7 Strategies to Overcome Living Paycheck to Paycheck

woman in front of a fountain
Photo credit: Chandan Nayak

One of my biggest pet peeves is reading or hearing the advice to make your coffee at home if you want to save more money - that's the quickest way to lose credibility in my professional opinion. I promise you this isn't about that. What it is about is hacking yourself if you're tired of living paycheck to paycheck, especially when you do the math and find that, in theory, you should have tons of money left over each month after paying your bills.

I've worked with thousands of people on their money, and also personally used to live paycheck to paycheck, so I get it. The trick isn't to start obsessing over every penny or find a way to go without the little treats of life. Or if you do decide to go that route, success is usually found by making it temporary and going all-in.

Where we fritter most of our money away

Let's talk about Target and Costco. I'm not suggesting you never set foot in such hallowed halls again, but these two retailers have mastered the fine art of extracting money out of even the most disciplined shoppers' wallets. How do they do it? They price and display things in such a way that you end up bargaining with yourself.

For example, I didn't go to Costco to buy a new rug for my kitchen or two more pair of those leggings that I basically live in from November til April, but those are actually things that will be useful in my life, so I bought them. Same goes for the cute jeans I got at Target last week - didn't need them, but I've already worn them twice, so that counts. It's just that this spending wasn't planned, so it basically eats into my savings goals.

Most of our paycheck-to-paycheck living isn't a result of boneheaded decisions (although some are, like the multiple pumpkin costumes I have for my cat), it's due to little purchases here and there that add up. The good news is that the opposite also works in your favor: little savings here and there add up, especially if you take the extra step to invest that savings for the long haul once you've built up your emergency fund and paid off debt. Here are some ideas to help with that.

Ideas to escape that paycheck-to-paycheck life

I won’t insult anyone by suggesting you just stay away from red-light stores or only shop with a list (although that works for some), but if you also find yourself spreeing away your extra dollars, try one of these methods to see if you can’t keep it in check.

Eliminate the extra cash from your checking account. There’s a reason that the casino is always busier on payday — everyone feels richer due to the buoyed balance in their checking account. Psychologically, I know that I feel much more spend-y when I have some wiggle room in my account, then when the balance starts getting down there, I instinctively think twice about spending on anything beyond planned purchases.

Hack your own habit by transferring any money you’re not planning to spend on bills and other planned expenditures before your next paycheck to a separate savings account. You may need to dip into it when things come up you didn’t anticipate, but it may make you think twice the next time a shiny object catches your eye.

Give yourself a splurge budget. Whether that’s factoring in that you can’t get out of Target without spending $100, or keeping an extra fifty dollar bill in your wallet that only gets replenished on the first of the month, allowing yourself to partake in the impulse spending — but in a more mindful way — can help to keep it in check. You might also check out this idea for keeping a separate account for these things.

Remember what you’re saying no to by saying yes to the dress/scarf/tote bag/cat costume. This is the trick I use most often that has me putting more cat costumes back — I work to cultivate the presence of mind to remind myself that the less money I spend today, the less I have to hustle to earn tomorrow. Maybe put a post-it note on your credit card or some other physical blocker that can take you out of your emotional/impulsive mind and back to your rational head.

Match your splurge. Make a rule that for every dollar you spend on an impulse buy you will match with a dollar to savings. I mean, if you can find the money to spend on the thing, I bet you can find the same amount to put in your savings.

Save your savings. If you’re a sucker for a flash sale or love looking at the bottom of your receipt to see how much you saved at stores like TJ Maxx or Kroger, make a commitment to actually save that money by pulling up your banking app on the spot and moving the “savings” amount into your actual savings account.

Put yourself on a temporary spending diet. One way to deal with the fact that impulse buying is our emotional mind overcoming our rational mind is to create a habit, which takes practice. By committing to NOT impulse buy for, say, 21 days (the length of time many experts say it takes to create a habit), you may naturally quell the impulse even after you go off your “diet” and start spending again.

Create an email filter for all retail emails to skip your inbox and go straight to a folder. I'm telling you, this strategy has saved me literally thousands of dollars. Here’s how I know it works: If I know I need to go to World Market to buy something, I look in my “Shopping” email folder to see whatever coupon or offer they emailed me that day, but otherwise I’m not tempted because I don’t see it in my inbox. On the other hand, a few weeks ago, an Athleta email escaped the filter and within minutes of opening the email I found myself pages deep in yoga pants and sweater dresses. Danger zone!

You don't suck at money

The bigger theme here is that your current money lifestyle isn't because you just suck at money - please stop shaming yourself with that b*llshit. You just haven't learned the right tricks and habits to make money work in your life the way you need it to. Hopefully one of these hacks will help you nudge yourself toward a more financially free lifestyle so you can move from paycheck-to-paycheck into, "Wait, when's payday?" I've done it, so I know you can too.

What ways have you found that keep your impulse buying in check? I’d love to know and share them in a future post! Please email them to me.

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