How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck So You Can Start Saving
At the tender age of 11, I made a solemn vow that when I grew up I was going to be rich. My plan was simple: Marry well. I bless the day I married my husband, a man who is rich in character and unfailing love. I assumed his money would follow. While waiting for wealth to descend upon me, I made the near-tragic error of spending as though I were already rich even while living paycheck to paycheck. That landed us in so much financial trouble that it took 13 years to repair.
The experience taught me an important fundamental principle: How much you spend matters much more than how much you earn. The money you don’t spend gives you the freedom to live the life you love and to build wealth for the future.
Some 64% of U.S. consumers (166 million) say they’re living paycheck to paycheck—no savings, struggling to survive from one paycheck to the next—according to a new survey by LendingClub. That number is up 3% from last year.
How to stop the cycle?
I’ve asked top financial experts for their best tried-and-true rules for how to stop living paycheck to paycheck and start building wealth. No matter where you are in your financial journey, start following this advice to keep more of what you earn. That’s the way to grow rich!
Rule #1: Live Smarter
Enough is enough
“Living below your means is the secret to prosperity,” says Michelle Singletary, nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for The Washington Post.
“In this country, we define rich as having a lot of material things. Look at what you already have and confidently say, ‘I have enough.’ You don’t need to borrow more money to get more stuff, because all that means is you’ll have to work more to pay for it.”
Stop trading up
Would you like to save hundreds of thousands of dollars? asks Jonathan Pond, author of You Can Do It! The Boomer’s Guide to a Great Retirement.
“Over 40 years of car ownership, someone who trades in a car every 10 years will have almost $500,000 more in the kitty than someone who trades in their car every three years,” he says.
Make your goals a priority
“For example, if you want your children to go to college without a dime in debt (as I do), then make saving for college a priority,” says Singletary. “Your kids get video games, trendy clothes, Xboxes or whatever only after you’re saving at a rate that ensures they won’t have to borrow to go to school.”
Rule #2: Make Your Money Grow
Time is money, so start saving now
Even small amounts of money regularly invested in a tax-sheltered retirement account using a diversified stock fund with dividends reinvested can create great wealth over the long run, says Terry Savage, author of The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need to Retire? ”
Just $2,000 a year invested every year in a fund that tracks the S&P 500 stock index could grow to nearly half a million in 30 years or more than $3 million in 50 years.” This assumes that the stock market performs at the same level it has for the past 50 years (about 10.4 percent annually). It’s never too late to get started.
Pay yourself first
Invest money automatically taken out of your paycheck or bank account on a regular basis, says Jane Bryant Quinn, Newsweek’s personal finance columnist and author of Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People.
“Twenty years from now, you’ll be amazed at how rich you are,” she says. Also, sign up for your employer’s retirement savings plan or open an IRA. Increase your automatic deposit whenever you get a raise. “In your 20s, save at least 10 percent of your salary. In your 30s, save 15 percent; maintain that level in your 40s and 50s.”
Rule #3: Protect Your Main Asset
Buy a home and live in it
“You cannot get rich renting; it’s impossible,” says David Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire. Over time, despite the ups and downs of the housing market, owning your home is one of the best financial moves you can make. Homeowners in America are 34 times wealthier than renters. Also, don’t sell your first home to buy a bigger one.
“Rent your first home and buy a second home of equal value. Invest as much of the rental fees as you can and you’ll eventually be able to retire off that rental income.”
Leave your home equity alone
“Don’t borrow against it,” says Quinn. “Let it build, so you’ll own the house free and clear by the time you retire.” That equity is potentially a big pot of money you can use when that time comes.
Rule #4: Avoid Toxic Debt
Pay your credit card bill(s) in full every month
No exceptions! “It’s easy to let a month slide by paying just the minimum but get in that habit and your credit card debt can quickly bloom,” says Liz Pulliam Weston, columnist at NerdWallet.com, and author of Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life.
“Credit card debt is the most toxic debt; you’ll end up paying a fortune in interest charges. Paying late or over-limit fees just throws more good money away.”
Have the highest possible credit score
“Your FICO credit score determines who will hire you, and how much interest you’ll pay on mortgages and car loans,” says Suze Orman, author of The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+: Winning Strategies to Make Your Money Last a Lifetime.
“FICO scores range from 300 to 850 and if your score is at least 760 you’ll be able to get the best mortgage.”
Rule #5: Be Patient!
It takes time to reach financial freedom
Despite all the infomercials that tell you the secrets of getting rich quickly with real estate, gold, silver, or llama farms, the truth is there’s no secret formula, says Pond.
