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If you search the internet for “paycheck to paycheck,” you’ll find several scary statistics, studies, and political opinions. We wanted to go straight to the source and publish some real stories from real people who have lived paycheck to paycheck.
The numbers can tell you how big of an issue this lifestyle is, but these stories can tell you what it means.
CareerBuilder conducted a survey in the summer of 2017 which found that a whopping 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
What does that mean really? Does it mean that 78% of Americans are underpaid? Possibly — but the study was not limited to low-wage workers. Plus, whether or not you rely on every single paycheck coming in on time is not indicative of spending habits and financial literacy.
Plenty of Americans don’t seem to see the harm in payday loans or going into debt just to take a vacation or plan a lavish wedding.
The same CareerBuilder study which found that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck also found that:
The 78% statistic is much less surprising when you read these other stats.
By definition, living paycheck to paycheck simply means that after paying all of your bills for the month, you have nothing or almost nothing left in your accounts. One paycheck can barely cover your expenses until your next paycheck comes in. It does NOT necessarily mean that you have nothing in savings, but the two often correlate.
People end up in the paycheck to paycheck cycle for plenty of different reasons. Danforth Fleak, from the Value-Ability podcast, suggested that “the problem is education — and the fact that there is none when it comes to financial planning in the U.S. It is entirely in the hands of your family or the people who want to sell you financial products.”
As a business providing a service that is popular among people living paycheck to paycheck, we wanted to dive into the reasons why people end up in stressful financial situations in the first place — and figure out what we can do to help.
We interviewed people from all different walks of life with all different stories to tell about living paycheck to paycheck. These are some of their living paycheck to paycheck stories.
Nicole is a healthcare admissions clerk, a content creator for “Stop Weighting, Start Doing,” and a freelance writer for a local magazine. Even with three jobs, she lives paycheck to paycheck. She lives in central Pennsylvania, where the cost of living is fairly average, but gas taxes are twice as high as in most other states.
Nicole has always lived paycheck to paycheck, which she believes is due to a lack of a solid financial education. She shared with us, “I didn’t really know how to handle money, and I was made to believe that if I went to college, I’d be able to find a good-paying job. So I took out student loans that I couldn’t afford to pay back.” Today, she has student loans, a car loan, and multiple consumer debts that she is struggling to pay back.
However, Nicole says that she knows what needs to happen for her to break the cycle. She’s been educating herself on personal finances and is considering taking on a fourth job. She’s making sacrifices every day to get herself out of the debt hole and eventually break the paycheck to paycheck cycle.
Danielle lives paycheck to paycheck in Denver, a city with a relatively high cost of living — but she’s “okay with the sacrifices.” Danielle has her dream job in the backcountry, teaching and guiding as an outdoor adventurer and running her blog, The Wilderness Whispered. Since her job is untraditional, Danielle sometimes only gets one check per month.
Danielle says, “I live a very simple life but there are times where the money only covers monthly expenses like rent and utilities. In those instances sometimes I have to use credit cards to pay for other things, like food.” Her journey is the perfect example of how paycheck to paycheck living tends to result in heavy debts. Plus, Danielle shared with us that Denver is an “owner’s city,” meaning that rent is very high and landlords are not restricted from charging astronomical rent and can nickel-and-dime residents for “extras.”
Michael works for companies like Disney and Netflix as a workplace services professional and has lived paycheck to paycheck for most of his life. He started his career in Las Vegas, but found that even though the cost of living was fairly low, he wasn’t getting paid enough. Michael followed the money to Toluca Lake, CA, thinking the higher salary was what he needed — but the high cost of living in California made it hard to keep up.
To stay afloat, Michael finds himself regularly adding to his credit card debt, taking out payday loans, and taking on a few side gigs — which are as simple as running errands for friends or as complex as part-time/contract entertainment gigs.
One person we spoke to (who preferred to remain anonymous) is a client of “Dress for Success,” a great company that provides women with a support network and professional clothing to help them succeed in their careers. She is an admissions representative at Alder University and has also taken on side gigs such as coordinating poker events and working for Instacart.
