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knife cutting dollar bill
David Franklin

If you're living paycheck to paycheck, you probably think it's a normal part of life and accept it for what it is. To that, I stick my tongue out and blow. There are plenty of people who've broken free from this rut, but your particular cycle won't break until you break it.

Living paycheck to paycheck can mean you're one paycheck away from being without lights, a car, or a home — and that's just not acceptable. Granted, this is worst-case scenario, but it's a possible scenario. This isn't meant to scare you, of course, but it is meant to build motivation to help you improve your financial outlook and say so long to a house-poor existence. Here's what you need to do to stop living on the edge.

1. Take Stock of What You're Working With

If you want to stop living paycheck to paycheck, you have to live below your means. It's that simple. Some people are happy just to break even every month, but if you never have extra income, you'll never achieve some of your goals.

To stop the cycle, do a financial checkup.

Here's a little exercise: Comb through your most recent bank statements, credit card statements, and receipts, and then write down every monthly expense from housing to groceries. Calculate how much you're spending on clothes, miscellaneous items, groceries, fuel, etc.

Once you have this figure, compare it with your take-home pay. The amount you're spending every month may be the equivalent of what you bring home, or more than what you bring home. If the latter is the case, it's time to trim.

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2. Cut the Fat

Don't listen to anyone who says living paycheck to paycheck is normal. It's not, and whoever says that will probably be sad for the rest of their life. Alas, many people have been conditioned to think this way, and it's this exact thinking that keeps people stuck.

There's a better way to live, and it starts with trimming your expenses. At this point, it's not about your wants; you have to focus on your needs and get rid of any unnecessary expenses. What to cut? These extras:

  • Gym memberships
  • Eating out for lunch
  • Grabbing coffee
  • Spending $50 a week on entertainment
  • Subscription services

These costs don't seem like a lot, but they add up. Getting rid of nonessential expenses can give your budget some wiggle room, creating more disposable income than you thought possible.

3. Stop Being Enslaved to Debt

The more debt you have, the more likely you are to live paycheck to paycheck. This is because debt robs you of extra money. Even if you can't get rid of your house payment, car payment, or student loan debt immediately, you can start chipping away at credit card balances.

Take the money you're saving from trimming unnecessary expenses and dump all or a large portion of this cash on your debt. You can tackle your debt with the smallest balance first, or the debt with the highest interest rate first. It doesn't matter which approach you choose, as long as you're paying down balances. The less you owe, the more you can keep. To help you, I've recently written an entire five part series on eliminating debt.

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4. Pay Yourself — No Matter What

Once you've got a handle on your debt, it's time to start paying yourself. If you build a cushy savings account, you may never have to borrow money or use a credit card again — at least not for an emergency or an unexpected expense.

Take the money you were putting toward debt repayment and set up an automatic savings schedule. Each pay period, automatically transfer a specific amount from checking into savings. Schedule this transfer before you pay your bills to ensure you're always paying yourself first.

5. Create Additional Income for Yourself

Sometimes, it isn't enough to trim expenses and pay off debt. You may earn just enough to get by, and despite living simply, you're still trapped in a cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. The truth is, getting ahead may require more income.

Now, as a freelancer, I can run down a list of side hustles to increase your income. This includes moonlighting as a consultant, cutting lawns, buying and selling online, watching pets, renting out extra space in your home, etc. But I also realize that not everyone has the entrepreneurial spirit. But even if you don't want to be your own boss, there are ways to build your income.

Depending on your circumstances, a part-time job might fit your schedule perfectly. If you can earn as little as an extra $20 a day, you'll have an extra $400 a month. For example, you can search online for local office-cleaning companies, and call these companies to see if they're looking for part-time help in the evenings. I have a friend who cleans a small office every day after work. It only takes two hours and the cleaning company pays him $20 per cleaning. It's not the most glamorous or high-paying part-time job, but it's easy work and pays okay.

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6. Learn How to Say "No"

One of the best ways to improve a budget is to learn how to say no. If you have a large social circle, there's always someone inviting you to a restaurant, a movie, or another event. If you get into a pattern of constantly saying yes and accepting invitations, you could end up broke. You should never sacrifice your bank account at the expense of fun, especially when there are too many ways to enjoy yourself for free. The key is having an airtight entertainment budget. Decide what you can realistically afford to spend on fun, and then stick to this budget. I learned how to say no, and now "No" is my favorite word.

7. Face Reality and Downsize

Making simple adjustments to your budget can improve cash flow tremendously, but not when you're too far in the hole. Accept that you'll have to let go of stuff. Ideally, your house payment should be no more than 28%-30% of your gross income. If you're paying more, you're overspending and it's time to face reality. You're never going to get ahead when you're struggling to keep up with the basics. Downsizing your house can create a smaller house payment, cheaper utilities, and less maintenance. Your finances also may improve if you downsize from an expensive car. You can enjoy a lower car payment and cheaper insurance premiums.