Living paycheck to paycheck – breaking the vicious cycle

I was struck by the attitudes of many people quoted in a recent article about the difficulties of living paycheck to paycheck.

National data on the paycheck-to-paycheck experience is flimsy, but a recent report from the Federal Reserve spotlights the prevalence of extra-tight budgets: Four in 10 adults say they couldn’t produce $400 in an emergency without sliding into debt or selling something, according to the 2017 figures.

. . .

“It’s astronomical what people need just to make it month to month,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist at the Department of Labor who now studies how middle-class families spend their wages at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that is funded by foundations and unions. “Given the high cost of transportation, housing, health care. … There is often no wriggle room.”

. . .

… workers across a variety of professions struggle to make ends meet.

Sol Smith, chair of liberal arts at a Southern California college, said he landed his job after earning three degrees. But with four daughters and mounting health-care costs, he said, saving just isn’t possible.

“I see no way out,” he wrote in an email to the Post. “I am 40, have built a strong career, have 17 years experience, and if something were to happen to me, my wife and kids would be homeless within a year when my life insurance ran out.”

Lani Harrison, 43, said she and her software engineer husband have trouble buying groceries after paying the $2,249 rent on their two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment. They’re raising three young kids and rely on her husband’s income, she said. Her work as a certified car seat installer earns her $40 per appointment, but the work isn’t steady.

“Each month, we have to stretch his paycheck to make things work,” she said. “We really don’t have any savings. Many months we go under.”

. . .

Dillon Holt, a housekeeping assistant at a Nashville hotel, said he’s down to one piece of chicken in his freezer. His checking account often hovers around zero, and he is unable to put away any money for the future or an emergency.

“I make $12.50, work 40-50 hours a week,” he said. “I still don’t have a savings account.”

Emily Webb, 38, said she works full time as an arts administrator in Columbus, Ohio, and waits tables on the side. Staying afloat each month, she said, is a precarious dance.

“It’s a scramble at the end of a paycheck to deposit my tips and make sure none of my automatic payments bounce,” said Webb, who has a master’s degree but cannot make her student loan payments.

She’s grateful to work in her field, though, and loves her job.

There’s more at the link.

Let’s address a few of those comments.

  • “with four daughters and mounting health-care costs, he said, saving just isn’t possible”.  You know up front that kids are going to cost you.  According to the US government:

    … a family will spend approximately $12,980 annually per child in a middle-income ($59,200-$107,400), two-child, married-couple family. Middle-income, married-couple parents of a child born in 2015 may expect to spend $233,610 ($284,570 if projected inflation costs are factored in*) for food, shelter, and other necessities to raise a child through age 17. This does not include the cost of a college education.

    Where does the money go? For a middle-income family, housing accounts for the largest share at 29% of total child-rearing costs. Food is second at 18%, and child care/education (for those with the expense) is third at 16%. Expenses vary depending on the age of the child.

    If you knew that up front (as any thinking person should have), and you nonetheless made the decision to raise four kids, you knew what you were letting yourself in for. Why complain?  What’s more, health care is by no means the largest expense (unless your children are unfortunate enough to suffer serious illness or injury beyond the norm).  What’s the rest of your household budget?

  • “… the $2,249 rent on their two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment. They’re raising three young kids…”  If you choose to live in a city that costs you that much in rent, and choose to raise three young children, and choose to rely on a single income for most of your living expenses, then why are you surprised that you have to live paycheck-to-paycheck?  Perhaps you should have thought about the costs before making those decisions?
  • “”I make $12.50, work 40-50 hours a week”That’s your choice.  You’re a single man, you sound young, and if you’re a housekeeping assistant, you’re probably reasonably fit and strong.  Why not move to where much higher-paying jobs can be found, in return for much harder work?  A couple of years in the oil patch in Texas or North Dakota (to name but one example) will allow you to sock away literally tens of thousands of dollars in savings, if you don’t “waste your substance with riotous living“.  With that, you can study for a better qualification, or start your own business, or . . . it’s up to you.
  • “… she works full time as an arts administrator in Columbus, Ohio, and waits tables on the side. Staying afloat each month, she said, is a precarious dance … She’s grateful to work in her field, though, and loves her job.”  I’m glad you love your job . . . but again, that’s your choice.  What does an arts administrator earn?  Clearly, not much.  Waiting tables?  That can earn a lot, or a little, depending on what sort of restaurant you work at, its clientele, and so on.  Could you find better-paying work in a field that you might not love so much?  There have been times when I’ve had to work in areas that didn’t interest me at all:  but putting food on the table certainly did interest me, so I accepted the work without demur.  That’s life.  It isn’t always what we want.

