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Budgeting & saving

What does it mean to pay yourself first?

A young woman going through paperwork at home
Shot of a young woman going through paperwork at home
katleho Seisa/Getty Images

Is life getting in the way of your savings goals? It can be hard to tuck money away when you have bills to pay and essentials to buy. By the time you've taken care of your monthly needs (and maybe a few wants), your bank account might be just about empty. Then you're stuck waiting until your next paycheck before you can try to set aside some money for the future.

If you often find yourself in this predicament, you might benefit from the "pay yourself first" budgeting approach. This strategy places your savings goals at the top of your financial to-do list, ensuring you take action on them before your hard-earned cash goes anywhere else.

What is the 'pay yourself first' method?

The "pay yourself first" method has you put a portion of your paycheck into your savings, retirement, emergency or other goal-based savings accounts before you do anything else with it. After a month or two, you likely won't even notice this sum is "gone" from your budget. When you add to your savings immediately after you get paid, your monthly spending naturally adjusts to what's left.

Paying yourself first can be effective because it ensures you save something every pay period, and it eliminates the possibility that you'll spend what you planned to save.

How do you pay yourself first?

Paying yourself first requires balance. You should choose a reasonable amount or percentage of your check that won't leave you unable to pay your bills or meet other financial obligations. But you'll still want to try to save enough to make a difference in your savings account balance. To find the sweet spot, you'll need to take a close look at your budget.

How much should you 'pay yourself' each month?

To determine how much is the right amount for you to save each month, you'll need to  craft a budget. Here's a rundown on how to pull together a fairly simple view of your income and expenses:

  • Determine your monthly take-home pay, which is your income after taxes and retirement contributions are withheld.
  • Set aside some money for savings.
  • Review your expenses—including housing, utilities, loan payments, transportation costs, childcare, food, medical expenses and other bills. Use a budgeting app or this  cash flow worksheet  to see where your money's going.
  • Plug these numbers into this equation: Income – Savings – Expenses = Spendable. The result is your spendable income, or the amount of money that's available to spend without putting any essential bills, or your savings, in jeopardy.

Make sure you're happy with the amounts you're saving and spending and ask yourself if there are opportunities to spend less. When you find ways to cut expenses, you can use the money you're freeing up to boost your savings.

Making the savings automatic

Once you've arrived at a number you're comfortable with, you can set up automatic payments to ensure you always get paid first. This money shouldn't stay in the account that you use day-to-day because it would be too easy to accidentally spend or lose track of. Choose or create a specific savings or investment account that you'd like the money to get paid into.

One idea is to set up a split direct deposit so that for each paycheck, the pay-yourself-first money goes into your designated savings account while the rest goes to your general checking account. Another option is to set up a recurring transfer that moves money from your general account to your designated savings account at a certain time every month or pay period.

Is 'paying yourself first' right for you?

Putting this strategy into action is pretty straightforward if you decide to do it. Before jumping in, though, give thought to whether paying yourself first will work for you and how it might affect your other financial goals.

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If you're on a limited budget...

If 100% of your earnings go to necessary bills, then you're living paycheck to paycheck and it's not going to be possible to pay yourself first. In that situation, you're better off focusing on other strategies to grow your income, make your lifestyle more affordable or decrease your debt.

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If you're not on any budget...

Paying yourself first is also unlikely to be helpful if you don't adhere to a budget. Spending without limits or taking on credit card debt could outweigh the benefits of setting aside savings. You might benefit from controlling your discretionary spending before setting out on this strategy.

But if you have room in your budget for savings and can adjust your spending as needed, then paying yourself first might be a worthwhile endeavor.

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If you're paying down debt...

Under this method, it's assumed that you're making at least the minimum monthly payments on debts as part of your mandatory expenses. That may not be enough, though, if you're trying to reduce significant debt.

The trade-off between growing savings and paying down debt is complex. But there are a few general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • You may want to go ahead with paying yourself first—and stick with minimum monthly payments on debts for now—if you haven't established an emergency fund yet. Once you've built up some emergency savings, you could pause paying yourself first and instead direct as much money as you can to reduce your debt.
  • You should compare the interest rates you're paying on your debts with the rate of return you get on your savings. If you're dealing with high-interest debt, paying it down might be the more urgent priority. But you might want to go forward with paying yourself if, for example, the rate you earn on your savings exceeds the rate you're charged on a loan.
  • Other factors that could tip the balance between debt payoff and savings are whether your debts are secured by collateral like your home or car, in which case it could make sense to prioritize paying them off. And if you haven't started saving for retirement yet, that could be a reason to put debts on the back burner and pay yourself first.

Also, it's possible that it doesn't have to be an either/or decision. If you calculate that you can save 40% of your discretionary spending, you might choose to pay yourself with 20% while the other 20% is used to pay down debt. Then, you can increase the savings amount after you've made progress on your debts.

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Learn more

It can help to discuss this strategy with someone who has experience managing finances. A financial advisor can answer your questions and offer insight on the right approach for you to meet your long-term financial goals. They also can help troubleshoot any challenges you encounter along the way.

You also can sign up for Money Canvas from Thrivent, a free coaching program that helps you budget with ease, trim bills and tame spending.

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