The 50-20-30 budget is one of the most popular budgets according to personal finance “experts.” In it, you spend 50% on needs, 20% on savings/debt reduction and 30% on “wants.” This is a terrible plan for almost every income and lifestyle and below I will explain why. The 50-30-20 budget is stupid and I will show you a better way.
How to Waste Money on a Budget
|Age||Post-Tax $||Annual Wants||Monthly Wants|
Starting with a modest entry-level salary and modest raises, this person has spent $108,055 over just 10 years on indeterminate “wants.” What a 30% wants budget means is that for every 10 years, she spends the equivalent of three full years of work on wants. Over a 40 year career, this number would increase to half a million – the full salaries for 12 years of work.
What Do You Get if you Spend $100k on Wants?
If you think about spending $100k on “whatever you want”, you would likely think of having something really awesome and long-lasting. $100k is enough for a designer wardrobe, a nice car, some nice vintage furniture, lavish vacations, and/or a big wedding.
Many people think of budgets as ways to restrain spending but, if used incorrectly, they can be the impetus to increase spending. Say this person is 23 and has never made any real money before. She now has license to use $750/month with no real purpose every month. How is this person going to spend that $750?
She probably has some ideas for great splurges but in reality, she’s going to spend money in easy ways. Average Americans can easily fritter away $18,000/year on nonessentials such as eating out, drinks, taxis, subscriptions, apps, streaming services, or online shopping.
At the end of 10 years, you have the latest versions of things you used to have when you were 23, your closets are filled with stuff, you have a fair number of frequent flyer miles and you wonder, why am I still in debt?
Where Americans Are Not Spending Their Money (But Should)
I’m a believer that so long as you spend to ensure a secure future and on what matters to you, you are free to spend on whatever you want. But even with every financial advisor advertising this budget, people are spending on wants and forgetting needs. According to USA Today, “[t]he tendency to splurge consistently on nonessentials is causing Americans to skimp on other important items.”
38% of Americans say they don’t have enough money to fund a retirement account, 35% can’t afford a life insurance policy, 28% have credit card debt, and 26% live with a broken car because they can’t afford repairs.
In terms of achieving their dreams, 40% of Americans have never left the country – most citing financial reasons. 11% have never left the state where they were born. Americans think they are spending on the good life, but they are stressed and still can’t find the money to live the good life.
But if You’re Saving 20%, That’s Good, Right?
With all the talk about how little Americans are saving, if people started saving 20% of their salaries, they’d be in a much better place, right? This might just be a low-bar budget for people who can’t manage lofty goals.
I guess if your goal is to be better than the bare minimum, then yes, it may be better. But I also wonder if you’re striving to a very low goal, if you fail, are you really saving any money at all?
|Age||Post-Tax $||Average College Debt||Annual Savings|
What If We Use Lawyer Salary Numbers?
The wastefulness of this budgeting plan is put into starker contrast with a higher salary. Let’s consider a lawyer’s trajectory on this plan.
|Post-tax salary||Debt||Annual Debt Payment/Savings||“Wants”|
This is a very rough estimate – based roughly on BigLaw payscales and average law school loan lodes, including bonuses and I’m not adding interest to the loans because I have you paying them off at record speed.
Let’s say you work 8 years at a law firm. You are working crazy hours and you’re being paid to justify it. You make $1.5M over 8 years AFTER TAX! So impressive! You see that number in bold – $113,913? That’s how much you get to see in your bank account after all this. After 3 years of grueling law school, 8 years of grueling work, you haven’t even saved up enough money for one year of your expenses ($245k/2=$122.5k)! Let’s look into how this budget said 50% spent on expenses was fine and that means you can spend $122,500 on living for one person! You could spend $5,000/month on an apartment with that kind of money – and you probably shouldn’t.
Where did all your money go? Look at that number in the far right – almost half a million. That’s all “wants.” You spent FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR on wants. You could set a luxury vehicle on fire every year.
This is the best case scenario where you are continually employed, you follow a budget, and if something happens in year 8 – like switching to a new job- you have very little leeway. And following this budget doesn’t get you very far.
Why the 50-30-20 Budget is Stupid
The idea of using percentages without accounting for your your lifestyle or your income is an odd one. Whether you’re making minimum wage or a million dollars, starting our in your career or in retirement, have a stable single income or multiple variable income streams, single without dependents or the breadwinner for a family of 10 – somehow 50% is the right needs amount and 20% is the right savings amount? And this doesn’t even include what your goals for your savings might be – a house, college tuition for the kids, or a little vacation.