Living in Chicago, cost of living plays a major part in her paycheck to paycheck lifestyle. She shared that she has always lived paycheck to paycheck — and often a check behind. She spent an entire year living on credit cards and unemployment.
This woman is also a single mother, making it incredibly difficult to break the paycheck to paycheck cycle. She told us, “No matter how organized I try to be, it seems like something always comes up unexpectedly.” One thing she learned is to avoid setting bills to auto-pay (to prevent accidentally overdrafting, which results in high fees).
Faith is the Executive Producer of “Real People, Real Voices,” a consultant, and the author of “Schmingling — The Art of Being Well-Connected Through Blatant Self-Promotion.” Yet with all of those titles and all of that experience, Faith finds herself among the 78% of working Americans living paycheck to paycheck. She has taken on a sales role to survive — and in doing so has missed out on “many valuable opportunities that [she] couldn’t take advantage of because [she] needed to keep food on the table for [her] family.”
Plus, Faith pointed out that she “missed out on invitations to attend conferences, courses, and events that would have helped [her] to advance [her] media career” because she needed to keep working in sales.
None of this is for lack of trying, as you can see by her resume. Faith has even sought the advice of Suze Orman, a personal finance expert who recommends saving 6–8 months of your salary for emergencies, but Faith says, “She didn’t realize that every month is an emergency.”
Peter is a music teacher who made money on the side as a musician, but still found himself living paycheck to paycheck. Today, he also runs a pet care blog. He made some great points about financial literacy, saying, “My life has always been a total disaster financially. I didn’t learn much about money from my parents. They were not rich and tried to save, but with little success.”
Kids often do not learn financial literacy or budgeting skills in the American school system, so it’s up to parents to teach those life skills — but many parents are struggling themselves, especially due to the costs associated with childcare, and kids start to learn bad habits.
Peter’s advice to people living paycheck to paycheck is to “write everything down first — revenue and expenditure. Then you need to think through how you can increase your income (if you can increase it at all). After that, you need to write down what is the amount you will definitely spend in a month (bills, food, etc.). If you subtract this from your income, in some cases there will be some amount left…put it aside, put it in another account…the point is not to spend it.”
Before Emily got divorced, she was supporting her husband and two kids on a factory wage. Emily said, “It didn’t matter how much overtime I worked, there was still not enough money to cover everything.” She pointed out that “living paycheck to paycheck is one of the most stressful things that you can do in life,” and that “Not being able to pay your bills on time and having to pay late fees and the fear of not having enough money week to week is awful. At one point our electricity got turned off and we had to borrow money to get it turned back on.”
Emily’s story is a perfect example of why many families resort to payday loans just to afford utilities, and end up falling further into a debt trap.
Mary went through two separate (two-year) layoffs as a single mom. She worked several, separate, short-term jobs in-between, but it was never quite enough to make ends meet. One thing she found useful during those times was bartering for services. Mary found herself babysitting her hairdresser’s son so that she could get her hair done before a big interview, driving a friend’s elderly mother to doctor’s appointments so that they would cover her utilities, and even writing an article to bring her doctor publicity so that he would examine her knee.
Regardless, Mary has a positive outlook on her experiences, saying, “While I thought for sure my then nine-year-old daughter would be scarred for life from these adverse circumstances, they helped her become the incredible military wife and mom of two that she is today. Among the many lessons she learned were the difference between “needs” versus “wants,” the importance of creating and sticking to a budget, and that her self-esteem is not to be based on where she lives or what kind of car she drives.”
Shelley, who now owns the website “Beyond Pennies,” was a struggling single mom and accountant living paycheck to paycheck for many years. She was paid $13 an hour, which was only enough to cover the necessities — if anything else came up, she found her debit card declining at the grocery store. Even bonuses weren’t helpful. Shelley shared with us, “Every February, my company would pay our bonuses. Back then, that meant maybe $1,000. Inevitably, my car would break down that month and every penny would go to repairs.”
