Back to Basics: How to Think About Your Paycheck

Ivan here.

I’m going to start this “Back to Basics” series by making a few assumptions about the paychecks of the average millennial. By definition, this won’t cover everyone’s situation. Some readers might be better off, others worse off.

Even so, I hope this three-part “paycheck” mini-series will still be useful as a framework for thinking about the money that hits your bank account every month.


‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.
’Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

3 Principles of Financial Literacy


If I could boil down financial literacy into three basic concepts they would be as follow:

  1. The number you see on your paycheck is not the number you can afford to spend.
  2. Debt is dangerous and should be avoided or paid off as soon as possible.
  3. Small, steady changes add up to life-changing progress over time.

That pretty much covers it. The rest are just details. Something you learn along the way through experience or a Google search. In personal finance, boring is good. Managing money should be like going to the gym or any other chore you can think of.

Get it done, get it over with, and get out.


Who is the average millennial struggling with money?


In this mini-series on the average millennial’s paycheck, I’ll be working from the following assumptions:

Who is the Average Millennial?

the average millennial debt savings
  • Age: 25-35
  • Pre-tax income: $40,000
  • After-tax income: $32,000 (California tax rates)
  • Debt: 1x salary, or $40,000 in student loans at a 4% interest rate
  • U.S. healthcare premiums: $2,000 a year
  • Monthly paycheck (after taxes and deductions): $2,500 per month

I chose the ages 25-35 because let’s be honest, most millennials are underemployed in their early twenties and barely have the time (or means) to think about personal finance. The average salary for millennials in the U.S. is actually around $35,500 a year, but I bumped this up to $40,000 when I remove the under 25 group. The paycheck figure doesn’t consider any other pre-tax deductions outside of healthcare - like a 401k match offered by an employer.

The goal of this mini-series to demonstrate, step by step, how a millennial with a debt balance equal to one times her current salary could get to a position where she has one times her future salary saved for retirement.


Millennials - How to Think About Your Paycheck (Part 1 of 3)


The best way to think about your paycheck is to break it down into three steps:

  1. Start with a blank slate: “In the perfect world, how much of X can I afford with my current paycheck?”

  2. Assess the reality: “In reality, where is my paycheck going?”

  3. Make a plan: “what changes should I prioritize and make first?”

In Part 1, I’ll cover the first step, and answer the following question:
 

“In the perfect world,
how much of X can I afford with my paycheck?”

 

The way Jennie and I think about this is simple.

The average millennial should take their $2,500 per month paycheck and divide it into three equal funds of $833:

  • $833 - a rent & bills fund,

  • $833 - a “present me” fund

  • $833 - a “future me” fund

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1. Rent & Bills Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for rent plus whatever bills you need to bring your place up to basic, livable standards. And by basic I mean: electricity, water, and gas. I’m not factoring in other modern essentials like internet, phone bill, or gym memberships. That comes later.

  • How much you spend on rent & bills is the biggest determining factor for how painful the next steps will be. The more you deviate from $833, the fewer options you leave yourself down the road. In some cases, it makes sense to pay a little more for rent as long as the savings in transportation cancels it out.
     
  • Now I know what some might be thinking: what if $833 doesn’t come close to the average price of a studio apartment in my city? The answer is simple, but unpleasant: if you can’t rent a studio apartment on a $833 budget, you can’t afford to live alone on your current paycheck. Consider getting roommates or renting a private room in a house.
     
  • It also isn’t a great idea to rent a place based on the prospect of a future raise. You never want to put yourself in a situation where you need something to happen in order to keep your head above water. Even if a raise is likely (or even imminent), pre-spending your future earnings eliminates any upside and flexibility it may have given you.

To summarize: in the perfect world, your rental situation should always stay a step behind the growth in your earnings.
 

2. “Present Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your current self. For all the expenses you’re likely to incur within the next 12-18 months. Things you need to stay alive - while being reasonably happy and sane. This includes the essentials like internet, phone bill, transportation and groceries, and the discretionary like eating out, shopping or travel.

  • All essential expenses should be negotiated and paid for, as much possible, in bulk or upfront (i.e. stocking up on toiletries on sale, calling your mobile provider for special promotions, planning your grocery list in weeks)
     
  • All discretionary expenses should be ranked and prioritized in order of importance to you. If you have more than three things on your list, strike out the extra items because they’re not that important to you.  
     

3. “Future Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your future self. For all the expenses you expect to incur in 2+ years. I’ve put some thought into the below rankings and concluded that, all else being equal, this was the most efficient way to handle the competing priorities of cash, debt repayment, and retirement:

  1. High interest loans: credit cards and other high interest debt always comes first.

  2. Emergency fund: at least 2-3 months of living expenses set aside in a high interest savings account. Assuming you’re allocating the full $833, this can be built up within 4-6 months.

  3. Student loan debt: I’ve written a post before on why you should prioritize paying off all your student loans before you even worry about retirement. Assuming your paycheck remains static, you can pay your student loan balance off in 4.5 years. If you build in a 5-7% raise each year, the payoff time is closer to 3 years.

  4. Retirement: Up to $5,500 annual contribution limit for a Roth or Traditional IRA

  5. Fuck off fund: at least 4-6 months of living expenses set aside. This is on top of your emergency fund, so another 4-6 months of savings should get you there.

  6. 1st savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)

  7. Retirement: Up to $18,000 annual contribution limit for your 401k

  8. 2nd savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)


...But Reality Gets In the Way

Unfortunately, life doesn’t happen on a spreadsheet. But what the above does show us is what a “stress-free” financial life would look like, and is a “rule of thumb” that Jennie and I actively follow when making our own financial decisions.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about how to assess your current financial reality, to find a budget “sweet spot” that works for you.