Dear Liz: My wife and I are working to get out of debt, and I am interested in comparing the amounts we spend on mortgage, food, diapers and so on with what would be considered ideal or at least average for homeowners living in areas with a high cost of living. Do you have recommended percentages for various items? I am always looking for places where we can cut our expenses so we can pay off debt faster.
Answer: You can find averages in the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual Consumer Expenditure Survey, which you’ll find at www.census.gov. The categories are fairly broad — you won’t find a line item for diapers, for example — but the bureau provides averages for housing, food, transportation, clothing and insurance, among other categories. The bureau also slices the data various ways: by income, by metropolitan area, by child.
You may find the information more interesting than helpful, however, because every family’s situation is different. A couple with little debt and no children, for example, can comfortably afford a bigger mortgage payment than a family that has both kids and debt.
A better way to manage your spending is to use Harvard bankruptcy professor Elizabeth Warren’s 50/30/20 plan. Warren, who outlined the budget in her book “All Your Worth,” recommends limiting your “must have” expenses to 50% of your after-tax income. Must-haves include shelter, food, transportation, utilities, child care, insurance and minimum loan payments.
That leaves 30% for wants, including clothing, entertainment, gifts and vacations, and 20% for savings and debt payments.
Many families in high-cost areas find it extremely tough to keep must-haves to 50% of their after-tax pay. Some spend that much, or more, on their housing. But the 50/30/20 plan underscores how important it is to contain your basic overhead if you want to have money left over to pay down debt from the past, save for the future and enjoy your life in the present.