How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Living paycheck to paycheck is a stressful lifestyle, and unfortunately, it’s also a common one. Over 40% of Americans have less than $300 in their checking and savings accounts, according to GoBankingRates.

woman sitting on swing at the beach

This statistic is alarming considering that one stroke of bad luck can quickly wipe out at least that amount if not much more. Whether it be a car accident or a broken kitchen appliance, life can become overwhelming if you’re not financially prepared.

In these situations, many people resort to using credit cards, either for basic living expenses or one-time emergencies. They don’t set aside money for savings because they can’t afford to.

How many Americans live paycheck to paycheck?

According to several recent studies, as little as 50% and as high as 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That means that only 22% to 50% of Americans have an emergency fund. And these are the numbers that came out before COVID-19.

With millions of Americans losing their jobs, those numbers are certainly higher. So, what can you do to make sure you are prepared for a financial emergency? Below are 11 things you can do to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and make sure you are ready for anything that comes your way.

11 Ways to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Follow these steps to create a financial buffer that will help you plan for emergencies, get out of debt, and start setting financial goals you’ll actually look forward to.

1. Take Financial Inventory

Before you think of your financial future, you have to fully understand your current financial situation. Start by looking at every single expenditure you’ve had in the last month. An easy way to do this is by going through all of your debit and credit card statements.

You can categorize your purchases to get a better idea of how you’re spending money: groceries, restaurants, gas, minimum credit card payments, etc. Hopefully, you’re not surprised by what you see. However, chances are, you might be taken aback by how quickly you spend money without even realizing it.

When you’re taking your financial inventory, it’s also a good time to look at the debt you owe. Ask yourself how well you’re handling your monthly obligations.

2. Continue Making Your Payments on Time

Are you at least making your minimum payments each month? Missing payments can quickly start to drag down your credit score. So, it’s important to pay your loan and credit card balances on time regularly.

If you’re only paying the minimum each month, calculate how long it will take to pay it off entirely and how much interest you’ll pay.

Most fixed-rate mortgages and federal student loans have low interest rates. So if you have other high-interest debt payments, be sure to prioritize those first. Depending on your interest payments and overall financial picture, it may be wise to include aggressively paying off your debt in your new financial plan.

3. Shift Your Spending Habits

Now that you know how you spend your money each month, it’s time to adjust your attitude towards money. Maybe you already only spend money on the bare essentials. However, most people have at least a few frivolous habits if they live paycheck to paycheck.

Identify your weak spots and figure out how you can plan ahead to avoid them. For instance, if you frequently find yourself too busy to cook dinner during the workweek, spend an afternoon off cooking low-cost freezer meals.

Often the best ways to save money aren’t on big-ticket items, but on small, recurring expenditures that add up over time. Figure out your vices and then create a plan to eliminate the temptation.

Speaking of temptation, if you’re struggling with debt, make sure to stop using your credit cards. Keep it locked up at home if you need to. A credit card can be a dangerous tool to keep in your wallet, especially when you’re charging items you don’t actually need.

Even if you can make your monthly payments, think of all the extra interest you’ll be paying on top of the original cost of the item. Is it really worth it? In most cases, probably not.

4. Strip Down Your Budget

Now that you’ve ruled out frivolous spending to stretch out your paycheck, you need to slash that budget even further by downsizing.

Look at your major monthly expenses, even the “necessities,” and evaluate where you can cut back. Could you relocate to a smaller apartment, or start taking public transportation to save on gas?

You should also review your cell phone plan. A fancy smartphone with unlimited data is a nice luxury. However, it’s hard to call it a necessity when you can just as easily use a cheap flip phone for emergency calls.

What about your grocery budget? You don’t have to fill up on cheap, unhealthy options just to save money, but there are probably some splurges you could cut back. Reduce the number of days you eat meat or stock up on your pantry staples when they go on sale.

Can you get rid of cable and rely solely on Netflix? Or even no television at all? Some of these suggestions may seem like major sacrifices. But, unfortunately, that’s what it takes to stop worrying about overdrawing your checking account before receiving your next paycheck.

5. Create an Emergency Fund

The best way to prevent a bounced check, a declined debit card, or new debt is to buffer your finances with savings. Most experts agree that you need a minimum of three different types of savings accounts. The first is a $1,000 emergency fund that should be kept in an accessible account.

An emergency fund is your top priority when setting money aside for savings. This fund should only be used when you have an unforeseen expense, like a car repair. Once you take money out, make sure to replenish it back to $1,000 as soon as you can.

6. Prioritize Your Savings

Next, save up an additional 3-6 months of living expenses in a savings account. This account should cover all your bare necessities in case you lose your job or are unable to work for some reason.

It’s not fun to imagine these things happening, but they are an unfortunate reality in today’s economy. Only touch this money if you’ve lost your primary income stream. Thereafter, it’s time to start thinking about retirement.

7. Save for Retirement

It’s never too early to start saving, so try to put at least a small amount away each year in either your employer’s 401(k) plan, an IRA, or other retirement savings account. Once you’ve covered these three savings accounts, you can then start putting money away for other large purchases, like a new car or a vacation.

If finances are tight, you might find it difficult to set this much money aside each month. But it’s important to get started, even with a small amount, so that you’re not completely knocked off your feet when a surprise expense comes up.

Once you’ve discovered ways to reduce your expenses, you should divert some of that money into high-yield savings accounts. That way you can avoid getting into debt the next time you need some cash.

If you need to start slowly, try tucking away just 1% of each paycheck. If you earn $1,000 every two weeks, that’s only $10. Every month, try to increase your savings goal by another 1%. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your bank account grows.

8. Reduce Your Income Gap

After you’ve crunched all the numbers and determined how much you need to spend and save, it’s possible you might still come up short. Maybe you have a lot of debt to pay off or several children to support. However, sometimes even after cutting out all extraneous purchases, your bills might outweigh your monthly income.

When there’s no more money left to save, that leaves you with the option to earn some more cash. There are countless ways to do this. You could get a part-time job, start a side hustle, drive for Uber or Lyft, or start investing to earn more passive income.

Ask your boss for a raise, or get a part-time job on your days off.

9. Sell Items You Don’t Need Anymore

Sell items from your home that you don’t use or need anymore, either on Craigslist or eBay. Not only will you earn some extra cash, but it gives you the opportunity to declutter your home.

You could also have a garage sale or sell vegetables from your garden. You’re only limited by your imagination. And if you’re not sure where to start, put out feelers for several ideas and see which takes off the fastest.

10. Live Below Your Means

Spend less than you earn is an absolute must. It’s the only way to achieve financial freedom. If you’re living a lifestyle that you can’t afford, nothing else you do on this list will matter much.

The best way to live below your means is to curb your spending. You can do so by not dining out as often, not buying things you don’t need, and by learning how to entertain yourself for free or inexpensively.

11. Stay Optimistic

While your immediate goal might be to keep yourself from drowning in your bills and other financial burdens, you’ll soon be able to see further down the road.

Try not to feel too overwhelmed by life, and remember that nothing is permanent. Once you get into a rhythm of making the necessary sacrifices to keep your head above water, you’ll soon be able to adjust your focus to the next level.

When you’re close to hitting your savings milestones, give yourself another goal to work towards. Maybe it’s a dream trip or learning a new professional skill for a job in a different field.

Start thinking about what financial independence looks like to you, and map out the steps you need to take to get there. It doesn’t even have to require any financial backing, but just a bit of bravery. You can do so much, and there’s nothing better to invest in than yourself.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a personal finance writer who strives to equip readers with the knowledge to achieve their financial objectives. She has over a decade of experience and a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.