Three out of five U.S. consumers report living paycheck to paycheck, with no money left at the end of the month to save or invest, according to a June 2022 PYMNTS survey. (And that figure applies to people in all income brackets, even high earners.)
With so many of us just barely paying our bills, you may wonder if living below your means — or spending less money than you make — is even possible. The answer is yes, with a sound budget, determination, and some smart strategies.
Financial experts say the chances of living on less than you make increase if you haven’t yet bought a house or started a family, but don’t stop reading if you’re already in the thick of those responsibilities. Even with those commitments, you can still live below your means, gaining financial freedom with the right mindset and goals.
In this article, you’ll learn how to live beneath your means, including how to:
• Live on less than you make
• Whittle down debt
• Have an emergency fund
• Maintain a healthier lifestyle
• Pump up your income
What Does ‘Living Below Your Means’ Mean?
If you live below your means, you get by on less money than you earn every month. For example: If your household income is, say, $40,000, but you make ends meet by spending $5,000 less than that amount, you’re left with money to save or invest for important goals.
How Much Money Qualifies as Living Below Your Means?
No set amount of money qualifies as living below your means vs. living beyond your means. No matter what your income, living below means is defined as spending less than you earn. If you earn $4,000 every month, but only spend $3,500, then you are living $500 below your means. This makes it possible to build wealth. If you spend $3,900 per month, then you are living $100 below your means.
Benefits of Living Below Your Means
Living beneath your means can be a wise financial move — one that pays off in an array of ways. Here are a dozen good reasons to start living on less than you make so you can enjoy the benefits of financial independence.
1. Being Prepared for Emergencies
If you have wiggle room in your finances, you can put a set amount of money in an emergency fund every month and build a safety cushion. This gives you peace of mind when unexpected expenses arise, such as a flat tire, broken washing machine, or a major dental bill.
Recommended: How Much Money Should be in Your Emergency Fund?
2. Saving for Larger Purchases
Planning a family beach vacation or girls’ weekend away? Will you need a new laptop soon? If you live below your means (for example, driving your trusty old car rather than financing a new model), you will have more breathing room in your budget to save for key expenses. Ordering takeout for your family’s dinner every two weeks vs. every week could add up to $100 or more in monthly savings, which could be better used elsewhere.
3. More Financial Freedom and Confidence
A major benefit of living below your means is gaining financial freedom. When you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, you won’t feel that money stress. You won’t watch your credit card debt continue to climb upwards. You may, however, see your savings grow.
Living beneath your means can help you be a responsible spender and saver. Achieving this financial discipline will give you a feeling of control and confidence, and it can also open the door to more possibilities.
4. Having a Healthier Lifestyle
Living below your means typically gives you the room to be more mindful about both your spending and your lifestyle. When you watch your pennies, you’re more likely to make meals at home, which can be healthier and have more reasonable portion sizes than, say, a stuffed pizza or bucket of fried chicken delivered to your door.
You may also avoid high-priced gas or Ubers and walk or bike more, which is better for you and the planet.
5. Less Stress and Worry About Money
A recent survey found that 73% of Americans said their number-one worry was, not too surprisingly, money. When you are living below your means, you may well eliminate some of this stress. Having some room in your budget means you don’t have to break out your plastic to buy groceries or see your checking account balance head towards negative territory. Phew!
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6. Spending Less Money on Consumerism and Materialism
When you are focused on living beneath your means, you may recognize that constant consumerism is bad for the planet and your pocketbook. More and more of us are embracing the minimalist way of life, bypassing new jeans in favor of thrift-shop pairs. Same goes for cookware, furniture, and books.
Reduce, reuse, recycle is a mantra that’s gaining ground. Too often, our need for new goods is short and they end up in a landfill, where they never die. Buying used can help prevent this while padding out your savings.
7. Having Funds for a Rainy Day…or a Sunny One
Maybe your favorite armchair’s upholstery rips. Wouldn’t it be nice to have funds available to fix it without feeling money anxiety? Or perhaps the kids would love an overnight stay at a lodge with a water park. If you have been living below your means and setting aside some cash, this may be your moment to forge ahead.
That’s where your rainy day fund or splurge savings come in. Neither of these situations are good uses of an emergency fund, but they can be worthwhile expenses drawn upon other cash cushions.
Recommended: Ways to Be a Frugal Traveler
8. Having the Ability to Build Wealth
When you live below your means, you have a surplus of cash that you can invest to build wealth. One smart move: If your employer has a 401(k) program, sign up. Money will be swept from your paycheck (before you even see it) into a retirement investment account. This is an example of paying yourself first and is also one of the best ways to build future wealth.
Another idea: If you get a raise (nice work!), invest it rather than amping up your spending to account for the extra money, which is called lifestyle creep. Also, if you are not living paycheck to paycheck, when you get a windfall (say, a tax refund), you can also invest that, rather than using it to buy necessities.
10. Developing a Stronger Money Mindset
Quick, how do you think about money? With shame, because of debt burdens? Or with pride and contentment, knowing you have cleared the deck and are even socking away some money by living below your means? The more you take control of your finances and improve your money mindset, the better your outlook on life is likely to be.