While she certainly doesn’t miss it, Shelley is grateful today for the lesson she learned while living paycheck to paycheck. Today, she says, “I always keep my housing expenses well under what I would qualify for. I don’t buy expensive cars. I never accept being underpaid for more than a year. After a year, it’s time to take my resume and move on.”
Shaquille lived paycheck to paycheck as a transparency researcher while also working nights at a call center, moving furniture, and selling what he could online. He fit everything he could into his old truck to save on rent but still is deep in debt from student loans and unable to catch up with his current income levels.
Shaquille’s case is a perfect example of how you can live a very simple life and keep your expenses down to a bare minimum, but still live paycheck to paycheck in America.
Before shifting to full-time consulting, Austin worked in merchandising from two to 10 AM while attending school full-time. He would get four hours of sleep every night but still make barely enough to cover necessities.
Austin says, “Living paycheck to paycheck means you always have an overarching worry about anything that could possibly go wrong. The lack of financial security is something that I’ve seen affect my family’s mental health as well as my own. Ultimately, it’s like you can’t afford to NOT worry about anything and everything. I would make about $1500 a month working 35+ hours a week. If any little thing were to happen, such as a broken-down car, medical expense, etc. I wouldn’t be able to cover it.”
Brett is a great example of the fact that you don’t have to be earning minimum wage to live paycheck to paycheck. Brett earned 80k per year without many expenses and had great benefits and flexibility — but he wasn’t careful with his spending and he did not save. Brett says, “it would cause me to take out payday loans, which became unpayable. I couldn’t pay them back because I would take out sometimes 3–4 at a time. Typically those loans required me to pay back $1200 at a time…”
Like many others, Brett learned from his experiences. Today he runs his own company, Instinct Marketing, and says “this terrible experience has made me a better business person…” and that “nothing is impossible, you just have to believe in yourself and trust your instincts!”
A disproportionate number of military families are stuck in the paycheck to paycheck cycle as well. Carol and her husband were both Sergeants in the Air Force before they got married. They started out with zero debt while living in military dorms, but ended up with $3,000 in debt after just a few short weeks of living on their own. Carol says, “We had each other and food to eat. Raised by a mother who survived the Great Depression, I knew how to use my imagination to repurpose items and make ends meet.”
John has an interesting perspective as a college professor who was able to break the paycheck to paycheck cycle after years of struggling. In the ’80s, he worked for an oilfield service company and his wife was a teacher — but his income was declining along with the oil industry. “Each little unexpected emergency, such as a car repair, a trip to the dentist, or a doctor’s visit went on credit cards, until they were near their limits.” John’s story proves that credit cards weren’t very helpful. He says, “The credit card companies would always increase our limits, our payments would go up, and next month would be harder.”
However, John knows that they did what they could, saying, “We did not create our situation with bad decisions, but we also hadn’t planned ahead for hard times. There was always an expectation that we would make more money next year than this year, and it didn’t happen. This was an almost impossible cycle to break. Given that we barely had enough money each month to make ends meet, it seemed impossible that we would ever pay off our debts and get our monthly spending in-line with our income, much less be able to put any money into savings.”
Like many others, John also discovered the unfortunate truth behind lending, saying, “I’m not blaming lenders for our situation, but as long as we kept making monthly payments on time, they were willing to lend us more.”
However, John also admits that he and his wife were guilty of spending more than they had in an effort to reduce their stress and enjoy their lives. John said, “It was difficult to enjoy anything, because we knew we really couldn’t afford it. Being miserable just motivated us to spend on other little luxuries in an effort to make things less miserable, which made things worse.” They weren’t able to break the cycle and get to a comfortable place until they truly stuck to their monthly budget and were able to start paying down their debts.
Breaking the paycheck to paycheck cycle is different for everyone. Some people are living paycheck to paycheck because they have poor spending habits and need help learning how to budget. Others are living paycheck to paycheck because their cost-of-living is too high and they need higher wages. Others can’t break the paycheck to paycheck cycle until their debts are paid off.
