Senator Elizabeth Warren popularized the so-called "50/20/30 budget rule" (sometimes labeled "50-30-20") in her book, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan. The basic rule is to divide up after-tax income and allocate it to spend: 50% on needs, 30% on wants, and socking away 20% to savings. Here, we briefly profile this easy-to-follow budgeting plan.

Key Takeaways

  • The 50-20-30 (or 50-30-20) budget rule is an intuitive and simple plan to help people reach their financial goals.
  • The rule states that you should spend up to 50% of your after-tax income on needs and obligations that you must-have or must-do.
  • The remaining half should be split up between 20% savings and debt repayment and 30% to everything else that you might want.
  • The rule is a template that is intended to help individuals manage their money and save for emergencies and retirement.
  • Americans have significantly high debt levels, totaling $14.3 trillion as of March 2020.

50%: Needs

Needs are those bills that you absolutely must pay and are the things necessary for survival. These include rent or mortgage payments, car payments, groceries, insurance, health care, minimum debt payment, and utilities. These are your "must-haves." The "needs" category does not include items that are extras, such as HBO, Netflix, Starbucks, and dining out.

Half of your after-tax income should be all that you need to cover your needs and obligations. If you are spending more than that on your needs, you will have to either cut down on wants or try to downsize your lifestyle, perhaps to a smaller home or more modest car. Maybe carpooling or taking public transportation to work is a solution, or cooking at home more often.

30%: Wants

Wants are all the things you spend money on that are not absolutely essential. This includes dinner and movies out, that new handbag, tickets to sporting events, vacations, the latest electronic gadget, and ultra-high-speed Internet. Anything in the "wants" bucket is optional if you boil it down. You can work out at home instead of going to the gym, cook instead of eating out, or watch sports on TV instead of getting tickets to the game.

This category also includes those upgrade decisions you make, such as choosing a costlier steak instead of a less expensive hamburger, buying a Mercedes instead of a more economical Honda, or choosing between watching television using an antenna for free or spending money to watch cable TV. Basically, wants are all those little extras you spend money on that make life more enjoyable and entertaining.

20%: Savings

Finally, try to allocate 20% of your net income to savings and investments. This includes adding money to an emergency fund in a bank savings account, making IRA contributions to a mutual fund account, and investing in the stock market. You should have at least three months of emergency savings on hand in case you lose your job or an unforeseen event occurs. After that, focus on retirement and meeting other financial goals down the road.

If emergency funds are ever used, the first allocation of additional income should be to replenish the emergency fund account.

Savings can also include debt repayment. While minimum payments are part of the "needs" category, any extra payments reduce the principal and future interest owed, so they are savings.

Importance of Savings

Americans are notoriously bad at saving, and the nation has extremely high levels of debt. As of March 2020, Americans have $14.3 trillion in total debt, which includes $438 billion in credit card debt. The personal savings rate in 2019 was 7.6%, down from 11% in 1960.

The 50-20-30 rule is intended to help individuals manage their after-tax income, primarily to have funds on hand for emergencies and savings for retirement. Every household should prioritize creating an emergency fund in case of job losses, unexpected medical expenses, or any other unforeseen monetary cost. If an emergency fund is used, then a household should focus on replenishing it.

Saving for retirement is also a critical step as individuals are living longer. Calculating how much you will need for retirement and working towards that goal, beginning at a young age will ensure a comfortable retirement.

The Bottom Line

Saving is difficult, and life often throws unexpected expenses at us. By following the 50-20-30 rule, individuals have a plan with how they should manage their after-tax income. If they find that their expenditures on wants are more than 20%, they can find ways to reduce those expenses that will help direct funds to more important areas such as emergency money and retirement.

Life should be enjoyed, and it is not recommended to live like a Spartan, but having a plan and sticking to it will allow you to cover your expenses, save for retirement, all at the same time doing the activities that make you happy.