by HEATHER E. SCHWARTZ
More than a decade before I had kids, I started aiming for a freelance writing career. I wanted to control my schedule, so I could work around school vacations and such. Writing is far from the only career option that offers that kind of flexibility. Plenty of parents work full-time and part-time jobs that offer variable hours in all kinds of industries. Like freelance writing, these jobs also often provide a difficult-to-manage variable pay. And that’s why I want to let you in on a secret I just discovered that can help a lot with managing finances. Maybe you’ll laugh and say you knew this all along, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
First, let’s talk about variable pay. Here’s how it’s worked in my life for the past 12 years. I accept a writing assignment and meet a deadline, which should trigger half of my full payment. Then, I wait for the check to arrive in the mail. This may take two weeks. It might take 30 days. Processing of my check might be dropped completely when people in payroll go on vacation (yes, this has happened more than once). In the meantime, I complete revisions on said assignment, turn them in, and await my second payment. Predicting when this next check will arrive is even trickier. If a publisher decides to delay printing my work, I could find myself waiting six months or more for that money.
The result: Some months, I’m paid enough to cover my expenses. Some months, I’m paid more than enough. And many months, I’m not paid at all.
I realize not everyone has this exact problem, but suppose you work hours that vary from week to week in retail or at a restaurant. Or you work in sales. You’re dealing with the same overall issue: You never know exactly how much money you’re going to have. Some weeks and months will be better than others.
Until last fall, I handled my fluctuating income by spending all my money when I had it and going into debt when I didn’t. For example, when a check arrived, I might stock up three weeks’ worth of groceries. Two weeks later, I’d run into trouble if I happened to need more grocery-related items and another check hadn’t arrived yet. So I’d visit the store with my credit card, planning to pay off that bill later, when the next check finally came. The plan never worked out, though, because I was always setting myself up to be cash poor.
And then, last fall, Google was invented.
OK, not really, as I’m sure you know. What actually happened was I became determined to get a handle on this problem and halt my growing debt. And it finally occurred to me to ask Google how to manage a fluctuating income. The answer I found was simple.
Pay yourself a salary that’s the same each week. No matter how much money arrives in the mail or appears in your paycheck.
It sounds so easy, right? This is the part where you can laugh if you already knew it. And feel free to make it a bitter laugh if it doesn’t sound simple at all. I get it. The challenge with this system is that you do need some money in the bank to get started — probably enough to make it through a few weeks. You also have to earn enough to pay yourself a set salary that will cover your expenses. Let’s be honest: This isn’t always possible for parents juggling careers with caretaking responsibilities.
Still, if your paycheck varies wildly from week to week or month to month, this is a system worth checking out. Once I stopped draining my bank account whenever it had money in it, I was able to stretch my funds much farther. I didn’t have to rely on credit cards all the time. The logic here is obvious, but I’ll admit I was surprised by how that worked out.
And it was a much better surprise than an empty mailbox when I was expecting a check.