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Stupid Mistakes and Escaping Paycheck to Paycheck

I made a really stupid mistake last week (at least I may have) which made me appreciate that we’re not living paycheck to paycheck. It was payday and I checked my stub excitedly…and then not so excitedly saw that I had made around $50 for 2 weeks of work.

Something was very very much not right in this picture.

First chance I got, I called payroll and explained “I think there are a few hundred dollars missing from my paycheck.”

She looked through her records and saw that all she had was a timesheet from one day (certain weekend days are done in a separate paycheck) that I’d worked 4 hours. So that was all she could pay me for. She said that the person who normally delivered timesheets had the last week off, so perhaps that was the problem. The best solution was to get a signed copy of my timesheet to her as soon as possible.

Well, thanks to a great supervisor and the amazing turnaround time of the payroll lady, I had my new check before leaving work that day.

Three lessons I drew from this were a) the payroll lady is awesome, b) it’s a good idea to check pay checks/stubs as soon as you get them and c) it’s good we’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck, if the payroll lady hadn’t been as awesome it would have been quite scary.

Of course, if you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s not quite so easy to just not be. For some people, it’s entirely a choice because you like to buy lots of exciting and expensive gadgets, etc. It’d only take one pay cycle to get a thousand or more saved up.

But most people aren’t just frittering away a thousand dollars a month or every two weeks. Many times it’s more a matter of low earnings, combined with a real or perceived need to spend it all (I say perceived because sometimes people think they need things they probably don’t…we all do it).

So how does one get out of that cycle?

There are two ways to have more money. In a few words: spend less and/or earn more. The rest of personal finance is figuring out how to do those.

For saving money:

1) If you don’t have a budget or spending plan, one of those is critical. You need to see where your money went. Then you need to be able to direct where it goes. That way you can more easily direct some of it into savings. Consider analyzing your bank statement or even recording transactions.

If you don’t want to track your money, try signing up with a free group like (or a paid program like Quicken) which will show where all your money goes. It won’t give the same specifics, but you can at least tell how much is spent at grocery stores, on rent, etc.

2) Identify areas where you can cut back. Since this may feel bad, try finding substitutes. If you spend $20/month on renting movies, try to see what your library has in their video section. Swap DVDs with friends (online swap programs are ok too, but they do make you pay for shipping yours out, so factor in that cost) and go through your old favorites.

Try building a budget where you cut back on some areas and divert the savings into an account which will serve as some sort of emergency fund. Or if you have an emergency fund, then it could be a kind of spending/savings cushion.

3) Find support/motivation to continue. Maybe you can’t find something to make it all better and you just feel deprived. That’s when you have to weigh what you want more. If you want to feel comfortable in the present but anxious about the future (we’re assuming that something motivated you to make this change) more than you want to feel comfortable about the future, then you’re not going to be willing to give up as much for that secure future. You may want it, but you’ll have to figure out how to want it enough to do more.

Dave Ramsey has a particular knack for convincing people that they really do want to be debt free more than they want that new plasma. If he works to help you act in what you know is your best interests, great. If not, something else might.

I’d suggest starting by reading a bunch of blogs specifically geared towards frugality. If you can get in the spirit, it’s much more exciting. These blogs often have great instructions for couponing, spending less at the grocery store, etc.

For earning more money:

This is more of a long-term project. One short-term solution is taking on certain contracting-type positions or possibly a part-time job. Those may not be something you can keep up for too long but could earn you several thousand dollars for an emergency fund or cushion account.

A second short-term solution is selling things that you no longer need. Craigslist, garage sales, eBay, etc. It’s less guaranteed to make money than working at a legitimate job is, but it works for some people.

If you’re looking for a way to make money soon and for a short period, those are what I’d recommend. Making money online through blogs or products takes more months to get going, as a general rule. Most attempts to make money quickly fall flat on their faces. So I would strongly advise against starting a blog or website specifically to earn money. At least not if you want to see that money soon…blogs require build-up.

In the longer term, the best way to earn more money is to get it from your primary employer. This may involve participating in career advancement opportunities, further your own education, etc. I’m less of a career blogger than many (being much younger in my career) so I won’t pretend to have all the answers. Again, I’d recommend checking around the blogosphere and your library as well. The 650s (Dewey Decimal) should have plenty of career books.

