Do you live paycheck to paycheck?

It’s a question you may never have imagined answering “yes” to at this stage in life. But working hard and playing by the rules no longer guarantees financial security in retirement. Sadly, it doesn’t guarantee retirement at all.

Why? Because wages haven’t kept pace with inflation for decades—more than 40 years by some estimates. And that means many Americans who are eligible to retire simply can’t afford to do it.

“To make matters worse, our nation’s badly frayed safety net continues to fail older adults who didn’t have extra to put away for retirement—and who now rely heavily on Social Security to cover their basic living costs,” said Jen Teague, Associate Director for Health Coverage and Benefits at NCOA.

Even with other sources of income, she continued, the margin between what many people take in versus what they spend can be razor-thin. “It’s no wonder that 49% of Baby Boomers say they’re barely able to pay for necessities like housing, food, and transportation,” Teague said, “In essence, this is the very definition of living paycheck to paycheck.”

Still, there’s a silver lining: It’s never too late build new or better budgeting and debt management skills that can help break the cycle. If you’re wondering, “how do I get my finances in order?” this article is for you.

How can I budget and save money on a small income?

It’s all about working with what you have, Teague explained. And that starts with knowing exactly how much you earn versus how much you spend.

“It’s possible to budget and save, even on a low income,” she said. “It takes practice and discipline, but you can do it.”

Addie, 72, would agree. A resident of Cleveland, Addie retired ten years ago when she first became eligible for Social Security. Soon, she discovered that her monthly benefit didn’t stretch as far as she had hoped. Following a referral to her local Department of Aging, Addie now attends financial literacy and budget planning classes that are helping her better manage her income and expenses.

Similarly, 87-year-old Kelle had trouble paying for food and other necessities. Her $830 Social Security check barely covered rent and utilities. After attending a Boost Your Budget educational event hosted by one of NCOA’s partner organizations in Las Vegas, Kelle is learning ways to save money and tap into financial assistance programs, too.

Beyond financial literacy classes, there are other places you can start:

  • Create and use a monthly budget calculator. This simple tool acts as a window you can look through to see how, when, and where you spend your money. You can set one up in three easy steps, and you don’t need a computer or financial expertise to do it.
  • Explore practical strategies for managing debt, saving more money, and stretching the dollars you do have. “Even if you already have a budget, finding ways to decrease spending can make more of your pennies count,” Teague said.
  • Make your own budget. Learn about the parts of a budget and how to spend and save using the 70/30 rule. “A budget won’t change your money situation overnight,” Teague explained, “but it’s a powerful tool as you work toward greater financial security.”

Should I pay someone to manage my money?

Let’s face it: financial literacy isn’t something we’re born with. Some of us just aren’t comfortable with numbers. Others may find that the physical, emotional, and cognitive realities of growing older make it more challenging to navigate everyday money decisions. Still others are so busy working to make ends meet that there’s little time left to stay on top of bank accounts, bills, and budgets.

“First and foremost, if any of this this sounds like you, there’s no shame in it,” Teague pointed out. “It’s important to know that you can ask for someone else’s help. It’s like installing a new outlet or fixing the sink. Some people are comfortable doing it; others want and need the expertise of an electrician or a plumber.”

Several options exist when it comes to getting help to manage your money:

  1. Enlist a family member, caregiver, or friend. Is there a trusted person in your life with a little financial know-how? They may be willing and eager to offer free assistance with bills, budgeting, and more. For example, you could learn how to set up automatic payments for regular monthly expenses simply by asking for advice. You can also designate a financial guardian to handle tasks ranging from writing checks to negotiating with creditors to managing your bank accounts.
  2. Consider financial counseling. Financial counselors specialize in helping people with low incomes get their finances in order. These counselors are Certified Financial Planners who partner with nonprofits and other organizations to offer their services free of charge.  Financial counseling is holistic, and encompasses: Budgeting and debt management, financial goal setting, ow to save money on a small income, and more. 
  3. Use a financial advisor for budget planning. Many financial advisors offer budget planning services, and the costs of these services may be more accessible than you might think.

Still, Teague recommends caution when thinking about a financial advisor.

“It all depends on what you need,” she said. “Chances are, if you live on a low fixed income, your top priority won’t be learning how to invest on the stock exchange. That’s helpful because the professionals who focus on this area tend to charge high fees. But it’s not necessarily easy know which type of advisor does what and how much it will cost.”

That’s because the term “financial advisor” itself is broad and includes several types of professionals. It also doesn’t guarantee that a person who describes themselves as one will abide by standard rules of conduct. That’s why, first and foremost, you need to look for someone who has earned one or more respected credentials in the field, such as a Certified Financial Planner™ designation.

The following questions can help you decide whether it makes sense to work with a financial advisor:

  • What specific guidance do I need? If you want help understanding and organizing your comprehensive financial picture, including managing and paying off debt, planning for retirement, and creating an investment portfolio, then a financial advisor can offer particular value. On the other hand, if you want to focus more narrowly on day-to-day budgeting, there may be better options available.
  • How do I choose the right financial advisor for me? You need to be certain that any financial advisor, planner, or coach is both credentialed and professionally bound to act in your best interest. Neither of these things is automatically guaranteed, so it will involve some research on your part. Do you have the time and comfort level to do it? If not, it may make sense to choose a different type of help.
  • How much can I afford to pay? Typically, financial advisors will charge flat, commission-based, or percentage-based fees. These fees may be annual, hourly, or project-based and can add up quickly: reaching as much as $10,000 in a year, according to a recent US News and World Report article. If your budget already is tight, paying this kind of money probably doesn’t make sense.

All of that said: If you’re working right now, and if your employer offers a 401K or other retirement program, you may be eligible to participate in free financial advising. “This is common with employer-sponsored retirement benefits, so it’s absolutely worth checking into,” Teague said.

Successfully managing your money, debt, and savings is so important when it comes to aging in place, Teague says.

“Living on a fixed income can make this more challenging for anyone, but there are ways to take control of your financial situation individually and with help," she continued.

Don’t let embarrassment or fear stop you; it’s never too late. You can do it. And you’re worth it, too.”

The bottom line

Sound money management skills are crucial no matter your age or income level. But creating, managing, and sticking to a budget plan can feel impossible when you live paycheck to paycheck—as many older adults do. If you need someone to manage your money, you’re not alone. From trusted relatives to paid financial advisors to no-cost financial counselors, you have options.

More options to boost your budget

Have you heard of NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp®? This free online tool connects millions of older adults with benefits programs that can help pay for health care, medicine, food, utilities, and more. Visit today to browse a variety of savings opportunities for yourself, or for someone you know.

Have questions about BenefitsCheckUp? We're here to help. Call NCOA's helpline at 1-800-794-6559, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET.