Paying Yourself First – 6 Ways to Automate Your Financial Life


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Do you believe in paying yourself first? That is, directing earned income first to your retirement and savings accounts before you have a chance to squander it?

There a number of good reasons to do so from both a practical standpoint and also from a behavioral finance standpoint — it’s tougher to spend money that never hits your pocket or checking account.

The best way to pay yourself first is to automate the process. That way, you never have to think about it.

This post was originally published on The Physician Philosopher.




Paying Yourself First – 6 Ways to Automate Your Financial Life


If I had to choose only two principles to teach anyone new to personal finance it would be your savings rate and automating your financial life. Your savings rate matters more than just about anything else if you want to become financially independent.

This is because your savings rate incorporates other important ideas like spending less than you earn. The second, and equally important principle, is to pay yourself first by automating your financial life.

The purpose behind paying your self first is to prevent yourself from the most common American financial mistake – spending everything you earn.  If the money is swept out of your bank account to your real priorities first, then you cannot spend it.

Why? Because you’ll never see it in your checking account.  It turns out that “out of sight, out of mind” is quite true in personal finance.

Here are 6 ways that you can make your financial lives more efficient through automation.  By doing so, you’ll find it easier and easier to reach your financial goals.



1. Emergency Fund


If you haven’t created an emergency fund yet, this is the first place that your money should go (after receiving any matching money from your employer towards your 401K/403B).  Most recommend saving 3-6 months of living expenses in your emergency fund. This should be an entirely separate account from your checking account.

There are many reasons that an emergency fund is important. To list a few, emergency funds allow us to live a life with less financial stress, encourage us to be aggressive with our investing, and allow us to avoid digging ourselves further into consumer and credit card debt.

If your funds get depleted due to an emergency expense this should be repleted first before anything else is done.  For example, when our air conditioning unit went out, we paid this with some monthly cash flow (since we always spend less than we take home) and the additional money came from our emergency fund.  Because it was there, the $5,500 AC unit did not add any additional stress to our lives.

How much is 3 to 6 months’ worth of spending for you or your family?  It depends.

For my family, we spend about $10,000 per month.  So, we have between $30,000 to $60,000 in liquid assets (i.e. cash in a high-yield savings account) available to us at all times.  To figure out how much you spend each month, see number 6 below.


2. Retirement Accounts


The next place to route your paycheck is towards your retirement accounts. If you have student loans, you may consider breaking this up into two separate steps (getting your match from your 401K/403B and then directing money towards your student loans prior to putting additional money into other accounts).

If you don’t have student loans, then you should be filling up this space according to your monthly savings goals.

For example, say that you have determined that you need to save $100,000 per year to be financially independent by age 50.  This means you need to save $8334 per month.

According to the Investing Waterfall, it might look like the following:

  1. $592 to your Health Savings Account
  2. $1625 per month to your 401K
  3. [Employer match towards 401K of $1000 per month]
  4. $1625 per month to your governmental 457 plan
  5. $1,000 per month towards your annual Backdoor Roth IRA
  6. $2,492 to a taxable brokerage account


The above would result in an annual savings goal of right at $100,000.  If you are paying yourself first, all of this money would be swept out of your paycheck BEFORE you see it and have the chance to spend what is left.


Further Reading: If you aren’t sure how much you should be saving each year, read this annual savings goal post.


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3. Student Loan Payment


For the 80% of readers graduating with student loan debt, you obviously need to automate these payments as well.  If your Debt to Income Ratio (DIR) is < 1, then I recommend you refinance your student loans to get a cashback deal.  If your DIR >1 (and particularly 1.5) then you should consider PSLF as a potential option.

Regardless, your anticipated student loan payment to have your loans taken care of in 3 to 5 years should be swept out of your bank account automatically.  It’s another example of paying your debt-free future self first!

For my family, this meant a scheduled $5,500 monthly payment with plans to use 90% of any bonus/unexpected pay towards our student loans according to The 10% Rule. This allowed us to pay off $200,000 in 19 months.  You can likely do the same if you automate your financial tasks and pay yourself first.


