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How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

A personal planner showing a calendar with PAYDAY circled on the fifteenth of the month.

Ahh! Don’t spend any more money until we get paid on Friday!

Sound familiar? If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it probably does.

A lot of people think living like that is pretty normal. And you know what? They’re right. These days, 78% of workers live paycheck to paycheck.1 And 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.2 But you don’t have to be normal and live like that for the rest of your life. You can stop the cycle once and for all. Let’s do this!

10 Ways to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

1. Get on a budget.

Don’t know where your entire paycheck goes? Start doing a budget. That’ll tell you exactly where your hard-earned money is going—no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Without a budget, it’s pretty easy to live this way. Why? Because you don’t have a plan. And you really can’t make your dollars stretch because you might not even know how much money you have to work with! That’s where your budget will show you places where you can cut back and actually start to save money (more on that later).

Money

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Don’t worry, though, we’re not going to leave you hanging without telling you exactly how to do a budget (we aren’t that mean). Here’s the deal with a budget: Your monthly income minus your monthly expenses needs to equal zero. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have any money left in your bank account. Instead, you’re just making sure every dollar in your paycheck is given a job to do. And by job, we mean you’ve decided exactly where that money will go for the month (including savings).

First, jot down your income for the month (your regular paycheck and any other money you bring in). You can do this the old-fashioned way on a notepad or a spreadsheet, or you can get with the times and use a free budgeting app like EveryDollar. Next, start listing all your expenses for the month. Things like rent, food, internet, phones, and everything in between should be added to the list. And because expenses change from month to month, you need to be sure to make a new budget before each month begins.

Now you want to subtract all your planned expenses from your monthly income. The goal here is that you end up with zero (remember, that’s zero left to budget, not left in your bank account—having a buffer can help with that). This means you’ve given every dollar of your income a place to go for that month.

Okay, let’s address this whole buffer thing we just mentioned. You should keep some money in your checking account. Nothing crazy, just $50–100 will do. You’ll want this buffer to stay there to help you avoid any overdraft fees or any kind of “oops!” Now here’s the next, super important step—forget the buffer exists. Put it out of your mind completely so you aren’t tempted to overspend!

2. Take care of the Four Walls first.

If you live waiting for your next payday and struggle to cover all of your bills, you need to focus on the things you really need to survive. We call these essentials the Four Walls. The Four Walls are your priority, so pay for these things in this order before anything else:

  1. Food
  2. Utilities
  3. Shelter
  4. Transportation

If there’s any money left over after you take care of the Four Walls, make a list of what else you need to pay and tackle it in order of importance. When you run out of money—that’s it. If things are really tough, yeah, your credit card bill might not get paid that month. But one thing is for sure: Your family will be fed and have a roof over their head no matter what.

Keep telling yourself that all of this is temporary. The sun will come out tomorrow. You’re about to make more money (yep, it’s true!), so this whole “living paycheck to paycheck” business is a thing of the past.

3. Stop living with debt.

Living like this and playing around with debt is a recipe for disaster. You can’t get ahead that way! Believe us, not having enough money to pay for something and then reaching for a credit card to fund it is no way to live.

But debt isn’t just credit cards. Debt is sneaky. It comes packaged as student loans, car payments, store credit cards, mortgages, personal loans, business loans, payday loans, and even “buy now, pay later” deals like Afterpay. Anytime you owe somebody else money for anything—it’s debt.

Anytime you owe somebody else money for anything—it’s debt.

Ready to give debt the boot for good? Here’s how: First, stop taking on any kind of new debt! That means stop paying for things with a credit card to make ends meet, stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, and stop living beyond your means. And step away from the almighty FICO score, people.

You can’t get out of a mud puddle if you keep adding dirt and water to it. Instead, start focusing on paying off your debts smallest to largest using the debt snowball.

4. Sell stuff.

It’s time to bring in more money! One of the easiest ways to get your hands on some extra cash is by selling whatever you can. Maybe that’s your jewelry, clothes, baby items, or even the extra car sitting in your garage (gasp!). Look, if you know you can part with something and get cash—do it! Well, within reason. Don’t go selling a kidney on the black market or anything like that. But do get so intense about selling things that your pets and kids start wondering if they might be next.

5. Get a temporary job or start a side hustle.

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you probably need to bring in more income consistently—not just when you sell some stuff. While you can (and should) go after promotions and salary increases at your full-time job, you might need to do something to increase your income sooner. Hello, side hustle!

Some great options for making extra money are waiting tables, driving for Uber or Lyft, being a barista, working at a call center, or signing up to be a substitute teacher. There are even plenty of work-from-home jobs you can do after hours or on the weekend too.