11. Having Financial Security
When you live below your means, you know you can handle bills without worry and dread over late notices, collection agency phone calls, fees, and service interruptions. Living on a leaner budget also means you can save extra dough for unexpected expenses that pop up. These might include, for example, new clothes for your college roommate’s wedding or fees for a professional class you really want to take.
By living below your means, you are likely taking a giant step or two toward achieving financial security and not feeling on the brink of money trouble.
12. Being Able to Invest Your Money
This is empowering. When you have some extra cash, contact a financial advisor (ask friends and relatives for a referral or see if your bank has one on the team) and consider investing in the stock market, which can be both fun and financially wise.
Historically, the market returns approximately 10% per year, which can boost your long-term savings, such as your retirement fund.
Tips for Living Below Your Means
If you’re convinced of the value of living beneath your means, the next step can be to take action to do so. Here are some strategies to make that happen.
Tracking All of Your Spending
Recording where your money goes is the first step to living below your means. For one month, track every dollar that leaves your wallet, from a tip at the coffee place to a gift for your sister. Not just rent and gas, but also pharmacy co-pays, the juice you got on your way to work, and parking meter charges. Look into a free budgeting app to help you stay on task; many banks provide these for their clients, or there are plenty available online.
Once you know what you spend in a given month (including debt payments), compare this to your take-home income. Re-evaluate what you truly need and what can be eliminated in your quest to live below your means.
Some expenses are fixed, like a monthly mortgage or commuter fare. But others are more variable. Take a close look at grocery bills, streaming services, dining out, and shopping. Consider a town library card vs. buying books; making your own iced tea vs. spending $4 to have the barista pour one; and perhaps give up your gym membership in exchange for free online-taught workouts or jogging in a local park.
Recommended: The 50/30/20 Budget Rule, Demystified
Creating a Financial Plan
Take time to consider your lifestyle and goals; you can do this solo or with a financial planner. Things to consider are your short-, medium-, and long-term aspirations (from funding a wedding to building a robust retirement fund), boosting an emergency savings fund, having an investment portfolio, and possibly an estate plan.
When you trim expenses and live below your means, you can sock money away to achieve all this and more.
Could you consider downsizing? Moving to a smaller space or more affordable city, trading in your gas guzzler for a greener car? These moves can reduce the cost of your monthly needs and deliver the wiggle room in your budget you seek.
You might also consider selling things you no longer want or need, whether that’s gently worn clothing, furniture sitting in your basement, or an iPad you haven’t touched in months. Depending on the item, you might be able to sell it on eBay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark, or thredUP, among others.
Eliminating Unnecessary Expenses
Get serious about axing unnecessary expenses. In addition to ditching a cappuccino-a-day habit, scroll through your monthly credit card statement and cancel any excess services. You may have forgotten how many streaming services you signed up for during the early days of the pandemic, or perhaps you are paying for a fax or postage service you almost never use, or a meal-kit plan that keeps raising its prices. Keep what you cannot part with, and trim the extras to bring your spending in line. It’s a key aspect of living within your means.
Having Multiple Streams of Income
While cutting costs is one way to help live beneath your means, another tactic is to increase your income. More money coming in, minus your current spending, should yield some spare cash. Perhaps you could take in a roommate for a while, or start a part-time gig (whether dog-walking or website design) in your free time. One of the benefits of a side hustle in bringing in extra funds.
Organizing Bills and Monthly Expenses
Above all, when learning to live below your means, stay organized at tracking money in and money out. Use an online finance tool (easy to find from your bank, in the app store, or online). This can help you always know where you stand financially as unexpected expenses and bills pop up.
Improving Your Money Mindset
Take stock of, and pride in, what you do day by day to live below your means. Recognize your progress, no matter how minor. Every dollar you don’t spend is helping you live below your means.
Hopefully, you can bid farewell to money shame (which can lead to overspending and still more money shame), FOMO, and spending regrets. You will be more aware of where your money goes and hopefully on a path to building wealth.
Living below your means, or spending less than you earn, is possible with the right budgeting steps and a healthy money mindset. Following a trimmer budget on your existing income can help you put away funds for important milestones, from a 401k investment plan to a nest egg account for your first house. It can also help you get past living paycheck to paycheck and accumulating credit card debt.
To help you budget better and save more, it can be wise to have the right banking partner. When you open a bank account online with SoFi with direct deposit, you’ll have access to terrific tracking tools, a competitive APY, and no account fees, which can help your money grow faster. What’s more, our Checking and Savings account makes it easy to spend and save in one convenient place.
What is considered living above your means?
Living above your means is defined as spending more money than you earn. Three signs of this pattern: Running out of money and having to use credit cards to get through the month; not having an emergency fund; and not having money in savings.
Why is it important to live below your means?
Living below your means is important for your mind and your finances. Instead of overspending, you’ll be able to set money aside for tangible goals, from a savings cushion to a college fund. When you conserve money rather than blowing it, you can reap the reward of watching it grow, building your wealth, and reducing your financial stress.
Does living below your means deprive you of fun?
Living below your means does not deprive you of fun. You can save for and budget for splurges like vacations and dining out; the important part is making that intentional and not going into debt. You’ll also find plenty to see and do for free or at a low cost, from bike rides to free town concerts.
Photo credit: iStock/fotostorm
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