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Living Below Your Means

Living Below Your Means

If you have recently left a financially abusive relationship, you may find yourself living an entirely new financial reality. You may be supporting yourself, and perhaps your children, alone.  

This could be a huge relief if you were in a relationship where you carried the burden of providing for the family. Perhaps you were expected to work two or three jobs while your ex lazed around, claiming to be too sick, injured, or whatever, to work.  If that is your story, then this freedom will likely be a welcome change.

However, if you are one of the many who was either not allowed to work, was primary caregiver, not breadwinner, or was never able to start a career or gain an education, then this could be quite a rude awakening.

Either way, learning how to earn and spend in balance is critical to your recovery.

Let’s talk about earning first. If you are suddenly single, you are likely going to need income. If you are in the first category and have been working to support the entire family already, then you may not need to make any changes yet. However, if you want to, then don’t be shy. Go for it.

Earning money and enjoying your work are not always one in the same. If you are unhappy with your position, your work environment, your income or are burnt out on what you’re doing, it may be time to think about making a change. Don’t be afraid to dream a little.  

Living Below Your Means
Living Below Your Means
Getting out of a financially abusive relationship can increase your self-esteem. It will give you the lift you need to go out and pursue whatever it is you were never able to do before.

Maybe it’s time to get that degree or special skill you know would lift you to the next level. Maybe you deserve more money for all the hard work you do at your current job but have always been too afraid to ask. Recovery means renewal, recharge, change and growth. Carpe diem.

However, if you find yourself suddenly thrust into the role of primary or only breadwinner for the first time, then you face a different challenge. You probably need to get a job quickly. Evaluate your current skill set and create the most dynamic resume you can. If all your skills come from managing a household, then put those skills down as if you’d been paid to do them. It’s no small feat to run a household, particularly if it’s a financially abusive one. I’m sure there are things you did that could convert into business skills. 

Organization, time management, budgeting, and strategic planning are all skills used by companies.

Putting together a list of your skills and competencies will also help build your belief in yourself. Coming out of a financially abusive relationship may make you feel a bit incompetent. That’s low self-esteem caused by living with someone manipulative and controlling. It undermines your belief in yourself. Writing out everything you’re good at will help you to see your true value.

Then get out and hustle. You might not land your dream job to start with but starting is what matters. You need to bring home the bacon first. Worry about upleveling your life later. The time will come. Right now, you just need to get on solid financial footing. 

Once the income side is under way, it’s time to examine the spending side.

Living below your means comes down to spending less than you earn and having enough to pay off debt and save.

That may seem like a lot. Remember, it’s the goal, not necessarily where you’ll start.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “pay yourself first.” What does this mean? It means first putting a set amount of your income into savings. Then covering your daily needs with what is left.

That sounds easy in theory, but it can be hard to put into practice, especially when you’re recovering from financial abuse. You may be burdened with debt.  Or you may be supporting yourself and your children for the first time.

It starts with a plan. Think strategically.

You will need savings. Putting that first on your list will help you build your financial security faster. You will have your own resources to cover emergencies when they arise, and they will. Perhaps now you can only put one hundred dollars a paycheck aside. If that is too much, start wherever you can.  

There are two critical parts to this: one, making savings a habit, and two, learning to live on what’s left. Always.

Setting up auto payments into your savings account is the easiest way to make saving a habit. If you have direct deposit with your employer, you should be able to request a certain amount of each paycheck goes into one account (your savings). The rest should go into a different account (your checking). Again, pick the highest amount you can comfortably afford and plan to increase it as soon as possible.  

If your employer does not offer direct deposit, then set up an auto transfer for the day after you receive your paychecks from your checking account to your savings account. This will leave the rest in your checking but move the savings out, so you won’t be tempted to spend it.

Next, you need a budget. You need to have a plan. As Benjamin Franklin said, “if you fail to plan you plan to fail.” And you can’t afford to do that.

Budgeting is a deep subject and there are numerous ways to do it, but I say use the KISS method. Keep It Simple Silly. No reason to make this hard, you have enough on your plate. This is about building your skill set and your confidence in yourself.

Start with your fixed expenses. These are things that don’t vary much each month. Housing, utilities, car payments, loan or debt payments, anything that you must pay every month and you can predict within a small variant their cost.  To start with, just add them all up and use this as your fixed expenses number in your budget.

Living Below Your Means
Living Below Your Means
Next, look at your variable expenses. This is where you have control and need to decide what your priorities are and how much to allocate to them.

If things are super tight, which they might be at first. Take the amount of your take home pay (after taxes, benefits, etc.), minus what is going into savings, and subtract the total of your fixed expenses. What’s left must cover your variable expenses.

Remember that some months have four weeks, and some have five. If you get paid semi-monthly (two times per month) you may have extra days to cover the long months. If you get paid bi-weekly (every other week), or weekly, you will have one extra paycheck on the long months. Either way you get paid the same amount of money. The key is that you need to learn to budget to the rhythm of your paychecks.

List your variable expenses in order of priority with an estimate of how much you need for each category every month. Just because they’re variable doesn’t mean you can go without. Groceries, clothes, haircuts, household’s supplies, doctors’ appointments, gas (depending on your driving habits) are all variables. Some months you’ll have more, others you’ll have less.  

This is where budgeting gets real.

You must be realistic about how much each is going to cost. If the amount you have left over after you pay your savings and your fixed costs isn’t enough to cover what you estimate your variables to be, then you must trim them. Yep, you heard me. It might mean you have to go without something to have something else. Never fun, but it can be done.

Making hard choices is your job as the family financial leader. You must set boundaries and limits on yourself and your kids. Wanting something is different than needing it. You may have to decide to forgo a vacation that you can’t afford and settle for a day at the park with a family picnic instead. Adjusting and readjusting your spending as you go through the month so you don’t overspend is paramount.  

You must not spend more than you have allocated for variable expenses. Period.

Learning to live below your means will get you to where you can afford more luxuries over time. But you must live below your means if you are ever going to get ahead. Building your savings will help you cover any emergencies (car breaks down, trips to the emergency room – I mean true emergencies). If you have money in savings, you won’t have to use a credit card or get into debt. Just be sure to build your savings back up if you are forced to use it.

In the end, you will learn good money habits by implementing these strategies. Coming out of a financially abusive relationship means learning to do things differently. Doing things differently will help you build your confidence in yourself and your money skills. Soon you will be thriving financially and know that you are financially smart and savvy.

Sherry Lutz Herrington is the owner of Sherrington Financial Fitness, a business consulting and accounting firm specializing in strategic business planning and solid financial accounting for businesses. She is also the author of Strong Women Thriving (, a blog which focuses on empowering women to be financially savvy, particularly after experiencing financial abuse. Sherry is currently writing a new book that both shares her personal story and addresses financial abuse. She can be reached at Join our FB group

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