Updated: Aug 16, 2020
If you want to save money you need to spend less money than you make. That means that If you want to save more money you need to focus on your big three expenses
The three biggest living expenses, or as I call them “the big 3” are;
Housing, transportation, and food account for more than 60% of the average household budget. I am assuming that is more money than your daily coffee run costs. If you are looking to save more money, the big 3 is an excellent place to start.
Don't sweat the small stuff
One of the most common pieces of financial advice I hear is to focus on cutting out small everyday purchases as the best way to save money. The argument is that seemingly small and routine purchases like buying coffee can add up to large sums over time.
While it is true that cutting out small purchases and spending less money on “stuff” can add up to meaningful amounts of money over your life, these small purchases are not costs you need to control if you want to save money.
If you want to save money, you need to start with your largest expenses in life, not your smallest.
Let’s discuss why making smart choices around your big 3 living expenses is the easiest way to save more money.
Housing is most people’s most considerable expense.
Housing costs account for 37% of after-tax, household income in America. That means 37 cents of every dollar you bring home goes towards housing costs.
Let’s focus on the cost of owning a home because it has a lot more hidden costs compared to renting.
When homeowners budget their housings costs, they typically account for predictable expenses.
Homeowners Association (HOA) fees
Utility bills like electricity and heat
There is a whole other category of unpredictable costs associated with owning your own home that most people fail to include in their budget.
One of the major perks of renting is that when something breaks or needs to be repaired, you can call your landlord.
When you own a home, you are on the hook for those repair costs. The average homeowner spends $2,016 per year or $168 per month on general maintenance costs.
A common rule of thumb is for homeowners to budget at least 1% of the value of their home for annual maintenance costs. If your home is worth $400,000, you will budget at least $4,000 per year or $333 per month for home repair costs.
As a culture, we are obsessed with home renovations, and it is having an impact on our ability to save money. One report found that in 2018 homeowners spent an average of $6,649 on home renovations. That works out to nearly $555 per month.
Remember, these are renovations and upgrades. So, that $6,649 is in addition to the $2,016 spent on simple home maintenance.
Other hidden costs of homeownership
There are a lot of other costs associated with owning a home that people tend to forget about.
The average homeowner spent $638 or $53 per month on these services in 2018.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spent $9,761 or $813 per month on transportation in 2018. That works out to 17.6% of take-home pay. That number is much higher for families that own a car.
I’m not a “car guy” and have never really understood the appeal of car culture. So I have never been able to wrap my head around why people spend so much money on their cars.
While housing accounts for a larger share of household spending, cars are a bigger money pit. If you buy a house, you are going to spend more money on your home. However, you will at least own an asset that is likely to increase in value over time. When you buy a car, you are spending a lot of money on something that will eventually be worthless.
The monthly costs of buying a new car
When you by a new car, here are the average monthly costs to keep that car on the road.
Car payment: $555
Registration fees: $12
The total monthly cost of owning a new car: $916.
Once you throw in parking, the monthly cost of car ownership easily climbs over $1,000 per month.
If you think your monthly car payment is the largest single expense of buying a new car, you would be wrong. The single biggest cost of new cars is depreciation.
Depreciation refers to the value your car loses the second you drive it off the lot.
What is the average cost of depreciation of a new car? According to CarFax, a new car depreciates by 20% in the first year you own it and 10% each of the next four years.
If you bought a brand new, $40,000 car, it would lose $8,000 in value in the first year after you bought it. That works out to $666 per month.
Spending more money than you need to on a brand new car is an easy way to drive your finances into the ground.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spent $7,203 or $600 per month on food in 2018. That works out to nearly 13% of take-home pay. The total money spent on food includes food at home (groceries) and food away from home (eating out).
$4,049 or $337 per month was spent on groceries.
$3,154 or $262 per month was spent on eating out.
Reducing spending on the big 3 expenses
By now it should be abundantly clear that controlling our spending on housing, transportation and food is going to help you save a lot more money than cutting out your daily latte.
The question remains, how can you reduce the amount of money you spend on the big 3 expenses?
Let’s dig into the question by discussing ways to save on each of the big 3 expenses, one at a time.
The simple solution to reducing housing expenses
Let’s start with housing, which, as we covered, is most people’s largest expense in life.
We all know housing costs have increased significantly, and, they seem to keep going up every year. How can you reduce your housing costs, if the prices keep going up?
To answer that, we need to look at the reason they housing costs going up. Here is a fact that might blow your mind. Adjusting for inflation, the average housing cost per square foot has only increased by 4.6% in the U.S between 1973–2015.
The main reason housing costs have increased so much is that people want to live in bigger houses.
