Reasons High Earners Keep Living Paycheck to Paycheck

By Caroline Banton · April 22, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Reasons High Earners Keep Living Paycheck to Paycheck

The number of people living paycheck to paycheck is rising, and not just among low-income workers. One-third of Americans with an annual income of $150,000 or more are struggling to pay their bills and have no money left over for savings. Reasons for this include high housing costs, a lack of financial literacy, and lifestyle creep.

So how do high earners end up living paycheck to paycheck, and what can you do to break the cycle?

What Does Living Paycheck to Paycheck Mean?

Most people expect to earn a “living wage.” The term refers to an income sufficient to afford life’s necessities, including housing, food, healthcare, and child care. That level of income should also allow you to save for an emergency, retirement and other goals to some degree.

When a person lives paycheck to paycheck, they can barely pay basic bills and have nothing left over to save for a rainy day. In the event of a pricey emergency — like a big medical bill or major car repairs — low-income families are financially wiped out.

High earners have more wiggle room. They have the ability to downsize their home or car and find other ways to cut back on expenses.

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Understanding the Paycheck-to-Paycheck Situation

According to a 2023 survey conducted by Payroll.org, 72% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with Baby Boomers the hardest hit. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, as noted above, you have no ability to save. If you go into debt, you may not be able to afford to pay down the debt in a meaningful way.

According to research from MIT, the average living wage for a family of four (two working adults with two children) in the U.S. in 2022 was $25.02 per hour before taxes, or $104,077.70 per year. Compare that to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Even in Washington, D.C., which has the highest minimum wage at $17, families make well below what is considered an adequate income.

But even households bringing in $200,000 or more say they feel the crunch. According to a Forbes study, 39% of those earning at least $200K described themselves as running out of money and not having anything left over after covering expenses. While they have the freedom to downsize their lifestyle, many people may not realize the precariousness of their financial situation until they’re locked into a mortgage and car payments they cannot afford.

Why Do Some Americans Live Paycheck to Paycheck?

The reasons why Americans live paycheck to paycheck vary. For lower-income workers, you can point to a higher cost of living and wages that have not kept up with inflation. For those with higher incomes, the issue is more about a lack of financial literacy and living beyond one’s means.

Rising Cost of Living

According to the Federal Reserve, 40% of adults spent more in 2022 than they did in 2021. They spent more because monthly expenses, such as rent, mortgage payments, food, and utilities had all increased.

Low Income

Low incomes are another reason some people live paycheck to paycheck. This is particularly the case for people who earn minimum wage or live in areas with a high cost of living.

Poor Budgeting

Another reason some people are living paycheck to paycheck is that they lack basic financial knowledge and budgeting skills. It’s easy to overspend and accumulate credit card debt, but difficult to pay down the principal and interest.


💡 Quick Tip: When you have questions about what you can and can’t afford, a free budget app can show you the answer. With no guilt trip or hourly fee.

Lifestyle Creep

Also known as lifestyle inflation, lifestyle creep happens when discretionary expenses increase as disposable income increases. In plain English: You get a raise and treat yourself to a new ’fit. And a fancy haircut. And a weekend at a charming B&B in the countryside.

Whether you can afford it is debatable. On one hand, you may be paying your credit card bill in full each month. On the other, you’re not saving or investing that money.

Factors Driving Financial Insecurity for Six-Figure Earners

Because of inflation, it is increasingly hard to buy a home, car, and other nice-to-haves. However, people may still expect and try to afford these things once they earn a certain amount. And if they have a taste for luxury items, they may struggle to maintain that standard of living and pay their bills.

It’s common for people to buy things on credit and then find that they cannot make the payments. Soon, they find themselves mired in high-interest debt.

How to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

You can stop living paycheck to paycheck by living below your means rather than beyond your means. That requires earning more than you spend and saving the difference. The obvious steps to take are to increase your income and to live more frugally.

Once you have downsized your lifestyle, you can find relief quicker than you might think. And some changes may only be temporary. For example, you might have to work a part-time job for a short time until your debt is paid off.

