April 30

Reaching Financial Goals While Living on a Variable Income


Bree Thomas, Creator and CEO of the Balance App, Discusses Reaching Financial Goals on a Variable Income

You know you’re growing up when you start planning financial goals—and honestly, once you get started, you’ll wonder what the heck you’ve been waiting for. 

Unfortunately, living with an income that changes weekly makes planning for financial goals, let alone having control over your money, challenging. 

Bree Thomas—start-up founder by day, bartender by night—understands the frustrations and benefits of having a variable income. She set out to build Balance, an app to help variable-income workers forecast their income to make better financial decisions. 

Thomas shared her insights on how industry workers living on a variable income can and should set and reach their financial goals. 

The Challenges of Living on a Variable Income

Unless you’re in a salaried position, you likely have what is known as a variable income. 

When working with hourly wages or tips, your income increases or decreases for countless reasons, such as taking time off, general seasonality, and events.

Creating a plan to reach a financial goal within a set amount of time can be more challenging because you don’t always know what you will make each week or month. 

Throw in some bigger goals where you’ll need to seek out loans, like buying a home or financing a car, and things get even more complicated. 

“Our financial culture and institutions cater to the salaried worker. Why? Because they trust the person with a steady paycheck. Their money is easy to predict,” Thomas said. “As a result, variable-income workers don’t get the best rates, products, or offerings. Consider how hard it is to qualify for a mortgage or execute a simple personal loan. We end up paying more for worse instruments—if we even get approved.” 

Thomas went on to say that common misconceptions about variable-income workers and unpredictable incomes have created a culture that marginalizes hourly workers and can make it harder for them to achieve financial success. 

That said, these are just misconceptions. With the proper planning and tools, hourly workers can overcome these challenges and meet their financial goals. 

Taking Control of a Variable Income To Meet Financial Goals

It is possible to understand your cash flow and set goals and expectations around your finances. Still, as restaurant workers, you have to go about it a little differently. 

Thomas outlined four steps that variable-income workers should take to obtain a comprehensive view of their financial situation and earning potential. 

So get your pen, your calculator, and your calendar bitch—we’re budgeting. 

Four Steps to Financial Planning for Variable Workers

  1. Take Stock
    Begin recording what you know: when your money comes in and goes out. That means, on your calendar, mark down your paydays with estimated income and when bills and other predictable expenses happen. 

    “I like to map out all my expenses on a calendar, then layer over the regular shifts I work and the paydays I know are coming,” Thomas shared. “I always plot my current bank balance on the present date. This starting point allows me to calculate my regular cash flow (inflow and outflow) and visualize it weekly and monthly.” 

    If you receive tip money outside your paycheck or at irregular intervals, start documenting the average tip out per shift to get a general idea of what those payments will look like and mark them on your calendar. This will be flexible. 
  2. Budget With a Twist
    Working in a restaurant involves a constant ebb and flow of income. To be more mindful of your budget, it’s essential to note influences that could inhibit your cash flow. 

    “I like to flag my potential trouble spots on my calendar,” Thomas said. ”For instance, if Easter Weekend is coming up, I know that Saturday night will be slow, and I’ll make less money than usual. Or perhaps a snowstorm is coming, and there’s a good chance my shifts get canceled. With this calendar approach, I can create a more fluid budget using reasonable predictions from my experience.”

    Each month, mark down events that could affect your earning potential so you can budget your current balance to help you adapt or figure out other ways to compensate for the potential losses.  
  3. Flex Your Superpower
    “Here’s where it gets fun,” Thomas said. “Ideally, you’ve mapped your recurring and known future expenses from step one. You’ve also mapped the money you’ve earned and have in your possession right now. Now, you can start thinking about that day in the future you care about. The financial goal you want to hit.” 

    Thomas shared that you can start plotting “what if” scenarios at this point. For example, let’s say your employer wants people to fill in for the busy season. What would your future financial situation be like if you agreed to pick up an additional 6-hour shift each Sunday? 

    By estimating your likely income from this potential extra shift, you can predict how the additional income will impact your cash flow, helping you reach your financial goal.  

    “A calendar helps you reason through variables, adapt to changes, and update your plans accordingly,” Thomas explained. “It becomes the foundation of your financial modeling and cash flow projections.”
  4. Same Goal, Creative Paths
    “For variable-income workers, progress might not happen in a straight line. It can be tricky to stay on track,” Thomas shared. “Remember that your variable income can be a powerful lever you tune to meet your goals. It just takes a little creativity in tracking, viewing, and managing the ebbs and flows of your income.”

    By tracking and budgeting your income with the above-mentioned strategy, you can make better decisions about your schedule and lean into your variable income to reach your goals. 

    For example, if a co-worker wants to swap shifts, you can see if that change will help you or pull you back from your goals before committing on a whim. Or you may have a flexible opportunity that could give you an extra weekly shift. 

    Knowing your financial situation and budget while being able to play out scenarios allows you to reach your financial goals more creatively. 

The Benefits of a Plan

“They say, ‘What gets measured gets managed.’ Instead of traditional budgeting, we emphasize scenarios. For us, a plan is a financial model where you can adjust inputs to see how outputs change. This is crucial for variable-income workers,” Thomas said. “Missing one shift or earning more than expected in a single shift can greatly impact plans. Adaptability is key, so we focus on a dynamic model, not just a static plan.” 

In honesty, finding a way to budget that works for you is probably more beneficial than for someone with a predictable income—especially when trying to reach a goal—so you can better navigate the constant fluctuations. 

By using the calendar method above, you can “forecast” your potential income against work patterns, such as seasonality, upcoming holidays and events, or even taking time off. 

“Being able to run the ‘what if’ scenarios helps you reach your goals faster because you’re empowered to make better decisions about how you spend your most valuable resource today, which, of course, is your time,” Thomas said.

Meet Your Financial Goals With Balance 

Okay, all of this sounds good, but budgeting and forecasting with a paper calendar, calculator, and pencil seems like a tall ask—one that will easily fall by the wayside.

Well, you’re not alone. This is exactly why Thomas launched Balance, a forecasting app to help variable-income workers like herself take control of their finances. 

With Balance, workers benefit from utilizing the calendar method shared above but from the convenience of their phone. 

With Balance, you can easily:

  • Plan Your Finances With Your Schedule
    From recurring bills to daily transactions, Balance adjusts in real time to display your bank balance on your calendar and project your future cash flow in the context of your work schedule. 
  • Trust Your Paydays
    Balance keeps a running total of your earnings organized by paycheck and job, so you can feel confident nothing was missed on payday. 
  • Run ‘What-if’ Scenarios
    Want to know how your finances will be affected if you pick up that extra shift or take time off? Enter any inflow or outflow on a particular day, and the app will forecast how your cash changes every day into the future. 
  • Spot Issues Earlier
    Balance will alert you when your cash flow is in trouble so you can get creative about how to stay out of the “red.”

Balance is free and available in the Apple and Google Play Stores. The team behind Balance plans some exciting features to help workers decide about savings, paying down debt, and even investing. 

“We’re just getting started, and we’re very excited to speak with interested users who have feedback and feature requests to share,” Thomas added. 

If you’re ready to get ahead of your finances, meet financial goals, and find a tool like Balance to help you along the way and grow with you and your needs—then download Balance today and check out their site to stay up to date on new features and other resources!


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.