If you find yourself anxiously awaiting your next paycheck because your bank account is empty, you're definitely not alone. In fact, half of all Americans are in the same boat, living paycheck to paycheck, or going into credit card debt.
While having no cash in the bank is pretty normal, it's also really stressful, and it makes it impossible to accomplish financial goals like saving for retirement. Fortunately, there are ways you can get your spending under control so you're not using every last dollar. Here are three steps to take if you're looking to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
1. Track your spending for at least 30 days
When financial advisors press clients to track spending, most people discover they're spending at least 20% more than they thought. If you have no idea where your money is going, you have no idea what outflows are leaving you without enough cash -- and you also have no basis from which to create a realistic budget.
Research from NYU Stern also shows you're not only underestimating day-to-day expenses, but also spending on "one-off" events. While you likely incur costs on a routine basis for celebratory dinners, gifts, dental care, and more, you probably view these as "exceptional" expenses -- even though some kind of "exceptional" expense crops up every month. People considerably underestimate both how often these exceptional events occur, and how much they'll cost when they inevitably happen.
You need to know the truth about your spending so you can tackle your cash-flow issues. You wouldn't try to fix a car if you didn't know what parts were broken, so don't try to fix your spending mess if you don't know where the problem lies.
2. Make a budget
Six in 10 adults don't have a budget. If you can't control your spending, you're probably one of them.
Without a budget, your money doesn't have an assigned job, so it gets spent randomly as needs arise. Often, this means it's not spent based on your priorities. You need to decide what you want your money to do and make a budget that reflects your values.
One of the best types of budgets is a zero-based budget. With a zero-based budget, you account for every dollar, so your entire income is divided up into savings and different categories of spending. Start with fixed monthly bills, like your mortgage, allocate money to saving, and divide up the rest into categories like groceries, dining out, clothing, and entertainment.
Ideally, your budgeted amount for savings should account for around 20% of your income. And you should have different categories of savings, like saving for an emergency fund and saving for retirement. You probably can't start saving that much immediately -- but start somewhere so you're putting a little bit aside for yourself.
When you make your budget, be realistic. You don't want to budget $20 monthly for food if you're currently spending $800. You should also build in a little bit of wiggle room, like a budget line for miscellaneous expenses. Make sure your budgeted amount for savings and spending don't total more than your income. If they do, you'll need to adjust some categories downward.
3. Switch to cash for a while until you get used to living on your budget
Using credit cards is convenient: you get rewards, and build your credit. You don't want to give up credit forever, but you may want to give up the plastic for a little while until you get good at living on your budget. If you force yourself to live on cash alone, you'll have no choice not to overspend because when the money is gone, there's nothing left.
Put aside money when you get your paycheck into envelopes for different categories of spending. If you allocated $100 a week for food and you're paid biweekly, put $200 into your food envelope on payday. Every time you buy food, use the cash in that envelope. You'll be a lot more careful about what you buy when your food envelope looks like it's running low.
If you run out of money in your envelope for something essential, like groceries, you'll need to borrow from another envelope. If you have nothing left in an envelope dedicated to optional expenses, like entertainment, don't buy in that category until it's time to replenish your cash.
To really force yourself to stick to the envelope budget, try freezing your cards in a block of ice so you can't access them easily, or give them to a friend to hold with the promise he or she will return them only in a true emergency.
Not only does living on cash force you to be smarter about your spending, but studies have shown we spend less when we have to hand over physical money instead of swiping a card -- so you'll get a bonus boost when it comes to trying to save.
Persist with your plan, even when the going gets tough
Changing your spending patterns is hard -- if it was easy to live within your means, everyone would do it. But if you follow these three steps and stick to your plan, you'll be more mindful of where your money goes. This should lead to more responsible spending -- and a much more stable financial situation.