Tips for Those Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Here are some changes you can make to get on the path to living below your means.

1. Create a Budget

You have to know where your money is going before you can cut back. By tracking your expenses, you can see what you are spending where. There are lots of ways to automate your finances and make it much easier to stay on top of things.

Then, create a budget where you subtract your non-negotiable expenses, or needs, from your net income. Non-negotiables are your housing costs, utilities, food, and transportation. Hopefully, you have some money left over to allocate to savings. If not, it’s time to look at how you can make your life more affordable.

Here are a few budget strategies to try:

•   Line-item budget

•   50/30/20 method

•   Envelope method

2. Cut Back on Nonessentials

Budgeting will help you find expenses that you can eliminate or reduce. For example, look closely at things that might seem insignificant. You are not necessarily bad with money just because you lose track of subscription services that you have forgotten about.

Be aware that a large cold brew on your way to work every morning can add up, and eating out or spending $30 on takeout each week adds up to over $1,500 annually. More consequential changes are downsizing your home, accepting a roommate temporarily, or finding a part-time gig to supplement your income.

3. Pay Off Your Debt

Debt is expensive. High-interest credit card debt and buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) schemes can eat up your income as you struggle to pay the minimum while the interest mounts up. Consider using a personal loan to consolidate debt and reduce the interest you’re paying.

4. Save for Emergencies

If you are living paycheck to paycheck, just one unexpected expense can cause you to spiral into debt. It’s important to have enough cash on hand. Once you have paid off your debt, start an emergency fund so that you don’t have to rely on credit if you experience an unexpected financial emergency. A rule of thumb is to have three to six months’ worth of expenses saved up.


💡 Quick Tip: Income, expenses, and life circumstances can change. Consider reviewing your budget a few times a year and making any adjustments if needed.

5. Hold Off on Big Purchases

While you are trying to reduce expenses and pay off debt, hold off on buying big ticket items. For example, forgo an expensive vacation for a year and start saving toward next year instead. As much as you might like new furniture or a new car, try to economize for a while until you are in a better place financially.

6. Ask for a Raise

Asking for a raise is not an easy thing to do when money is tight. However, it could be well worth it. According to Payscale.com, 70% of survey respondents who asked for a raise got one. You are in a particularly strong position if your skills are in demand and your employer values you.

The Takeaway

Many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, even high earners. The reasons why are linked to inflation, lifestyle expectations, and the ease with which people fall into debt. The remedy is to live below your means, and that often means making sacrifices.

If debt is a concern, temporary steps such as downsizing while you pay off your debt or finding additional sources of income are options. Identify where your money goes and stick to a budget to reduce unnecessary spending. Also, getting rid of high-interest debt and cutting back on eating out and other nonessentials can free up a significant amount of cash each month.

Take control of your finances with SoFi. With our financial insights and credit score monitoring tools, you can view all of your accounts in one convenient dashboard. From there, you can see your various balances, spending breakdowns, and credit score. Plus you can easily set up budgets and discover valuable financial insights — all at no cost.

See exactly how your money comes and goes at a glance.

FAQ

Does living paycheck to paycheck mean you’re poor?

Living paycheck to paycheck does not necessarily mean that you are poor, but it does mean that you are living beyond your means. Even high earners can find themselves in a position where they are living paycheck to paycheck, often due to mounting debt and lifestyle creep.

Lifestyle creep is when people spend more whenever their income increases. According to a Forbes study, 39% of those earning $200,000 or more described themselves as running out of money and not having enough leftover to save after covering expenses.

Is living paycheck to paycheck stressful?

Yes. When you live paycheck to paycheck, you may constantly worry how you will afford to pay for an emergency. It’s important to have an emergency fund, so that you do not have to use a loan or high-interest credit card to pay for something unexpected.

How many americans are living paycheck to paycheck?

Close to 80% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and are struggling to meet their monthly bills, according to a 2023 survey by Payroll.org. That’s an increase of 6% from the previous year.


Photo credit: iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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