“You already know that the key is to spend less than you earn and invest those savings wisely,” he says. “If you do that, it’s almost a certainty you’ll accumulate a lot of money over the years, no matter when you start. Moreover, you’ll sleep well knowing you have the cushion to meet any financial problems arising.”
You’ll be OK
Provided you are determined to stop living paycheck to paycheck and if you follow the rules and make a little progress each day, you’ll be in much better financial shape than you’ve believed possible. It’s time to buckle down and just do it!
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We are pretty good. Home and cars paid for, retired, saving for some fun things to do, paying off our credit card every month. But I am a book addict. I love to read and do it a lot (or listen to audiobooks while walking, driving, doing housework or gardening etc.), but I have more books now on shelves, on Kindle, or in Audible that I could ever read or listen to in my life time. And yet…AND YET… whenever I see an interesting new book, or read about somebody loving a book…. I go buy it. HELP!!
I thank the Lord for everything He has provided..I am blessed to have grown up with Auntie Frugal!
Seriously…my parents, grandparents, great grandparents
we’re amazing role models…Thank you Mary, for helpful the future generations!!
Thanks for sharing that, Debra!
I love this post, Mary. I found you at a time when I was in deep financial trouble. I have learned so much from you, and can testify that your advice works. My husband, whom I loved and completely trusted, started an affair and let his business tank, and he fell deeply into alcoholism. I wound up divorced with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that I’d not even known about.
I was a high school teacher with a low salary, but thankfully good benefits. I worked two and sometimes three jobs for years, paying off the debts and trying just to get out of the hole. He owed me huge amounts of money, which I knew I’d never see. I told him I’d forgive all his debt to me and I’d sign over all the equity in our home, a huge amount, if he’d pay me a few thousand dollars that I used as a down payment on a small house. At that point he had liens against him, and our house couldn’t be sold anyway.
Since those crushing days, I got a master’s degree while working fulltime, raising my salary, paid off the mortgage on my small house and my student loans. It was hard and sometimes I was afraid, sad, and angry. I had major heath problems around age 40 and was out of work for most of a year.
I am content and comfortable now. I’d expected to grow old with my husband, and to have children and grandchildren we loved. Instead I got to teach thousands of students over the decades, and to love and help them. I have no debt, and managed to invest in IRAs a little over the years. I have a 2009 car that I maintain well and plan to drive for years. I retired after 30 years of teaching and have my pension, and plan to wait until I am at least 66.5 years old to start receiving Social Security, and later than that for the IRAs. I began volunteering at an animal shelter while I was still teaching, and now can give even more time there. I finally have security, and value that even more because it was not easy getting here.
I kept working and applying your advice and philosophies. I tell people about your column, books, and advice regularly. Thank you very much.
What an amazing story of loss, recovery … joy! I am so proud you. Happy we found each other years ago! You give me new hope, and encouragement beyond measure. xo
For years I have helped members of my family who were in dire need; helped my daughter also in dire need and grand kids. I now have my brother’s dog bc he is in a facility and that costs money (no one could take the dog). I have a lot of debt with credit cards bc of helping, helping, helping. If I didn’t help out, these people would be on the street. This is a silly question but what do I do now? I have a house with a mortgage, and a car that is 7 years old. There is no one to help me and my money goes to pay the bills, and credit cards. Sick of dealing with this – any suggestions. Please
I know that yr at yr wits end. Make a budget and don’t shop unless you need the food. Try to being content with what u have. You can find inner peace and joy by making God yr friend….By throwing your burdens on God as Psalm 55:22 says.
I bought a wooden block that says When you love what you have , you have everything you need. I think you have expressed this in ways in your articles. I stay grounded when I read this and have the urge to buy
something . Being frugal and the envelope program helped me. Many thanks for all the great tips you give us.
Such good financial advice, Mary. We have been married almost 47 years and started out our marriage with most of these strategies. The first house we bought we paid off in seven years. The second house we bought we paid off in three years. The last two we paid cash. We pay cash for our vehicles and tended to drive them for a long time until the last few years when we trade every two or three years. We have a good dealer who has given us good trade-ins. The last car I bought was a $35,000 2022 model. We got a $17, ,000 trade-in on our 2019 model. We were able to pay cash for when many of our friends of the same age are building huge brand new houses with big mortgages. We are happy with what we have! Bonus we are able to have our Social Security checks deposit into a special savings account. We both came from modest means with frugal habits, so it came easier for us, but I can attest that the strategies you outline do work! We are secure in the knowledge that we are financially set for life.
Thanks for that excellent endorsement, Karla!