How to Budget When Your Income Fluctuates

There’s nothing like trying to find ways to save money when you don’t make money. These budget series posts were created out of the desire to share what I have learned about alleviating some of the soul-crushing stress of living paycheck to paycheck – and the things I’ve learned that have helped me move away from that life. Please note that I am not, in any way, a licensed financial professional. None of these tips are guaranteed to make you money or save you money; they’re simply different ways of thinking about and using money that one person who doesn’t make much has learned over time. 

Like this topic or just want to know more? You can find the full series here


I’ve been thinking lately about the fitness / wellness posting that I’ve been doing and how it’s easy to think that’s my main priority if you don’t know me. I recently told a friend that one of my primary motivating feelings is safety: I do certain things because I want to feel safe – particularly, because I want to feel financially safe. Even exercising and eating healthy is, in some ways, about that: healthy people spend less money on doctors, etc. As I was explaining this to him, I found myself saying that is the topic that I really want to focus on here.

Changing Income

So, a little background about me: I currently am in, essentially, a salaried job. I get paid hourly, but I have enough and accrue enough PTO throughout the year that I haven’t had to go without full pay since I started working here three and a half years ago. I also work Monday – Friday, 8am – 5pm. This is really dreamy, but wasn’t always the case.

For the majority of my adult life I was either worked a shift job as my full-time job, or I was working two jobs and one of them was a shift job. So, for nine of the last 12 years, my income has changed week-to-week. When I wrote this post about budgeting when you don’t make a lot, I think that what I really wanted to talk about was how to budget when your income changes. So, let’s get started.

*Quick note: I am using whole numbers because it’s easier. You’ll want to look at your pay stubs to figure out how much gets taken out for taxes. I typically assume that about 10% is being taken out for taxes and that helps me to always come in under budget.

Figure Out Your Minimum

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Let’s say that I make $10/hour.

Usually, I work eight hours a day, five days a week. So that’s 8 x 5 = 40 hours a week. 40 x $10 = $400.

The key word there is “usually.”

Sometimes, I work as few as 5 hours a day, four days a week. Sometimes, I work as much as 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Track back through the last six months and figure out the week you worked the least amount of hours because that was what you were scheduled for. If you worked zero hours because you were on vacation or sick, that doesn’t count.

In this example, the least I worked was 5 hours a day for 4 days a week. 5 x 4 = 20, so 20 hours a week. I make $10/hour, so 20 x $10 = $200. $200 a week for four weeks, $200 x 4 = $800.

That $800 is what I need to base my budget on.

Fixed rates

From there, I figure out what’s a fixed rate. Usually, rent is a fixed rate, or has a “base rate” if you look at your monthly statement. Some common “fixed” rates are:

  • Rent/Mortgage
  • Cable
  • Credit Card payment
  • Insurance(s)

For this example, I’m going to use even numbers because it’s easier to do math that way. Let’s say that your fixed rates look like this:

  • Rent/Mortgage: $200
  • Cable: $50
  • Credit Card payment: $20
  • Car insurance: $60
  • Renters/homeowners insurance: $40

If we add those things together, we get $370. So then, we subtract $370 from $800.

$800 – $370 = $430

Variable Rates

With the remaining $430, we want to overestimate the remaining categories of the budget. Those categories might be things like:

  • Gas
  • Food
  • Fun Money
  • Miscellaneous
  • Savings

For two people, we would divide that up to look something like this:

  • Gas: $150
  • Food: $250
  • Fun Money: $15
  • Miscellaneous: $5
  • Savings: $10

$150 + $250 + $15 + $5 + $10 = $430

Every single dollar is accounted for. That’s really important. When we don’t have things categories, we spend it on stuff we don’t need. I’m sure there’s psychology behind why we do that – and if you know why, I would love to know! I just know that when I don’t have money in a bucket, I spend it, instead of saving it.

I was told that you should pay yourself first, meaning that you should put into savings before you do anything else. I think that’s a great goal to strive toward. I also think  it isn’t always realistic. There have been many times in my life where after gas and food, I had $11 that got swept into savings. I think the important thing is to always put something – even if it’s 50 cents – into savings. This helps create the habit so that when you do have a surplus, it gets put away.

What about when I make more?

Yep. I know. The burning question.

First, it’s important to talk about why it was based on the least amount you made: You have to have a game-plan for those weeks. If you go into a week where you’re working half what you usually work with no game plan, you’re just going to be panicked the whole entire time. But if you’ve got a game plan, you can more forward just a little bit freaked, rather than full-blown panicking. Ya feel?

So, in the example, we said usually, I work eight hours a day, five days a week. So that’s 8 x 5 = 40 hours a week. 40 x $10 = $400. $400 per week for four weeks… $400 x 4 = $1600.

That’s literally double.