There are also the myriad expenses we take for granted today that are actually not necessary at all.  Unless your job requires some of them, why not cut out a lot of those costs, and save money?  Examples:

  • Do you really need the latest-generation smartphone?  Do you need a cellphone account with unlimited data?  If that’s your only means of accessing the Internet, perhaps;  but for most of us, there are alternatives.  Miss D. and I make do with low-cost smartphones, several generations out of date.  They do all we need, and we’ve saved thousands by not keeping up with the latest and greatest technology.
  • What about cable TV?  Do you really need TV at all?  If you have kids to distract sometimes, sure, that makes a difference;  but even there, a low-end package can save you hundreds of dollars over a year compared to the high-end offerings.  Miss D. and I do without a TV service at all, relying on our computers to screen anything we want to watch.  At our previous home, we had a TV, but used a digital aerial to pick up broadcast stations at no cost, rather than subscribe to cable.  We saved a bundle.
  • Eating out . . . wow, what a money drain that is!  It’s easy to run up a tab of several hundred dollars every month on eating out with friends, or fast food for lunch, or buying take-out meals for the family.  I have no problem with treating ourselves now and again, but all the time?  I know people who eat out five or six times every week, and buy take-out two or three more times, and regard that as normal.  Just add up the costs.  They’ll blow your mind.  What’s more important to us:  eating out often, or paying off our home?  Puts a different spin on the priorities, doesn’t it?  We can cook, and we can entertain ourselves and our friends at home.  That’s a lot cheaper.
  • Travel.  Is your journey really necessary?  In 2018, the IRS allowed a deduction of 54½ cents per mile for business travel.  That squares well with the AAA’s estimate of actual vehicle running costs.  If you drive an old banger that’s paid off, sure, it’ll cost you less;  but not many people do, so let’s stay with the accepted figures.  If you know that every two miles you drive is going to cost you more than one dollar, it should make you think hard about cutting down the number of miles you drive.  Combine journeys, share trips and chores, don’t use your vehicle unnecessarily.  How much will you save?  That’s up to you, but if you drive just 200 miles less per month, that’s over $100 you’ve saved.  Food for thought.
  • Clothes.  Do you really have to shop at boutiques and name-brand stores?  I shop at Walmart, or online at Amazon or Aramark or places like that.  I’ve bought from Goodwill and other thrift stores on occasion – nice clothes, too, for all the “stigma” of being pre-owned.  I’m not a miser, but I try to use my dollars and cents wisely.  I reckon I save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars every year compared to what many of my peers are spending.
  • Buy thrifty.  Look at your local Craigslist for goods for sale, check out flea markets and yard sales, use online auction sites . . . the options are almost endless.  I used to teach disabled and handicapped students to shoot, and helped them look for bargains in defensive handguns (since disability income is nothing to write home about).  I reckon they spent, on average, less than half what a new gun would have cost them, and still ended up with perfectly serviceable firearms that were very well suited to their needs.  All it took was careful shopping and being on the lookout for bargains.  Do the same for domestic appliances, sporting goods, and all sorts of things.  You’ll be surprised how much you can save.

I read the horror stories of those living paycheck-to-paycheck, and I wonder . . . how many of them have ever bothered to take the time to re-evaluate their life choices, reassess their prospects, and make a firm decision to change?  If we don’t break out of the trap, it’s going to keep its grip on us.  It’s up to us, and no-one else, to do something about it.  If we truly are trapped by previous poor decisions, or by things that have happened to us (and I accept there are such things, such as health crises, the death of a loved one, accidents, etc.), then we shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed to turn to others – family, faith groups, or other support networks – to ask for help to break free;  but we should then use that help to actually break free, not merely continue as we have before.  Use Dave Ramsey or other financial “coaches” to learn to budget and manage your money, and then apply those lessons.

What say you, readers?  What have been your experiences and “lessons learned” in this area?  Please share them with us in Comments.



  1. Car seat installer? If you live someplace where you can get paid to install car seats, you live where you can get paid a good deal more for things more challenging. Someone doesn't have enough determination or imagination.

    Your point about used items is well made. My wife and I became far better off when we realized that a 10 year old car, given reasonable care, would take us anywhere we need to go for a long time. So it was with appliances.
    Most people don't understand the difference between inexpensive and cheap.

  2. I don't know about other places, but where I live, Goodwill charges as much or more than Walmart for just about everything. I'm only staying where I am until my kids finish school, then we're moving somewhere more affordable.

  3. Living within my means is something I had to learn hard and late in life. Now, living within my means doesn't mean a diet of gruel and beans or ignoring entertainment. I learned early in life how to shop for groceries and other items. We have a full pantry, a nicely stocked freezer and fridge.
    Eating out is a treat. Going out with friends is a rare occurence and only for special occasions these days. Major expenditures (i.e. over $100) are discussed and figured out how to put it off or do without. If something is needed then shopping and comparison pricing is done for weeks before we jump.
    Currently I have savings being built up and try to focus on them when I can afford to. It takes commitment and desire to ensure that there's something there if things are needed.
    The best way of doing it is "Do we really need X right now?" People need to understand how to put off immediate desires to reap better gains.

  4. A young woman, when I first started working gave me the best quote ever. It is amazing in it's simplicity. "You have to know the difference between, a want and a need."

    I don't live paycheck to paycheck. Yes I buy "wants". But when I buy wants, its with a whole lot of research, and reflection.

  5. The wife and I are living on my unemployment (240.00 a week) and the wife's social security (960.00 a month) Vehicle is a 1997. Motorcycle is a 1997
    Double wide out in the desert. Both in out 60's so the "red hot" job market doesnt really exist for us. It's just us and the two german shepherds and that's good enough for me. I had my fun back in the day.

  6. @Baronger — That's the problem now — everyone seems to think that their wants *are* needs, and then spend all their money accordingly.

  7. My wife and I are still in the middle of a long-term digging out of debt that resulted from a combination of poor financial decisions, job losses/changes plus a few unavoidable expenses, but here are a few things we learned along the journey so far.

    1. Be willing to make big changes for better opportunities. Best financial decision we made was a few years ago when I gave up on game development (after 14 years in the industry) and took a job in the IT department of a South Dakota bank. This allowed us to cut a 2 hour commute down to 10 minutes, and trade Western Washington prices for South Dakota prices. Everything is cheaper here, at least compared to living in the Microsoft/Amazon/Starbucks/Boeing vortex of the Puget Sound.
    2. Diversify income: Still very much a work in progress for me, as professional writer/streamer has yet to break even, but at least got really close in 2018. Having a few revenue side channels that can be spun up in event of a primary job loss is a useful thing to cultivate.
    3. Shop cheap. My wife is a genius at stretching our food budget thanks to shopping at Aldi and Walmart. With 5 kids in the house, that’s vital.
    4. Be realistic about the future. I want to set my kids up for the best success that I can, but I doubt I’ll be able to pay for college for any of them. And I tell them that, and encourage them to be ready to consider the military, scholarships, or trade school depending on what their interests are.
    5. Roll with the punches. We wanted to pay off a big credit card bill last year. Right when we were going to do that, our ten-year-old van needed $2k worth of work to keep going. Stuff happens sometimes, but $2k a year for forward maintenance is far cheaper than replacement cost for a low mileage, reliable, seven person people hauler. Sometimes stuff happens, and I’m grateful that we at least had the available funds to pay this bill without adding on more debt.