At low incomes and young ages, 50% is likely far too little to spend on needs. And thus 30% is far too much on wants, when you really need to shore up savings. You are the most vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. And this is typically the cheapest time to live because you will have other people who live the same way and you may have fewer responsibilities. Your focus should be on learning and earning more.
At middle and high incomes, you’re just blowing through more money than at a lower income. As a result of following this budget, you’re not getting ahead.
My Problems with the 50-30-20 Budget
When I was straight out of school, I saved 50% of my income. In my first job out of law school, making 5x my entry-level salary, I saved 0% because I was aggressively paying off my loans. After I paid off my loans, I was back to 50%. And now that I’m in a funemployment year, I’m back to saving 0%. At no time did I save 20% and I’m not sure you could argue I would be in a better place if I had changed to a 20% savings rate. Following this budget would mean frittering money away when I was saving a lot and struggling immensely to find 20% in lean times.
Percentages don’t work for everyone and it’s silly to assume they would. Your salary expands and grows and your necessary items expand and grow. As they say, the only constant is change.
You Are Constantly Treading Water on a 50-30-20 Budget
The 50-30-20 budgets lacks a priority list. If you can get your must haves to 50%, then the next most important part is 20% savings/debt reduction. But many people have necessary costs that exceed 50% and then scrap the 20% altogether.
Percentage increases let you increase your lifestyle mindlessly for all time. It doesn’t require you to think, hey I have enough now. That’s why people think, oh when I make $X, I will spend more responsibly. As you can see from above, it’s not true. You get on this mindset that if the percentages work out, you’re doing ok. But the percentages mean nothing without goals.
The percentages don’t matter – what maters is what you’re spending your money on. Yes you only wasted 30% of your money every year but why waste any money? Why not treat every dollar as valuable and important?
Wants is a dangerous category. We are often chasing things that not only don’t make us happy, but make our lives more complicated and expensive.
The 50-30-20 budget is something that’s marketed as one-size-fits-all but in reality just fits everyone poorly.
In my opinion, the 50-30-20 budget is stupid. There’s probably a better word for it, but it works. Therefore, instead of using this type of budget, here’s another perspective.
A Possible Solution – A Goals-Based Budget
Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing offered some interesting budget advice. Some background on Li, after his dad passed away, he was forced to start working 16-hour days at age 15. He did not come from wealth but is worth an estimated $31 billion today.
Anyway, Li’s advice is to divide one’s budget according to the following categories:
Here’s How A Low Income Budget Would Work
Here’s an example of what this looks like on the same $30k post-tax salary:
$200 other necessary spending (insurance, phone etc.)
Total = $1250=50%
Grow (learn and experience)
Total =$375 =15%
Build (acquire the things you will need in your life)
$100 furnishing your home/home needs
$100 furnishing your wardrobe/personal needs
$50 exercise (classes, building your own at-home gym)
Total = $250 = 10%
$500 savings/debt repayment
Total = $500 = 20%
Play (whatever you want)
$125 entertainment/eating out
Total = $125 = 5%
What It’s Like to Use a Goals-Based Budget
You get $50 to spend on networking this month. Who do you want to meet and treat to coffee? A cute dating prospect? Your coworkers? People with your potential dream job?
You get $200 to travel this month. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Paris? Polynesia? Pittsburgh?
You have $100 to spend on classes. What do you want to learn? Java? Italian? How to bake a cake? How to play the piano?
Even you can’t make these percentages, that’s fine. It’s something to work towards. The point of a budget is structure, not perfection. The beauty of this budget is that if you follow it perfectly, you will grow and you won’t squander too much of your money away on activities and products that you won’t remember.
Here’s How A High Income Budget Would Work
Here’s an example of the budget on a $150,000 post-tax high-income law salary:
$500 other necessary spending (insurance, phone etc.)
Total = $3550=28%
Grow (learn and experience)
$300 building your network/dating (building new relationships)
$300 books/classes (structured learning)
$400 travel/trying new things/starting a new business (independent learning)
Total =$1200 =10%
Build (acquire the things you will need in your life)
$500 furnishing your home/home needs
$300 furnishing your wardrobe/personal needs
$150 exercise (classes, building your own at-home gym)
Total = $950 = 8%
$6,200 savings/debt repayment
Total = 50%
Play (whatever you want)
$600 entertainment/eating out
Total = 5%
Conclusion – Why the 50-30-20 Budget is Stupid
I’ve heard some people say that the 20s don’t matter. Those people probably think life doesn’t matter, because every year matters.
In your 20s you may (finally!) be out of school, and you can make your 20s can be all about growth. Even if all you learn is how to tread water, that’s a great skill
Some people enter their 30s in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Why can’t you use these 10 years to build a foundation for your career growth?