WRITTEN BY: DIANA KELLY LEVEY
Living beyond your means is an easy trap to fall into. And if you’re not keeping close track of everything that’s coming in and going out of your financial account, you may not even realize you’re doing it. But if you often run out of money before the month is over and you don’t know exactly where all the money is going, it could be a sign that you’re living above your means.
Over time, living a lifestyle beyond what you can actually afford can lead to mounting debt and also keep you from reaching your financial goals.
Related: Budgeting for basic living expenses
Simply put, ”living above your means” means that you are spending more money than you are earning. People are able to do this by relying on credit cards, loans, and pior savings to cover their expenses. However, the process is not sustainable, and eventually overspending is likely to catch up to you.
Living beyond your means can also mean that you’re spending everything you bring in, and, as a result, don’t have anything left over for saving or investing, such as building an emergency fund, saving for a short-term goal like buying a car or a home, or putting money away for retirement.
Here are 10 red flags that you’re living a lifestyle you simply can’t afford — and tips for how to get back on track.
1. You live paycheck to paycheck
If most or all of your paycheck is spent immediately on bills and you don’t have anything left over at the end of the month to put into savings, you are likely living over your means and may need to make some adjustments. If your current lifestyle has become a habit, you may feel there is no place to cut back. However, if you get out your monthly statements for the past three months and take a close look at where all your money is going each month, you will likely find places where you can cut back on spending.
This might be ditching cable, cooking (instead of ordering take-out) a few more times per week or quitting the gym and working out at home.
2. Your credit score has dropped
If you’ve been putting a lot of your expenses on your credit card and/or don’t always pay your bills on time, you may see your credit score take a hit. This number is important because it can be accessed by anyone considering giving you new credit and may be used to determine the interest rate you’ll pay on a home or car loan, and also new credit cards.
For example, you might set up automatic payments for the minimum amount due on credit card bills and loans so you never miss a payment. You may also want to pay down your balances on your credit cards and lines of credit. This can lower your “credit utilization rate” (how much of your credit limit you are using), which is factored into your score.
3. You’ve stopped your retirement contributions
If money is feeling a little tight, you may feel that now is not the time to worry about retirement. But you likely won’t be able to work forever, so it can be wise to make saving for retirement a priority and to get started early.
Thanks to compounding interest (which is when the interest you earn also starts earning interest), the earlier you start investing in a retirement fund, the easier it will be to save enough money to retire well. You don’t have to contribute a lot; even just putting aside a small amount of each paycheck into a 401(k) or IRA each month can help you build wealth over time.
4. A big portion of your income goes to housing
Keeping your rent or mortgage below 30 percent of your monthly pre-tax income is sometimes recommended because it can leave you with enough income left over to save, invest, and build wealth in general.
Staying below 30 percent can be difficult, however, if you live in a region of the country where the cost of housing is high. Nevertheless, spending a lot more than a third of your income on housing can leave you “house poor” and put your other financial obligations at risk.
If you find that your housing costs are taking too large a chunk of your monthly paycheck, you might consider downsizing, taking on a roommate or finding a way to increase your income with a side hustle.
5. Your savings account isn’t growing
Another sign you may be living beyond your means is that your savings have stagnated. Making regular deposits into your savings account in addition to your 401(k) or IRA allows you to work towards your short- and medium-term financial goals, such as putting a downpayment on a home or a car or going on vacation.
6. You’ve been charged an overdraft fee more than once this year
An overdraft fee, or “non-sufficient funds fee,” is charged when there’s not enough money in your account to cover a check or debit card payment. Mistakes happen, and a one-off overdraft isn’t necessarily an indicator of overspending. But repeat offenses can be a sign that you are living too close to the edge and don’t have a clear picture of how much money is going into your account and how much is going out.
You may want to start tracking your spending and keeping a closer eye on your spending account to make sure you always have enough to cover your electronic payments.
7. You’ve never set a budget
Many people think making and following a budget will be too complicated. But having a budget can actually simplify your spending decisions by letting you know exactly what you can and can’t afford.
Having a budget also helps to ensure you have enough money to cover essentials, fun, and also sock some away in savings. If you’ve never set financial parameters for yourself, you may want to consider taking an honest inventory of how much you are bringing in each month and how much is going out each month.
Once you get a sense of your own patterns and habits, you can work toward building a realistic budget that allows you to spend and save more wisely.
8. You’re leasing a car you can’t afford to buy
Leasing a vehicle you would not be able to purchase outright or finance can be a major financial red flag. Leasing lets you rent a high-end lifestyle, but many people end up with leases they really can’t afford.
You might be covering your monthly payments, but if you can’t do that while meeting your other expenses and also putting money into savings, then your car is likely too expensive.
You may want to consider downgrading your vehicle or saving up enough money to buy a car — either outright or by making a solid downpayment so your monthly payments are low.
9. You’re only making minimum payments on credit cards
It’s fine to use your credit card to pay for everyday expenses and the occasional big purchase. But if you can’t pay off most of the balance each month, you’re likely living beyond your means.
Rather than give over part of your paycheck just to interest each month, you may want to cut back on nonessential spending and divert that money toward paying off your balances.
10. You don’t have an emergency fund
Not having a stash of cash you can turn to in a pinch can be a sign that you’re overspending. You may be gambling on the fact that nothing will go wrong. But life is unpredictable, and getting hit with an unexpected expense you can’t pay for can lead to a financial crisis.
Instead, you may want to build an emergency fund that can cover three to six months worth of living expenses. That way, you’ll be covered should something happen, such as an illness or injury, job loss, housing issue or any other expensive personal matter should come up.
Unfortunately, living beyond your means is all too easy to do. And while a few weeks or months of spending more than you earn may not be a major problem, overspending on a regular basis will likely catch up to you in the form of high debt and neglected savings.
Creating (and sticking to) a spending budget can help ensure that you can afford your bills and basic expenses, and still have money left over to save for the things you want in the future.