There's a reason why guests look in the medicine cabinet. (Not you, of course.) It's human nature to want to get a peek at how other people live. It helps us to feel as if our mistakes aren't all that unusual — that our best efforts are good enough to keep up with the crowd because everyone else makes them too. Today, we'll be engaging in another kind of look-see... into other people's budgets.
Four brave souls have bared all (of their budgets) to show us how real people of different ages and financial situations budget to fit their lifestyles. All of them earn about $60,000 per year, and each one has reported his or her budget in percentages, which have been colour-coded in accordance with the 50/20/30 rule. The rule recommends that you allocate 50 per cent of your budget for essentials (housing, transportation, utilities and groceries), 20 per cent towards financial priorities (retirement contributions, savings contributions and debt payments) and the remaining 30 per cent for bonus (read: fun) lifestyle expenses. We also asked Katie Brewer, a CFP with LearnVest Financial Planning, to review their budgets, so we can see how these folks are acing their finances — and where there's room for improvement.
Jeanette, 37, Writer and Private Chef
I'm a married mother of two preschool-aged children who works roughly 30 hours a week while my husband works full time at a law firm. I contribute approximately one-third of our family's household income towards covering the mortgage, utilities, our kids’ expenses, retirement and tertiary education savings, and all of my personal expenses. My husband contributes the bulk of our emergency fund and retirement savings.
My part-time, flexible schedule has allowed me to play a hands-on role in my children's earliest years — something that both my husband and I value. His salary compensates in the areas where I contribute less or not at all, including healthcare, car and home insurance, savings and travel. Once the kids require less of my time, I'll likely shift to working more in order to contribute more.
We'd love to be saving more, so I spend very little on clothes and personal items. We also travel much less than we did before we had kids, in part because it's more difficult, but also because it's more expensive now that four of us require airline tickets. If my income increased, that's where I would spend more!
Katie Says: It's great that Jeanette's family has managed to keep their fixed expenses low and that the couple has started to save for retirement well ahead of time. It's not explicitly financial, but I'm also glad to see that she's found a great work-life balance. One thing that I would tell Jeanette: If you want to travel, start saving for it now by setting up a separate savings account and contributing to it a little each month, with the goal of taking a relatively affordable trip.
Isaac, 24, IT Consultant
I live in Washington DC, which is a city of boozy brunches, happy hours and other professional functions that can dig a serious hole in your wallet. This happens slowly over the course of a few weeks, but $10 here and another $12 there add up, and then you're left dipping into that ever-so-small savings account to buy lunch for the rest of the week. You have to be careful not to party yourself out of house and home!
I get paid once a month, so the first thing that I cover is all of my "Must Pay For" expenses, including rent, mobile phone, utilities, student loans and life insurance. Then I tackle my "Should Pay For" expenses, such as two large grocery trips (each costs about $100) and my $8000 of credit card debt. My goal each month is to put $800 towards that debt, but I only pay off $400 of it when I get my pay, in case something comes up and I need that money. I hold onto the other half until the next pay period, and then I'll put whatever I haven't spent toward the credit cards. Otherwise, I'd just end up paying unforeseen expenses on a credit card, continuing the vicious cycle of debt.
The last group of expenses are "Would Love to Pay For" things. Most of this is the cost of enjoying life in the city — happy hours, eating out, shopping, parties, sporting events, concerts, cabs. The hardest part about budgeting for these expenses is that they change every month, but I try to take out about $200 in cash up front for them. If I go through that money, I may dip into the second half of the funds for paying off the credit card debit or the $300 that I have reserved for unforeseen expenses in my savings account.
Katie Says: Isaac is doing a great job keeping his essential expenses under 50 per cent, despite living in such an expensive city. And although it sounds like he's having a lot of fun, his dining spending isn't too bad. Plus, I'm impressed that he's found a way to really distinguish between wants and needs at such a young age. One thing that might help him stick to a tighter budget is to set up two accounts: one for essential expenses and one for fun money. There's just one rule: The fun money account can't be replenished until the end of the month.
Tom, 65, Retiree
It was my intention to work until I was 66 in order to get full government benefits. But when I was laid off just a month before I turned 65, it became a double-edged sword, because I was able to collect some unemployment. My wife and I consulted our financial adviser, and we decided to start my government benefits a year early, which means that I get $100 less a month than I would have had I waited — but it still seemed worth it with unemployment.
I contributed to my retirement savings plan for as many years as I could — and as much as I could. We'd already talked to our adviser about putting additional money aside for retirement, so about a decade ago, we allocated a certain amount in mutual funds with a company that we'd already seen great results from and trusted for years. If the market stays reasonably stable, we’ll have enough to live off, unless I make it to 100!
I'd like to get a part-time job, but every dollar that I earn takes away from unemployment. Of course, we can't survive on the pension alone, but with my wife’s frugal budgeting — I mean this in the most complimentary way — we can get by. We use coupons and wait for sales for our groceries and clothing purchases. We also save money because we’re homebodies — we don’t eat out much or go to the theatre, and holidays only happen every few years.
So far, we haven’t tapped into our retirement savings, which is a great thing. Plus, there’s the house. We're also working to eliminate our home equity loan by paying at least double the interest each month in order to pay down the principal ahead of schedule.
Katie Says: It's awesome that Tom is retired but not yet touching his retirement savings. And I'm glad to hear about his wife's frugal budgeting. Clearly, she's doing something right! One option they have is for Tom's wife to work — her income wouldn't affect his unemployment benefits. In the meantime, I hope that Tom is networking and looking into what might interest him for part-time work.
Elizabeth, 24, Paralegal
I save whatever I have left, which varies a lot per month but is always at least 2 per cent of my salary. I don’t have cable, and I walk to work, so I don’t use public transport much. Since I was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disorder in December, I've been averaging at least a couple of doctor’s appointments each month, which adds up to about $40 in out-of-pocket expenses. Due to my special diet, I shop exclusively at Whole Foods, which can be more expensive, but I also save by cooking breakfast, lunch and almost all dinners during the week.
I'm able to keep my medical costs down, thanks to the comprehensive health insurance that I get through work. Although these expenses took up a bigger amount of my budget last December when I was going through extensive testing, I now cover only a small deductible for check-ups.
I live in Manhattan where it’s hard to budget, mostly because of the rent (I used to have roommates, but I've lived alone for the past year) and the appeal of restaurants and expensive drinks at bars. I saved a lot of money during the first year that I lived here by limiting my dining out and putting nearly all of my yearly bonus into savings, but after several good friends moved to the city, the amount I was putting away each month went down dramatically.
But I justify not saving very much by telling myself that I won’t be living in such an expensive place much longer. I'm hoping to attend a graduate program in a new field next year, so I'll be downsizing my spending considerably. Once I'm done with school, I plan to move out of the New York area — and overhaul my budget to fit a different lifestyle. Since I don't know where I'll be, I'm not saving for traditional things right now, like a car. And I'm not paying off any debts.
Katie Says: It's good that Elizabeth is managing to save at least something. And her lifestyle expenses aren't so bad for the city where she lives. I'm glad to see that she's cutting out things she doesn't need, like cable. Right now she's doing the "whatever is left over" method of saving, but she'd probably be able to put more away if she treated savings as a bill that had to be paid as a priority — plus save whatever is left over.
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