Your home, your car, your food. On a yearly basis, these are often times the three largest expenditures the typical American has to make. More often than not, your ability to live comfortably on your family's income depends on how efficiently you are spending your dollars in these "Big Three" areas.
In fact, according to the 2013 Consumer Expenditures Survey -- recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- these three accounted for 64% of the average American family's yearly expenditures. While focusing on skipping your daily latte has become a popular way to save for retirement lately, you'll get the most leverage by focusing on these three categories.
To get an idea for where you stand, take a look at the graph below. The x-axis is arranged by yearly household income, in thousands of dollars.
Expenditures are broken down into three categories:
- Housing includes rent/mortgage, utilities, supplies, maintenance, and furniture.
- Transportation includes vehicle payments, gasoline, maintenance, and public transportation.
- Food includes all that is bought for home consumption, as well as that purchased while eating out.
As there's no upper-bound for those earnings over $150,000, it's not surprising to see that cohort's numbers so high.
Having said that, the absolute numbers aren't as important as where you might fall within your own cohort, and how much of your pay is gobbled up by these three categories of expenses. To get an idea for how these numbers stand relative to how much you're earning, here's another way to view the information above:
If becoming financially independent is a serious goal for your or your family, it's imperative to look at these three areas to cut costs. As it stood in 2013, families earning less than $80,000 per year -- which accounts for almost three-quarters of all US households -- were devoting over half of their pre-tax income to these three categories.
Here are some life-hacking thoughts on how to control these costs. While they might sound simple, the most effective plans usually are; they're just difficult to implement.
One of the most dangerous things you can do is calculate "how much house you can buy" based on your salary. It starts the home-buying equation from a position of weakness, showing you the upper-limit of your spending.
It is far more beneficial, in my opinion, to figure out what you need in a house before you start looking. Consider the spacial needs of your family, as well as the importance of location. Write these things down.
You might be surprised to see how little you actually need to be happy. After doing this, check out the prices of some houses that fit your list. Now, working from a position of strength in knowing what your lifestyle bottom-line is, feel free to check on how much house you can afford.
If you live in the city, give serious consideration to both public transportation and car-sharing services like ZipCar or Car2go.
Otherwise, you can combine your transportation planning with your housing planning to cut down on costs. Click here to see a startling infograph of the true costs of commuting over time. The message is clear: commuting is an activity that robs you of time, money, sleep, social interactions, and health.
If you can find a housing option that is within walking or biking distance to your house, you significantly cut down on transportation costs, improve the likelihood of becoming financially independent, and improve your health -- all at the same time.
What's astounding here is the amount of money that Americans -- a group of people that are terrified over their retirement prospects -- spend on eating out has just eclipsed the amount of money spent on food for home.
This is beyond silly, as no one who has trouble making ends meet should find themselves in this position. Plan your meals ahead, buy in bulk at discount stores like Costco, and invite friends over to socialize instead of going out.
Take these three simple steps and financial independence might come far easier to you than you think. And if you're really behind on your retirement savings, consider the Social Security loophole highlighted below.