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Personal Finance

5 ways to stop living paycheck to paycheck

According to a 2015 Nielsen study, 25 percent of Americans earning over $150,000 are living paycheck to paycheck. That number increases to roughly one-third for households earning $50,000 to $100,000 and then to half for those making $49,999 and less. To put that into perspective, the average income in America is about $59,000. That means that people who are earning more than double the average income still feel like they are living paycheck to paycheck.

There are a lot of complicated reasons for this. First of all, many people live in large cities. The cost of living in our cities is skyrocketing, especially in places like New York, DC, and San Francisco. These increasing living costs make it difficult even for high-earning folks to have money leftover. Another likely cause for this is lifestyle creep. Lifestyle creep is when, as you earn more money, you also spend more money. This ultimately means that you continue to live paycheck to paycheck, no matter how much you earn.

In this article, I will give advice on how you can avoid lifestyle creep in your own life. I will also include anecdotes from members of my free Facebook group, Money Circle, about their own experiences with lifestyle creep. Some people have taken steps to avoid the increase in spending that comes with an increase in income. Some have struggled with controlling their spending, and others have made specific, valuable lifestyle changes.

Revisit your budget

Don’t just assume that since you have more money coming in now that you don’t have to manage a budget anymore. This is an easy trap to fall into as you start to earn more. You’re feeling less strapped for cash, so your money starts to flow more easily. But this is actually a great time for you to step back and revisit your budget.

You should figure out how much extra money will be coming in once your income increases. From there, calculate your fixed expenses again, and see if there is anything that will change. Figure out if there are areas where you want to increase your investment, like savings or debt repayment.

Amber is doing this with her husband: “Creating a plan is helping my husband and me right now. He’s in the middle of a job transition. Actually acknowledging the pay increase, the desire not to lifestyle creep, and making a set plan for how we will allocate the ‘savings’ (because some will go to accelerating debt payoff) has done wonders.”

Automate your savings

Automation is the key to success when it comes to your money. You take yourself and your emotions out of the situation because your bank is doing the work for you. This makes it much more likely that you’ll actually save, rather than spend, that extra money. Decide how much you want to be saving each month, and set up direct deposit from your paycheck. If that isn’t an option, see if your bank can automatically move money for you every time you get paid. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your savings grows this way!

Increase your retirement contribution

It’s important to leverage a raise to increase your retirement contributions. There are a few reasons for that. First of all, you should be increasing the amount you’re saving for retirement throughout your life. Second, increasing your retirement contribution will prevent you from spending the extra money that’s coming in.

There are paycheck calculators out there that will help you figure out exactly what your take-home pay will be if you increase your retirement contribution. You might even improve your take-home pay, because the more you put into your retirement, the less you may end up paying in taxes.

Rachel recently did just that: “I recently received a raise but waited to see exactly how much my take-home pay would be. Then I increased my autopay amount on my loans to be 80% of the raise amount, and I did it before I could get used to having the extra money for spending.”

Don’t automatically increase your fixed expenses

Sometimes, as people start to earn more, they start to upgrade their lives, which usually means increasing their expenses. This could look like a bigger house, a more expensive car, more luxurious cable plans, etc. These are definitely not always a bad thing, which I’ll get into more later, but it can keep you in the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.

So it’s important to take this moment to figure out where you truly want or need to upgrade, and where you probably can continue to skimp. Be mindful of where you’re increasing your fixed expenses and make sure you can afford it comfortably.

Keep an eye on your daily spending

When your income increases, it can feel like you have more freedom. This makes it feel like you can spend more freely, without having to think about it. And isn’t that the dream? Being able to go about your life, spending money on what you want, without having to worry about it? I totally understand the impulse, but if you increase your spending without being mindful, you’ll find yourself without the additional money you thought you had.

Give yourself a new budget to abide by and make sure you track it. Schedule time at least once or twice a week to review your spending so that you know you’re not going over budget. It’s okay to give yourself a little bit more spending money, as long as you’re still living within your means.

But, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too

As I said above, it’s important to avoid overspending, but you should make sure to spend money on your happiness too. There are ways to mindfully improve your quality of life as you earn more money. Strictly avoiding income creep can feel too restrictive and end up hurting you in the long run. For example, Natalie told me: “Maybe being so anti-lifestyle creep has genuinely stopped me from spending money that I have on things that make me happy.”

So as you start to earn more money, get clear on the upgrades that you desire most. What are the things that you had never been able to do before because you could afford it? For some people, like Allison, it’s moving into a better, but more expensive, living situation: “Sanity is worth it for me. I’m about to go from a $700 a month group house that I run to a one bedroom near work that’ll probably cost me $1,700 a month, plus more for parking and a dog. It makes me ill to think about all the other great things I could do with that money, but I need a break from being annoyed in my own home. Worth it. And if it’s not, I can do the roommate thing again after a year of heavenly peace and quiet.”

What will you invest in as you start to earn more, and how will you maintain some control over your spending?

This article was originally posted on MaggieGermano.com. 

Maggie Germano is a feminist and financial coach for women. She helps women improve their relationship with money so they can take control of their financial future. She does this through one-on-one financial coaching, workshops, writing, and speaking engagements. She also founded Money Circle, which is a safe space for women to talk about money without feeling judged. It’s a way to create community and openness around personal finance. Passionate about many issues affecting women, Maggie is a member of the Women’s Information Network and was trained as a salary negotiation facilitator by AAUW.

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