How I Finally Broke the Vicious Paycheck-to-Paycheck Cycle


An overwhelming number of Americans are stuck living paycheck to paycheck these days—surveys show nearly half can’t even afford an unexpected $400 expense. I know first-hand how scary and limiting that can feel.

At 20, I was your typical struggling college student...except I wasn’t typical. I was a single mom, living on welfare (I qualified for food stamps and Medicaid after having my son at 18) and pinching small paychecks from two part-time jobs.

I wanted to do better—for myself and my son—but it wouldn’t be easy. Often, people trying to transition out of the welfare system get stuck: They may start earning too much to qualify for benefits, but still not enough to consistently make ends meet (which is what ultimately happened to me for a while). Plus, I was surrounded by others in the same scenario. For my entire life, my parents lived paycheck to paycheck and, at times, received the same type of assistance. Many other people I knew did, too.

I saw education as my way out. So I took out student loans and hustled hard—to complete my college courses, get internships and improve my skills—till I graduated at 22. At that point, I landed a full-time job making $28,000 and was able to get off welfare.

But suddenly earning more than ever wasn’t enough to stop the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. It wasn’t until years later—when I got frustrated one day after realizing I couldn’t even afford to wash my clothes—that I got serious about changing how I managed money and set real goals that I finally broke free. Here’s how I did it.

1. I set a budget.

I’d never seriously budgeted before because I didn’t think I earned enough. But to truly unbound myself from my paycheck, I had to do it. I was honest with myself about what I could afford ($60 max on eating out) and what I couldn’t (a gym membership and cable). And I kept my living expenses ultra low—opting to stay in my cheap college apartment instead of upgrading to one closer to work. 

This helped me do something new: save! I prioritized building up a small emergency fund, along with a checking account buffer equal to one month’s worth of basic living expenses.

2. I got comfortable saying no.

I realized that by saying yes to impulse buys or peer pressure, I was actually saying no to my financial goals. I had to look at my values—being debt free, having financial security and becoming a homeowner one day—and avoid anything that didn’t align with them. At times, that meant saying no to expensive toys and gadgets for my son, though we never skimped on quality time together. We’d go camping, ride bikes and watch movies together at home.

3. I maximized every dollar I earned—and found ways to make more.

In addition to saving every bonus, cash gift, tax refund and raise, I also worked side hustles to bank even more. I picked up a few freelance writing clients, which brought in about $400 to $800 per month, and did in-store demonstrations at stores like Jewel Osco and Sam’s Club on the weekends for $20 an hour. Once I had a baby emergency fund of $2,000, I split my earnings between savings and debt payments for my car loan and student loans.

4. I stuck with it.

After about 18 months, these strategies helped me build up enough savings to ease my financial stress, and I finally stop feeling like I was living paycheck to paycheck. It definitely wasn’t easy—especially because I never earned more than $40,00 during this time—but I didn’t expect it to be.

Today, I’m much more financially confident. In addition to a six-month emergency fund and one month’s buffer in my checking account, I’m able to invest and will even pay off my student loans this year. The best part? I never have to utter the words, “Let me see if I can do that when I get paid” again.

acorns+cnbcacorns cnbc

Join Acorns


About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

All investments involve risk, including loss of principal. The contents presented herein are provided for general investment education and informational purposes only and do not constitute an offer to sell or a solicitation to buy any specific securities or engage in any particular investment strategy. Acorns is not engaged in rendering any tax, legal, or accounting advice. Please consult with a qualified professional for this type of advice.

Any references to past performance, regarding financial markets or otherwise, do not indicate or guarantee future results. Forward-looking statements, including without limitations investment outcomes and projections, are hypothetical and educational in nature. The results of any hypothetical projections can and may differ from actual investment results had the strategies been deployed in actual securities accounts. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

Advisory services offered by Acorns Advisers, LLC (“Acorns Advisers”), an investment adviser registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). Brokerage and custody services are provided to clients of Acorns Advisers by Acorns Securities, LLC (“Acorns Securities”), a broker-dealer registered with the SEC and a member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc. (“FINRA”) and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (“SIPC”). Acorns Pay, LLC (“Acorns Pay”) manages Acorns’s demand deposit and other banking products in partnership with Lincoln Savings Bank, a bank chartered under the laws of Iowa and member FDIC. Acorns Advisers, Acorns Securities, and Acorns Pay are subsidiaries of Acorns Grow Incorporated (collectively “Acorns”). “Acorns,” the Acorns logo and “Invest the Change” are registered trademarks of Acorns Grow Incorporated. Copyright © 2021 Acorns and/or its affiliates.

NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns Grow Incorporated.