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4. Multiple Savings Accounts


Human beings are a bit strange.  You’d think that the emergency fund mentioned above would be sufficient as a large bucket of potential savings for any future expenses that we simply won’t touch if something non-emergent comes up, but that isn’t the case. Psychology and behavioral finance matter.

In fact, if you have only one savings account, you are likely to raid it for unnecessary costs.  However, if you had multiple savings account – say like a “Travel Savings Account” – you are much less likely to raid that money meant for Disney for a new car payment.

For this reason, you should have multiple savings accounts that your money cash flows to after you receive your paycheck.  Here are some examples of accounts you might consider (so that you don’t raid them unnecessarily):

  • Travel Account (though you might label it specifically something like “Europe Trip”, “Anniversary Trip”, or “Family Disney Vacation”)
  • Next Car Purchase
  • House Repairs

Regardless of what you choose to save for, know that by paying yourself through multiple savings accounts, you are less likely to steal from them.


5. Paying Your Bills


Your bills should be paid automatically.  If you have some financial discipline, I recommend utilizing credit cards in order to accomplish this purpose.  You might as well get some cash back or travel rewards points when you pay your bills.

For my family, we utilize two specific cards – the American Express Platinum card (rates and fees) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  However, if you forget to put these cards on automatic payment, any benefit you would have received from using them will be worthless.  Annual Percentage Rates (APR’s) on credit cards are no joke.  Make sure you pay them off automatically each month.

If credit cards encourage you to spend money that you don’t have, then I recommend against them.  They are a tool that can be utilized for financial success, but not a necessity.

Further Reading: For further information on the best credit cards for travel points and cash back, check out Physician on FIRE’s Credit Card List.


6. Tracking Your Spending

While it is important to pay ourselves first, it is equally important to know where the money we spend is going, too. When you start tracking your spending, you’ll likely be surprised where your money is going.  However, if you don’t know, then you can’t make adjustments.

One of the best free tools to do this is Empower.  I also use Empower to track my net worth, too.  Please do know that if you have $100,000 in assets when you sign up they will call you to manage your money at a 1% AUM fee.  You don’t have to read too far on The Physician Philosopher to know what I think about AUM fees.  Just use the free tools they provide.


Take Home


By paying our future selves first, we are taking straight aim at financial success. This will help us prevent our biggest financial enemy – ourselves – from robbing the coffers.

Make sure that as many of your financial tasks are automated as possible.  This is one way to deal with all the behavioral finance problems that exist as part of being human.



Do you automate your financial tasks?  Do you pay yourself first? Are there other tasks you accomplish automatically that I’ve left off the list?


To see rates and fees for featured cards from American Express: American Express Platinum card (rates and fees).

Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

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5 thoughts on “Paying Yourself First – 6 Ways to Automate Your Financial Life”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  2. Really great points. Ensuring that your investments (retirement accounts or other) are contributed to automatically every month is so powerful. The money never really hits your account so you firstly never have the chance to spend it and secondly you’re automatically increasing your net worth.

    It’s also so important to track your spending (and your personal finances in general). Having a strong grasp of your finances and spending behaviour is the first step to creating a solid financial independence plan.

  3. It’s amazing how someone can automatically become a millionaire by automating everything, especially in their retirement accounts. One decision and then that’s it, you don’t have to make any more decisions in the future for life.

    It’s a beautiful thing but so few people take advantage of it or stick with it for years and years.

  4. I have a friend who keeps one savings account but maintains a spreadsheet with the money divvied up into virtual accounts for her personal spending goals. Keeps her paperwork simplified.

  5. Great advice!

    I have more or less implemented these strategies and my personal
    Finances have made a complete 180!

    I think tracking spending is such an important step especially for someone just starting out. Eventually this can likely be omitted once you reach a “homeostasis” with your spending but can really help curb bad habits in the beginning.


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