How To Create a Spending Budget When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Photo:Stocksy/Lyuba Burakova
For many people in America, living paycheck to paycheck is the norm. Somewhere between 59 and 78 percent of employed individuals report being unable to pay some or all of their bills if they missed a single paycheck, and that number isn't limited to workers who fall into lower income brackets: As of 2017, 1 in 10 workers making $100,000 or more per year reported living paycheck to paycheck. But even in this situation, when your money is more or less spoken for the moment it enters your bank account, creating a paycheck-to-paycheck budget can be both personally empowering and instrumental in setting you up for improved financial wellness.

Experts In This Article
  • Tiffany Aliche, Tiffany Aliche is a financial educator and founder of The Budgetnista.
  • Winnie Sun, Winnie Sun is a money manager and financial expert.

Furthermore, budgets are a critical tool for helping you eventually not live paycheck to paycheck and be more equipped to actively save. As financial educator and founder of The Budgetnista Tiffany Aliche says, "either you're in control of your finances, or your finances are in control of you."  Below, get expert tips to to create a paycheck-to-paycheck budget, save money, and expand your earnings as necessary.

Improve your financial health while living paycheck to paycheck by creating a budget. Here's how in 9 steps:

1. List your expenses

To start making sense of your personal finances, Aliche recommends starting small and taking baby steps forward. First, grab a piece of paper and a pencil, and list all of your expenses each month. This should include your rent or mortgage, car payments, haircuts, takeout—everything. Then, add them up.

To get a number that's reflective of your lifestyle—which may shift a bit from month to month—financial advisor Winnie Sun actually recommends doing this exercise for three consecutive months and then averaging those to find your monthly paycheck-to-paycheck budget.

2. Subtract those expenses from your take-home pay

By subtracting that total from your take-home pay, you'll get a clearer picture of how close you're cutting it each month. (If you're self-employed and don't have taxes automatically removed from your paycheck, you'll need to subtract them from your take-home pay first.)

3. Categorize every expense

Next, categorize each expense so you can work toward a 50/20/30 budget, which is a framework wherein you spend around 50 percent of your take-home income on bills (such as housing and utilities), 20 percent on your financial goals (like paying off debt or saving money), and 30 percent on fun.

Aliche likes to put a "B" next to her set bills (any recurring monthly bill), like rent/mortgage, student-loan payments, car payments, and insurance payments. Next, she labels her utilities with a "BU," to denote that they're still monthly but can vary in charge. Finally, she labels everything else—all discretionary spending—with a "C."

4. Eliminate some of your discretionary expenses

Begin with cutting your C's (discretionary spending) where you can. "You might say, 'I know how to cut my own hair,' or 'I don't have to eat out with the girls every Saturday'," Aliche says.

This doesn't mean you should abstain from all spending that brings you joy when you're living paycheck to paycheck. Sun has a few suggestions of what this looks like:

  1. Control your impulses. One literal way to curb impulse spending, at least in the grocery store, is to order for curbside pickup. That way, you're less likely add items you don't need into your cart, and you also see the price total add up as you shop. Beyond groceries, she recommends giving yourself at least 24 hours but ideally a week to think before making needless and/or significant purchases. 
  2. Reduce temptations. Sun also suggests ridding your inbox of promotional emails that entice you to shop. The app Leave Me Alone can help.
  3. Dine out, but smartly. To cut back on dining-out expenses, you could either set a spending limit for your meals or reduce your frequency of eating out. "Let's say you eat out once a week—if you could just take one of those and change that to a zoom cookout or something else, you've now decreased your eating out expenses by 25 percent, which is significant," Sun says.
  4. Halve your subscriptions. Though annual subscriptions may offer savings in comparison to monthly subscriptions, Sun likes the flexibility monthly arrangements afford. This way, you can stop paying for them at any time if your financial situation changes. When possible, she also recommends utilizing subscription services every other month, or maybe for a few months at a time. For example, let's say you currently subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ streaming services. In this case, Sun recommends you binge one for a few months and then temporarily turn it off to binge another. That way, you're saving each month on streaming without sacrificing all that much.
  5. Utilize your credit card to keep track of random charges. Sun also recommends moving all of your subscriptions onto one dedicated credit card. This can increase visibility of your monthly charges while earning rewards from these payments, too, depending on your credit card.

5. Trim utility costs

Once you've cut everything you comfortably can from your discretionary expenses, take a look at your utilities. Aliche suggests calling your energy company to ask for an audit, or adjusting your habits by, for instance, taking shorter showers and making sure the lights are turned off. You might be surprised by how much you can save in this category with a little added mindfulness.

6. Negotiate your hard costs

Next, you can try to cut your bills. These are likely to be the most difficult expenses to decrease, but here are a few tips to help:

Move or negotiate rent. If you rent, you might consider looking for a cheaper space—so long as that still makes sense with the cost of moving factored in. You can also speak with your landlord or building manager about negotiating a price reduction.

Get pandemic-adjusted car insurance. Many people are driving significantly less during the pandemic, whether due to working from home, not having many plans, or otherwise. So, Sun recommends calling your insurance company to see if you qualify for a lower tier of insurance based on your reduced yearly mileage.

Temporarily retire cars you aren't using. If you're a two-car family, put one car "on ice" by changing its insurance status to non-driving, Sun suggests. "It's usually best to pick the more expensive car," she says. You can get registration fees reduced this way, too.

7. Funnel your money into different accounts

To help you stick to any budgetary changes made above, Aliche recommends opening several different bank accounts. Into one, transfer the money for your B's and Bu's. Into another, transfer money for any savings (if possible). And into the third, transfer money for your C's. Then, keep a separate debit card for the C's, so you can't spend money you don't technically have on discretionary items.

8. Look for ways to increase your income

Cutting costs isn't necessarily the only or even best way to create a paycheck-to-paycheck budget. Another strategy is to increase your income, and the first step for this is to approach your employer. "Make a list of all the ways that you saved the company money or made the company money indirectly or directly," says Aliche. "Then you're not even asking for a raise—you're just asking for a piece of what you've already done for the company."

If this fails to surface an income increase, Aliche recommends you take on a side hustle. As a kindergarten teacher, for example, she started tutoring on the side when she realized, after having cut every spending corner, that the problem in her budget wasn't her spending but her income.

Sun is a big proponent of figuring out how to have a second income stream, if possible, by taking on a gig job, putting your services up for grabs on a site like Fiverr, or selling personal items you don't need on eBay, for example. Or, she says, you can build up to a second income stream by taking classes or cultivating a new skill. Either way, you'll not only be cushioning your budget and, hopefully, pulling yourself out of the paycheck-to-paycheck life, but also giving yourself a safety net in case your main income stream is interrupted.

9. Look for progress, not (overnight) perfection

Many don't have the time or mental-health capacity to take on a side hustle to increase their income (hi, parents working from home while home-schooling children). And sometimes, cutting expenses just isn't enough to create a paycheck-to-paycheck budget that's sustainable.

Aliche stresses that this is okay, and to work toward a goal of spending 80 percent of what you earn and saving the rest. You don't have to reach that goal tomorrow or even next year, but creating a paycheck-to-paycheck budget is a step that'll help you start.

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