t fall for it. Before you buy, ask yourself whether the purchase will move you forward or set you back. Because no matter how much you earn, if you always spend as much—or more—than you make, you’ll never break the cycle.

Set Some Goals

There’s nothing like having something to save for to keep you motivated. Whether it’s a special night out next month or a big purchase next year, put a price tag on it and give yourself a timeline to achieve it.

And don’t forget about long-term goals like retirement. Take advantage of a 401(k); contribute what you can to an IRA. Knowing you’re working toward the future can make you feel more confident today.

Be Positive—and Patient

Struggling with money is stressful, but I believe you have the power to turn things around. Start with small, positive steps. Think of the money you save as paying yourself. And as it all adds up—and it will—put your savings to work by investing. All of this takes time and commitment, but you can do it. You just have to start.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a certified financial planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.”