Tired of living paycheck to paycheck? Need some advice on how to start out and also tools to help you stick to it?


OK, so you’re going to want to build a budget. You can either use prebuilt tools (like Mint or YNAB) or you can roll your own (spreadsheet).

Either way, you want to capture all of your set expenses (rent, utilities, transportation, debts, cell phone, car/life/renter’s insurance, etc.) as well as have maximums for your variable expenses (restaurants, entertainment, shopping, etc.). The first half should be relatively easy to put together (you know what your rent is, right?) but the second half is going to be tougher. You can either throw a number up and see how close you stick to it (hint: not very) or you can dig through your recent spending and see what you average at over the last few months and use that as a starting point.

Tools like YNAB and Mint have the advantage that they can integrate to bank accounts and credit cards and pull your transaction history, giving you some information about your spending habits now without having to go through each bill yourself. You will need to track cash spending manually, but both have ways to do that through their web portal or apps. I personally prefer Mint as it is free and I don’t need a completely strict budget, but I’ve heard very good things about YNAB for helping you track precisely where your money needs to go and telling you how much you have left to spend in each month.

Once you have all your set expenses, and a realistic number of how much you spent on the variable ones in the last few months, you can start building your budget for the future. Your total spending needs to be below your income, and you need to set some money aside each month (debt repayment now, emergency fund/savings in the future).

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With that budget in place, you need a home for the excess money (both the leftover from your base salary and from your commissions). For now, you need to focus on getting rid of all your high interest debt with your excess money; once it’s gone (I’m betting it’ll be done by the end of August), you can either knock out your student loans (recommended if you have any above ~5%) or you can build your emergency fund. 3-6 months of your required spending is recommended (so not covering things like weekly bar trips, but covering your rent, student loans, food, etc.) as that will let you figure out your next steps if you lose your job, or just cover an unexpected expense without a problem.

Once your emergency fund is taken care of, you need to look at longer term goals. Look at what you spent money on, and what you want to have money for. Is it just not living paycheck to paycheck, or do you have other goals like owning a house, taking a big vacation, paying for a big wedding, or early retirement? Visualize that goal, the end product of your efforts.

If anything you spent money on you regret because it didn’t add real value to your life and pulled you further away from your goals, then you can think about that trade off every time you’re tempted to do it again. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but use it as a way to curb spending on that item/activity with the goal of having money instead for <big goal>. Picture that goal again and it’ll give you the strength to keep going. And every now and then, you can still give in- personal finance isn’t about being a saint and always using money in the perfectly optimal way, it’s about using money to make you the happiest, best you that you can be.

One final note on getting away from paycheck to paycheck: the biggest help I found in relieving financial tension was having a 1 month buffer of expenses in my checking account. This means that I’m always paying next month’s bills with this month’s pay, and that I don’t really care when a bill hits vs. when my pay hits. It really gives you breathing room from the paycheck to paycheck grind, and the reduction of that stress lets you look at your finances much more objectively. Of course, the only way to do this is to build a realistic budget and know what everything is going to cost each month.

Having been in a sales role, I can definitely speak to the value of crafting my budget to keep me entirely in my base and still have the savings rate I wanted, while my commissions just got dumped into my “goals” buckets. Some months I got nothing in commissions (like, maybe enough for a pizza after taxes), some months I made bank (could purchase a reasonably equipped new car in cash). Since I lived within my base, and the extra was intended to help me hit goals, neither mattered much to my day to day financial health (though I’d be lying if I didn’t say I splurged occasionally on nice dinners or events when I had a crazy good month, but they were proportional- <10% of my commission check on the night/trip, rest to my savings goals).

If you want feedback on a budget, you can post it here and people can give you ideas for improvement that may help (like recommending cheaper cell phone plans, or tips for reducing utility costs).

Good luck!