In 1973 the average house size was 1,660 square feet
in 2015 the average house size was 2,687 square feet
The average home was 62% bigger in 2015 than it was in 1973. What makes this even more expensive is that we have fewer people living in our giant houses.
Three people occupied a house in 1971.
Only 2.5 people occupied a house in 2015.
Houses are nearly two-thirds larger, and we have 16% fewer people living in them than we used to. As a result, the number of square feet per person has nearly doubled.
In 1973 the average house had 551 square feet per person.
In 2015 the average house had 1,058 square feet per person.
And we are mystified about why housing costs have increased so much. The simple solution to cutting your housing expenses should be obvious; downsize your home!
The worst advice anyone ever gave me about real estate was to buy more house than you need today because “you’ll grow into it.” If you buy a house and you have an empty room, think about all the costs to maintain that room.
Additional property taxes.
A larger mortgage.
Higher utility bills.
Higher maintenance and renovation costs.
If you want to save more money, live in the smallest home you are comfortable living in. Which is probably smaller than you are thinking it is right now.
A more aggressive way to cut back on housing costs
If you are willing to make a more considerable sacrifice than merely downsizing, you could cut your monthly housing costs all the way down to $0 or even have your house provide positive cash flow.
Let me introduce you to the concept of “house hacking.”
House hacking is a pretty simple concept. The idea is to find a way to generate enough income from your primary residence to offset your personal housing costs.
How great would it be if someone else was paying your mortgage, utility bills, and property taxes? Do you think you would be able to save more money than you are today?
That is the appeal of house hacking and why it is so popular in the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) community. If you can eliminate your largest expense in life, saving money and building wealth gets a whole lot easier.
There are a number of different ways you can pull off a house hack.
Rent out a room in your house.
Rent out your entire house on Airbnb when you are out of town.
Buy a multi-family property, while living in one unit and renting out the others.
If you rent and live alone, taking on a roommate is even a form of house hacking.
Whether you choose to downsize or house hack, there is a sacrifice that needs to be made. Downsizing involves giving up living space, while house hacking involves potentially giving up privacy.
You need to figure out which sacrifices are worth making given your goals and preferences. The main point is that you probably need to think a lot more about your housing costs than you currently are.
Reducing transportation expenses
We have already covered that the monthly cost of owning a car can be as high as $1,000 per month. That is a lot of money.
Here is the simplest solution to reducing your transportation costs; don’t own a car.
If you are struggling to save money and you don’t absolutely need to own a car, considering selling it and buying a transit pass. Yes, this would require a sacrifice. Car’s provide a lot of conveniences and make getting around a lot easier. They are also one of the biggest money pits in life.
Whether you decide to own a car or not, there will be an opportunity cost.
The cost of owning a car is all of the money you need to spend to buy that car and keep it on the road.
The cost of not owning a car is the lost convince of moving from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.
You need to decide which cost is worth paying at this point in your life. If you have three kids, the financial cost of owning a car is one you may gladly pay.
If you don’t have kids and you live in a city with a decent transit system, the amount of money you’ll save by selling your car will likely outweigh the opportunity cost getting around town less efficiently.
There is a reason we refer to managing our money as “personal finance.” The answer to nearly every financial question is largely dependent upon our personal preferences and circumstances. There are very few answers to a personal finance question that universally applies to every person.
Returning to the family that includes three kids. It might be a no-brainer decision for that family to own a car. But do they need to have two cars? If they went from a two-car family to a one-car family, would the financial savings be worth it to them? Maybe and maybe not. However, it is a discussion that any family with three kids and two cars should be having.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t own a car. I am saying that you absolutely need to be thinking about the opportunity costs of owning a car vs. not owning a car. Most people don’t think about the decision to buy a car in this context, and it can cost them a lot of needless financial headaches.
Buy the crappiest car you are comfortable driving
If you have considered the opportunity cost and decided that, yes, it is worth it to you to own a car, the next decision you need to make is how much should you spend on your car?
Here’s my advice; buy the crappiest car you are comfortable driving.
To be clear, when I say “crappy,” I don’t mean an unsafe car. I mean the safest, fuel-efficient, boring car for the lowest price possible. Meaning, don’t go buy a brand new Mustang when a three-year-old Toyota gets the job done.
Remember the two biggest expenses of buying a new car.
The monthly payment.
If you buy a new sports car or another expensive car, you are going to have a high monthly payment, and you are going to be paying a lot of deprecation. If you buy a $40,000 car with all the bells and whistles, that car is going to begin losing value the second you drive it off the lot. Sooner or later, that $40,000 car will be worth nothing.