And even if those don’t work out, you can still take up odd jobs around your neighborhood (think cutting the grass, picking up leaves, babysitting or dog walking).

If you want to start up a side hustle, focus on using your talents (you know, things you’re good at) to make extra money. You can use your design, sewing or baking skills to help bring in some money. Be on the lookout for opportunities that will add any extra cash in your pocket.

6. Live below your means.

Is the antidote to living paycheck to paycheck more money? Maybe. Sometimes. But like they say, “More money . . . more problems.” It doesn’t matter how much money you make if you’re busy spending it all.

If you can’t live within your means now, you’re not going to be able to do it when you’re making more money either. If you aren’t careful, a bump in pay can make you spend even more money. This kind of thing is known as “lifestyle creep” or “lifestyle inflation.” All of a sudden, you can afford things you couldn’t before, and you might start becoming pretty loose with those purse strings.

Sure, it’s tempting to spend more money when you’re making more of it, but don’t do that! Stay intentional, pay attention, and stick to your budget no matter how huge that raise was.

7. Look for things to cut.

This isn’t the time to buy T-bone steaks for dinner, go see the latest movie, or visit your favorite restaurant. This is the time to cut back on any unnecessary expenses that you can. You’re living paycheck to paycheck here, so tighten it up. Look for any area in your budget (you’ve created one now, remember?) where you can spend less.

But there’s nowhere to cut back, you say? Look again. And again. And again.

Suspend or pause the subscriptions you have (think Netflix, Hulu, meal delivery kits, specialty makeup boxes . . . anything). Don’t forget to call your cable, internet and cellular providers to go ahead and downgrade or stop your service for now. None of these things fall within the Four Walls.

We know making sacrifices doesn’t feel good. It hurts! But keep reminding yourself: This is not forever. 

We know making sacrifices like this doesn’t feel good. It hurts! But keep reminding yourself: This is not forever. You’re making temporary sacrifices. It’s time to put in the work now so you can be in a better position in the future. You know, “live like no one else so that later you can live and give like no one else.”

8. Save up for big purchases.

Nothing makes you count down to payday like knowing you blew your last paycheck on some big impulse buy. Don’t get so caught up in the moment that you let a purchase like that get the best of you. You’re better than that!

The next time you see something you want to buy that isn’t in your budget and you can’t afford right now, save up for it. Let’s say you want to buy a $100 pair of fancy headphones to listen to your jams at work. All you need to do is budget for it and save $25 each month for four months. Simple as that. 

9. Start an emergency fund.

All you need is $1,000 to have a safety net under your feet. If coming up with $1,000 sounds like an impossible mission right now, keep looking for things to cut and ways to free up more cash flow. If things are tight, it’s going to take some time to save this emergency fund. It’s not going to happen overnight. And that’s okay! Just keep working at it. Once you’ve got this taken care of, you’ll be amazed at how much peace having an emergency fund gives you.

You might wonder why the heck you need to save right now if you’re just busy trying to make ends meet. But guess what? That starter emergency fund is going to be your best friend as you keep trying to get ahead. Knowing you have this buffer between you and life will make you way less reliant on that next paycheck coming in. If you get into a jam, that emergency fund is there to keep you from slapping down a credit card. You know it’s going to rain eventually, so you came prepared with an umbrella. Genius!

10. Start thinking about the future.

You’ve been so focused on making ends meet each month that you probably haven’t come up for air to even think about the future. And when you’re worried about just surviving until the next payday, that’s easy to do. But it’s time to start thinking and dreaming about the future—what could you do with your money later on down the road? You know, once you stop living paycheck to paycheck and all?

Give yourself permission to dream a little. What are your long-term goals? Maybe you want to retire early and spend your golden years traveling from coast to coast. Maybe you want to send your kids to college debt-free. Or maybe you just want the peace of knowing your account isn’t going to be overdrawn again. Whatever it is you want to accomplish in the future, it isn’t going to happen unless you start paying attention and being intentional today.

Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck and Start Living Again

Sick of living life staring at a clock, counting down until your next paycheck arrives? Good. You should be. It’s time for things to change. And you have the power to do it! Get on a proven plan for your money that will walk you through it all—no matter where you’re starting. Sound good? It’s not some pipe dream. This plan actually works!

Click for even more content to help you through these tough times

Ready to take the plunge but not sure where to even start? Take our free three-minute assessment to get a customized plan for you and your money. And while you’re at it, go ahead and download our free budgeting tool, EveryDollar, so you can get started ASAP—no excuses!

It's Easier Than You Think! 

It's Easier Than You Think! 

The right budgeting app will help you find money.
Get Our FREE Tool

It's Easier Than You Think! 

The right budgeting app will help you find money.
Get Our FREE Tool