What I did that saved my tail is that I doubled up on the things with variable rates (and actually sometimes quadruple the miscellaneous category) and instead of doubling the fixed rate items, I tossed that into savings. Let me show you what the original budget looked like and then I’ll show you what it looks like with double the income.

Original, based on making $800 per month:

  • Rent/Mortgage: $200
  • Cable: $50
  • Credit Card payment: $20
  • Car insurance: $60
  • Renters/homeowners insurance: $40
  • Gas: $150
  • Food: $250
  • Fun Money: $15
  • Miscellaneous: $5
  • Savings: $10

All those things together, $200 + $50 + $20 + $60 + $40 + $150 + $250 + $20 + $15 + $5 = $800.

Doubled, based on making $800 per month:

  • Rent/Mortgage: $200
  • Cable: $50
  • Credit Card payment: $20 + $20 = $40 (I’m assuming $20 is a minimum payment)
  • Car insurance: $60
  • Renters/homeowners insurance: $40
  • Gas: $150
  • Food: $250 + $250 = $500
  • Fun Money: $15 + $15 = $30
  • Miscellaneous: $5 + $15 = $20
  • Savings: $25 + 485 = $510

All those things together, $200 + $50 + $40 + $60 + $40 + $150 + $500 + $30 + $20 + $485= $1600.

So, those may not be super realistic numbers because probably your car insurance is more than $60 per month. And, maybe there’s a month you have three kids birthdays in a row so you need to put less in fun / savings and more into miscellaneous. Also, if you have debt hanging out on your credit score, you may opt to throw money there rather than into savings. Whatever, you do, make sure that money is assigned a name.

Also, I understand that things are not going always be as clean as it just doubling. I recommend adding more money to food first and then adding to the other categories because food lasts the longest (longer than a fun night out, for example).

The trick is to not add too much (so that extra is going into savings) and to spend to your limit.

I know it feels weird to put money into savings when you have a hole in your shoe and haven’t gone out to eat in three months. Your savings account is what keeps you from literally becoming homeless if you get sick, lose your job or your car dies. Your savings account handles the big picture while the rest of your budget is about the day-to-day details.

Hopefully, this process, done enough months in a row will make it so that you don’t have to borrow against the future.

How Can You Possibly Spend that Much on Food?

The answer is: not eating out.

You totally could spend double your budget by eating out, but then when your income suddenly plummets, you and your family will be very hungry.

So, if you all of a sudden have double the amount to spend on food, buy extra of things that go in the freezer – meats and frozen fruits and veggies, not pizza rolls. I also highly recommend that you purchase things like cough syrup and stomach aids when you have extra – those things sneak up on us when we’re sick and so it’s wise to have them in the house. Especially if being sick means you’re not working!

Take stock of your life and figure out what you use often – or what you don’t use often that is a quarter full. Things like salt and spices keep for a really long time, so buy an extra.

Spend ahead as best you can and when you’re maxed out on kitchen space, I also recommend buying for holidays way ahead of time, especially for adults. If you have space, I also encourage you to buy extra shampoo, soap (of all kinds – body, dish, laundry), socks, underwear and even shoes if you have a kind you love. My father buys shirts on sale and saves them until one he’s already wearing has a hole in it. Things like reusable travel containers also help cut down on disposable sandwich bags, etc. The same with washcloths instead of paper towels.

If, at the end of the month, you’ve spent $450 instead of $500, go out to eat if you want. Or put it into savings. Either one is fine – I’m not going to judge you and you shouldn’t either.

This Post Left Me with 1,000 Question

I feel you. I tried to keep this as simple as possible, but I know it’s not easy. I would love to hear questions, feedback and corrections!

You can comment down below, email me at intricatelyimperfect@gmail.com or DM me on Instagram.

I would absolutely LOVE to do an entire post of just your questions about money!

Happy saving, my friends!A. Rose (1)

The Situation, Part 2

I talked in this post about my struggle to find a dresser that could work as a TV cabinet for my space. Nothing was the right size and things that were didn’t do the things I wanted.

But then I saw this glorious dresser at Pier One:

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It, also, isn’t the right size, but the idea was the best I had found in a long time. So, I’ve decided to make my own. Knowing next to nothing about carpentry, I decided the best option was to make a mock up of what I wanted and show it to people who do know a lot about it.

At first, I came up with something like this:

tv cabinet first draft

It’s 24″ tall and 55″ across. I was in love with my invention.

But then I actually used a measuring tape near my current TV arrangement and realized that 24″ really isn’t a lot.

So, what’s great about this initial drawing is that there’s definitely enough support that the middle on top won’t bow, and there’s buckets of DVD storage (each cubby hole fits a DVD sized bin).

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Yeah… I forgot that I was also hoping to find a home for books… Smooth move, A. Rose.

So, it was back to the drawing board… which in this case is actually just Excel.

