Do you remember your excitement when you finished school and got your first real job? You were excited to go to the office every day, and a steady paycheck meant that you could finally upgrade your life. Whether you were obsessing over finding a posh new place to live, purchasing a new vehicle, and upgrading your electronics and wardrobe, you experienced the ease of knowing you had a certain amount of money coming in every month.
If you were like me, that meant leaving small-town suburbia a week after high school to pursue more exciting opportunities in the city. I accepted the first entry-level job I was offered at a commercial real estate company headquartered in the downtown business district. At seventeen, I didn’t know how a fax machine worked or even how to fix a paper jam in the photocopier. And I certainly did not possess the finite legal terminology required to transcribe important correspondence from the CEO to foreign buyers. But I was determined to learn as fast as possible without asking too many “giveaway” questions so that my lack of experience would be less apparent.
I read through every office machine operating manual and studied all archival materials to learn this new corporate language because I was determined to maintain my job and climb the corporate ladder, just like the main characters in movies did.
At the time, I thought that my junior salary of $1,800 per month after taxes was a lot of money, and so I promptly rented a beautiful studio apartment on the North Shore that cost $1,400 per month including utilities. Since I didn’t yet own a car, I had to take a bus down to the harbor, and then a sea bus across the inlet. It took forever, and it cost $5/day to commute. I hadn’t factored in $25/week for transportation or considered what my day-to-day expenses would look like if I chose to buy lunch for $7 or spend $4 on a fashion magazine to read on the way home.
Unfortunately, my parents had never taught me how to manage money, so I had no idea how to even balance my bank account without accidentally bouncing checks, let alone stick to the budget that had been hastily scrawled in a notebook in a haphazard attempt to be responsible. Even though I tried to save receipts and write down every dollar I spent, the numbers never really added up.
My First Paycheck
The day I got my first paycheck, I began to shop in a way I had never shopped before. I shopped during midday breaks and after work, carefully guarding my purchases on the commute home, where I would cut the tags off and hang the garments on display, creating a styling plan for outfits with the amount of attention that I probably should have given to my forgotten budget. I shopped on weekends at the boutiques in my neighborhood. Forget about saving up for something sensible like furniture or a much-needed laptop—all I cared about was buying clothes.
Shopping became a serious vice, and I couldn’t resist the temptation if a Chanel-inspired brocade jacket or classic Jackie O shift dress called to me from a store display window, enticing me also to buy accessories to go with the outfits (often on a layaway plan when I couldn’t afford everything at once).
Try as I might to carefully list my expenses and stretch the $400 that was left after paying rent go as far as it could, in that last before payday I was literally down to my last $20, scraping together change for the bus and subsisting only on oatmeal for days at a time. Only when I was desperate would I call my less-than-sympathetic parents to ask for an occasional $50 to buy groceries. “You’re the one who decided to move to the city to chase this great life,” they said before finally relenting. And out of the $50 they deposited into my bank account, at least $20 went straight into my wardrobe fund.
Eventually, I began to grow weary of never being able to get ahead of my expenses and trying to keep track of the dollars that were rapidly leaving my account. My solution was to take a weekend job working at one of the clothing shops that I regularly frequented. Of course, this meant that I had first dibs on new arrivals and I couldn’t control myself. Shopping gave me a sense of euphoria, and even though it turned to regret whenever logic kicked in, I couldn’t stop.
Looking back, I’m grateful that no financial institution was foolish enough to give me a credit card because the extra money I was earning had become a payday loan trap and I would have maxed a card out within the month. The illusion of glamorous city life was fading fast. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by a life I couldn’t sustain, and when I finally had enough, I quit my job and left the city.
Throughout that adventure, I learned a valuable lesson about how fast the rush of spending money fades, and what a terrible burden it is to overextend yourself financially. I have seen friends get into debt either by spending beyond their means or being hit with an expensive, unexpected medical emergency requiring surgery, or a natural disaster such as a fire or hurricane destroying most of their possessions. Coming from a place of lack makes it challenging to focus on abundance, but it’s important to know that these are temporary setbacks that you have the power to overcome.
Here are the 3 Top Ways to Put an End to Paycheck to Paycheck Living
Behavioral change is not just about coming up with a solid plan. That works with our rational mind, yes, but it doesn’t really work with our emotional brain. Still, you need to adjust your mindset before you put a practical plan into action.