Have you gotten out of a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle? What advice would you offer?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Foxie July 21, 2008 at 11:34 am

Right now I’m not living paycheck-to-paycheck, but I’m sure I will be again once my hubby comes home. πŸ™‚ It’s hard when you’ve got a spender who sees money in the account as free to spend on whatever, instead of thinking farther ahead.

For now, I’m enjoying the knowledge that I can pay the bills as soon as they come in, not as soon as we get paid. We’re still working on our financial turn around, so hopefully we can start some good things when he does get back.

RacerX July 21, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Great point about checking your pay check stubs – Recently had an issue about them charging me for insurance I don’t have. If I wasn’t paying attention I could have paid for years!

Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet July 21, 2008 at 12:46 pm

I am the queen of wrong paychecks. I’m not lying when I say that my paycheck was wrong every single week for an entire year. And not the same mistake over and over, new mistakes every week. Or they would fix last week’s mistake wrong. I was constantly on the phone with payroll. It was a comedy of errors. Once payroll had things so screwed up my boss paid me with Target gift cards he had in his desk to give away as prizes. LOL.

Wanna hear the scary part? I worked for a bank!

Cath Lawson July 21, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Hi Mrs M – That could have been really scary if you’d needed the money right away.

I haven’t had a paycheck for years – and I’ve got used to not knowing exactly when I’ll have any money. So I tend to really panic if my bank balance gets too low well ahead of time. That way I’ve usually done something to get money in.

If I need money fairly quickly, I also sell stuff on ebay. I’m going to sell some things we don’t need this week, as I don’t plan to take much with us when we eventually emigrate.

Cheap Like Me July 21, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Wow, scary indeed. We’ve had a couple of situations recently when we were very grateful to have our emergency fund. It is a challenge to escape from living paycheck to paycheck, but it is well worth it for the ability to sleep well at night. Glad your situation was so easily resolved.

deepali July 21, 2008 at 6:24 pm

I’m sort of paycheck-to-paycheck right now, in the sense that my cushion is very tight, and any extra money is going towards debt. But that will ease up in a month, and I’m hoping there are no mistakes in the meantime!

tiffanie July 21, 2008 at 10:25 pm

i’m pretty much paycheck to paycheck…meaning, only my husband’s paycheck, because i’m unemployed and having a hard time finding a job. πŸ™ it’s no fun!

Zhu July 21, 2008 at 10:33 pm

I’m lucky not to live paycheck to paycheck and it’s a good thing, because I get paid by the hour and got more than my share of “lost” hour reports etc.

Of course, my school is quick to fix it but it’s common to have to wait for a couple of days.

I double check my paycheck and keep a record (Excel file) and copies of my hours.

I just imagine the look on your face when you saw you made $50! πŸ˜†

Shadox July 22, 2008 at 3:12 am

Well… payroll lady is not THAT awesome. Me thinks she should have called you when she noticed that your paycheck was going to be $50… I am guessing you’ve been working there for a while and that is not your typical salary…

Ashley – could you name the bank so we could all avoid it?

mrsmicah July 22, 2008 at 9:41 am

@Shadox, I’d agree except that everyone’s taking their summer vacation right now. Because the Sunday was the first day of the pay period, she assumed I’d taken the rest of it off. And because of my position, I don’t get paid vacation.

Leanne July 22, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Most months here it’s paycheck to paycheck but I’m trying to build p a backup fund for emergencies. I’ll be putting a few of these changes in place to try and help with that.

april-j July 25, 2008 at 10:47 am

You are all very lucky. We do live paycheck to paycheck, especially since I’ve finally started enforcing the I don’t want any more debt standard. We’re 6 days away from selling our home/buying a new (1924 fixer upper on 9 acres) home. I naively thought that I could take their 1000 earnest money and put it toward my next purchase. NOPE. Well, I’ve managed through some selling of things and reassigning of collumns to scrape by just 150 short. Well then my husband’s check came in – the one that would pay for groceries and gas – short by 16 hours. So here we are 6 days away from another paycheck and no money and needing gas and needing groceries – aaaak. I will start an emergency fund next week. I WILL!

MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators July 26, 2008 at 9:17 pm

This reminds me of the time that my wife missed a paycheck due to a problem with the 3rd party company that handles payroll for her small company. We were also glad that we were not living paycheck to paycheck…

Justine July 27, 2008 at 9:11 pm

We’re not quite living paycheck to paycheck but sometimes it can be close. Its hard these days to work up a good cushion… but we ARE working on it!

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