My $15,000 Middle Class BudgetOctober 29th, 2014 at 08:30 pm
If you think about it, your basic living expense budget is THE crucial factor affecting WHEN you can become financially independent, and HOW MUCH capital you need to become financially independent. The lower your basic living expenses are, the smaller your financial independence stash needs to be, and the sooner you will have it.
But how low a basic living expenses "nut" CAN YOU STAND living with? And for how many years would you have to stand it? How much rice and pasta can you stand to eat? How small a place can you stand to live in? How cold (or hot) can you stand the temperature to be in that place? How much of your income will an acceptable, LIVABLE basic lifestyle cost you? And how much would then be left over for you to apply to your financial independence plan?
My answer to all those questions is that a comfortable and secure lifestyle can very, very definitely be achieved without spending a fortune on it. My basic living expense budget is $15,048 a year, which is about one third of my income. And I am perfectly happy with the kind of daily lifestyle I get for less than $1255 a month (which, by the way, is a lot MORE than really frugal people find necessary to spend). My case is just one more testimonial to the power and joy of modest expense (I won't even call it frugal) living.
In fact, it is not my intent to show that I spend very little. It is, after all not that little. Instead, I want to document by one more example (mine) how much you can have and do -- how good a daily life you can have -- on less money than most (middle class?) people have coming in. To show that financial independence could be a lot closer than generally assumed.
My Basic Lifestyle
The context of my basic daily lifestyle includes owning a large house on 2.5 acres of land located 5 miles from a small town and 25 miles from "the big city"... eating a modified paleo diet heavy on meats and vegetables and low on starches... driving a well maintained older vehicle... being free of an obligatory job and commute... and spending a lot of my time hiking, blogging, reading, taking video courses, doing hobby carpentry, watching DVD movies, playing computer strategy games, and listening to classical music.
I live very comfortably. I enjoy my time on a daily basis free from an obligatory job. And I do it on less than one third of my income. Doing that does not feel to me like a big deal.
So why do so many people find this impossible (or unacceptable) to do?
My Budget Big Picture
That $15,048 a year basic living expense budget of mine works out to $1254 a month. Of that sum, $397 goes to housing expenses, $185 to vehicle costs, $378 to health coverage, $244 to household expenditures, and $50 to federal and state income taxes.
My budget big picture also takes into account that my wife pays for her share of our overall expenses. If I factored her out of my calculations, and I had to pay the entire cost of our indivisible shared expenses (like mortgage), my monthly nut would go up by a net $34 to $1288 a month (or $15,456 a year).
That my go-it-alone costs would go up so little is something that we have already tested out to be true.
We own a smaller rental home on one acre of land that I have lived in by myself before. If I were alone, I would live in that house. From prior experience, my solo housing costs (lower mortgage, lower real estate taxes, lower utilities costs, etc) would then go up a net $34 a month.
My vehicle and health coverage costs would remain unchanged because they are already calculated on a solo basis for me and my 1996 Dodge Dakota. And my household expenditures (food, etc) would not change either because their consumption would be proportional (half) to the number of people doing the consuming (1 instead of 2).
So, living with my wife or living alone, my basic living expenses would still be about $15,000 a year.
Given that, doesn't $15,000 a year (per person?!) sound like a more than generous basic living expenses budget benchmark that anyone could apply if they made up their minds to do so?
My Housing and What It Costs
I share with my wife an 1800-square-feet single-story brick house with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a full unfinished basement and an enclosed patio room that adds another 200 square feet to our living space. The house sits on two-and-a-half acres of land, along with a detached two-car garage, a large 400-square-foot metal outbuilding, and a humongous 1000-square-foot pole barn (that my wife has converted into her rabbit-geese-chicken raising place).
If I were living alone, then I would be living in what is currently our rental house. There I would have to myself 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, a living room and an eat-in kitchen in a 1000-square-foot single-story brick house. I would also have a full unfinished basement, an attached oversized one-car garage with enough room for a workshop, plus 2 standard-sized sheds -- all on an acre of land less than 1 mile from a river boat landing and less than 3 miles from a magnificent state park with a very large number of hiking trails.
Either way, this is living in an owned home with ample space for me, lots of privacy and no in-my-face neighbors. So, we are not talking about hovel living.
For either house, large down payments have made the monthly mortgage low. We keep the shared house at 78 degrees F in the summer and 70 degrees in the winter. At the shared house, we pay for 2 Ooma phone lines, have a trash pickup service, and have satellite as our only (and expensive) internet option. If I were alone at the smaller house, I would drop one phone line, do my own trash hauling to a nearby dump station, and enjoy better yet cheaper cable internet service.
So my monthly housing cost breaks down like this (shared house / solo house):
 $25K mortgage ================>$114 shared ========>$112 solo
 tax and insurance escrow ========>$ 56 shared ========>$121 solo
 trash service ==================>$ 14 shared ========> 0 solo
 home warranty ================>$ 50 shared ========>$ 50 solo
 internet service ================>$ 45 shared ========>$48 solo
 phone service ==================>$ 5 shared ========> 0 solo
 utilities =======================>$113 shared =======>$100 solo
 TOTAL =======================>$397 shared ========>$431 solo
So either way, it takes around 400 bucks a month (give-or-take) for me to live in a comfortable house on a good piece of ground.
