Guide To Budgeting Living Expenses

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · November 21, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Guide To Budgeting Living Expenses

You’re undoubtedly used to those bills coming in every month, such as your housing costs, food, and car insurance, but you may sometimes wonder if there’s a way to better manage them. Budgeting for your recurring living expenses can help you take control of your cash and spend and save smarter.

While there are various techniques you could use, a good starting point can be to first get a handle on your needs vs. wants and next determine which budget technique will work best for you.

Key Points

•   Living expenses include costs that are vital to daily life, such as housing, food, clothing, transportation, and healthcare.

•   It’s wise to differentiate between needs and wants when budgeting for living expenses.

•   Budgeting methods like proportional budgets, line-item budgets, and envelope budgets can help manage living expenses.

•   Average living expenses vary across the US, depending on factors like location, cost of living, and household size.

•   If income doesn’t cover living costs, options include reducing expenses or increasing income through side hustles or career changes.

What Are Living Expenses?

Basic living expenses, as the name implies, are ones necessary for daily living, with main categories including housing, food, clothing, transportation, healthcare, and relevant miscellaneous costs.

Although not everyone would define basic living expenses in the exact same way, here is a breakdown of expenses to consider.


For homeowners, this can include their mortgage payment, property tax, and insurance payments, along with monthly utilities and basic maintenance costs.

If living in a condo, this includes condominium fees. For renters, it can include the monthly rent payment, utilities, renters insurance, and any other housing-related costs they’re responsible for paying.

Food and Beverage

Basic expenses would include buying groceries for the family, but not restaurant food or other optional food or drink expenses. So while, yes, dinner at a sushi restaurant is technically food, dining out doesn’t count as a basic living expense. You could do without it.

Recommended: Ways to Save Money on Food


This includes clothes for work and school for the family, plus footwear, underwear, outerwear, casual clothing, pajamas, and so forth. Designer clothing and other pricier items are typically not categorized in basic living expenses. The same holds true for buying a cool sweater that’s on sale but you don’t truly need it.


Expenses in this category can range from monthly payments for healthcare insurance, to co-pays and additional bills from doctors, dentists, specialists, and so forth. It also includes co-pays for prescription medications and over-the-counter meds.


Transportation expenses can include car payments and insurance, gas, and maintenance. It can also include Uber and taxi expenses, public transportation tickets, parking fees, and so forth.

Other Expenses

Cleaning supplies for the home or apartment, personal care items, cell phone and internet bills, and similar items can also be included in a list of basic living expenses.

Minimum Debt Payments

Not to be overlooked are making sure you stay current on such things as student, car, and personal loan payments, as well as at least the minimum due on credit cards.

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Average Living Expenses in the USA

The average living expenses can vary greatly depending on where you live and your household size. Here is a snapshot of a few locations across the country and how much monthly living expenses are, using data from the Economic Policy Institute.


Household size





Rapid City, SD1$577$278$803$662
Rapid City, SD2 (couple)$664$510$980$1,324
Rapid City, SD4 (2 parents, 2 children)$875$805$1,152$2,014
Seattle, WA1$1,523$326$854$344
Seattle, WA2 (couple)$1,599$597$1,057$688
Seattle, WA4 (2 parents, 2 children)$1,906$941$1,274$1.032
Tallahassee, FL1$778$294$816$439
Tallahassee, FL2 (couple)$843$539$1,042$879
Tallahassee, FL4 (2 parents, 2 children)$1,024$850$1,170$1,327
Washington, DC1$1,387$374$472$411
Washington, DC2 (couple)$1,419$686$601$822
Washington, DC4 (2 parents, 2 children)$1,618$1,082$747$1,378

Wants Versus Needs

The challenge, in many of these categories, can be to successfully determine which of these expenses are truly needed and which are extras that would be more appropriately categorized as “wants.” In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with paying for “wants” that fit within the budget but, for the purposes of making a basic living expense budget, it’s important to tease them apart.

Paying a cell phone bill, for example, could be considered important for safety and to facilitate communicating with work and family. Getting the latest and greatest cell phone for its bells and whistles, meanwhile, is crossing over into a want, not a need.

In the 1970s, something called the Growth-Share Matrix was developed, and it may help people who are wondering how to categorize living expenses and then prioritize them. The process includes listing all expenses, and then putting wants in one column and needs in another. Each column can then be divided into high or low priority. So, when budgeting living expenses, there would be four categories:

•   High-priority needs

•   High-priority wants

•   Low-priority needs

•   Low-priority wants

Another way to name these categories is:

•   Must have

•   Should have

•   Could have

•   Won’t have

This makes it easier to see what must be paid and what is optional. When budgeting, it can make it easier to choose where to put any discretionary funds. In other words, these methods may be able to help people answer these questions: “What are living expenses that must be paid? Which ones are more optional?”

When making a budget, it’s important to also account for any credit card payments, personal loan payments, student loan payments, and other debts that must be paid. After documenting all these expenses, figuring out how to calculate living expenses is as easy as some quick math. Figuring out how to budget for these expenses is the next item on the agenda.

