How to Pay Off Debt If You're Living Paycheck to Paycheck
Oct 11, 2022 6 min read
- It’s hard to make progress paying off debt when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
- There are lots of debt payoff strategies out there, but they’re not one-size-fits-all.
- Review six popular methods to see which one might work best for you.
It’s hard to chip away at debt when you feel like you’re devoting every dollar to monthly expenses and struggling to beef up your savings account. But have you ever wondered whether a different approach to paying off debt might make a difference? There are lots of methods, and there is no single right way to make progress. The truth is that you need a plan that fits your personality, motivation, capabilities and circumstances.
The best way to successfully tackle debt is by using payoff strategies that work for you. Interested in charting your own course? Experiment with the following to find one or more options that match your money mindset.
What Does It Mean to Live Paycheck to Paycheck?
The term “living paycheck to paycheck” simply means exactly what it says: Every paycheck that comes in is fully spent to cover living expenses, with little or no extra cash left over. This month-to-month cycle can make it difficult to have enough money to apply to other financial priorities like a savings goal, emergency fund or living debt free.
For many, the pandemic economy has only served to diminish resources further. Nearly half of adults now say they’re living paycheck to paycheck, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education, and two in five Americans have monthly income swings of more than 30%, notes the JPMorgan Chase Institute.
What’s more, this challenge touches people at all income levels and happens for all kinds of reasons. In fact, making ends meet on constrained budgets is much more complex than just the size of a paycheck, a Pew Research Center analysis finds. Salary increases, for example, just haven’t kept up with high inflation, and pandemic-related payday fluctuations in certain industries have added to the pressure.
Of course, in spite of external factors, a fundamental rule of getting out of debt is making sure your income is greater than the sum of your expenses — so that you have some money available over and above what you typically spend to devote to paying off debt.
Know Your Debt Payoff Strategy
The good news is that as the economy continues to recover, there may be more opportunities to break the paycheck to paycheck cycle and reassess how you allocate money toward debt reduction. Here are six debt pay off strategies to consider in tandem with your personal finance situation and your preferences.
1. Rethink spending habits big and small
This type of debt payoff strategy is kind of like a second cousin to a financial diet, but on a larger scale. Have you done an honest assessment of your spending habits? Are there any major changes you can make? A soft cutback might include opting for local park trails and fitness videos over a gym club membership. But you may make even more progress by examining whether there are other things in your life that you can potentially downsize.
For example, could you be a one-car family and put the savings toward permanently reducing debts? Depending on your family’s work schedule and commuting options, getting rid of a second car not only lets you reap the proceeds from a car sale or eliminate your car payments, but it also gives you immediate savings on gas, car insurance and taxes.
2. Go on a financial diet
It can be a hard prospect, but cutting all your expenses to the bare minimum for a period of time is one way to attack a debt load in order to save money and get back on top of things. This method requires discipline to identify and eliminate things you can do without — whether it’s subscription services, new clothes, take-out food or gifts for relatives.
Of course, freeing up money can help you make aggressive progress, but it can also be difficult to sustain. Remember that there is long-term value in short-term sacrifice: Identifying extra financial “calories” puts more resources in your pocket to help prioritize a spending plan and pare down debt.
3. Work your way out of debt
Have you sought a promotion at work, earned a bonus or asked for a raise? Could you pick up extra hours or take on more responsibilities that would help boost your take-home pay? If those angles won’t work with your current employer, is it possible to seek out a side hustle, second job or part-time job to give you extra income?
Finding ways to increase your income or earn something extra can help you work your way out of debt because you can devote additional money toward reducing the balances you owe beyond the minimum due. As your debts become more manageable, your need to work extra hours will adapt and eventually diminish, too.
4. Try the debt snowball method
The debt snowball method is a debt payoff strategy that tackles debts with the lowest balances first. Eliminating your smallest debts first can be an easy and motivating way to make quick progress — letting you completely wipe out some outstanding balances before moving on to make higher payments.
5. Consider the debt avalanche method
The debt avalanche method is a debt payoff strategy that prioritizes debts with the highest interest rates, regardless of the balance owed. Focusing on your highest-cost debts first may save you more money in the long run, because you’re reducing the balance on which interest is charged plus shortening the time frame for payoff.
6. Take advantage of debt consolidation loans
If you have multiple high-interest debts, a debt consolidation loan could be an effective strategy. Combining debts into a lower interest loan turns multiple payments into a single one, and it often lowers your minimum payment.
What’s more, if you continue paying what you did before consolidating, the extra amount will be applied to the principal, helping you pay off debts even faster. One thing to avoid with this method, however, is letting those zero balances on paid-off cards tempt you to start charging anew, allowing new balances to run up again.
To use this strategy, you’ll need to qualify for a better interest rate. Taking steps to improve your credit score and move it up to the next credit band will help. Score40 can help you build a plan to strengthen your credit score by up to 40 points — the typical difference between credit scoring ranges.
Choosing the Best Debt Payoff Strategy
What’s the best strategy for paying off debt? If you've tried one method and it didn't work, don’t get discouraged. The fact is no one system works for everyone, and some choices work better than others depending on your circumstances and financial goals. What’s more, for many people the best strategy may be a combination of multiple methods. For example, you could utilize the debt snowball strategy and rethinking spending habits to maximize the money you have for paying down debts and get out of debt even faster! When it comes to knowing how to pay off debt when living paycheck to paycheck, only you can recognize what the best options will be.
About the author
Nathan Foley questions everything — and thinks you should too. As Elevate’s resident mathematician, he pores over datasets to find the truth amid the fluff and translates insights into ideas for improving personal financial resilience.