How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Changing your spending habits can lead to financial freedom.

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Living paycheck to paycheck is stressful, and it doesn’t take much to turn a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle into a financial disaster. What if your car breaks down? Or, you need to take extended sick leave from work? Or, your company lays you off? 

If scenarios like these strike fear into your heart, it’s time to change your financial situation. It won’t be easy. Yet, the peace of mind will be worth the effort and sacrifice. To get off the paycheck-to-paycheck treadmill to reclaim your finances and your life, try these four steps:

1. Take a survey. When it comes to personal finances, many people try to make changes without knowing what they need to adjust. You might think you’re spending too much on groceries, for instance, but maybe you’re really overspending on entertainment. Or, you may assume paying off your credit cards will be the fastest way to free up extra money, when you really need to downgrade your car. So before you set any financial goals, take time to do a thorough personal financial audit. What are your biggest bills each month? Where are you spending money that you don’t even realize you’re spending? You might be surprised at how much you don’t know about your spending habits. Arming yourself with knowledge is a great way to get started.

2. Set attainable goals. You won’t get anywhere financially if you drift along aimlessly, trying only to put food on the table and pay the electric bill on time. But you may start to see progress if you simply set some goals. Goals will focus your efforts and lead to success. Start by setting smaller goals that are easily achievable. Reaching these small goals will give you the confidence you need to tackle larger, longer-term goals. A few goals you might start with include saving $100 a month for the next three months, paying off $1,000 in credit card balances by March, trimming $50 a month off your grocery bill and tracking every dollar’s worth of spending for 30 days. These goals are baby steps, but any one of them will help bring your journey toward financial freedom. Once you achieve a tiny goal, set a slightly larger one.

3. Make your budget realistic. Now that you know where you’re overspending and what your first financial goals are, it’s time to budget. But don’t go about this the wrong way. Too many people budget based on fantasy rather than reality. If you’ve been spending $800 a month on groceries, you’re not going to whittle your grocery budget down to $400 a month overnight. Start by setting a budget based on what you’re already spending. If you’ve spent $750 to $800 on groceries for each of the past three months, budget that much each month. You know you’ll have enough, and you won’t go over budget. 

4. Be pound wise. Have you ever heard the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish?” It’s a phrase that refers to our tendency to get wrapped up in the small things, so that we miss the larger, more important ones. If you spend all Sunday afternoon clipping 25-cent coupons, but then order $30 worth of pizza for dinner, you’re probably being penny wise but pound foolish. When tackling your financial problems, it’s important to look for the areas of biggest impact. Eliminating your $80 a month cable subscription will have a bigger impact than cutting out that $3 a week you spend, for instance, on the occasional drive-thru coffee. You’ll save even more money if you drop your cable subscription and drive-thru coffee, but the cable subscription has a much bigger impact. 

So to begin this journey, look for the three biggest changes you can make in your finances among such things as: refinancing your house, paying off high-interest credit card debt, downgrading your car, eliminating several restaurant meals a month.

These changes could lead to significant progress, more than smaller changes you may make later as you gain momentum in your financial freedom journey.

Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.