With the right choice of location and a serious down payment, couldn't anyone do just as well or better?
My Vehicle and What It Costs
I think my most powerful budget-lowering tactic is my textbook Mustachian vehicle ownership strategy. In my book too, a vehicle is for safe, reliable and comfortable transportation of people and stuff. Social status preening through one's choice of vehicle is in no way a legitimate basic living expense. So my vehicle is a 1996 Dodge Dakota extended-cab pickup that I have driven since 2003. It is paid for, utterly reliable and totally practical. (I haul a lot of stuff.)
My monthly costs for that vehicle are as follows:
 insurance (top-of-the-line) ======>$ 35
 maintenance (and repair) =======>$ 100
 fuel (for 300 basic miles) ========>$ 50
 TOTAL ======================>$ 185
(My wife drives and pays for a similarly thrifty 1998 all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester.)
Opting out of a new, fancy-schmanzy vehicle has drastically reduced my monthly outlay for installment payments (I have none), insurance (much cheaper to insure a $4K vehicle) and maintenance (simple systems mean simpler work). AND my older non-status vehicle has reduced my magic FI stash number by about $150,000. (!!)
Ego stroking aside, what justification can there be for hardwiring the monthly costs of a late model status vehicle into one's basic expense budget? How can that be worth the many extra years it adds to reaching financial independence?
My Health Coverage's Big 30% Budget Bite
Even with Medicare, making sure I am covered in case I get seriously sick accounts for a mind-boggling 30% of my basic living expenses.
I have opted for an insurance strategy that is front-loaded with out-of-pocket costs to a maximum of $2435 a year, but then covers me 100% after that. Because those out-of-pocket expenses are sporadic, very variable, somewhat optional and mostly theoretical, I pay for them -- if and when they happen -- out of discretionary funds. So I don't consider them part of my basic living expenses.
That leaves my monthly health coverage "sub-nut" looking like this:
 hospital and medical insurance ==========>$ 158
 longterm care insurance ================>$ 188
 dental insurance ======================>$ 17
 medications insurance =================>$ 15
 TOTAL ==============================>$ 378
On a budget percentage basis, this is still a big bite. But affordable (to me). Anyway, it is just about what the lease or installment payment would be on one of those late-model fancy-schmanzy vehicles I poke fun at.
And isn't being able to take care of one's health way more important than vehicular ego preening?
And Here Is The Rest
The remaining $294 per month of my basic living expenses go primarily to "feeding." Feeding myself a modified paleo diet that includes very few starches except for whole wheat bread for lunch sandwiches and rolled oats for breakfast oatmeal. Feeding one dog and 2 cats on mixes of brand name dry and wet foods. And feeding the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, etc. with all the usual household consumables (paper towels, bath soap, cat litter, what have you). All this feeding eats up $225 a month. (I don't break it down any further because it all gets purchased on the same register receipts at either WalMart, Food Lion or Dollar General and it's not worth it to me to subcategorize the expenses.)
So the monthly basic expenses that I arbitrarily grouped as "household expenditures" earlier tally up like this:
 food, pets and sundries ==========>$225
 Sirius internet radio =============>$ 2
 $1MM liability insurance ==========>$ 7
 federal income tax ==============>$ 40*
 state income tax ================>$ 10*
 TOTAL ========================>$294
(* based on applying the standard deduction and exemption to the gross $15,500 required to meet my basic living expenses.)
I am well fed. My pets are well fed. And I never find myself lacking for anything.
It is all perfectly satisfactory basic living... wouldn't you say?
I consider this detailing of my $15,500 annual basic living expenses as one more real-life testimonial to what is made possible by astute spending choices without making big sacrifices or a big effort. Without having to grow your own food, repair your own clothes, fix your own stuff, use solar for electric, keep the heat low in winter and high in summer, buy in bulk, ride your bicycle everywhere instead of driving, or any other unusual/special effort.
Take another look at my budget details. I live in a spacious, comfortable house that is kept at a comfortable temperature. I drive a comfortable, reliable and well-maintained vehicle. I drive around like a clown to do everything; I don't ram my bike through snowdrifts or use it to haul refrigerators. I eat great. I keep pets. I am insured up the wazoo against anything and everything. I lack for nothing.
The takeaway is NOT that $15,500 is very frugal (because it really isn't). The takeaway is that it doesn't have to take much more than that (for one adult person) to have a comfortable middleclass life. That it is not a big effort to get expenses down. And that you can then direct the balance of your income to wiping out your debt or building your (early?) retirement stash. You can apply your (newly found!) surplus income to reaching financial independence YEARS SOONER than you had thought possible!
I did that. Covered my basic living expenses with 32% of my gross paycheck. Paid off all the installment debts. And built up enough of a stash in 6 years to let me become financially independent with way more passive income than I need to cover those basic living expenses.
And, since I know I am not a financial genius, I know this IS DOABLE by almost anyone. Without making any big deal sacrifices.
And that is THE real take-away.
Retired To Win
making the most of my time and my money
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