How to Manage Money without a Six-Figure Salary

And how to get savvy with finances, especially with a lower income.

by Mackenzie Stewart

When I started to get my finances together, I was 29 and making about $23k after taxes. I can count the jobs I’ve had that paid over $15 an hour on one hand. The same goes for jobs that provided any benefits. I have lived on my own in high and low cost of living areas. I’ve shared expenses with partners and lived at home to save money. Last but not least, I’ve both had debt and been debt-free.

It’s all given me insight into how to manage money when I don’t have a lot of it and how to leverage the opportunities I’m presented with to get ahead. I know what life is like trying to maintain financial wellness without making a six-figure salary.

Listen to Mackenzie Stewart’s money story on the Nav.it podcast

These are some ways I increased my financial stability and improved how I managed money without a six-figure salary.

Start by understanding your relationship with money.

Simply put, your relationship with money is how you think and feel about money. This includes your money-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Your relationship with money can be positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy. It might be helpful to think of your relationship with money like any other relationship in your life. It can suck and drain the life out of you like a toxic friend. On the other hand, it can enrich your life. The good news is that you can improve your relationship with money by managing your money a little better.

Increase Savings

I didn’t start consistently saving until I was 29. Yes, I’m a late bloomer. Undoubtedly, job stability and living at home were strong catalysts for increasing the amount and consistency of my savings. By all means, I could have started sooner, even without those things. My biggest hurdle to saving more when I was younger was my mindset. I believed that if I wasn’t putting away $300 or $400 per check, I wasn’t good at saving money.

Realistic savings rates are not demonstrated for ordinary people, especially those with lower incomes. It’s nowhere near those amounts celebrated on TikTok and Insta. That doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong or that it’s not worth it. Any amount I saved would’ve been good, even if it was only $5 a paycheck.

Saving is more about learning to build the muscle of continuously setting aside money and not touching it.

“Willpower plays a major role in how we manage our money,” said Erin Papworth MPH, money coach and founder of financial well-being platform Nav.it. “It’s a muscle that we may need to build up over time.”

The value of how much you save can always be adjusted, but the initial goal is just to start. I can think of many instances where having a little money set aside would have alleviated significant stress and financial issues.

Start as small as you need to. If you’re unsure how to start saving because you’re also low income, check out this piece I wrote for Nav.it about just that.

Budgeting

Budgeting was not a word I fully understood until two years ago. At that time, I always had food and paid my bills and rent when they were due. Yet, I never worked off of a set budget. Because of that, I was always financially stressed. I knew I had to pay my internet bill, but how short would I be when it was due? Could I make a payment arrangement with the electric company and use that portion to pay what I was short on for the internet? Then dip into my next paycheck to pay the balance on the electric bill? I could have avoided a lot of unnecessary robbing Peter to pay Paul scenarios if I had made a realistic budget

Prioritize planning where your money will go

Nav.it built features like transaction swiping so you can take a moment to reflect on your purchases.

When I decided to sort out my finances, a budget was priority number one. I needed to understand what my money needed to accomplish and make a plan that would allow it to do just that. It meant looking at my bills and figuring out what needed to stay, what I could reduce, and what I could remove altogether. Budgeting per paycheck meant I could stagger necessary expenses without overextending one paycheck and leaving future me short. It especially meant setting spending limits and giving myself an “allowance”. This way, my extra money wasn’t constantly getting eaten up by small purchases here and there.

There are so many ways to set up a budget. Nav.it offers a straightforward way to get started. You’re already on their site. Do a little stalking and read up on it. Download their app and link it to your bank accounts. They’re a one-stop financial platform; here’s your sign to get your money in line.

The last thing I will say about budgeting is that anyone with an income can do it, even if that income isn’t predictable. If you’re working an hourly, contract, or freelance job, may I direct you to this piece I wrote for Nav.it. It’s about how to do just that.

Reduce Spending

I’m going to throw some math at you real quick. I apologize; I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t absolutely necessary! Say, for example, that you make $800 per paycheck. You make a $20 purchase because it’s only $20, right? It’s not that much money. That $20 just took up 2.5% of your paycheck. But we all know we don’t stop at one $20 purchase. We make a few of those between paydays. Say we do that six times. We’re up to $120, which is now 15% of your paycheck. For someone that makes $2,000 per paycheck, however, that $20 is only 1% of their check, and the $120 in “It’s only $20.” purchases is just 6%.

The less money we make, the bigger the impact miscellaneous spending has. We can’t spend like we make $2,000 every two weeks. 

Reducing spending on things like eating out and the impulse buy section at Target can be the difference between being able to pay bills on time and saving or not. It doesn’t mean you can’t spend at all, which is another thing most people aren’t taught.

“This is another area where willpower comes into play, only this time it’s when it becomes fatigued,” explains Erin Papworth. “After long stretches of continuous sacrifice, willpower fatigue can actually lead to binge spending in the form of overspending.”

You’re not quitting spending.

The goal isn’t to stop spending altogether. That’s like going on an uber restrictive diet.

The point is to have intentional spending.

Overcoming a scarcity mindset

On the flip side of overspending is being afraid to spend at all. I understand that spending money on anything other than necessities can feel frivolous when you have a limited income. It’s another backward norm that’s been knocked into our heads. Learning how to spend money is a real thing. Make a conscious effort to reconcile how and why you spend. I bet you dollars to donuts; not only will your budget become more balanced, but you’ll also feel better overall about spending in general.

(Pssst: Nav.it’s transaction swiping can help you do just that.)

Find a leg up where you can 

Lower-income folks are the thriftiest and most creative when it comes to money because we straight up have to be. Use those skills to locate where you can give yourself the biggest financial break. That might mean finding a roommate to split housing costs with or moving back in with your parents. You might decide to sell your car and use public transit instead of having a car payment. Find something.

There’s this weird money narrative that those of us with small incomes deserve to struggle. Well, we don’t. Finding ways to either make more money or reduce your overhead isn’t a cheat code. Oh, and it doesn’t lessen any accomplishments you make. It’s smart financial planning. To be a little harsh about it, chickadees, you literally can’t afford to let the societal norms keep you from making decisions to improve your finances. Do you want to be financially secure, or do you want to impress BrentDawg420 on Twitter? If it’s the latter, bestie, are you okay?    

Start looking at how to increase your income

There will come a point with your budget when you can’t cut anything else. The budget has been picked clean like a whale carcass at the bottom of the ocean. What do you do when you still need to find extra money but can’t cut any more expenses? You increase your income because income is limitless.

Increasing your income can look vastly different for everyone. If you need cash like now now, one of the quickest and easiest things to do is sell stuff you don’t need through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or pawn shops. Beyond that, start brainstorming how you can consistently increase your income. This may mean taking a second job or switching to a higher-paying one. It may mean negotiating for a higher salary or learning a new skill to qualify for a raise or a new role at your current job. You could set up something like altering clothes or detailing cars on the side. The options are infinite. I mean it. A woman on TikTok does tarot readings, and the tarot cards are Taco Bell hot sauce packets. If she can finesse a way to make extra money, so can you. 

Use every free and discounted resource you have

Get savvy about how to find good deals. 

Groupon was my best friend for a while because I could find discounts on car maintenance, dental services, restaurants, and more. AARP offers everyone a $12 yearly membership, and you can find even more discounts on dental and vision coverage, prescriptions, car insurance, and travel. Are you a student? Oh, lawd, you have access to deals on basically everything. 

Doing a little pricing research on necessities and fun purchases allows you to spend your money to its full potential without eating up your budget. 

Get savvy with federal and state resources if things are even tighter.

Did I lean into having minimal cash when the situation called for it to get free services? Abso-frickin-lutely. Copious amounts of resources offer assistance, from housing to everything else across the internet. Things like health insurance can be completely free through the ACA. Through state programs, you can qualify for free or discounted dental, vision, and mental health services. I applied for SNAP benefits once when my roommate lost his job, and I had to cover more bills for a short time. I’ve also used many low-income assistance programs throughout my years. I don’t regret a single instance of it. I pay taxes. I’ve paid more in taxes that provide the funding for these programs than certain other high-profile people in the news. We pay into these programs for a reason. Never feel shame for needing help; it’s why these programs exist. 

Believe that you deserve a life of financial stability.

Lastly, none of this will work if you don’t truly realize that you deserve a financially stable life. You deserve to have your bills get paid every month. You deserve a stacked savings account. And you know what? You also deserve to eat out with friends without spending the whole night doing mental math to find where you can pull from to cover the bill.

Managing money isn’t glamorous – it’s survival. It’s a lot of worrying and planning and worrying some more. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a compelling story. Compare it to the 23-year-old who invests $1,000 every payday or who paid off five-figure debt in a year by renting out a room in their home on Airbnb.

Our daily life consists of small moves like sending $20 to a savings account every two weeks or deciding we don’t need to buy the poop emoji lamp we saw in an Instagram ad. It’s not as grand as the other guys, but we’re starting from a different spot—those little actions compound. When we land that high-paying job or pay off that debt and free up money, we’re better prepared to manage it than we were before.


Mackenzie Stewart launched her site Life at 23k to fill a void for the people who can’t afford to invest or start an emergency fund. She wants to find and give financial advice that the underemployed minimum wage worker can use – not just those making great salaries with marketable degrees already.

You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Related Reads:

10 Ways to Avoid Overspending

Making Do

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