A staggering 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, and that's put a damper on people being able to save money to cover unexpected expenses.
There are plenty of reasons why many Americans are having problems making ends meet, including ballooning student debt and rising healthcare costs. But when you consider that most Americans don't have a budget, and that 28% of employees earning between $50,000 to $99,999 usually or always live paycheck to paycheck, it's clear that at least some of Americans' money problems have to do with our money habits.
If you're earning a decent wage and are still having a hard time finding money for all the bills, you may be living above your means. Here are three steps to help you break the cycle.
1. Stop using credit cards and set up an emergency fund
Nearly 58% of Americans have less than $1,000 in the bank, which means when unexpected expenses pop up, most Americans turn to credit cards.
This dependency on credit cards means Americans currently have outstanding credit card debt that is at its second-highest level since 2008. More specifically, Americans had an average of $8,332 in credit card debt per household in the second quarter of this year, up 4% from the same period in 2017, according to a WalletHub survey.
It's certainly tempting to use credit cards to cover expenses; I've been guilty of doing it as well. But if you're using cards to pay for things you can't afford (whether they're necessities or not), then you're technically living above your means.
The best way to nip this problem in the bud is to start setting a little bit of money aside each month. It may mean finding $25 or $50 per month to add to your savings account, with the goal of setting aside $1,000 for emergencies. Once you have $1,000 in an emergency fund, it'll be much easier to avoid reaching for the credit card to cover bills or other necessary expenses.
And if you're using your credit cards to pay for vacations, expensive clothes, or other unnecessary expenses, you can apply the same emergency savings method to save up for things you want, too. Remember, your goal should be to pay for expenses in cash, whether it's a car repair or a trip to Hawaii -- and leave those cards alone.
2. Find one big expense you can lower (hint: target your car or housing)
Living below your means doesn't just mean that you don't use credit cards to cover expenses; it also means consciously avoid spending money in the same way other Americans do.
For example, the average transaction cost of a new light vehicle (defined as cars and small trucks) is a whopping $35,359 these days, according to Kelley Blue Book. Not everyone who spends that much money on a vehicle is living above their means, of course. But for some Americans, buying a new car is one major expense you should never take on -- or at least should look to minimize by finding a vehicle that's cheaper than average.
The price of a new car becomes even more outrageous when you consider that new vehicles lose up to 20% of their value after the first year of ownership. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for something that quickly depreciates, find a reliable, gently used vehicle that still has everything you need -- and let the first owner take the loss.
If you don't need a car where you live, then great! But don't think that makes you extra frugal by default. Many times, the luxury of being able to walk to shops or being close to reliable public transportation is baked into the price of your rent or mortgage. Admittedly, cutting the cost of your housing is one of the most challenging steps to take because it could involve putting your home up for sale or packing up all your things and moving once your lease is up -- but it could be one of the best financial moves you ever make.
That's because housing accounts for the largest percentage, about 36%, of Americans' budgets. The problem is that many Americans live in homes that are far bigger than they were decades ago (and have fewer people living in them), and Millennials spend a higher percentage of their income on rent than the two generations before them. All of this means that many Americans could likely cut back on their housing costs and live more cheaply if they wanted.
Buying a great house that isn't quite your dream home could be the ticket to living below your means. Or renting an apartment in a slightly cheaper part of town, and walking a few extra blocks to destinations, could open up much more money in your monthly budget.
3. Automate savings, so you don't spend all your income
One of the easiest ways to start living below your means is to automate contributions to your savings. Whether that money is going into an emergency fund or an investment account, the best way to keep yourself from overspending is by moving the money out of your checking account before you have time to spend it.
Why do this? Because Americans are notoriously bad at saving money for retirement. Recent data shows that Americans are better at saving money for traveling than they are for retirement or emergency funds. Putting money aside for a vacation is a great way to stay out of debt, but it won't help you live below your means over the long term.
Instead, automate your savings so the cash goes directly into a retirement or emergency fund account. This will help you cultivate a habit of saving -- and force you to use the remaining portion of your income to cover necessary expenses.
Start small and stay motivated
Of course, most of these suggestions are probably steps you could have come up with on your own. The real hurdle is implementing these suggestions so they have the opportunity to change your financial life.
If all three of these suggestions are too overwhelming to begin all at once, then start small by putting a small amount of money each month into an emergency fund. Once you start seeing that it's possible to save a little money each month, it'll make it that much easier to broaden your strategy and truly begin to live below your means.