How to Budget for an Irregular Income

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The pain. The horror. Making a budget for an irregular income just can’t be done!!!


I hear this stuff all the time. There are a million excuses for not starting a budget… but that’s just what they are – excuses. Budgeting for inconsistent income is no different.

Sure, it’s easier to create a budget when your paycheck doesn’t change from month to month. But that doesn’t mean you should just give up and shoot from the hip. Heck no!

When you make an inconsistent income, budgeting is more important than ever. During the good times, you need to plan carefully. That way, your bank accounts don’t run dry during the slow months.

You can do this. It might seem like a tall order, but creating a budget for an irregular income is actually pretty easy once you learn how. I’ll give you the secret sauce in a minute, but let’s get started by reviewing a few budgeting basics.

Creating a Baseline Budget

We’re huge fans of keeping a monthly budget. Budgets help you seize control of your financial situation by planning for your income and your spending every month. In fact, getting on a budget is a key part to getting ahead with your money.

Our favorite type of budget, a zero-sum budget, helps you harness the power of your paycheck to make the most of the money you already earn. With this method, you create a plan for every dollar you take home. This helps you stop wasting money and start discovering funds you never even knew you had.

See Also: How to Start a Budget When You’re Broke

To budget for an irregular income, start in the same place.

The goal of a zero-sum budget is to “spend” every dollar you make into different categories. That way, each dollar has a clear and specific purpose. You’ll know where all of your money is going so you don’t end up wasting it throughout the month.

Here’s the formula to make it work:

Income – Expenses – Savings = Zero

When everything balances to zero, you are in total control of your money. Set up a zero-sum budget quickly like this:

  1. Determine your income. – Grab a sheet of paper, and create a category at the top labeled income. Now, determine your income for the month. Jot it down. Because your income fluctuates, we’ll base your initial budget on the least amount of money you’ll make during a single month throughout the year.
  2. Determine your expenses. – Now, grab all of your monthly bills and separate them by category. Add up each category, and jot down the total.
  3. Determine your savings. – Subtract your expenses from your income. Whatever you have left over is the amount you can safely save. Since your income fluctuates, you may not have anything to save yet. You may even be short. That’s OK. We’re going to show you how to even out your income in a minute.
  4. Prioritize your expenses. – If you don’t have anything left, you need to prioritize your expenses. Start by ensuring you have enough to cover your food, shelter, utilities, and transportation (in that order). After those expenses are accounted for, you can start allocating funds for your discretionary expenses (stuff like cell phones, cable TV, restaurants, entertainment, etc.).
  5. Calculate what you need. – When you run out of funds, stop. This is your baseline budget. It’s what your budget will look like at its tightest. At a minimum, you always need at least enough money to cover the four essentials each month.

So, that’s a really quick run-down of how to create a zero-sum budget. If you want to dive in deeper, this piece walks you through every step in more detail. If you’re a spreadsheet fan, we’ve got a pretty rad budgeting spreadsheet you can download here.

Alright, let’s move on to the real reason you’re here: Evening out your income.

Dealing with Income Swings

So, your income goes up and down. Some months you’re swimming in cash; other months, you’re scraping by on your baseline “bare bones” budget. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to smooth out those wild income swings.

There is. I call it a “Boom and Bust Account.

Creating a “Boom and Bust” Account

This little trick might just change your life. Seriously.

When trying to budget for an irregular income, creating a Boom and Bust Account is the biggest key to success! This gem helps you save money during the good times while supplementing your budget during the bad. It spreads your available income evenly throughout the year, making it easier to plan your budget from month to month.

In my experience, a Boom and Bust Account is easiest to understand by looking at some examples.

Example #1

Let’s assume you work a seasonal job where the majority of your income is earned during the summer months. Last year, you made a total of $50,000 in take home pay – an average of $4,166 a month. Of course, that money doesn’t come in evenly.