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Allocating Your Income

Although no two financial situations or budgets are exactly the same, there’s been a long-standing rule of thumb when making a budget that says people shouldn’t spend more than 30% of their after-tax income on housing.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent analysis of how people spend their income, the percentages stack up as follows:

•   Housing: 33.8%

•   Transportation: 16.4%

•   Food: 12.4%

•   Personal insurance/pensions: 11.8%

•   Healthcare: 8.1%

•   Apparel and services: 2.6%

This accounts for nearly 85% of what people, on average, have been spending. It shows that, on average, people are slightly above the recommended percentage for housing expenses.

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3 Types of Living Expense Budgeting Methods

There are numerous ways to craft a budget; in fact, we’ve created a guide to cover the different types of budgeting methods. One of the keys to effective budgeting is picking a strategy that allows for consistency. The following methods can help an individual create a budget.

1. Proportional Budget

For people who have divided up their expenses into needs and wants, proportional budgets may make sense. This is a budgetary strategy where monthly income is divided into three categories:

•   Needs

•   Wants

•   Savings

In one type of proportional budget — the 50/30/20 rule featured in the book “All Your Worth” by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi — 50% of income would go towards needs; 30% towards wants; and 20% towards savings. It typically makes sense to do this calculation with after-tax income, which is take-home pay.

Advantages of a proportional budget include that it’s a simple formula, which may make it easier to stick to. Plus, it keeps a focus on the big picture, clearly distinguishing between needs and wants. It can also be a useful method for people who want to save money in a straightforward way.

This budget method may not work well for people who are still working on separating needs from wants. And, if a person’s needs currently take up more than 50% of income earned, then the 50/30/20 percentage breakdown may work as a goal vs. something that can be fully implemented right away.

Recommended: Check out the 50/30/20 calculator to see the breakdown of your money.

2. Line-Item Budget

A line-item budget is a granular method where you track expenditures, line by line, in relevant categories. This can be helpful for people who want to keep their focus on spending money on basic living expenses because they can easily see how much of their money is going into what category.

This is also an easy method to create and use. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a focus on savings, and it is more time intensive to manage.

3. Envelope Budget

The envelope system is another way to create a household budget, and it may be the most hands-on way to manage money. People using this method withdraw enough money from the bank each month to cover each budget category. Then, they put the appropriate amount for each category in a separate envelope: housing expenses in one, grocery expenses in another, and so on.

Once a particular envelope is empty, then no more money can be spent in that category for that month, unless cash is taken from another envelope, which reduces the amount that can be spent on that envelope’s category. This method can work well for people who appreciate a tactile way of handling money. The need to get cash from the bank each month does add a step to the process and, like the line-item method, it doesn’t address savings.

This method can be adapted for those who don’t use cash. Instead, you can use your debit card and keep track (by hand or via an app) on how your category spending is going.

Recommended: Tips for Aggressively Saving Money

Budgeting Tips

Here’s some advice as you create and live on a budget:

•   When creating a budget, look for expenses that can be eliminated or at least reduced. For example, you might cut a streaming service or two or drop all that you subscribe to and find free entertainment through your public library’s resources.

•   It also generally makes sense to incorporate savings into a budget. First build an emergency savings account and then save for other personal goals, including for retirement.

Although the proportional budget described above has savings as an integral part, the line-item budget and envelope budget don’t. But, a line can be added for savings towards retirement or other goals — and an envelope can be added to the monthly pile.

•   Consistency also counts, big time. When budgeting is a part of daily life, it can make it much easier to reach financial goals than when it’s a sporadic activity. If budgeting fades from focus for a month, don’t quit. Get right back on track.

•   Finally, when help is needed, ask for it, whether from trusted friends and/or relatives or a qualified financial advisor.

What If Your Income Doesn’t Cover Your Living Costs?

If your income doesn’t cover your living expenses, you have two options (or you could do a combination of both):

•   Reduce your expenses. You might take a roommate, move in with a family member for a while, start shopping at warehouse clubs, or decide not to eat out much less.

•   Increase your income. This might mean looking for a new job, training up for a different career, or starting a side hustle.

These methods can help you cover your living costs. Worth noting: If part of the issue is considerable debt that is negatively impacting your spending power, you might meet with a non-profit credit counselor for advice on eliminating that drain on your funds.

Budgeting and Saving With SoFi

Budgeting for daily living expenses can help you better understand your financial situation and then meet your money goals. Your financial institution may offer tools to help you track your money and budget successfully too.

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What are considered living expenses?

Living expenses are the minimum expenditures needed to survive, so typically they include housing and utilities, food, clothing, healthcare, insurance, and minimum debt payments.

What is the average living cost in the U.S.A.?

The current average cost of living in the United States is $61,334. That’s how much the average household spends on expenses, with almost 35% going to housing and housing-related costs.

What salary is needed to live comfortably in the U.S.A.?

The salary needed to live comfortably in the U.S. will depend on many factors, such as cost of living, location, and household size and configuration. One recent study found that, when looking at America’s 25 most expensive cities, a salary of at least $68,499 would be required for an individual to live comfortably. For larger households, the number will rise.

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