Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck and Start Saving

By Brian Stoffel – Jun 22, 2015 at 7:20AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

This three-step plan only takes one month to put into action.

No, you can't throw your bills away with this plan. But you can reduce spending in a very simple way.

One of the greatest ironies about the United States is that we have one of the wealthiest populations in the world, but we barely save anything from this overabundance. The average household brings in more than $52,000 per year -- yet is only able to save 5.6% of that amount.

And that's just the average. The wealthiest households in America surely pull that average up, as they're able to increase that wealth by saving and investing large sums. Compare this to Austria, Belgium, or Germany, where the governments rely heavily on tax revenues, and yet the average family is still able to put away almost twice as much as Americans are.

The Internet is chock-full of ways to help the average American stop living paycheck to paycheck and start saving money. Much of the advice involves the laborious process of breaking down your yearly spending, making targeted cuts, and saving the difference. That process might work for some; but I intend to give an easier alternative below, which allows you to follow three very simple steps. Instead of a massive undertaking, this will involve a little bit of effort every day for a month -- that's it!

First, a word about to whom this applies
There are some families out there for whom escaping this month-to-month anxiety is not as easy as a three-step process. If you're stuck in a low-paying job due to lack of education, experiencing a serious illness in the family, or living through some other unfortunate life circumstance, you may need to make more herculean efforts to actually stop living paycheck to paycheck and start saving money.

But don't throw yourself in that group unless you truly meet such unfortunate circumstances. There are likely hundreds of thousands of families out there earning a salary who would be the envy of most anyone on earth; yet they're saving almost none of it. Many times, it's due to unconscious spending. Here's how to solve that.

Step One: Automate a 5% savings rate
Most gurus will tell you that you should save 10% to 15% of your income for retirement. Those are good starting points. But if you're really living paycheck to paycheck, and you aren't saving anything right now -- just start with a 5% savings rate.

There are a number of ways you can do this. You could talk to your employer about automatically withdrawing 5% of your salary and putting it into your company retirement plan -- which also could help you get a company match. If that's not possible, simply set up an automatic withdrawal from your bank account each month for 5% of your salary, and put that money into a Roth or Traditional IRA.

Step Two: Un-automate your spending
One of the ways that we find ourselves in the never-ending hamster wheel of spending is that we spend without thinking. Every month, without it ever entering my mind, I pay more than $100 for things like Netflix, Internet access, and baby diapers via Amazon.

While some may argue that all of these are necessities, they're not. You'll survive just fine without all of them for one month -- assuming, of course, that you go shopping for the diapers. I suggest that you take all such non-essential automatic spending and cancel them for one month. If you find that you're missing something you truly need, like the Internet, you're experiencing the point of the exercise -- identifying what you really do need.

You'll be taking a one-month sabbatical from using your credit card.

One quick note -- many of our expenses that are necessary on a month-to-month basis are also automated. I'm talking about rent/mortgage payments, car payments, or insurance of any form. I do not suggest suspending those, at all. They are a necessary part of life.

Step Three: For everything else, pay cash
Here's where the real psychological power of this month-long experiment comes in. It's one thing to pay for groceries with a credit card with one simple swipe. It's another thing altogether to take out six $20 bills and hand them over. Our sense of loss is activated by this transaction in a way that swiping a credit card completely ignores.

Carry this over to literally everything that you buy for one month. No credit card -- just cash. See what the results are. Although there are no guarantees, I have a feeling that you'll see much more left at the end of the month than you thought possible.

Take that cash and add it to your (meager) 5% savings rate. Believe it or not, each incremental percentage will bring you that much closer to financial independence. This is the point when you can stop working because you have to, and start doing only what you want to.

Brian Stoffel owns shares of The Motley Fool recommends and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and Netflix. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 11/28/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.