How to decide what you can afford

If you are in your twenties, you are probably making some big life choices. When you move, switch jobs, go to school, get married, have kids…you have to readjust your budget.

No big deal- you already know how to do that! But what if you are about to make a big commitment (signing a lease, buying a car) and you aren’t sure if you can afford it?

Let’s rewind in my life, exactly 13 months ago. I was moving to a new (expensive) city. I had a new income. I had sold my car but I wasn’t sure how much I would be spending on public transportation or cabs (because how was I supposed to know, I hadn’t been there yet!) How much would food be? (turned out my closest grocery by about a half hour was Whole Foods…it’s not called Whole Paycheck for nothing, kids!) Word on the street was that everything is pricier in this city, and I no longer had the luxury of a car to drive to farther, cheaper stores.

When I was house hunting, there was a huge range of rent prices in the areas I could reasonably commute from. Places that looked like dumps to me were $700 (with roommates), while nice one bedrooms were about $1900 (although there seems to be no cap on the maximum amount you can spend on an apartment). But what could I afford? I didn’t want to sign a lease and then have trouble paying rent, but I also had more income coming in than I had in the past and I felt like I could move a step or two up from double wide trailer I lived in when I was 24.

The first thing I did was estimate my take home pay. I knew what my total salary was, but it is always a surprise when you see the amount on your first paystub (oh Uncle Sam, you get me every time). If you forget to calculate in taxes, you can be really up a creek. I used this calculator, and then I subtracted $200 just to be safe.

Then (I really did this because I had no idea) I googled how much of your paycheck should be going to rent. This is an example of a wisely written article that helped guide my choices. The standard response is that you should be paying no more than 30% of your take home income in rent. Sounded good to me, and I could move a step or two up from the dump apartments! Yes!

Spending 30% of my income on rent meant that I ended up in a lovely house with two roommates. Definitely not a dump, but not a luxury one bedroom apartment in the middle of all the action, either. It suited my commuting needs, I was in a safe neighborhood, and I made friends with my roommates. I never had trouble paying the rent.

Even though it turned out that many parts of my new city were more expensive than I had planned, I knew that my fixed costs (rent) were within my budget. Because I am pretty savvy about reducing my variable costs if I must (food, transportation- even utilities) I am mainly concerned with making sure I can afford my fixed costs.

However, some people swear by the 50/20/30 rule for budget planning.

50% of your budget should go to housing, food, utilities and transportation.

20% of your budget should go to your financial goals (savings, emergency fund, retirement).

30% of your budget should go to lifestyle (clothes, gym fees, bars, vacations).

I personally don’t follow the 50/20/30 rule, but it can be a good rule of thumb when you are trying to decide what you can afford when you are going through big life changes. Again, these rules (all budget rules) are just guidelines for yourself. The entire point is to make things easier for you, so that you never have to struggle to pay rent that you can’t afford.

It’s kind of like the Game of Life, except it’s actually real life. And you actually have to live in the house you pick!

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Make Mo’ Ca$h Money

You’re tracking your spending, you’ve set up your budget, you’re slenderizing your spending…but still, things aren’t adding up. The alternative to spending less is to make more, but sometimes your lifestyle just isn’t conducive to switching jobs or adding another job into the mix of awesomeness that is your life.

There are a few ways to increase your income that don’t require major lifestyle changes. It all depends what you are looking for, so choose what works for you.

Some ideas:

  • Are you a cat whisperer, dog whisperer or baby whisperer? Try pet sitting or babysitting. Worked to bring in money when you were 14, still works to bring in money now.
  • I used to work as a caterer for super fancy weddings when I was in college. They were almost all on Saturday nights in the spring and summer, so it didn’t interfere with my weekday schoolwork and activities. I was in a pool of servers so if I couldn’t work then they would just call the next person on the list. Unlike normal waitressing, you make pretty high base pay, everyone is eating the same thing so it’s really easy and you also get tips. The whole event takes between 8-10 hours. Not too bad. Just don’t spill lobster on the mother of the bride like I did my first day (It came out of her dress and I didn’t even get fired, don’t worry about it!)
  • Are you a math whiz? A master wordsmith? In love with history? Somewhere out there, there is a student struggling in the subject you loved and he or she has parents who are willing to pay to help that kid get an A. Get into tutoring! You can sign up with a local tutoring company, post on Craigslist or on local college websites (or email professors), or drop flyers off at local school (with permission, of course. Don’t get yourself arrested for trespassing in schools!) The pay is awesome, the hours are flexible, and you are helping someone out.
  • Do you have a hobby? Could that hobby turn into money? Crafty or artsy people might want to open up an Etsy.com shop or contract out a booth at a local fair or festival. Musical people (depending on the instrument and your level of skill) might want to play for weddings or funerals. Be creative- I love refinishing furniture that I find at yard sales. I have sold some of my furniture for profit after I had rescued it and refinished it. I didn’t have to set up a store, I just sold it on Craigslist and enjoyed doing the work!
  • Many churches need help only on Sunday mornings. Sometimes they need help with childcare or they need someone to come in early to turn on lights or heat or make coffee. This is another job that won’t interfere with your weekday schedule! Check out your local churches and other religious institutions in the area.
  • What do you do at your day job? Could you sell those services as an independent consultant? (make sure you aren’t breaking any rules at your work, please). While I was working as an administrative assistant I got paid to format my friend’s PhD dissertation because I am a whiz at Word, thanks to my nitpicky admin experience. Once I had done one dissertation I had the tricky formatting rules down and I could have marketed myself as the PhD dissertation formatting expert of the university!(…but I had other life plans for myself so I didn’t!)
  • Are you a computer master? Can you make websites? People pay a lot of ca$h money for those skillz.
  • Look around your house. Do you have a lot of stuff? Books, board games, nice clothes, electronics, dvds, sports equipment…pretty much anything you are tired of that is in good shape can be sold. Try setting up an ebay account- just keep in mind that ebay charges some fees and shipping expenses can add up, so if the item is listed for too low of a price it might not be worth your time.
  • Neat freak? Offer your cleaning or organizational services for a fee.
  • If you have a flexible schedule but just aren’t ready to commit to a permanent job, try temping. There are always a ton of administrative jobs that anyone with basic computer skills, attention to detail and customer service skills can do. Sometimes the jobs are temp-to-hire so if you are a good fit for the company and if you like the job they might hire you on full time! Otherwise, it can help keep the lights on while you are waiting for your dream job to come through or for school to start up again. A benefit is that you get to work in a variety of offices and see what different workplaces are like. You also can pick up some skills that look great on a resume.
  • Own a truck? Try offering your services as a moving assistant.
  • I had a friend who started her own company as a “helper.” If you need help prepping for a party- she will help you! If you need help going grocery shopping- call her up! Need someone to help you with the laundry because you have a new baby and who knew tiny clothes took so long to fold? She is the woman for you! It is a lovely idea for a side business.

The main point of these ideas is that there are ways to supplement your income if you are willing to work for them. Play to your strengths- I hate babysitting so I will NEVER advertise  my babysitting services. I love working with people so I don’t mind answering phones for the day as a temp. Be creative about how you get the word out about your new endeavors- Craigslist, bulletin boards, word of mouth- they all work well.

If you are looking at this post because you are job hunting- here is my last piece of advice. Get out there and volunteer in the field you are trying to get into. It will get you out of the house, it will give you experience and references that you can put on a resume, and it will help other people. It may or may not lead to a permanent job (don’t go into volunteering expecting to get a job in return)- but meeting more people (and letting them know you are looking for a job) and getting experience is always a good plan. For a while I volunteered a few hours every Friday at a museum where I created educational material for the public. Guess what real job I got hired for a few months later? A job making educational materials for the public (not at the same place I volunteered at, but this time I got a lovely salary!) I got the job because I already had experience! You never know where volunteering will lead you.

If there isn’t a formal volunteer program in the field you want to work in, try to create your own position. People generally say yes to enthusiastic and motivated free help! Even a few hours a week counts as experience.

You won’t get rich off of these ideas (well, maybe you will, in which case you are cleverer than I!) but hopefully they will take some of the pressure off of your finances while you are out living your awesome life.

Good luck!

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