How to Budget When You Have Irregular Income

irregular income

As a student or new graduate, you’ll likely have to take on freelance work and part-time jobs to make ends meet. While this irregular income helps pay the bills and make payments towards your student loans, not having a steady paycheck can make it difficult to stay on track financially.

Thankfully, there are ways to balance debt repayment along with other financial goals by adjusting your strategy. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls when you don’t have a regular paycheck.

1. Set a target income goal

Do you know how much money you need to pay the bills and feed yourself? What’s the bare minimum you need to earn to cover the essentials? Write down all of your monthly expenses and then compare this figure to your earnings. Do you need to earn more, spend less, or a combination of the two?

Make your bare minimum expenses number your target income goal every month, so you can at least cover the basics. Any money you earn over this amount can go towards bonus goals like an emergency fund, travel plans, or entertainment. While you can’t guarantee that you’ll hit this income goal every month, it will give you a number to shoot for.

2. Create a regular paycheck from your irregular income

Although you don’t receive a regular paycheck from an employer, it’s still important to set yourself up with a system that mimics a consistent paycheck.

  • Open a separate bank account for your irregular income budget. As you send out invoices or get paid for part-time work, deposit all of your funds into this new bank account. Keeping this money separate from your other bank accounts will make it easier to manage.
  • Pay yourself a designated paycheck every week. Calculate a regular “paycheck” amount and set up an automatic transfer from your earnings account to your household checking account. The amount of your “paycheck” should be what you need to pay your bills, plus a bit extra to cover incidentals.
  • Stash away any extra money as a cash cushion. Any funds that remain in your separate earnings account can help make up for any low-earning months as well as prevent emergencies from derailing your goals. If there’s a delay in receiving a payment or other expected income, you won’t come up short because someone owes you money.

When you’re dealing with irregular income, it may take a few months to adjust to this new “paycheck” strategy, but in the end it will help combat the ups-and-downs of not having a steady income.

3. Separate your financial goals

For many people, having a lump sum in any one bank account is too tempting not to spend, and makes it difficult to make headway on different financial goals. For this reason, I recommend separating out your debt payoff or savings goals and opening up new bank accounts for each one.

I’ve personally done this in my own financial life, as my husband and I are both self-employed and deal with an irregular income budget on a monthly basis. For large bills, like our $1,800 per month rent payment, we opened a separate savings account where we transfer over $450 per week to cover this expense. We’ve never had an issue paying our rent or other large bills since using separate bank accounts.

While it’s possible to have too many checking or savings accounts opened at once, this strategy is enormously helpful when you aren’t receiving a regular paycheck. You can also use cash to separate out your savings goals if you don’t want to deal with multiple bank accounts. Either way, it’s important to divide up your money so you know it’s available for a particular expense when you need it.

4. Save more money with a microsavings app

Microsaving is a growing trend where you save extremely small amounts of money, starting at $1 per week, towards various goals. Creating a successful savings habit starts with small amounts added up and increased over time, so don’t underestimate what just $3 or $5 per week can do.

There are several microsavings apps that have recently become popular to help you save money without thinking. If you have a smartphone, that’s all you need to save more money, get started investing, or pay down your debt.

  • Digit. Quickly becoming a new favorite, Digit allows you to save money every week via text message. Based on however much money you have in your account that week, Digit will automatically withdraw $1 to $24 and deposit it into your Digit account. You can access your funds at any time, or leave them alone to save up for a rainy day.
  • SmartyPigSmartyPig works as a free online bank for individuals saving for short-term goals, like a weekend getaway or upcoming wedding. Your savings goals are divided into different accounts so you can track each one separately. Think of it as a digital piggy bank that also rewards you for saving money and reaching your financial goals.
  • AcornsAcorns is a microsaving investing app aimed at helping beginner investors and students get started with investing. The app rounds up your bank’s withdrawals and transfers the difference to your investing account. For example, if you make a purchase for $10.41, the app will round the amount up to $11 and transfer the remaining $0.59 into your Acorns account.

5. Perform regular budget meetings and audits

As you move into different stages of your life, your financial goals and priorities will change. It’s important to adjust for these changes and perform regular audits so you can stay up to date with your goals on a regular basis.

This step is extremely important for irregular income planning because you may need to adjust how much you’re paying towards debt, increase your retirement savings, or edit an automatic savings transfer. Not being flexible with your ever-changing income can be devastating for your debt or savings goals. You could end up in a financial bind (or worse, even more debt) because you didn’t calculate for changes in needs or priorities.

As with any other financial goal, it will take time to change your money strategies and implement new savings habits. Keep at it until you find a good rhythm and style that works for you, and you’ll be able to overcome the financial roller coaster that’s associated with irregular income.

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