Living paycheck to paycheck isn't just a burden of the working poor — middle class and high-income earners frequently have difficulty making ends meet, too.
A big salary doesn't always equate to luxurious living, and some may find themselves living beyond their means. That could leave them overextended and beholden to creditors each pay cycle.
The high-income lifestyle
According to data available through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher income earners tend to spend the most on housing and vehicle expenses. Purchases for household items are also a big spending category in addition to entertainment and dining out.
These expenses can result in a budget that leaves little breathing room each month. Fixed costs such as a home or vehicle lease mean that large portions of a paycheck are spoken for. Then, any items for the home that are purchased on credit end up costing more in the long run if they aren't paid off right away. When you add to that lifestyle habits such as dining out or spending on entertainment, monthly costs can balloon — leaving little breathing room for savings that would be crucial to help get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
Can high earners forgo expenses?
Cutting back on expenses might be easier said than done for some high-income earners. While one-off purchases such as restaurant dinners might signify habits that need to change, expenses such as a car payment, house payment or credit card bills are harder to trim.
Location also plays a role in how far that high income can stretch. In a larger, international hub with a competitive housing market, not only do home expenses rise, but the costs of food and transportation are typically higher, too. In a large city, what's considered high income by the rest of the country's standards might translate into just enough income to get by.
The cost of debt
As your income grows, so too does the amount of credit you can access. If not managed properly, credit can become a trap for higher income earners. Typically, a high-income individual will have debt such as:
- A mortgage on a primary residence
- Vehicle lease
- Credit card debt
- Student loans
- Personal loans
- Another mortgage on a vacation home
High-income earners who are spending a majority of their monthly budgets on debt servicing should find different ways to manage their debt, especially if it's preventing them from saving for the future.
- Eliminate high-interest debt first. Credit card debt should be the first to go. A debt consolidation loan can result in lower interest costs by nearly half in some cases and help speed up debt elimination, typically thanks to a lower APR.
- Downsize where possible. If possible, move to a smaller house with lower monthly mortgage payments or trade in your expensive car for a cheaper model. This can help you manage a ballooning debt load.
- Refinance personal loans for lower monthly payments. Refinancing a loan can help you get a lower interest rate or a lower monthly payment. This can help you better afford the payment every month, but check whether you'll pay more in interest over the life of the new loan.
Carrying a high debt load might not seem like a big problem now, but a downturn in the economy or even just a long gap between business contracts may lead to unmanageable debt. High-income earners who carry a lot of debt need to consistently earn a lot of money to pay for their debt, which means they often can't afford a pay cut or a period of time away from their job due to illness, injury or economic factors.
Not all high-income earners have great budgeting skills. But because they're still likely to have some money in the bank, they might not have to scrutinize every spending decision the way someone on a smaller budget would.
However, this could represent a false sense of security for high-income earners, especially when they start adding more debt to their monthly commitments, which is why budgeting is important.
The following should be remembered when creating a budget:
- Account for fixed expenses first. Some expenses can't be changed, such as payments toward a mortgage, car loan or student loan. Start by listing these expenses, as they're most important.
- Save for retirement. Automatically allocate funds toward retirement savings, especially if an employer has a 401(k) match or similar. Consider contributing to the match, at a minimum, each year.
- Save an emergency fund. If you don't already have an emergency fund in place, it's important to create one now. Sock away money every month until you have three to six months' worth of your living expenses saved. Factor this amount into your budget.
- Factor in investments. There are many small ways you can start investing. Decide how much you'd like to invest each month, and factor that into your budget as well.
High-income earners can also look for ways to spend less without making drastic lifestyle changes. A classic example is taking lunch to work, which can really help free up a lot of money. Let's say a typical lunch during the work week costs $15. That comes to about $300 each month that would be saved by bringing a lunch each day. Another idea is to buy used instead of new or to rent instead of purchasing. You can now rent clothes, entertainment supplies and even furniture.
High-income earners might seem like they can spend on everything their hearts desire, but the truth is that even a high income only stretches so far. It's easy to overextend your budget and end up struggling to make it to the next pay day.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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