CHANGE YOUR MINDSET + USE PSYCHOLOGICAL TACTICS THAT WORK
It’s all well and good to do things like creating a vision board to help inspire you to achieve your goals and dreams, but that only goes so far. Some days, you will want to smash that vision board that seems to mock you with its photos of dream vacations, mansions, and Italian sports cars when you’re feeling bleak about your financial prospects.
Many of us envision the worst-case scenario, which creates a feeling of worry and dread as we obsess about extreme things that will probably never happen:
Business is slow this quarter…If I lose this job, I’ll end up homeless and on the streets.
If I can’t make my rent this month, I’ll be evicted, and it will be impossible to get a new lease.
If I don’t pay my tax debt, the IRS will put me in jail.
I can’t afford to have any fun anymore–every cent goes to bills, and I hate my life.
I can’t provide for my family the way I want to, and my wife will probably divorce me, and when I can’t pay my legal fees and child support, I’ll lose everything.
A psychology tactic that’s highly recommended for chronic worriers is to ask yourself some questions when you picture those horrific scenarios.
Are you 100% certain that this bad thing will happen to you?
The answer is obviously no if it’s still just a worry. If a catastrophic situation plays out in the way you were dreading, that’s another story. Just know that you will find a way to deal with it when the shock wears off, and your survival instincts kick in.
If it’s possible for this bad thing to happen, isn’t it equally possible that the opposite could happen and that it could be wonderful?
This is where you start to realize that maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. You picture what the opposite scenario would look like, and your interior monologue goes something like this:
If I stay positive during my company’s rough patch, then I’ll be better able to offer solutions to improve business and even work towards a promotion.
I won’t ever be homeless and living on the streets because I have family and friends who love me enough to take me in until I got back on track.
The IRS is not a scary monster set on terrorizing me…If I talk to someone about my situation, I’ll probably be able to negotiate the terms of my tax debt.
I can find ways to have fun on a budget if I view life as an adventure rather than a hardship.
My wife will support me during the tough times because our relationship is based on much more than how much money I make.
If the opposite thing happened, how would you feel?
Relief sets in, restoring your confidence as you realize there is hope for a better outcome than what you’ve been fretting over. It’s certainly worth a try!
While you’re working on your emotional relationship to money, there are some practical things you can do every month that will help you break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
Related: 5 Common Debt Traps to Avoid
AUTOMATE YOUR BILL PAYMENTS
Even if you like receiving monthly statements for your cell phone, electricity, or mortgage, it might be a good idea to automate your bill payments before you begin to fiercely spend what’s left.
Why is this a good idea?
A. It’s convenient. Instead of trying to remember what’s due on what dates, then visiting different websites to mailing a check to make payments, you can automate the process.
B. It discourages you from spending the designated bill payment on something else, resulting in a double-payment next month.
For your bills that are the same each month, use your bank’s auto-pay feature to keep multiple accounts in one place. For accounts where your balance and minimum payment changes slightly from month to month (i.e., credit cards), it’s better to sign up for automatic payments directly through them, so they take the full amount owed and your credit rating remains intact.
THE ENVELOPE METHOD
The envelope method has been around for decades, but it’s gained popularity as a powerful weapon in the fight against overspending. Nowadays it’s so easy to swipe a debit or credit card that our spending doesn’t always register in our memory, and we forget how much we have left in our budget for certain things such as groceries or entertainment. Cash is a different story because it’s more tangible, and it forces you to visually keep track of the dollars left in each envelope throughout the month.
Here’s how it works:
1. First, you’ll need to determine how much money you have coming in each month, then subtract the bills that you’ll pay online or by check.
2. Decide how much money will stay in the bank according to your savings plan and withdraw the rest as cash.
3. Label separate envelopes for each expense category and put the designated amount of cash in each one, storing them somewhere safe.
4. Resist the inevitable temptation to borrow from other envelopes when a category is running low. When the money is gone, it’s gone – and you will have to wait until your next payday to replenish it.
5. If you have money left over in an envelope at the end of the month, celebrate by rewarding yourself or applying it to any debt you owe.
Ultimately, our financial behavior has more to do with our internal narratives than numbers. Many of our spending decisions stem from what we were taught about money management during our formative years.
Emotions and moods have a way of directing our relationship with money, but the best way to control impulsive spending is by having a financial plan with long-term goals, along with some strategies for thinking clearly when you’re caught up in the moment.
Realize that there isn’t a single solution to your problems and that best place to start is by adjusting your perspective.