I keep seeing versions of this MarketWatch article come across my feed. Take a quick look. It shows how difficult it is for this “middle class” family to live on $350K/year. $350,000 is approximately 4-10 years of the average teacher salary (depending on your job, region, and experience). I’ve managed to squeak by on under $350,000 a year for quite some time now.
So, I decided to help out. I trimmed a little fat. The article says this is for urban districts. Cities are more expensive. I wrote about this in A Broke Teacher’s Guide to Success. I was respectful of urban pricing when I took out my red pen:
I cut their food budget from $2129/month to $700. Unless they hired Oprah’s chef, they don’t need $2,129. And where’s that number come from, anyway?
“How much is your food budget?” No one says $2,129 or $563. It’s a round number. So, I round-numbered them down to $700 so they can still have takeout once in a while if they burn their filet mignon.
I eat for far less without suffering, and there’ve been months where I’ve skipped groceries altogether to use up unloved pantry food. I do a week or month of Iron Chef. There’s actually a whole group dedicated to people who do “Shelftember” and other shelf cooking challenges. In a normal month, I can feed the family well for about $300/month. Often less. But I eat weird and do a lot of canning and growing–stuff so non-teachery that I gave it it’s own website. Feel free to sneak over there if you’d like.
Point is, I don’t expect others to do these things, but $2000 for food? No! $700 is more than fair.
I crossed off their college savings fund and wrote “JOIN ROTC.” The military will pay for college if you serve for 4+ years. That was kind of a jerk move on my part though. I should put that line item back in. Saving for college is smart.
My point here was–look for creative solutions to not overspend on college. We let kids spend the equivalent of a Ferrari on college when a Subaru will do.
This family is double paying their mortgage. That’s a totally smart, a solid plan. I highly recommend this, even at the expense of cutting out other things. But, the premise of this article is that they’re “struggling to survive on $350K.” Double paying the mortgage is a luxury, not part of a “struggling middle class budget.” So, I reduced that back down to their actual mortgage payment and added $300/mo overpayment–which itself is more than most people overpay.
I’m sorry, the smallest member of the household doesn’t need more than my food budget. “Crib, pack and play, toys”–most of those things will be gifts or one-time purchases. They don’t go in a monthly budget.
If you’re teaching, chances are one of your colleagues handed down the big stuff. I got a crib, a pack and play, a bunch of clothes at my shower, and I have tons of friends who hand down nice clothes–they’re sorted in bins for when my son grows into them. Even if this family doesn’t have hand-me-down friends, this baby budget is too much. Diapers are about a third of this. I slashed this to $100/month. They might need a little more if formula feeding, especially if there’s a specialty formula need. For baby food–make it. Nobody who’s ever tasted baby food would feed it to a child. They can squash a carrot when making carrots. Squash an organic one if they must.
Clothes and car
I nearly lost my mind when they wrote (this better be for clickbait only!!) this line: “Clothes for four (Old Navy not Gucci)” and “Toyota Highlander Instead of A Range Rover.” …As if we need apologetics for driving a “normal” car?
Can I say, “Look, I saved $50K because I have a Subaru instead of a Tesla”?
In all fairness, money isn’t the reason I personally passed on the Tesla. I live in Rhode Island (“The Pothole State”). I need something solid.
I like the idea of electric cars, but I fear them. What do I say to the AAA guy when he pulls up with a gas can and I have to tell him I ran out of electricity? Do I say, “Can I borrow your cell phone battery?” Also, I almost got run over by a hybrid in a Whole Foods parking lot–they’re silent and deadly.
But the real reason I didn’t want a Tesla is the logo looks exactly like the IUD on the pamphlet in my ob-gyn’s office. I don’t want to drive around in a giant IUD mobile. I know that’s as shallow as saying “not Gucci” on a budget, but it’s the truth. I can’t say I saved $50K not buying a Tesla because I was never going to, and this family shouldn’t feel like they’re dressing in potato sacks with a “not Gucci” budget.
I slashed the clothing budget. It’s way too high for “struggling.” But, they can still buy Gucci–just on sale, or designer thrift. Get great things, creatively, and care for them well. They’ll last and be in style. I should’ve given them a tailor and dry cleaning budget.
I left their car payment, gas, and insurance/maintenance budgets alone. They’re reasonable. If they’re in NYC or San Francisco, they should probably be higher due to garaging and parking.
Personal care products
I cut this $100/month line, too. I say this to you in the same month I bought makeup for the very first time–as an adult. Somehow, I missed out on fashion as a teen. I never had much more than the rogue lipstick or eyeliner. I recently decided to up my game. I went into Sephora and Ulta. I watched YouTubers who told me what to wear and buy–that I needed bronzer, and highlighter… Before this, the only highlighter I ever had was a Sharpie that 99 cents.
Makeup is expensive. But even stocking up for the very first time, I only slightly exceeded their monthly budget’s allowance, and I won’t need this stuff again for a solid year, I’m guessing. Shampoo, soap, deodorant… they last a long time. True story–I have a tube of toothpaste in my cabinet now that I may have had for five years. I bought the wrong tube and it refuses to be empty. Either it knows I don’t like the flavor and am just trying to use it to get to the cinnamon tube, or it really is a miracle–the Macabees’ personal tube of toothpaste.
