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How to Budget Your Money With the 50/20/30 Rule

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When it comes to our money, there is no shortage of ways we could spend it: food, rent, gifts, medicine, clothing, education, technology, gym membership, gas … you get the picture. We’re often asked, “How to budget my money?” so we came up with a guideline to consider for when you set up a budget: the 50/20/30 Rule.

When creating a budget, it may be tempting to throw up your hands, say, “Forget it,” and hope for the best.

The 50/20/30 Rule helps change that.

No matter whether you’re a mom with two kids or a recent college grad working your first job, this rule can help you not only figure out how much you should be spending in each area every month; it will also tell you in what order you should be spending your money.

The 50/20/30 Rule Broken Down

The 50/20/30 Rule can be easy because instead of telling you how to break down your budget across 20 or more different categories (who could possibly keep track of that?), it splits everything into three main categories:

1. Essential Expenses

No more than 50% of your take-home pay should go toward Essential Expenses, which are the expenses you need in order to maintain the fundamentals of your life: shelter, food, heat, etc. Only four expenses should go in this category: housing, transportation, utilities and groceries.

2. Financial Priorities

At least 20% of your take-home pay should go to Financial Priorities, which are the goals that are essential to a strong financial foundation. These include your retirement contributions, savings contributions and debt payments, if you have debt.

You should make these contributions and payments after you pay your Essential Expenses, but before you do any other spending.

3. Lifestyle Choices

No more than 30% of your take-home pay should go to Lifestyle Choices, which are personal, voluntary and often fun choices about how you spend your discretionary income. They often include cable, internet and phone plans, charitable giving, childcare, entertainment, gym fees, hobbies, pets, personal care, restaurants, bars, shopping and other miscellaneous expenses.

While Lifestyle Choices are the last things you should buy in your budget, you should never feel guilty about that expensive purse or ordering a nice bottle of wine at dinner … as long as you’ve taken care of your Essential Expenses and Financial Priorities first.

How the 50/20/30 Rule Works in Real Life

The flexibility of the 50/20/30 Rule can make it easily adaptable to real life. Let’s compare two real budgets, one for Molly and one for a couple, Sarah and Tim.


Molly is a 22-year-old recent graduate with her first job, working in Chicago. She has student loans, but she is still able to meet her student loan payment every month and contribute to a Roth IRA, plus pay all her bills.

Her income: $36,000 a year
Her take-home pay after taxes: $2,250 a month (we’re assuming 25% of her salary goes toward a combination of taxes and her 401(k) contributions)

Essential Expenses:
Rent: $750
Transportation: $75
Utilities: $75
Groceries: $200
TOTAL:  $1,100, which is 49% of her take-home pay

Financial Priorities:
Student Loan: $225
Roth IRA contributions: $200
Travel savings fund: $50
TOTAL: $475, which is 21% of her take-home pay

Lifestyle Choices: $675, which is 30% of her take-home pay

Because Molly is on a tight budget, her Essential Expenses are very close to the 50% limit. Still, she is able to make her student loan payment and even put 9% of her take-home pay toward retirement, where the money will have a long time to grow. 

Sarah and Tim

Sarah and Tim are in their mid-40s and have two children nearing college age.

Sarah and Tim’s household income: $150,000 a year
Their take-home pay after taxes: $6,767 a month (we’re assuming 30% of her salary and her husband’s go toward a combination of taxes and their 401(k) contributions)

Essential Expenses:
Mortgage: $1,200
Car payment and insurance: $600
Gas: $250
Groceries: $400
Utilities: $150
TOTAL: $2,600, which is 38% of their income

Financial Priorities:
Roth IRA contributions: $833
529 account contributions: $1,470
Vacation fund: $200
TOTAL: $2,503, which is 37% of their take-home pay

Lifestyle Choices: $1,664, which is 25% of their take-home pay

Sarah and Tim’s situation shows how flexible the 50/20/30 Rule can be. Essential Expenses are supposed to be “no more than” 50%, and Sarah and her husband have actually been able to keep them well below that threshold. They paid off one of their cars a while back and haven’t bought a house that stretched their budget.

What they’re doing with the money they’re saving on Essential Expenses is putting it into their kids’ 529 accounts. But they are still maxing out their Roth IRA contributions because saving for retirement is a higher financial priority for them than saving for their children’s college funds–not because their children’s education is less important, but because they could always take out a loan to make up any shortfall to pay for college tuition, but they can’t take out a loan to pay for their retirement.

In order to meet their 529 savings goals, they have decided to be as frugal as possible about their Lifestyle Choices, which is why they are allocating only 25% of their income to those.

One Note About Retirement

As you might have noticed, the 50/20/30 Rule applies only to take-home pay. Any contributions you make to retirement before your paycheck hits your bank account are not included. For that reason, you may actually be contributing more toward your Financial Priorities than this breakdown would suggest. But we urge you to keep that retirement money out of sight, out of mind!

We’ve all felt powerless against a splurge (or two), but there’s a way to take control. Curb that spending temptation with a checking account that helps you stay on top of your budget.


Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. LearnVest and SunTrust Bank are independent entities and not legally affiliated. LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

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