Budgeting Paycheck to Paycheck

How to budget when you have inconsistent paychecks or if you are on a tight budget (paycheck to paycheck). Tips, tricks and ways to save each month. This is perfect for college students or 20-somethings with small paychecks or hourly-paying jobs.

One of the hardest things about being young is the smaller paychecks that come during the school year. For the past 5-6 months I've been living paycheck to paycheck and it's pretty hard at times. I've had to really work hard to slowly pay off my credit card bills and save enough money for the things I really want to buy.

I use a specific spreadsheet to budget the month. I get paid twice per month and the paychecks always vary because of my flexible work hours. It can be challenging to budget when you have no idea exactly how much you will make each month. These are a few of the tricks I use to make sure I'm paying my bills every month.

How I Plan My Budget

I have a pretty good idea what my paycheck will be based on past months. However because I don't know the exact amount of my paycheck I start my budget out by writing in how much all my bills will be. 90% of my expenses stay the same from month to month, there are only a couple that change but they usually fall in the same ballpark as the previous months. My bigger bills are the same every month. I know exactly how much I'll be spending on those.

Rent - $700Cable & Internet - $52.34Insurance - $11.41Credit Card Bills - $25 min but I pay $50

Other bills like Groceries, Gas, and Xcel vary. I know the range that they usually fall into so I always over-estimate these expenses. Then during the month I do everything I can to save money on those things. Using coupons, carpooling, turning off lights. All those good things that save a bit of cash.

Groceries - $200Gas - $140 Energy - $80 

My next step is figuring out when these bills will be due. As I said before, I get paid on the 1st of the month and the 15th of the month. This means I use two different budgets for each part of the month - after all bills are monthly. Below is how my bills are broken up, based on when they are due.

budget example with average paycheck estimate
budget example with average paycheck estimate

My remaining money goes into savings and other expenses (shopping, pets, school, entertainment). I try to leave as much remaining as possible so when my paycheck comes in, it'll hopefully be higher than my estimated paycheck.

How To Save Month During the Month with a Small Paycheck

There's a million ways to save a little month here and there but I don't have a lot of spare time to cut coupons or hunt down deals. One tiny way to save a bit is by using cash for everything you can. When you use cash, you get change. We save all our change in a piggy bank. If any emergency comes up, cash out and use that first. It saves a surprising amount. Just last month I had $46 worth of change in there.

I'm in college and my boyfriend is in the military so we alway ask restaurants, bars and movie theaters if they have any discounts for us, 70% of the time, they do.

Cable & Internet

One of the biggest ways I save month is by using the cheapest cable and internet plan I could find. My apartment complex requires us to use Comcast, so I chose the plan with internet and only 18 channels. I didn't watch a ton of TV before so this wasn't too hard. I watch shows on netflix instead.

Energy Bill

My boyfriend and I try to save money on our xcel bill as well. Any room we aren't in, we turn off all the lights. We leave lamps unplugged unless we are using them, and we don't keep any appliances (besides the big ones) plugged in either. We RARELY turn on the A/C or heat.

Luckily our dryer and oven can heat up the entire apartment because it's so small. If we know it's going to be chilly we close all the windows, cook dinner in the oven, make that night "laundry night" and use extra blankets. So far, so good.


90% Of our grocery shopping is done at target. (The other 10% is at Sprouts, a farmers market, but that's really cheap already). Target isn't the cheapest grocery store to shop at but we can actually save a lot of money when we go. First thing we did was sign up for a target credit card. It only have a $300 credit line but we just pay off the total balance after every shopping trip. Using our card save 5% on the entire purchase.

There's also a free app called Cartwheel that is specifically for Target. We use this EVERY TIME. It has coupons that you add to a list, then when you checkout, the cashier just scans one barcode and you're all set. Most of the coupons are 5%-10% off and usually for the target brand items. However every once in awhile there will be food items for 50-80% off. Sign up and start using it.

On top of those things we really try to buy the target brand items, they are always cheaper. We also look at the sales tags and find the best prices. A huge help for us has been meal planning. We plan the meals for the week, make a full and detailed list, then go shopping. We don't buy anything not on our list. This helps us from impulse buying and over-buying.

A little bit of Dave Ramsey

If you don't know about Dave Ramsey's 7 Baby Steps for Getting out of Debt, you've been living in a bubble! Just kidding, but go read about it HERE.I loved the idea of this, but my boyfriend and I modified it a little to fit our needs and our paychecks. For example we don't have a house, because we rent. We also don't have kids so we aren't saving for their college, but ours. Below are our 7 baby steps:

  1. $1000 Emergency Savings Fund (we take $50-$100 out of each paycheck)
  2. Pay Off All Debt (Debt Snowball) - We are paying off the debt with highest interest first (for me this is just my credit cards)
  3. 3-6 months of expenses in savings (That's between $3,900 and $7,800 for me alone)- I'm aiming for $8000 to be safe.
  4. Save 15% of household income toward paying for our wedding
  5. Begin paying off student loans (pay 10% more than minimum due)
  6. Invest 10% of household income into Roth IRA's and Pre-Tax Retirement
  7. Save for a down-payment on a house

Our main focus right now is paying off debts and saving money for big life expenses coming up in the next 2-5 years.

Making extra money in addition to your paycheck

When I first bought my car I was itching to get it paid off ASAP. I got a part-time job as a Jimmy John's delivery driver. All the tips and money I made from that job went 100% to my car. I only worked there for 2 1/2 months but I paid off my entire car. It was 3ish months of little free time and late nights, but not having a car payment is completely worth it.

If you can manage to get a part-time job, even if it's only for a couple months, try it out! You'd be amazed how easy it is to get a jump on your bills when you have extra income. If you don't have as much time, think about trying to make a little extra money online.

Resources to get you started

Below are the two budget sheets I use every month to plan my budget. They are super cheap and you can re-print them as many times as you need! Even if you don't know your exact paycheck every month, these will help you plan ahead and see how much you can spend. If you like budgeting online check out the website I use, Budget Simple (this is an affiliate link). It's 100% and if you use that link you'll get pro for 1 month free.