I don’t skimp on soaps, shampoos, or care items…ever. I buy good stuff. But because this is a family budget, I snooped around my husband’s shampoos, razors, personal care items, double checked my products, and added in extra to allow for our middle schooler. Middle school boys don’t really use things like soap or deodorant. I’m lucky he uses toothpaste. I inflated that budget line to represent a perfect world where I’d need to buy him deodorant and soap, too.
Maybe my budget for this is a little low. Good skincare is important. If I’ve been unfair, or if this line should include female monthly items, they should add some back in and then use the CVS extra buck coupons that come out of the register like a jumprope or get those points at Walgreens. Guaranteed they won’t need $1200/year.
Things I didn’t touch
I left their budgets for child care, preschool, “occasional babysitting,” utilities, phone, property taxes, and life insurance.
Taxes and insurance are could be lowered by moving or adjusting policies–they have a ton of coverage. But moving can rack up commuter budgets and that’s not usually someone’s first line of defense when budgeting. We’re not “Tiny House Nation” here, we’re just trying to cut the budget to below $350K.
Life insurance is important–a $2M policy with an additional umbrella policy might make me check my tea twice for hemlock or arsenic–it’s quite a payout, arguably too much–but who am I to judge? I left that. It’s good to have insurance that covers what you feel your risks and liabilities would be.
And child care really is outrageous for everyone, especially “preschool.” Some are top-level education centers and others are babysitting on steroids. Either way, parents are chained to the price–there aren’t many options and they’re all crazy expensive.
One idea I had: what if preschools had art programs that manufactured license plates? They could use the profits to give the parents a rebate on tuition. Childcare is where average family gets stuck–you can’t put your kid in front of Sesame Street with a juice box while you go to work, and for many families this is the straw that breaks the camel’s budget back. They get a pass on this line in their budget–and outside of housing/property taxes, it is the largest justifiable expense.
Phone & Utilities
This family’s utilities and phone bills are totally reasonable, possibly even low. I always comparison shop for phones, but today, everyone gets their own phone and depending on their job, and unlimited data isn’t a luxury item. We use our phones for work, research–I operate a great deal on my phone. It’s a need.
Utilities vary from place to place. There’s only so much anyone can do to control this. I used to tell my son to turn off the lights or Al Gore would get him, but that threat doesn’t last forever, and guilt only gets me so far. Every month my electric company sends me a graph showing my usage next to my “energy efficient neighbors.” I always lose. I’m high. So, I left this family’s utility budget alone. They’re in the ballpark.
Vacations and entertainment…
I wasn’t able to keep a straight face when looking at this line. That red pen came out faster than a NASCAR race.
Fill disclosure: I want you to live well. I want this family to live well. I would’ve left these items alone, happily, so they could go to the islands, hit a Broadway show, or dine at five-star restaurant but for one thing…
They said they were struggling. If you’re struggling, you can’t spend this amount on vacation and entertainment. There are thousands of free parks, museums, and activities. Binge watch Netflix, which I left in the budget. They could even start a family YouTube channel make some ad revenue. I subscribe to some families that do.
DRUM ROLL, PLEASE…
I’m done with my red pen. If I didn’t make a mistake calculating, they’ll have $5600+ left over.
They can use some of that to double-pay that mortgage, deposit in the college fund, or ski in Jackson Hole.
The lesson is this…
Our spending always rises to the level of our income. I’m being harsh here, but the truth is, if this is a real family, they probably ARE struggling.
Because they don’t see another way.
Meanwhile, like I said in the beginning, you may be saying, “But I’m a teacher. That’s 4-10 years of my pay!! Let *me* live on $350K/year!!”
The goal of this site, the newsletter, and the book isn’t to cut corners and slash the budget. I don’t put people down for doing well. In fact, I want you to vacation, entertain, and go to Jackson Hole if you love those things. This was an exercise in looking outside the box. It’s easy for me to call this budget ridiculous and whip out my red pen.
What if this family were on the other side of the curtain red penning my original teacher budget at the same time… what I used to spend on my classroom?
They’d be equally shocked. “Why is this person spending hundreds of dollars funding her JOB when she can’t even pay her bills?” Kinda crazy isn’t it?
Yet that’s what I did… and what many teachers still do… We don’t see another way.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
1. We all do ridiculous things… when we learn to take a step back and really see–that’s when we can fix things.
2. My spending quirks were no better than the family in this article, no matter how much red pen I used today. What started my improvement is when I took the red pen out on me! I did it wrong first–slash, slash, slash. Then I learned to see, build, and grow. That was my key moment.
3. Adjust, repair, and transcend:) Start now… keep moving forward:)
4. Flip the language so you’re building to pay for the things you want not always subtracting to get to zero. This takes time and finesse, but you can do it–teacher skills are very much in demand.
Let’s get moving on this, together:)