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No matter what your salary, saving money and sticking to a household budget can be difficult. You may make a lot of money but have huge debts, or you may make a modest salary and live paycheck to paycheck.
You may think you’re alone in your situation, but it is possible to stick to a budget—no matter what your income level. Here are real-life examples of how three people make their budgets work.
Living paycheck to paycheck
Aly, 26, is a journalist. She’s single and makes $37,000 per year. To save money, Aly lives with a roommate and tries to find freelance jobs to supplement her income.
Aly struggles to pay off the debt she incurred during college; her student loans add up to about $30,000. She doesn’t know how long it will take her to pay off her loan, but says she’s “just looking forward to the day that it’s my only debt.”
Her other debt includes roughly $10,000 in high-interest credit card balances and medical bills. Three years ago, when she graduated from college and landed her first job, she had about $15,000 in debt—so, she says, she feels like she’s on her way.
“In the past year, I’ve been able to pay off two credit cards and finally feel like I’m above water and making headway,” Aly says.
What she saves: Because she pays off large amounts of her high-interest debt each month, Aly isn’t able to save very much. However, she has been putting about $300 in savings each of the past few months to build her “just-in-case” fund. She also contributes 3 percent to her company’s 401(k) plan.
Her financial goals: Aly would like to have a solid savings account as a safety net. In the long term, she’d also like to pay off her credit cards—she still has four cards with significant balances—and her medical bills, as well as another small loan from her parents. Once she pays those off, she’d like to tackle her student loans, which are currently in deferment for another year.
“I haven’t really thought this far ahead [because] it can get overwhelming…but I hope to have everything but my student loans paid off in three years,” she says. “I’ll be 29, and I don’t want to carry a ton of debt into my 30s.”
Her budget plan: Aly operates on something known as a zero-sum budget. She takes her total income for the pay period and parcels out all of the money according to her bills and other expenses for that period—meaning, in the end, she has zero dollars left to allocate. Then, she adjusts part of the budget down to compensate for her need for more money elsewhere. (For example: If she wants to have a party this month, she has to pay for it using the money she had planned to spend on going to the movies.)
How she sticks to it: Evernote, a program that syncs to Aly’s phone, helps her stick to her budget. She updates her information in the program regularly and checks it before she goes to any last-minute events or spends any unexpected money.
“I used to have a terrible time sticking to my budget,” Aly says, “but I’ve been in tough spots before and now I try to remember how much anxiety that causes before making impulse purchases.”
Is it working? Yes. Aly is quickly paying off her biggest credit card bills while still living comfortably.
Single and saving
Jeff, 31, is a graphic designer. He’s single and makes $62,000 per year.
He has almost no debt, with the exception of very manageable payments for a car he purchased last year. That loan, for about $10,000, is his largest monthly expense aside from his rent.
“I have some debt,” he says, referring to the car loan, “but it doesn’t hinder my goals.”
What he saves: Jeff is able to allocate a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $1,000 to a savings account each month. He also contributes 6 percent of his income to a 401(k) plan, and his company matches 3 percent of that contribution. In addition, Jeff makes twice-yearly contributions of a few thousand dollars to a Roth IRA account, usually when he comes up with extra money (such as a tax return).
His financial goals: Because he’s in such good financial shape, Jeff would like to start saving even more to ensure he has a safety net in the event of a layoff at his company.
His budget plan: Jeff follows a reasonable budget, but his expenses aren’t set in stone.
“I know what my basic expenses are each month: rent, cable, phone, utilities, car payment, savings,” he says. “Whatever is left is what I have to work with each month.”
Jeff pays for everything with a credit card so all his purchases earn points, and then he pays the credit card off at the end of each month.
How he sticks to it: Jeff admits to not being very strict with his budget. His solid financial standing allows him to make impulse purchases, and paying with the credit card makes it easy to track his monthly spending.
“I’ll check online during the month. If I feel like I’m spending too much, or if I go over my estimate, I try to cut back the next month,” he explains.
Is it working? For the most part, Jeff finds that he eats out too much and spends a lot on his hobby, home brewing. “I try to start looking for patterns and find a place to cut back.”
A solid income, but lots of expenses
Dan, 30, is a manager at a major marketing firm. He’s married, with a combined household income of about $140,000.
Unfortunately, Dan and his wife are in a bit of a bind financially due to major medical bills. Their income is very comfortable, but they spend much of their money each month trying to pay down about $25,000 in debt. That debt includes some credit card balances and medical bills, as well as one small personal loan.
What he saves: Dan saves only the $75 each month that his bank requires to keep his checking account free. This allows for very little accumulation, so Dan has virtually nothing in savings. He and his wife each contribute to their company 401(k) programs, but the couple otherwise has very little money saved.
His financial goals: Dan hopes to pay off his credit card and medical debt before starting a solid savings plan. He’d like to be able to buy a house someday, but he knows this won’t happen unless he builds up savings and keeps his credit score high.
His budget plan: Dan and his wife work together every pay cycle to allocate money to immediately necessary bills. They use an online Google calendar to keep track of when these bills are due, and they map out which paycheck they’ll use to pay those bills. They then set aside grocery money and take out cash for spending money.
Any money left after that is put toward outstanding debt, with the exception of a few hundred dollars, which is kept in a checking account in case of unforeseen costs.
How he sticks to it: Having cash in hand keeps Dan and his wife on track and ensures that most of their disposable income goes to paying off their considerable debts.
“When the money is in my hands, I can see how much I’m actually running through,” Dan says. “It’s harder to think about the impact of my spending when I’m using digital money from a card.”
Ilyce Glink is the author of over a dozen books, including the bestselling 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In! Her nationally syndicated column, “Real Estate Matters,” appears in newspapers from coast-to-coast, and her Expert Real Estate Tips YouTube channel has nearly 4 million views. She is the managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog, publisher of ThinkGlink.com, and owner of digital communications agency Think Glink Media. In addition to her WSB radio show and WGN radio contributions, she is also a frequent guest on National Public Radio. Ilyce is a frequent contributor to Yahoo and CBS News.
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