See Also: 6 Ways We Crush Our Budget Every Month 

From April to October, you brought home a total of $40,000. For those 7 months, you averaged $5,714 in take home pay. But, you only took in a total of $10,000 over the other 5 months – an average of just $2,000 per month.

It’s super tough to budget if you don’t have some way to even this out. But, with a Boom and Bust Account, you can.

Because your short for a period of five months every year, you need to save for that shortfall when business is booming. But how much do you need to save?

First, calculate your average monthly shortfall during your bust period. In this case, your average monthly income is $4,166 but you only make $2,000 on average during your bust period. Thus your average shortfall is $2,166 a month. ($4,166-2,000=$2,166)

Now, multiply your average shortfall by the longest period of time you fall short – in this case 5 months. So, in our example, a fully stocked Boom and Bust Account would have $10,830 in it. ($2,166 x 5 months)

HOT TIP: A Boom and Bust Account works best when you keep it separate from your other funds. An online savings account is the perfect option. You can create it easily, access the money when you need it, and move funds around with the click of a button. Follow the link to learn more about our favorite online savings account.

So, how do you save that money? Easy. Do it during the boom time.

Every month you make more than your average monthly income, save the overage in your Boom and Bust account until it is full. Using our example, let’s say you make $5,500 in August. Keep your average monthly take home pay to handle your current expenses ($4,166) and save the rest in your Boom and Bust Account ($1,334). Do this every month until you have a fully stocked account.

Clear as mud? Let’s try another example.

Example #2

Let’s say you make a nice living as a commission-based salesman, taking home $80,000 a year. Last year, you experienced a drought where you didn’t get paid a dime for 3 months. Here’s how to handle it.

  • Estimate your total annual take-home pay: $80,000
  • Calculate your average monthly take-home pay: $6,667
  • Determine your longest shortfall period: 3 months
  • Determine your average take-home pay during the shortfall: $0 / 3 months = $0
  • Calculate your average shortfall during the bust period: $6,667 (total average) – $0 (shortfall average) = $6,667 average shortfall
  • Calculate your fully stocked B&B Account: $6,667 (avg. shortfall) x 3 months = $20,001 needed

So, to smooth out the bumps during the year, you need to save $20,001 during the boom periods. Seem like a lot? You can do it!

Remember, any earnings over your average should be saved during your boom periods. If you take home $12,000 one month, sock away $5,333 ($12,000-$6,667 = $5,333). When you make just $5,000 next month, dip into the fund to cover the $1,667 shortfall.  That might seem like a huge amount, but you’ll thank me when you go through a dry spell.

Quick Tips to Budget for an Irregular Income

Now that you know how to create your own Boom and Bust Account, here are a couple of quick tips to help you stay on track.

  • Keep your B&B Account separate.  – Be sure to keep your Boom and Bust Account separate from your other funds. Don’t mix it with your emergency fund. Don’t mix it with your savings. Keep it in a separate account so you have to make a conscious decision to use it for balancing out your income swings.
  • Keep your B&B Account liquid. – Make sure the money in your Boom and Bust Account is easily accessible. You don’t want this money tied down. Also, resist the temptation to stick it in something like a mutual fund. Remember, this account is purely for helping you level the swings of irregular income. It’s not meant to be used as an investment. Instead, work your other savings goals into your monthly budget.
  • Underestimate your income. – I find its always best to underestimate your income and overestimate your shortages. That way, in the event your estimates are off, you’ll always have a little bit more than you need. Of course, you don’t want to swing too far in the other direction either. If you’re way too conservative, you’ll create an artificial shortage of cash… and being short on cash is what we are trying to avoid!!!
  • Reevaluate your needs. – It’s a good idea to check in with your progress a few times every year. That way, you can see if you are meeting, exceeding, or falling short on your projections. If you’re too high or too low, make adjustments to your Boom and Bust savings as needed. (Again, I like to stay conservative in my estimates. That way, I always have more than I need.)