    We are still basically living paycheck to paycheck, unfortunately, despite all that. I see the way out though, it’s just a matter of keeping my nose to the grindstone every single day.

  8. Back during the difficult times, I paid $200ish for food for a month for 2 people and a service dog. How do I know this? Because $200ish is what I had left over after the bills.

    That's including gas for travel to and from the food store, and buying special needs foods dealing with allergies.

    One trip to Walmart for bulk items like chicken breasts, a chub or two of ground beef, large bag of rice, beans etc. Supplement with eggs and milk and some other items from the better grocery store.

    Sure, some of the meals got boring over and over (fun ingredients tend to be expensive) but we survived, for over a year, while still being able to barely afford the holiday meals (which provided lots of leftovers.)

    A lot of people who complain about money don't cook in large scale and store the excess, don't eat leftovers, don't eat the same thing (except for pizza) all the time.

    I did notice something interesting. All three jobs that were talked about in the article are heavily unionized jobs. The researcher works for union lobbyists. Hmmmm. Maybe if the people weren't paying 5% or more for union dues they'd have a little extra scratch to pay bills with.

    Not to mention me getting all Schadenfreudistic when I hear someone from a predominantly leftist job field complain about day-to-day ordinary medical expenses. You voted for HIM, you pay for HIM…

  9. "Just move" isn't feasible in a lot of cases. I live, if not check to check, pretty damn close. I'd love to leave California, but my wife takes care of her elderly father, and he isn't going to leave the house he built 40 years ago. I'd be glad to work a harder physical job, but I have permanent injuries. On that score, as much as I opposed the ACA, if I didn't live in this state my health insurance could easily cost 10 to 20 times as much as it does now; I receive a subsidy for being poor. I'd rather be able to afford it outright, but I can't, so I accept the taxpayers' enforced largess.

    I am going back to school to enter a field I enjoy and that could allow me some retirement savings, but it won't make me wealthy. My current job has no retirement at all.

    Except for underwear and socks, all of my clothes and shoes are secondhand unless I have no other choice. Most of my furniture is the same. My car is 19 years old. I don't own a TV so I don't have cable. I have internet and a low-cost cell phone plan, with a more than adequate cellphone that would have been cutting edge 5 years ago. My wife bought a "new" used car 2 years ago, since hers was totaled on our honeymoon.

    I don't want all this to seem like a complaint. I'm doing better than many I know, and I'm surrounded by homeless folks (whose numbers are growing). I have health problems, but nothing that can't be managed. I don't have any addictions aside from my daily cup of coffee (which I buy from a local discount store). And yes, I could have made better career choices 20 or 30 years ago, which doesn't help me right now. I'm poor, but I'm not impoverished, which is as much a mental outlook as it is financial.

    It's just not simple.

  10. I agree with all the comments and good suggestions. But they're all "in-ward" focused. I want to look at this from an "out-ward," systemic, strategic perspective.
    1. Gov't, esp the federal gov't, is WAY too big, and has gotten out of it's constitutional lanes, doing many things it shouldn't do. Basic fed responsibilities per the Constitution: protect the country, secure the borders, interact w/ foreign countries, regulate interstate commerce. For everything else, read Article 10 of the Constitution.
    2. In order to "do" all the unconstitutional things in which it's involved, fed taxes have skyrocketed. This is why many families can't (in their minds) afford to live on one income.
    3. Several States have similar issues w/ high taxes. California, Illinois, NJ, NY and Connecticut come to mind.
    4. Our culture is geared toward "more more more," "latest latest latest," keeping up with the Jones. Many parents don't raise their kids in anticipation of the real world – now it's all about self-esteem, everyone gets a trophy, SJW. Combined w/ the lack of teaching about contentment, and everybody has to have everything NOW, even if it means going into debt.
    5. Children aren't taught how to manage $ and possessions (often b/c their parents don't know how to do so). I'm 65, but my folks and schools taught me nothing about $ and possession mgmt. I had to learn it the hard way, and am thankful I learned it early enuf in life so that I'm reasonably comfortable and content now.
    6. The "Great Society" programs of the 60s, along w/ subsequent liberal initiatives to "improve" our society, have resulted in the breakdown of the family, significant portions of our population having children in one-parent families, and the resultant documented dysfunctions as the children age (crime, gangs, drugs, inability to get [or even want] a job, more out of wedlock births, the cycle repeats itself).
    7. I worked 34 years in the federal gov't (30 years active duty military). The #1 purpose of EVERY federal bureaucracy is to preserve itself and, if possible, expand it's areas of influence. And having worked and observed its operations for so long, I can assure you the fed gov't is extremely inefficient, and many fed bureaucracies accomplish their "missions" poorly, if at all. So there are 2 reasons, for example, there shouldn't be a Dept of Education: 1, it's unconstitutional; 2, it has royally screwed up education in this country, again this is documented beyond a reasonable doubt.
    8. We didn't get this way overnight, and won't solve it overnight, if it's even solvable. A key first step is to reign in the fed govt. And a key first step to do that is terms limits for senators/reps, as we have for the president. Now, they're more interested in getting re-elected (which involves spending more $) than doing what's in the country's best interests.
    9. I could on, but I believe these are the biggest problems. I'm not sure they can be solved in the current environment, and I genuinely fear for our country. People think America will be here forever. I'm sure the Romans thought the same thing.
    George O'Neal, USAF (Ret.)

  11. Mr. O'Neal;
    You make good points, but outside of parents teaching personal responsibility to children, in all that entails, I don't see the rest of those problems as solvable. I am not generally negative, but I am your age, and have watched this society change.

    What percent of eligible voters vote in each election? How many of them know who their representatives in Washington are? How many of them know who the mayor in their city is?

    How do you expect to get term limits for Congress? Congress will not vote limits on themselves. The very expectation is insanity. Has any state held a Constitutional Convention on this question, or any other matter you raised? Not to my knowledge.

    Why will term limits change anything? People will go to Congress recognizing that now they have only a limited time to line their pockets and secure that lobbyist job when they are term-limited out.

    Taxes: I live in a no-income tax state. I keep records. To the best of my knowledge, my federal taxes have never been more than 9%. Taxes have never kept me from having a place to live, feeding children, buying shoes, and so on. Is our tax money badly used, and in violation of the Constitution? Certainly; that needs to change. But we need a culture change first.

    I'm not saying it can't be done. It will be a long hard struggle that won't end in yours and my lifetime.

  12. I agree Congressmen will never vote themselves term limits. The Founders anticipated this. Article 5 of the Constitution allows the States to convene a Constitutional Convention – 34/50 States need to pass identical proposals to convene the Convention, then 38/50 need to pass any Amendments proposed during the Convention.

    There is an organization trying to do this. They have representatives in all 50 States attempting to get their State to pass the proposed Constitutional Convention. To date, they have succeeded in getting 12 States to pass identical proposals. Several others have had one house of their State legislatures pass it.

    I recommend you visit their website,

  13. George,
    do you have any idea how many of the prior Amendments have turned out badly for the nation? Bear in mind that there are certain goals that the Left would do nearly anything to reach. Gutting the 2nd is probably near the top of that list, but #1 would be to retire the Constitution. With things as they are, in no way would I be willing to see a Convention convened, as the odds of disaster striking are very high.

  14. Hello, Will –

    Plz tell me specifically how many prior Amendments have turned out badly. I can only think of one, the 18th, repealed by the 21st.

    I see no way 38 States will repeal the 2nd Amendment. Or "retiring" the Constitution.

    W/o a Convention, w/o term limits, balanced budget, restoring fed responsibilities, we are doomed as a country.

  15. I have to sympathize with those people making that little money. It's not always a simple matter of moving or 'getting a better job' assuming that is even available. Perhaps the younger guy if physically able could probably do better for himself; trades do pay better.

    This post kind of goes back to your thoughts on inflation. I had an uncle years ago who retired in the early 70's from a parts counter salesman and wife had worked at a department store in the 60's in a small town. They had a modest 1200ft2 home and car and the basic comforts. You can't really do that anymore.