Regardless of how they got there, our mission is to put an end to the predatory financial products that put many of our customers in stressful financial situations.
Our solution may not be a permanent solution to the paycheck to paycheck crisis, but it can certainly help some people along their path to getting out.
Here are a few other ways to help you along your path to breaking the cycle.
One person we spoke to, William Taylor, Career Development Manager at VelvetJobs, suggested that people living paycheck to paycheck should find side hustles. William lives in L.A., which has an average monthly expense of $2,899 — and that’s at a minimum for one person. William said, “I have started to live paycheck to paycheck ever since I became a dad because every new kid brings with him added financial responsibility.”
To make ends meet, William has a few side hustles. He is a freelance consultant, he sells online services, and he rents out extra space in his home. William also shared a story with us about a friend who cleans offices every day after work. It doesn’t pay super well, but it only takes a few hours every day and he walks home with an extra $20 in his pocket.
A “side hustle” can be almost anything. You can make an extra $50-$100 or more per week by babysitting, dog walking, cleaning houses, mowing lawns, etc.
Caroline Vencil says that living paycheck to paycheck was “feast and famine: going from ‘we’re rich!’ to ‘we have $.30 to make it five more days til pay day.” Caroline agreed that “getting paid every week” would help to break the cycle, but that is not the reality for everyone. She told us that another practice that helped her and her husband break the cycle was hiding money from themselves by putting it in a savings account.
Many bank accounts will allow you to automatically transfer a certain amount of your paycheck into a savings account. Your company may also allow you to direct deposit a portion of your check into a savings account. Of course, you’ll need to be careful not to overdraft on your checking account when you automate your savings — but Caroline and her family are proof that even putting $5 away from every paycheck can make a huge difference.
As many of the people we interviewed mentioned, budgeting is one of the most effective ways to escape the paycheck to paycheck cycle. Budgeting will likely mean cutting out some of the things you love. As our interviewee John mentioned, the miserable feelings that come with financial stress often make you want to indulge even more. It’s when you’re most stressed and scared that you’re likely to want to pay for a vacation or treat yourself to a steak dinner — but if you stick to a strict budget, you may find yourself able to afford a vacation soon enough!
Monthly budgeting is a great place to start, but weekly budgeting can push you even more to stay on track. It may be hard to measure your bills on a weekly basis, but you can certainly manage your grocery budget and other expenses week-by-week.
It’s very easy when living paycheck to paycheck to resort to credit cards and payday loans, but those predatory financial products will push you further down the hole. Remember John, the associate professor, from earlier? He and his wife had to keep taking out more debts to be able to afford their lifestyle.
John told us, “Breaking the cycle was a long, slow process. We stopped spending, which was really hard, and started paying off debts. With each debt paid off, we had a little more money to pay on debts the next month. I renegotiated interest rates with our credit card companies, which also helped. It took over two years for us to get to the point that we had enough money each month, and another year before we could pay for a short vacation with cash from savings.”
As long as you can make it to your next paycheck without having to sacrifice basic needs, don’t take out another payday loan or put items on your credit card. It won’t be easy by any means. You’ll have to sacrifice things like your Netflix subscription or buying that extra pint of ice cream, but you’ll be thankful later when your debt starts dwindling down.
If your employer doesn’t currently offer Rain, it may be time to convince them.
Rain is a healthier alternative to payday loans. Most people are paid every two weeks — but two weeks is a long time to make one paycheck last! With Rain, you can log into your “Rain Instant Pay” app and get paid almost any day.
For example, if you have a large bill due a few days before your next paycheck comes in, don’t let your account overdraft and don’t miss the due date. Instead, you could use your pay on demand Rain app to withdraw some of the money from your job that you have already earned but haven’t received. Rain charges a small withdrawal fee that is sort of like an ATM fee. It’s much cheaper than payday loan interest and cheaper than many overdraft fees and late bill fees.