Final Thoughts

Creating a budget for an irregular income can seem daunting, but a little planning goes a long way. Save more during the good times so you can relax during the bad. By using a Boom and Bust Account, you’ll even out the swings and rest easy knowing you can handle all the ups and downs during the year.

Don’t Forget This: Keeping your money separate is key to making this work! Start your Boom and Bust account right away with an online savings account from CIT Bank. The account is free and you’ll earn more than 100x more than at many national competitors. Start saving with an online savings account here!

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  1. Since starting a blog and having income from it, I’ve had to learn how to include this blog income into my budget. Something I thought I’d never have to do with my traditional corporate job path I was on!

  2. These are great ideas! When I was fresh out of college I had an hourly office job. They would routinely cut my hours and do everything they could not to pay me, which meant my income was drastically different each month.

    When it came down to it, I created a baseline budget of all my non-negotiable expenses, like rent, my car payment, insurance, etc. For flexible expenses like groceries, gas, and entertainment, the goal was pretty much to stay as close to $0 as possible. I totally asked for grocery store gift cards for my birthday–but it was a necessity.

    Anyway, once I got to the end of the month I would then apply any excess income to savings or to debt. I lived as lean as possible until I managed to score a regular income, which did make savings and paying off debt much easier and predictable.

    1. Ugh… that stinks. I’m sorry that happened to you. It sounds like you got through it and learned a lot about money in the process though. Have a great week!

  3. Great post!! We’ve had irregular income for years up until last year when both my husband and I got regular ole’ FT jobs. The goal was always to save as much as possible. I love the “Boom or Bust” idea!! We also got in the habit of paying bills super early. So if we had a good month, we’d set aside extra money for the mortgage the following month, or pay our car insurance ahead for the year, etc.

    Now, I have irregular income through my blog, but this is just “extra.” Goal is always to save it, but we do use it for things like medical bills or other expenses that may pop up that weren’t necessarily planned for.

    Great tips, Greg, thank you!!

    1. We definitely pay our bills early every month. In fact, we do it several times a month just to stay on top of it.

      Thinking of blog income as “extra” money is a good way to do it. We used to try and save all of ours as well. We always thought of it as gravy, but we still made sure to track it all. Otherwise, we’d fall into the trap of wasting it.

  4. I really like this post! You guys were the first people who introduced me to a zero-sum budget a long while ago 🙂 Our income is regular (yay, yearly contracts!) but our side hustles aren’t. Currently, we don’t depend on our side hustles for anything. Instead, the money goes towards mortgage paydown or investing/saving. But as I pursue more streams of income, it makes a lot of sense to look into one of these options!

    1. Yay! I’m so glad we’re spreading the zero-sum budget love 😀 Side hustles are a great way to save extra money and pay down all types of debt. Love it!

  5. Good article. I really like the idea of opening a separate bank account to handle the “Boom or Bust” account. I have a separate bank account for my income taxes (for consulting fees). If there is anything left in the account at the end of the tax season, I contribute the balance to an additional retirement account.

    1. I think having separate savings vehicles is a great way to save for almost any “big” need or want. That way, those funds stay separate and feel special. It’s too easy to let that money bleed into other purchases otherwise.

  6. I don’t have irregular income, but what I would like to say is that even though it’s an irregular one, one shouldn’t be stopped by it from saving some for the future and should carry on with budget as it is really a big help to manage income and make ends meet.

    1. Budgets are definitely a huge key to getting ahead – especially if your income fluctuates.

  7. As a freelancer going through a bust month presently, my immense cash reserves gives me a peace of mind that is priceless. Thanks for this amazing article!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sandy! It’s definitely important to have that extra savings when you freelance. You never know what the next month might bring.

  8. The best way to budget for an irregular income is to save for a rainy day. The freelancers, like me mostly experience the same..when the income is high we feel in up mode otherwise dreary.

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