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Before you start scanning Craigslist and Zillow for rental options, determine how much you can truly afford to pay for rent. Here are a few ways to figure that out.
How much should you spend on rent? Try the 30% rule
One popular rule of thumb is the 30% rule, which says to spend around 30% of your gross income on rent. So if you earn $2,800 per month before taxes, you should spend about $840 per month on rent.
This is a solid guideline, but it’s not one-size-fits-all advice.
If you live in an affordable area, for example, you shouldn’t pass up an apartment renting for $500 per month simply because it’s only 18% of your income. On the flip side, sticking to spending 30% on rent isn’t always feasible in a place like Hoboken or San Francisco, where median rents top $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment according to recent data from Apartment List.
Work rent into your budget with the 50/30/20 rule
You can also use the 50/30/20 budget as a guide to figure out how much you can afford to spend on rent. This method allocates your take home pay (after taxes) to 50% for needs, 30% for wants and 20% for savings and additional debt payments.
So if you earn $2,800 per month after taxes, you’d divvy your paycheck up like so:
$1,400 for needs like rent, utilities, groceries, insurance and minimum debt payments.
$840 for wants like shopping, happy hour and concerts.
$560 for savings and additional debt payments.
Figure out what can you afford to spend on rent
Let’s stick with our $2,800 per month example. If you have a lot of expenses that fall under the needs category, your budget for rent could be pretty tight. Consider this example:
$280 monthly student loan payment.
$360 monthly car payment.
$135 monthly car insurance.
$100 monthly grocery tab.
Those expenses total $875 per month, leaving just $525 per month for rent and utilities. That might give you plenty of options in a place like Odessa, Texas, where the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $503, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a spot in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the median price for a one-bedroom place is $676 per month, according to Apartment List.
Factor in other costs
Where you live affects everything from your commute to your workout routine. Factor in additional costs (or savings) you might incur depending on your rental choice.
Living further from the city center, for example, is often less expensive. But you could spend hundreds each month on transportation costs to commute to and from work and social engagements.
Some rentals include utilities like gas and water, have an on-site gym or a washer and dryer in-unit. Factor in those perks when comparing the cost of rentals. An on-site gym, for example, could save you $100 per month or more on a gym membership. And in-unit laundry equals savings on time and money versus coin laundry or trips to the laundromat.
Look for savings
If what you can afford doesn’t align with the rental market in your area, look for ways to cut costs elsewhere. It’s natural — and wise — to look to nonessential spending to free up space in your budget, but you can often find savings amongst your necessary expenses, too.
Insurance: Compare car insurance rates to find the best deal. A 2017 NerdWallet analysis found that good drivers could have been missing out on saving $416.52 a year, on average nationwide, by not shopping around for car insurance.
Groceries: Get in the habit of planning your meals and use coupons to maximize your grocery budget.
Rent: Living solo means shouldering the burden of rent and utilities on your own. Instead, find a roommate and split the cost of a two-bedroom. Need a more affordable option? Consider renting a room in a group house.
Don’t neglect your savings in order to spend more on rent. Future you will thank you for making your emergency fund and retirement savings a priority.
Could you save even more?
If you still want to cut expenses, jump on the phone. For any bill you pay – utilities, credit cards, loans, mortgage, insurance – call that company's customer service team. Politely request to have your bills lowered or deferred. Don't be afraid to ask to speak with the representative's manager, who may be in a better position to help you.
Call 211 or visit 211.org. This free, confidential service helps many people pay bills and rent, secure food, access the internet and more.
Learn more ways to save on a tight budget.