Following a Financial Plan While Living Paycheck to Paycheck


Financial planning is full of shoulds, musts, and need tos. Everybody from your neighbor to your best friend will tell you what you should have done, what you must do and what you need to accomplish in your financial plan. But a very important – and largely ignored – part of personal finance is the personal part. Even the most “fail proof plan” might be shaken apart when faced with the unpredictability of life and your personal experiences.

Astronomical medical bills, unexpected costs associated with tragedy or emergency, sudden unemployment – these are real, and common problems.

The truth is – hearing about what you should be doing with your finances or what you must accomplish can sound completely useless when you’ve been hit with financial hardship. The idea of an emergency fund seems laughable because you feel as if you’re living in an emergency on a daily basis. Retirement is the last thought on your mind because you can’t meet basic needs in the present moment.

Faced with a financial task list when you feel as if you’re barely scraping by, what other response is there other than just your hands up as you throw the towel in?

There’s no simple or easy answer. Feeling like you have only limited options can feel paralyzing and hopeless. But at the risk of sounding like a pep talk at a football game – persistence is key.  When you’re feeling the pressure of defeat, you keep your head up and you fight for that financial plan. And one way to do it is to seek out options and put them into action.

Yes, there are shoulds, musts, and need tos that can seem inapplicable to your financial circumstances. But the value of financial tips lies in the fact that they are sharing actions and strategies that encourage action.

Doing something – however big or small that something is – is powerful when taking charge of your financial plan. Because even when you feel immobilized by debt or expenses, you still have the power to plan and to act on that plan.

So how can you stand up and fight for your financial security when you feel dragged down by your circumstances? Here are some basics to start you out:

Look At Your Numbers

Part of putting together your financial plan is putting your money into perspective. That requires knowing what’s realistic, what’s unrealistic, and what reasonable sacrifices or concessions you might be able to make in order to achieve your goals.

Numbers don’t define you, but they do clarify your financial circumstances. Open your statements and punch in the numbers to see where you stand. However scary or intimidating they might seem, understanding your numbers (the negative and the positive) ensures that you’re an active participant in what’s happening with those numbers. Using tools can be a great way to feel more in control of this process. (ReadyForZero can help you get a clear picture of your debt, and our budgeting spreadsheet can help you track monthly expenses)

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Set Just One Small Goal To Begin With

Yes. Just one. A small one at that. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck you might think that automatically pins it to “stop living paycheck to paycheck.” Simple enough, right? In reality, overarching goals are difficult to stick to because they have no boundaries or specific steps to guide you. One of the most important things to do as you hash out a financial plan is to give equal importance to the small and immediate changes. If it means saving 5 dollars at the grocery store, or selling the guitar you never use, these small steps can have big long-term impacts. These actions put momentum behind the larger goals.

As you continue to develop your plan, then you might try to re-prioritize your goals and plan more detailed timelines of how to achieve them. But if you’re going to start somewhere, make it a place where you can realistically achieve and actually see the results.

Seal All Financial Leaks

Go over your expenses regularly to see if you’ve missed an opportunity to save – even when you feel like you’ve cut out all unnecessary spending. Unsubscribe from monthly subscriptions, look at every extra expenditure in your spending and put it to a halt immediately. Cancel cable, downgrade your phone, halt membership. If you feel stuck in the cycle of paycheck to paycheck spending, then choices have to be made with your spending. They don’t have to be permanent switches, but they contribute to your ability to save enough to break the paycheck to paycheck cycle.

Look For Opportunities To Add To Your Income

There are two parts to the basic financial equation: your spending and your earnings. If you’ve budgeted to the max and you can’t see anywhere else to cut spending, then you might want to take a look at the earnings part next. Seek out opportunities for extra income. Freelance, surveys, helping out with gigs. Not all jobs need to take up your weekend or nights but boosting your earnings is one way to add cushion to your bank account.

Ask Questions

Debt or financial turmoil can feel abstract. Unfortunately, poor financial health can result in very real consequences on your life. Even when ignored, finances have a very real impact. If your financial situation feels too intimidating to face, see where you can give it some structure. Ground your finances in reality by sharing with others and asking questions to help set a financial groundwork.

There are millions (yes millions) of people experiencing similar financial pains. It’s been said before but it also bears repeating – you are not alone. Even if it’s simply to get your worry off your chest – talk, ask questions and don’t keep your concerns to yourself. Anytime you seek answers, you’re taking the kind of action that will help you gain that financial security.

Having a financial plan requires serious discipline. But it’s also made up of choices. Like choices on how you set boundaries or how you organize your decisions to move towards your financial goal. And the choices you make now can really help to stabilize your financial future. That one where your paycheck doesn’t just money to pay bills – it represents livelihood and security. Small changes are what will make up your long term action plan.

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  • debtfreeoneday

    Love this post Claire. I think it’s really important to keep on checking your financial plan or budget because bills can creep up when you least expect it or you might just be able to save somewhere that you haven’t thought of before.

    I also agree that setting small goals is great for momentum and also gives us a sense of achievement and feeling that we’re finally getting somewhere!

  • Claire Murdough

    So glad you liked it!

    I remember my very first goal when I first started saving was to keep any change I found in my pockets or couch cushion. Definitely not a lot, but it started a saving trend in my daily routine!

    Thanks for the comment and also congratulations on all the amazing progress you’ve been making lately with your savings and payoff!!

  • People living check to check are the ones whose finances suffer the most when problems arise: unexpected bills, lost income, or both.

    We sell lots of short term disability insurance to this segment by asking one simple question – how long can you pay your bills without your income? Adding an extra insurance payment is a tough thing to do, but sometimes needed.

    • Yes, this is where people can have a really tough time and fall into debt – if an unexpected emergency comes up and there is no savings to cover it, then there are few other options. Thanks for the comment, Kevin.