Balancing your budget so you can stop living paycheck to paycheck

A balanced budget ensures that all of your various expenses can fit the foundation of your income, so you can maintain a stable house through any challenge. But what’s the right balance for your budget structure?

When you live paycheck to paycheck your income barely fits all of your expenses. In order to create balance, you’ll need to check your income-to-expense ratio.

Divide your total monthly income by your total monthly expenses. If the ratio is less than 1, it means you spend more than you make and your financial house may fall behind because it’s too big for its foundation. In most cases, you want to achieve a ratio of 1.25 or greater. This means you spend less than 75% of your income, which leaves 25% of your income as free cash flow in your budget.

Some of your cash flow can be converted into savings. This helps you increase the amount you dedicate to save, so you can have a robust, solid saving strategy that supports your goals. Ideally, savings should be treated like a regular reocurring expense in your budget. This means savings gets housed with the rest of your fixed expenses. Aim to save at least five to ten percent of your income each month.

This is beneficial because unexpected expenses always seem to show up. When a large expense arrives unannounced, it has the potential to throw your financial house out of balance. But free cash flow and savings help you accommodate unexpected expenses easily. That way, you don’t have to invite credit card debt in for unexpected costs, because credit card debt shouldn’t be a welcome solution to address budget challenges.

For more great budgeting advice, visit ConsolidatedCredit.org.

Secrets to a Balanced Budget

Using your income-to-expense ratio to ensure you have a stable financial house.

As you can see from the video, with one simple calculation you can assess the strength of your financial house. Living paycheck to paycheck doesn’t always feel like struggle. If you haven’t had any major expenses or unexpected emergencies pop up, you may feel like you’re “doing okay.”

However, the truth is often that you’re effectively one setback away from financial distress. If your air conditioner breaks or your car’s transmission goes out or you have a medical bill that’s not covered by insurance, it can throw you into a financial tailspin. That’s why you have to check your income-to-expense ratio and pad your budget accordingly.

Additional resources to help you build an effective budget

Use these resources to help you maintain a balanced budget:

How big should an emergency fund be?

One question you may have is exactly how big your emergency fund should be to support a healthy outlook. Most experts recommend that a robust emergency fund should cover 3-6 months of budgeted expenses. That means you can effectively cover all of the fixed and flexible expenses in your budget with savings for three to six months. That way, if you lose your job or can’t work for a time, you don’t have to rely on credit.

During times of high economic uncertainty, you may want to increase your emergency fund to cover 6-12 months of expenses. This ensures that if you lose your job and can’t find employment that you can stay afloat without an issue.

Of course, saving that much money and being able to maintain that amount in your savings account can be tough. Emergencies inevitably happen that drain those funds. You may also have a major purchase or want to take a vacation, so you use the savings you have. So you may want to start lower with a more manageable goal. You can start by aiming to maintain a balance of $1,000 in savings. Then increase that to $5,000. Then aim to save for 3 months and work your way up from there.

For more information on how to create an effective saving strategy, visit Consolidated Credit’s Guide to Saving Money. You can also watch our Penny Wise video series for more great tips.

What to do if you have a reduction in income

One of the biggest challenges for any budget happens when there is a significant reduction in income. This can happen for any number of reasons:

In most cases this type of change means you need to go back and work your budget out from the ground up. Start by totaling up your fixed and flexible expenses; see how much cash flow is available if you cut out everything discretionary. Then start adding the nice-to-haves back in to see what you can reasonably afford. It may require some tough choices, but it’s better than the stress you’ll add if you turn to credit. Using your high interest rate credit cards to cover income deficits is a fast way to problems with debt.

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