Fixed Expenses, Variable Income
by Anna Harrington
Making It Through Winter
Budgeting with a Variable Income
Variable Income Budgeting
It's hard enough to live within a spending plan while working a steady job. It's downright difficult when your income fluctuates. This fluctuation makes it extremely difficult to follow a set spending and saving plan from month to month.
As a commissioned sales professional, my monthly income can vary by thousands during the course of the year. A $5,000 paycheck in February can dwindle to $900 by the following November. I've learned through much, much trial and error to create a financial plan that works for me, and I've discovered that the key is to eliminate financial surprises.
Here's some advice for others struggling with a variable income:
Maintain an emergency fund of nine months to one year. While most financial experts recommend an emergency fund of three to six months, I recommend at least one year. If your income is variable, it is undoubtedly connected directly to the economy, and as the economy weakens, your paycheck gradually lessens. You may not be completely out of work, but your income might fall well below your fixed monthly expenses, making it necessary to dip into the fund for several months.
Know your fixed monthly expenses and pay these first before you buy anything else. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet (I'm too cheap to spend $30 on Quicken), which lists my rent payment, utilities, car insurance, etc. These are fixed amounts for the month. I also estimate expenses for variables, such as car gas, groceries, entertainment, etc. When the limit for each category is reached, the spending is done for the month. It's a way to create some sort of predictability in your unpredictable financial world.
After your fixed monthly expenses are paid, use what's left for savings and luxuries. Pick a percentage of your after-bills income to go directly into savings. 50% is a good number (more is better). What's left is discretionary and left to your heart's desires. Blow it on clothes or concert tickets, or put it into a separate savings account to save for big ticket items, such as a new car, vacations, etc.
Sign up for budget plans/payments whenever possible. Most utility companies will set up your account on regular payments. Most insurance companies will do the same for a small fee (I pay $1 per month extra), which prevents a large premium payment every six months. The key here is to eliminate surprises and keep your monthly expenses as even as possible.
Do not sign up for automatic payments. Automatic payment is a luxury for those who have fixed incomes. When your income is unpredictable, it is essential that you control your cash flow and know exactly when money is taken from your checkbook. The small hassle of writing a check is worth the $10 or more per month you flirt with in overdraft fees.
Keep track of your expenses. Again, the key to living on a variable income is eliminating surprises. The worst surprise in the world is receiving a huge credit card bill at the end of the month and wondering where all the charges came from and how you'll be able to pay it off.
- Lower your own salary. What was your lowest monthly income in the past year? Make this your base salary and keep all fixed monthly expenses (including car payments and rent/mortgage) below this amount. Can't do it? Then whatever would you do if you lost your job completely or couldn't work for six months? Keeping fixed expenses below this amount will keep you financially stable during the lean months while giving you extra money to save during the rich months. (And the added sense of security is immeasurable.) Do not average your monthly income for this guideline. Averaging will only leave you short on those lean months when you make the least, especially if your work is sBiweekly Mortgage Payment Programs easonal and several lean months follow in a row.
Your income might be unpredictable, but your spending doesn't have to be. By keeping fixed expenses low and keeping track of your spending, you'll soon be looking at your ever-changing paycheck as an opportunity rather than a nasty monthly surprise.
Take the Next Step:
- Make sure you're getting the best CD rate. Use our simple CD tool to find out. It's completely private, easy to use and you'll know what rate is available to you in seconds!
- Get the interest you deserve! Compare money market and savings account rates with our best rate finder. It only takes a minute and your privacy is completely protected.
- Stop struggling to get ahead financially. Subscribe to our free weekly Surviving Tough Times newsletter aimed at helping you 'live better...for less'. Each issue features great ways to help you stretch your dollars and make the most of your resources. Subscribers get a copy of Are You Heading for Debt Trouble? A Simple Checklist And What You Can Do About It for FREE!
Share your thoughts about this article with the editor: Click Here
Debt from my past is preventing me from saving for my future! Tell us: Yes, debt is hindering my ability to save and I could use help dealing with it! or No, debt is not a problem but I am trying to get ahead financially!
More Money Tips & Tools
- How to get a faster tax refund
- Personal finance calculators everyone should use
- Why you should know your credit card payment cutoff time
- Saving-money secrets of the rich and frugal
- 5 low-risk ways to earn higher interest now
- How to save money fast
- 7 IRA withdrawals that don't trigger a penalty
- This week's Readers' Tips