First, though, I did a quick search of how high a TV should actually be. Houzz has a great, though complicated, explanation of how to determine how high your TV should be. According to this, that 24″ is correct. BUT, there’s that section about “Trade Offs” that says that style can trump function, which I’m definitely good with the idea of!

I found these adorable bins at Target that would be so cute, so I used them to start to figure out the math: if the bins are 13″, I need to make a hole that is at least 13.5″ all the way around. This will allow for both the larger bins and books. So, I increased the height and added larger bin storage and increased the DVD storage. Here’s what it looked like after some tinkering:

tv cabinet second draft

It looks giant, but it’s actually just slightly over three feet tall! There’s still tons of DVD storage, and spots for up to four bins, plus a shelf for the PlayStation, etc.!

But then I started thinking… Each DVD bin should be able to comfortably hold 35 DVD’s. With this current arrangement, that means this unit can hold 540 DVD’s. I don’t really need that. I just need to move the DVD’s in my dresser out of my dresser. The bigger priority is the stacks of books.

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So, I started thinking… what if I added another bin spot, and lengthened some of the DVD boxes to make book shelves? Would I lose too much DVD storage?

tv cabinet third draft

That’s still room for 210 DVD’s. The height of each of the three shelves on the bottom (stacked on top of each other) is 5 inches. That’s not really enough for books. Hmmm…

tv cabinet forth draft

This could work, though. This could definitely work.

I’m going to leave it up to you though! Which option do you like the best? One, two, or three?

A. Rose (1)

Bathroom Cleaning Hacks

I don’t live in a very big space, and, as a result, it only takes me about an hour and a half to give a good cleaning to it. #apartmentforthewin

But no matter what type of home I’ve lived in, keeping the bathroom clean has always taken the same amount of time.

Bathroom Cleaning Hacks

Secret: I worked in two different hotels for a cumulative four years after college, sometimes in addition to working full-time. #sidehustle? While I was technically a front desk clerk, when you work in a smaller hotel, it’s pretty much all hands on deck all the time.

So, I learned a lot about industrial laundry, and general maintenance, and cleaning bathrooms. A whole lot about cleaning bathrooms. This knowledge is just kind of sitting in my brain, so I thought it’d be good to share it!

Tip #1: Wipe the Counter Frequently

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I rinse out my sink every time I brush my teeth. But a lot of things happen in my bathroom – like hairspray – that dirty up the sink, so I keep some Clorox wipes under the sink so I can wipe it down while brushing my teeth or hair. It keeps the counter from accumulating a bunch of gunk that takes forever to scrub out.

Tip #2: Fill the Sink & Turn on the Shower

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When I’m going to scrub up my whole bathroom I start by filling the sink with hot water and turning on the shower (on super hot). A housekeeper once taught me to do this because the steam helps loosen up anything that’s really stuck on there (read: hairspray. all the time). I don’t leave the shower on the whole time I’m cleaning because it would make scrubbing the tub impossible, but I do pretty much everything else while it’s on.

Tip #3: Clean the Toilet Bowl with Your Hands

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Okay. I know. That sounds terribly gross. That’s why humans invented cleaning gloves. And toilet bowl cleaner.
I put the toilet bowl cleaner in, and then clean my mirrors / counters, then scrub with a toilet brush. But, when I’m cleaning the rest of the toilet (base, lid, etc.), I use a cloth and some cleaner and give a swish to the inside of the bowl.
It has already had cleaner in it, so it should theoretically be clean, but an extra coat of cleaning solution never hurts. And, according to the housekeepers I know, it helps you to clean the under-the-rim spots that often retain germs and gunk that the toilet brush doesn’t always get. And in my mind, it’s much grosser to think about leftover germs than it is to get rid of them.

 

Tip #4: Let the Spray Sit

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What does that even mean, A. Rose? It means that I turn the water on, and then spray things down – toilet, counter, etc. I spray the mirror last and clean it first, then I work my way around the bathroom, and having let the cleaner sit for a while with the steam lets anything that’s stuck on there come up more easily.

Tip #5: The Bleach Dress

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I have a dress that D calls my “Bleach Dress.” Because my bathroom isn’t exactly a high-traffic area (there are no kids, the apartment is empty for most of the day), I clean the toilet every week, and give the rest a quick scrub every two weeks. But once a month I clean it with bleach. When I first move into an apartment, I always clean the bathroom with bleach for a few weeks in a row because you just never know what the person before you was doing.
I have a light weight dress my sister gave me – it’s super comfy but it has a hole in it. It’s my dress I wear when I’m going to clean with bleach, because if it gets a bleach stain, I don’t care – there’s already a hole in it so I don’t wear it out.
As I’m writing this, I’m feeling really high maintenance that I have a separate dress for bleach, but I don’t own a lot of clothing, so I try to preserve what I have as best I can.

 

What about you? What are your tried and true methods for keeping your bathroom sparklingly clean?

A. Rose (1)