You’re Supposed To Follow These 3 Popular Money Rules, But There’s The Reality Of Life


Put down 20% down when buying a home. Do not spend more than 30% of your income on housing costs. Keep child care costs below 10% of your annual household income.

These rules of thumb can be helpful guideposts, helping you allocate expenses and determine what’s affordable. They can also be incredibly defeated when they feel unapproachable.

If the “rules” of money seem completely detached from your reality, know this: the average American doesn’t come close to following most popular money rules. And that’s OK.

“If you treat ‘rules of thumb’ as hard and fast, you’re setting yourself up for frustration,” says William O’Donnell, president of Heartland Financial Solutions in Bellevue, Nebraska. “What people tend to forget is that the guidelines are flexible because everyone’s situation is different.”

What’s important is to get your spending under control and develop a spending plan that’s right for you, not an ideal plan. Here’s how to see money rules of thumb in the context of your own personal financial reality.

The rule: Budget 50% for needs, 30% for wants, 20% for savings

Reality: Housing alone can eat up half your take home pay

The 50/30/20 rule is a popular budgeting framework that divides after-tax income into three slices: needs, wants, and savings. But mandatory spending can blow that budget out before you even get started.

In 2020, for example, 23% of US renters spent half or more of their income on rent alone, according to the most recent data available from the US Census Bureau. Add to that other needs—utilities, groceries, transportation, insurance, childcare, and debt repayment—and there’s little, if any, left over for needs or savings.

Lily: Another sign of an impending recession? Americans’ ability to pay their bills on time has plummeted for the first time in 5 years

Don’t cut your budget if the buckets aren’t working. Instead, take the principle and tweak the framework to suit your current financial situation with an eye on where you’d like to be in the long run. Sure, it might be more of an 85/10/5 budget now, but over time you can get closer to your ideal balance.

Simply tracking all your expenses is a good start; you’ll see where every dollar is going and be able to make more informed decisions about your spending.

The rule: cap childcare expenses at 7% of your income

Reality: Most families spend 20% or more on childcare

The US Department of Health and Human Services considers spending more than 7% of your annual household income on childcare to be unaffordable.

But a whopping 51% of parents spend more than 20%, according to a 2022 survey from, which polled more than 3,000 parents paying for childcare.

There is little you can do to drastically reduce childcare costs, but discounts and scholarships may be available, depending on your condition and child care status.

Dependent care flexible spending account is another option. If offered by your employer, you can contribute up to $5,000 before taxes and use the funds to help pay for a nanny, daycare, after-school care, and summer camp registration, among other things. .

Lily: Childcare costs soar as parents prepare to return to the office

The rule: You need a 20% down payment to buy a house

Reality: First-time home buyers typically put down around 7%

The 20% down payment “rule” is outdated, says Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors.

“The typical first-time buyer pays only 6-7% for a down payment,” says Lautz.

Yes, lenders once required such a large down payment, but they now rely on private mortgage insurance, or PMI, to mitigate their own risk, passing the cost on to borrowers.

According to Genworth Mortgage Insurance, Ginnie Mae and the Urban Institute, homebuyers who put less than 20% down pay an average of 0.58% to 1.86% of the original loan amount per year for the PMI. It can add hundreds of dollars to your monthly mortgage payment.

Investing more money upfront reduces the monthly and overall cost of your mortgage, but draining your savings to buy a home can leave you on a rocky financial footing.

According to a 2020 survey by The Harris Poll for NerdWallet, about 3 in 10 homeowners (29%) no longer felt financially secure after buying their current home. This sentiment was most acute among younger homeowners, with 42% of Gen Y homeowners and 54% of Gen Z homeowners feeling financially insecure after buying their home, compared to 31% of Gen Xers and 16% of baby boomer owners.

See: Home hunters say they are ready to buy in the next six months, even in a recession. Here’s why.

A mortgage broker can run the numbers to help you determine the sweet spot for your down payment, but you also need to ask yourself a few questions, Lautz says.

“Do you need savings to renovate once you’re in the house, or reserve savings for other expenses?” she says. “Would a lower monthly mortgage payment be easier on other monthly expenses like student debt or child care?”

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Kelsey Sheehy writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.


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