A budget can be a great tool for managing your money and making it work harder for you. But typically a budget involves distinguishing between fixed expenses (those that stay constant, month after month) and variable expenses, which change over time.
Understanding where your money is going in these two ways can be helpful as you work to track and optimize how you earn, spend, and save.
What’s important to know is that each kind of expense can be lowered in many cases, and fixed vs. variable expenses don’t necessarily translate as needs vs. wants.
Here, you can learn more about these two ways you spend money and how to pay less. You will likely find smart tips for how you can budget even better.
What Is a Fixed Expense?
Fixed expenses are those costs that you pay in the same amount each month — items like your rent or mortgage payment, insurance premiums (which can be an often-forgotten budget expense), and your gym membership. With fixed expenses, you know the amounts you will owe ahead of time, and they don’t change (or perhaps only annually).
Fixed expenses tend to make up a large percentage of a monthly budget since housing costs, typically the largest part of a household budget, are generally fixed expenses. This means that fixed expenses present a great opportunity for saving large amounts of money on a recurring basis if you can find ways to reduce their costs. However, cutting costs on fixed expenses may require bigger life changes, like moving to a different apartment — or even a different city, where the cost of living is lower.
Keep in mind, too, that not all fixed expenses are necessities — or big budget line items. For example, an online TV streaming service subscription, which is withdrawn in the same amount every month, is a fixed expense. It’s also a want as opposed to a need. Subscription services can seem affordable until they start accumulating and perhaps become unaffordable.
Examples of Fixed Expenses
Here are some examples of fixed expenses:
• Mortgage payments or rent
• Car payments
• Student loan payments
• Membership and subscription fees
• Insurance premiums
• Childcare or tuition payments
• Internet or mobile phone fees
What Is a Variable Expense?
Variable expenses, on the other hand, are those whose amounts can vary each month, depending on factors like your personal choices and behaviors as well as external circumstances like the weather.
For example, in areas with cold winters, electricity or gas bills are likely to increase during the winter months because it takes more energy to keep a house comfortably warm. Grocery costs are also variable expenses since the amount you spend on groceries can vary considerably depending on what kind of items you purchase and how much you eat.
You’ll notice, though, that both of these examples of variable costs are still necessary expenses — basic utility costs and food. The amount of money you spend on other nonessential line items, like fashion or restaurant meals, is also a variable expense.
In either case, variable simply means that it’s an expense that fluctuates on a month-to-month basis, as opposed to a fixed-cost bill you expect to see in the same amount each month.
Examples of Variable Expenses
Here are specifics of what can constitute a variable expense:
• Dining out
• Personal care
• Medical care
• Property and car maintenance
Fixed vs Variable Expenses
To review the difference between variable vs. fixed expenses:
• Fixed expenses are those that cost the same amount each month, like rent or mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and subscription services.
• Variable expenses are those that fluctuate on a month-to-month basis, like groceries, utilities, restaurant meals, and movie tickets.
• Both fixed and variable utilities can be either wants or needs — you can have fixed expense wants, like a gym membership, and variable expense needs, like groceries.
When budgeting, whether you are calculating expenses for one person or a family, it’s possible to make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses.
Get up to $300 when you bank with SoFi.
Open a SoFi Checking and Savings Account with direct deposit and get up to a $300 cash bonus. Plus, get up to 4.60% APY on your cash!
Ways to Save on Fixed Expenses
Just because an expense is fixed doesn’t mean it can’t be downsized. Consider these possibilities.
Review Where Your Money Is Going
Take a look at your fixed expenses with a critical eye. Did your landlord raise your rent a significant sum? It might be time to look for more affordable options or get a roommate.
Has the number of subscription services you pay for crept up over time? You might save on streaming services by dropping a platform or two.
Refinance Your Loans
Interest rates rise and fall. If they are dropping, you might be able to save money by refinancing your loans, such as your mortgage. Check rates, and see if any offers are available that would reduce your monthly spend.
One option can be to get a lower payment over a longer period. You will likely pay more interest over the life of the loan, but it could help you out if you are living paycheck to paycheck right now.
Consolidate Your Debt
If you have a significant amount of high-interest debt, such as credit card debt, you might consider paying it off with a personal loan that offers a lower interest rate. This could save you money in interest and help lower your fixed expenses.
Bundle Your Insurance
Many insurance companies offer a lower premium if you sign up for both automotive and homeowners insurance with them. Check available offers to potentially reduce your costs.
Ways to Save on Variable Expenses
As you delve into variable vs. fixed expenses, here are some possible ways to minimize the ones that vary.
Scrutinize How You Spend
When you track your spending, you may find ways to cut back. For instance, you could look for ways to do your grocery shopping on a budget by planning meals in advance and shopping with a list. You might be able to challenge yourself to go for one month without, say, takeout food and the next without movies and then put the savings towards paying down debt.
Hit “Pause” on Impulse Purchases
If you feel the urge to buy something that isn’t in your spending plan, try the 30-day rule. Mark down the item and where you saw it and the price in your calendar for 30 days in the future. When that date arrives, if you still feel you must have it, you can find a way to buy it. But there is a very good chance that sense of urgency will have passed.
Try Different Budget Methods
If you find you need more help reining in your variable expenses, you might benefit from trying different budgeting tactics. There is the popular 50/30/20 budget rule, which says to allocate 50% of your take-home pay to needs, 30% to wants, and 20% to savings.
Other people prefer the envelope budget method or using a line-item budget to dig into where their money is going. You might also benefit from apps and digital tools to help you track where your money is going. Many banks offer these to their customers.
Check in With Your Money Regularly
The exact cadence is up to you, but it can be helpful to review your money on a regular basis. Some people like to check in on their account balances a few times a week; others prefer to review their accounts in-depth monthly. Find a system that works for you so you can see if your spending is on-target or going overboard.
Benefits of Saving Money on Fixed Expenses
If you’re trying to find ways to stash some cash, finding places in your budget to make cuts is a big key. And while you can make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses, lowering your fixed expenses can pack a hefty punch, since these tend to be big line items — and since the savings automatically replicate themselves each month when that bill comes due again.
Think about it this way: if you quit your morning latte habit (a variable expense), you might save a grand total of $150 over the course of a month — not too shabby, considering it’s just coffee. Even small savings can add up over time when they’re consistent and effort-free — it’s like automatic savings.
But if you recruit a roommate or move to a less trendy neighborhood, you might slash your rent (a fixed expense) in half. Those are big savings, and savings you don’t have to think about once you’ve made the adjustment: They just rack up each month. The savings you reap can help you pay down debt or save more, which can help you build wealth.
Saving Money on Variable Expenses
Of course, as valuable as it is to make cuts to fixed expenses, saving money on variable expenses is still useful — and depending on your habits, it could be fairly easy to make significant slashes.
As mentioned above, by adjusting your grocery shopping behaviors and aiming at fresh, bulk ingredients over-packaged convenience foods, you might decrease your monthly food bill. You could even get really serious and spend a few hours each weekend scoping out the weekly flyer for sales.
If you have a spendy habit like eating out regularly or shopping for clothes frequently, it can also be possible to find places to make cuts in your variable expenses. You can also find frugal alternatives for your favorite spendy activities, whether that means DIYing your biweekly manicure to learning to whip up that gourmet pizza at home. (Or maybe you’ll find a way to save enough on fixed expenses that you won’t have to worry as much about these habits.)
Saving and Budgeting With SoFi
Fixed expenses are those costs that are in the same amount each month, whereas variable expenses can vary. Both can be trimmed if you’re trying to save money in your budget, but cutting from fixed expenses can yield bigger savings for less ongoing effort.
Great budgeting starts with a great money management platform — and SoFi can help you with that, thanks to our dashboard and smart features.
Interested in opening an online bank account? When you sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, you’ll get a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), pay zero account fees, and enjoy an array of rewards, such as access to the Allpoint Network of 55,000+ fee-free ATMs globally. Qualifying accounts can even access their paycheck up to two days early.
What are examples of variable expenses?
Variable expenses are changeable costs that include such items as groceries, utilities, entertainment, dining out, and credit card debt. They differ month by month.
What are examples of fixed expenses?
Fixed expenses are constant month after month. These can include such things as rent, car payments, student loan payments, and subscription services.
Are utilities fixed or variable?
Utilities may be a need vs. a want in life, but they often vary. For instance, if you live in a cold climate, your heating bill will rise in the winter. Or you might run the dishwasher more over the holiday season, increasing your bill.
Photo credit: iStock/LaylaBird
SoFi® Checking and Savings is offered through SoFi Bank, N.A. ©2023 SoFi Bank, N.A. All rights reserved. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.
The SoFi Bank Debit Mastercard® is issued by SoFi Bank, N.A., pursuant to license by Mastercard International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.
SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a deposit to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.
SoFi members with Qualifying Deposits can earn 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Qualifying Deposits means one or more deposits that, in the aggregate, are equal to or greater than $5,000 to an account holder’s SoFi Checking and Savings account (“Qualifying Deposits”) during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Qualifying Deposits only include those deposits from the following eligible sources: (i) ACH transfers, (ii) inbound wire transfers, (iii) peer-to-peer transfers (i.e., external transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc. and internal peer-to-peer transfers from a SoFi account belonging to another account holder), (iv) check deposits, (v) instant funding to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, (vi) push payments to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, and (vii) cash deposits. Qualifying Deposits do not include: (i) transfers between an account holder’s Checking account, Savings account, and/or Vaults; (ii) interest payments; (iii) bonuses issued by SoFi Bank or its affiliates; or (iv) credits, reversals, and refunds from SoFi Bank, N.A. (“SoFi Bank”) or from a merchant.
SoFi Bank shall, in its sole discretion, assess each account holder’s Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits throughout each 30-Day Evaluation Period to determine the applicability of rates and may request additional documentation for verification of eligibility. The 30-Day Evaluation Period refers to the “Start Date” and “End Date” set forth on the APY Details page of your account, which comprises a period of 30 calendar days (the “30-Day Evaluation Period”). You can access the APY Details page at any time by logging into your SoFi account on the SoFi mobile app or SoFi website and selecting either (i) Banking > Savings > Current APY or (ii) Banking > Checking > Current APY. Upon receiving a Direct Deposit or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits to your account, you will begin earning 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% on checking balances on or before the following calendar day. You will continue to earn these APYs for (i) the remainder of the current 30-Day Evaluation Period and through the end of the subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period and (ii) any following 30-day Evaluation Periods during which SoFi Bank determines you to have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits without interruption.
SoFi Bank reserves the right to grant a grace period to account holders following a change in Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits activity before adjusting rates. If SoFi Bank grants you a grace period, the dates for such grace period will be reflected on the APY Details page of your account. If SoFi Bank determines that you did not have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits during the current 30-day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, then you will begin earning the rates earned by account holders without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits until you have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits in a subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period. For the avoidance of doubt, an account holder with both Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits will earn the rates earned by account holders with Direct Deposit.
Members without either Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits, as determined by SoFi Bank, during a 30-Day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances.
Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 10/24/2023. There is no minimum balance requirement. Additional information can be found at https://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.