  16. I tell the younger guys I encounter to work more.
    "It's not that easy."
    "Yes it is."

    I didn't always enjoy waking up at 4am with a hangover because I left the bar at midnight, and then working until 8pm. It still happened a half dozen times a year when I was in my 20's. It stopped when I didn't want to do it anymore. I still worked 90-100 hours a week then, and I still do now.

    So much of life is will.

    Aaron's Point #1 is so simple and so clear, but it is difficult to choose. I miss my first career, too. I miss being home for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries.
    A young man shouldn't be working just 40 hours a week if he's worried about money. Anyone able bodied, really, can work more than they do. We all justify not working more, but it's a choice not to seek out more work, and we must pay for that choice one way or the other.
    My own view is that if we are healthy, at home, and not at work, worried about money, we have no right to bitch about it. Any one of us can be an Uber driver if we want an extra $50 instead of spending 3 hours at the bar or on the couch… or in bed. We make our choices.

  17. My wife has always had serious health issues and became disabled in the 1980's after our children were born. Fortunately she was still able to be a "stay-at-home-mom" despite her health issues. As a result, I had at least two jobs and sometimes three from about 1981-1987; 100+ hour weeks were common. To say that money was tight is an understatement.

    Along the way at one of the jobs I made the "mistake" of telling my then-manager that the way we were doing things was inefficient, and I suggested an improvement. His response was something along the line of "That's a good idea. Go do it!" The "it" in question resulted in my learning to program the then-new microcomputers; Commodores, TRS-80's, and, ultimately, IBM PCs and their clones. This led to creating a new niche position in my company that had not existed previously, leading to a sizable increase in pay.

    Fast-forward 35 years (this started in April 1984); I've changed jobs to look for better pay and working conditions. I've worked my way up to a respectable, if not Trumpian-level salary, and I'm now only a few years away from retirement. My wife's health has deteriorated even more, but the current job's health care covers the majority of that.

    A few things need elaboration because the above narrative does not cover everything:

    1) I thank God. It turns out that I have an aptitude for analysis and problem solving. This is not MY doing – I was born with this ability, and I consider it a gift from God. I had no hand in creating that facility. Also, despite the wife's health issues, my own health has held up so far with nothing more than the normal wear and tear that goes along with my age (not always the case – for years as a child I suffered from a seizure disorder. Again, thanks goes to God as I outgrew it on reaching late puberty/adulthood). Without these two points I fully concede that life would now be far different.
    2) Be curious. Seeing how something was done and envisioning a better way to do it led to new opportunities. When I made my initial suggestion, my career to that point had been in microfilm. With the advent of computerization that career path died out, but it was not possible to know that at the time given the substantial limitations of latter-day computer technology. My suggestion was to automate the process of creating titles for microfiche (you can look that up – just use the library's card catalog).
    3) When you are given a chance, run with it. To this day my only "degree" is my high-school diploma (which I cannot even find). Knowing that my formal education was slim, I took every opportunity to learn more, even if that did not result in an "educational pedigree". I enlisted the help of the minister's son. He was a hobbyist who had dedicated a lot of time to learning those things I needed to know. I paid him to tutor me just to get off the ground. I bought books. I spent hours on my own time digging into programming topics. When appropriate, I took courses at the local community college.
    4) Remember those 100+ hour weeks I mentioned before? They did not stop. Even after a successful career change it took years to dig out of debt on one salary. So I took side jobs. Courier. Pizza delivery guy. Mechanic. As experience permitted, consulting on my off-hours. 40+ years of constant struggle, 35 of which have been spent in the "new" career.

    So – you have a job you love but it doesn't pay the bills? Sorry, but if you can in any way improve your condition but take no action to do so, you'll get little sympathy from me.

  18. Couple of years ago on my blog I did the math about what exactly the difference is between modestly eating lunch out every workday vs brown bagging it every workday, $1300 per year.

    I know there are people who brown bag it every day and still struggle. I also watch people who go out to lunch nearly every day that gripe about living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes even a few little bad habits broken can make all the difference.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *