Smart Money Podcast: Questioning the 50/30/20 Budget, and Company Stock

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion of the 50/30/20 budget — why it works and how to use it as prices soar.

Then we pivot to answering a few listener questions about company stock.

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

Before you build a budget
NerdWallet breaks down your spending and shows you ways to save.

Our take

When the 50/30/20 budget doesn’t work

The popular 50/30/20 budget has received some scrutiny lately as inflation has driven up the cost of almost everything, from food to housing.

With this budget system, 50% of your after-tax income pays for essentials, 30% is for wants, and 20% goes to savings and extra debt payments. But those essentials — food, housing, utilities and gas — are becoming more expensive.

As such, adhering to the 50/30/20 budget is simply impossible for some people — at least right now. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23% of American renters spend more than half of their gross incomes on rent, and nearly half of renters are spending more than 30%. And those living on a fixed income can find the 50/30/20 budget challenging, too.

If your numbers don’t perfectly align with the 50/30/20 budget, remember that it’s merely a recommendation. If you’re struggling to afford necessities, consider what changes you could make to live a more financially sustainable life, including moving to a more affordable area.

Got equity? It’s complicated.

Company equity can be valuable, but it’s important to understand the fine print. You might begin by figuring out what type of equity — employee stock options or restricted stock units (RSUs) — you have. If your equity is in the form of RSUs or incentive stock options (ISOs), you’ll also want to know the details of your company’s vesting schedule.

You’ll be taxed differently depending on the type of equity you own. For example, RSUs count toward your taxable income and are usually taxed when the stock vests. ISOs aren’t taxed when granted, upon vesting or when exercised, but they may be subject to the alternative minimum tax.

Decisions about buying and selling stock will depend on the company, your risk tolerance and your financial goals. A financial advisor or tax professional can help you sort through the jargon and understand the financial implications of owning equity.

Our tips

Understand what type of equity you own: You have to purchase stock options, but restricted stock units simply become yours after you’ve been with a company for a certain period of time.

Plan ahead for taxes: If you are lucky enough to have equity, figure out a plan. Selling shares at the wrong time can trigger costly tax consequences.

Talk to a tax professional or financial advisor: Equity can be complicated, so it can be helpful to get advice from an expert who understands your unique financial situation.

More about company stock on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: ISOs, NSOs and RSUs — companies offer their workers an alphabet soup of stock, and regardless of whether they make you rich, all of them have tax consequences.

Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.

Liz Weston: And I'm Liz Weston. To send the Nerds your money questions, leave us a voicemail, or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also send your voice memos to [email protected]

Sean Pyles: Follow us wherever you get your podcast to get new episodes delivered to your feed every Monday. AND If you like what you hear, please leave us a review and tell a friend.

Liz Weston: In this episode, Sean and I answer some listeners' questions about investing in your own company's stock.

But first, in our This Week in Your Money segment, we're talking about the 50/30/20 budget, and whether it still makes sense in a world of high housing costs and inflation.

Sean Pyles: I think we should start by giving a quick rundown of the 50/30/20 budget. So in a nutshell, you take your after-tax income, and 50% goes to must-have expenses — things like shelter, food, transportation, minimum loan payments, insurance, etc.

And then 30% goes to wants — that's clothes, eating out, vacations, travel with your friends. And then 20% is supposed to be allocated toward extra debt payments and savings.

Liz Weston: The way I usually think of must-haves are the expenses that you can't put off without having serious consequences.

Wants are things you can put off without major problems. But if you don't pay your landlord, serious consequences are going to happen.

It's understandable with prices rising, with rents going through the roof — a lot of people have the question of “will this still work?”

Sean Pyles: Right. Well, it makes sense, because there's some information from the U.S. Census Bureau that shows just how expensive things are for a lot of folks out there.

Twenty-three percent of American renters spend more than half of their gross incomes on rent.

And nearly half of renters are spending more than 30%, which officially qualifies them as cost-burdened. That's according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD says that people who spend that much may have difficulty affording necessities, such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

If so many people can't make the 50/30/20 budget work, does that mean that the budget is unworkable entirely?

Liz Weston: I hear that question a lot. And I think to answer it, we really need to go back to the genesis, where it came from. People might not know that the 50/30/20 budget was actually created by Elizabeth Warren. She is now a senator. She was a former presidential candidate. You've probably heard her name.

But she and her daughter wrote a book called “All Your Worth” that describes this budget. And in her previous life, Warren led the Consumer Bankruptcy Project at Harvard University. And she researched how and why Americans were going broke, why they kept filing for bankruptcy.

What she found was that rising living costs and stagnant incomes were causing people to stretch farther and farther to cover the basics. And that left them with two little left over to save for the future or pay off debt.

She also wrote about this in another book called “The Two-Income Trap,” where she noted that people were trying to get into good school districts, and the housing in those districts were getting more and more expensive on top of the fact that medical care and college educations were going through the roof as well. All these things used to be affordable on one income and now require two.

With all those challenges, Warren thought that by limiting our must-haves, that will give us more wiggle room so that we can save, get out of debt and enjoy our life simultaneously.

And having the must-haves — your basic expenses — limited to half of your income also makes it easier if you lose your job. There's less of a nut to cover.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. And a lot of folks can think of the 50/30/20 budget as prescriptive, as something that you have to follow. Otherwise, you're not managing your money well.

In reality, for most people, it can be a really good guideline. But for some folks, it's just not realistic.

Liz Weston: Yes. It works on many incomes, but not every income. If you have a super low income, you might not even be able to cover the basics with 100% of your income. People with very high incomes may have basics that are well below 50%.

And when I first came across this budget, our must-haves were something like 80% of our income. It took a while to get it down to 50% and make all this work.

So I understand that when people first encounter this, they may think, "Oh, there's no way that I can do this."

The whole point, though, is to try to get a budget that is balanced, that isn't all one thing or all another, that doesn't cause you to go into debt every month.

And it's something that you can work towards. You don't necessarily have to be exactly according to those guidelines all the time.

For me, I was just so delighted when I came across this, because until that point, people kept asking me, "Well, what should I spend on X, Y or Z?" The answer is: It depends. Everybody's situation is so different. But this general guideline seems to work for a lot of people.

Sean Pyles: I think a lot of people are in the situation you described when you first started using the 50/30/20 budget — where you have a decent income coming in, but your expenses take up more than half of your income.

How do you whittle that back? Because the approach of, “Oh, just move to a cheaper city. Oh, just find a less expensive apartment” isn't easy or realistic for many people.

Liz Weston: Yes, exactly, and it takes a lot of doing. I think the effort is worth it to get a more balanced budget, but for a lot of people it's going to involve making more money. That's what happened with us.

And that's not something that everybody can do. If you're on disability income, if you're not able to work, if you're in an area without a lot of possibilities, this can be really tough.

But if you're in an area where the cost of living is way out of reach for you, it's going to continue to be like that. There is no budget that's going to make it work. So making those big changes may be what's necessary for you to get a more balanced budget and a more balanced life.

Sean Pyles: Right. Well, the key to any budget is getting all of your expenses to add up to less than 100% of your income so that you do have money to save and pay off debt.

Liz Weston: Yeah, exactly. You may be in a situation where you think, "OK, I'm willing to do must-haves that eat up 70% or 80% of my income for a while, and then down the road, we're going to be in a different situation where we don't have to do this," and I totally get that as well.

Sean Pyles: Well, there are trade-offs in both directions. For a while, my partner and I lived in San Francisco. And we did that when we were in our early- to mid-20s, and that helped us get on the professional tracks that we're on today.

Then once we were established, we looked at our money and realized we can't sustain this and save money at all. So we moved to a less expensive area, and that's allowed us to get more balanced with our budget and actually save money and build our wealth over time.

Liz Weston: Yes, and that is an ideal way to approach this — is to be realistic about where you are, what's coming in and what's going out.

And it goes back to the Ben Franklin-era advice about how important it is to live below your means. It just means that you are going to have so much more flexibility to be able to deal with life. It's going to cause you a lot less stress, and it really is worth it — whatever budget you wind up using.

Sean Pyles: Mmm hmm.

Liz Weston: OK. Well, let's get onto this week's money question.

Sean Pyles: Let's do it. This episode, we are answering a few questions about company stock and stock splits. And to help us talk through these topics, we are joined by investing Nerd Alana Benson. Welcome back to Smart Money, Alana.

Alana Benson: Hey guys. Thanks for having me.

Sean Pyles: Great to have you on, as always. Before we get into these three money questions, I have a quick disclaimer, of course, and it is that we are not financial or investment advisors, and we will not tell you what to do with your money. This discussion is for general educational purposes only.

Liz Weston: And let me underline this: You really need to get personalized advice from a tax pro if you're dealing with this stuff. It's very complicated, and there are just aren't any-one-size-fits-all answers.

Sean Pyles: As you will hear with the first question, it is thorny and technical. Let's just dive right into it and see how it goes. Here's the first question, which came from a listener's email:

"For the first time in my life — and I'm 50 years old — I've joined a publicly traded company where they issue company stock as part of their annual bonus package. I understand that I invested gradually over a five-year period, but my understanding stops there. What should I do with these RSUs as they are vested? And if I do anything with them, will I be taxed?"

OK. Alana, let's talk first about why companies issue stock as part of a compensation package.

Alana Benson: Employers use stock and stock options as a way to attract and retain their employees. Usually, these packages only start becoming valuable after a certain amount of time, so you won't fully get the total value until after their vesting period. And that's where it comes in as a way of retaining employees.

Sean Pyles: Mmm hmm. It's a promise of future money.

Alana Benson: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: Potentially.

Alana Benson: Potentially. It's a really big asterisk on that one.

Liz Weston: We've all heard stories about people getting fabulously rich off of stock options or company stock. That's not really the norm. But getting a slice of equity can be a nice perk if the company does well.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, which is another big “if” — if the company does well.

Let's also talk about how vesting schedules work. Can you give us a rundown, Alana?

Alana Benson: It gets complicated. If you don't understand it right away, that's OK. It takes a couple of read-throughs or listen-throughs.

But vesting is basically when you have the right to a benefit. With incentive stock options — or ISOs — you're earning the right to exercise and buy the stock over time. And if it's stocks or RSU, it's when you actually get the stock.

Just because you are maybe granted a schedule that says that you will get stock, that doesn't mean that day one when you start with a company that stock is yours.

Alana Benson: Vesting schedules can have a lot of variation, so you really need to read your paperwork and make sure that you know the particulars of your own vesting schedule.

One thing that some of them have in common is what's called a cliff, and that's a length of time that a person has to work at the company before the vesting schedule starts.

So maybe you have to work at your company for a full year before any of your stock actually starts to vest. And a lot of times, this vesting only happens if you work for the company. So if you quit or get fired, a lot of times that equity is out the window, and you likely won't get any of it.

Sean Pyles: Mmm hmm. Which is how these can be great retention tools, because the vesting schedule is often fairly gradual, and you have to be a part of the company to be able to have your stock options, stocks or RSUs actually vest.

Alana Benson: Exactly. A pretty common vesting schedule is vesting over four years with a one-year cliff. So that one-year cliff, again, means that you have to wait a year before you get anything.

After that first year, you'll get a chunk — say maybe 25% — then you slowly earn the rest of the grant over time, usually at a rate of about 2% each month.

You can start to see how this could be used as a retention tool where maybe someone's considering quitting, but then they say, "Oh well, if I just wait until this date, I'll have more of stock vest." That works over time.

Sean Pyles: Mmm hmm. So far we've been talking about stock options and RSUs. I think it would be helpful for us to give our listeners a quick explainer of each of these.

Alana Benson: Yes. There are several different kinds, so it does get complicated. The first one we're going to talk about is employee stock options. These allow you to buy a certain number of company shares at a specified price during a specified time, and that's usually at a discount.

There's different kinds. There's NSOs, which are non-statutory stock options, and ISOs, which are incentive stock options.

There's a couple of differences, but mainly: ISOs are issued just to employees, whereas NSOs can be granted to outside service providers. Sometimes it's people on the board of directors or advisors, folks like that.

ISOs have better tax treatment, and a lot of times those may be more favorable. But again, there's lots of smaller differences.

Another more popular — or becoming more popular — kind of employee stock is restricted stock units, or RSUs. These are similar to stock options, but you don't actually have to purchase them.

With stock options, a lot of times, you're granted this ability to purchase them, but you still have to actually pay for them. With RSUs, they just become yours over time as they vest, which makes them a lot more attractive, because you don't actually have to pay anything for them.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. It streamlines the process in a way. And our listener is wondering about the tax implications of RSUs. What do you think they should know?

Alana Benson: With RSUs, you're typically taxed when you actually get the shares, which is almost always when they vest. The value of your shares is added to your taxable income. And you're paying ordinary income tax rates, plus social security and Medicare taxes. And in a high-tax state like California or New York, you could easily pay 40% or more when your RSUs vest.

Some employers offset those taxes, and some don't. Again, you'll just have to look at the paperwork for your individual equity allowances.

Liz Weston: All right. Now our next question comes from a listener's email. It says:

"Hi Nerds. I work at a startup, and I was granted 12,000 stock options on a four-year vesting schedule. I've been with the company about two years, which would mean I could execute up to half. My strike price is 30 cents, so I can afford to do it, but it's a significant expense.

My company is still a few years away from a liquidity event where I would be able to sell this stock."

Is buying early a good tax strategy? I've been reading about the alternative minimum taxed and getting taxed as long-term capital gains instead of income, but I'm not sure how it all works. I'm pretty personal finance savvy, but there's not a lot of info out there for startup employees.

Would love to hear a podcast episode to help those of us who staked a lot working at a startup and might be risking a big tax bill in our futures. Thanks."

Sean Pyles: Well, we are here to help you, dear listener. Alana, our listener threw out a number of terms that folks might not be familiar with, including “liquidity event” and “alternative minimum tax,” or AMT. Can you break down what these mean?

Alana Benson: Absolutely. But first, I just want to really reiterate what Liz was talking about — getting help from a tax professional.

It sounds like this person is just wanting to know if this is a good tax strategy, and there's just so many other factors when it comes to each individual person's situation and whether exercising is going to be a good idea for them.

If something is going to be a significant expense, what does that mean for each individual person? Are you not going to be able to pay certain bills? Or does it just mean that you're cutting into a vacation budget? I think that there's maybe not as much emphasis on those kinds of things as there should be.

So really, we cannot say this enough: If you have these questions, speaking with a tax professional may just be your best bet, because they can get really deep into your own personal situation.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. And often when it's your first time thinking about company stock, if you have access to it, you don't know what you don't know.

But a tax professional or a fiduciary financial planner will know what you don't know and will help guide you through this tricky area, so that you can make the right financial decision for your own personal goals.

Alana Benson: Exactly. But let's get into those definitions. Remember that incentive stock options, or ISOs, give you the right to buy your company's stock at a discount. The strike price is what you're going to pay to buy the stock.

And a liquidity event is when you can actually sell the shares, for example: an acquisition, a merger, initial public offering like an IPO, or any other action that allows founders and early investors in a company to cash out some or all of their ownership shares.

Sean Pyles: Now let's talk about the alternative minimum tax, which is, I think, peak jargon when it comes to company stock and all that goes into this. Can you give us a breakdown of what this is?

Alana Benson: Yeah. The alternative minimum tax is a tough one. It was designed to make sure that wealthier people couldn't completely escape taxation.

But non-wealthy people can face the alternative minimum tax in some circumstances. And one of those is when they exercise incentive stock options, or ISOs.

The difference between the price you pay and what the stock is worth at the time you buy it is basically considered income under the alternative minimum tax rules.

People don't have to worry about alternative minimum tax if they exercise their options and then immediately sell the stock. It's only when they buy the stock and don't sell it in the same year that this tax comes into the picture.

Sean Pyles: All right. Why would anyone volunteer to pay the alternative minimum tax?

Liz Weston: Because it could pay off in the long run if the stock really takes off. And that's because you can qualify for more favorable capital gains tax rates down the road if you've owned the stock for long enough.

By long enough, I mean it's been at least two years from the grant date, which is when the options were given to you, and one year from the date that you exercised or bought the stock.

So people may do this if they're in a high tax bracket and the stock is super cheap, and they can tie up their money for a while.

But there's a big risk, because the stock could also tank. We've talked about buying the stock at a big discount, but there's no guarantee that these options will be worth anything.

The stock price could plummet either before you get a chance to buy it or afterwards. So you really do have to believe in the long-term prospects of the company and be willing to gamble a bit.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. And given the way the stock market has behaved so far this year, I'm betting there are a number of folks who made such a gamble and are maybe regretting it a little bit.

And I'm also going to say this is part of why we talk about investing for the long term, and not investing money that you think you will need within five years, because the stock could go down. And then you might feel like you're out money.

If you are regretting that, or it hurts you financially, that might mean you invested money that you maybe should have put toward an emergency fund. Just a little thought there. But …

Liz Weston: Yes.

Sean Pyles: I also want to throw out that folks should realize that by working for a company, they are already invested in a pretty significant way by spending a lot of their waking hours working for that company.

Some tax advisors might suggest that you think about diversifying your investments and not purchase a large amount of stock for the company that you work for.

Alana Benson: If you are heavily investing in one company, whether it's your own company or another company, then that might throw your portfolio out of the allocation that you would like it to have.

If you want to be mostly invested in well-diversified, low-cost funds, then investing very, very heavily in company stock might tilt you out of that allocation, and might create more risk than you're comfortable with.

It's good to think of your entire investment portfolio holistically and how adding this type of company stock will affect the rest of your balance.

Liz Weston: And again, your other alternative if you don't want to buy the stock and hang onto it, is simply wait for that liquidity event.

That way you can buy the stock at that time and sell it immediately. You'll be subject to ordinary income tax rates, but that might be a better deal for you than locking up money. It all depends on your situation.

Sean Pyles: Right. OK. Well, now let's get onto our third and final question, which comes from a listener's text message. It is:

"What is a stock split? How does it benefit people investing and customers? Should I invest before or after the stock split?"

All right, Alana, more jargon for you to decipher for us. Can you explain what a stock split is? And why do companies do this?

Alana Benson: Stock splits are essentially the way that a company can increase the number of available shares while lowering its share price. This makes a higher-cost stock more attractive to smaller investors, and it means they may actually be able to get in on it.

We're going to explain this using my favorite method, which is pizza. If you just imagine a company's value as an entire pizza, its stock starts trading, and say there's four slices, because that math makes it easy for us.

If there's four slices, we’re going to have a pizza stock split. And then all of those slices are going to get divided once again.

We still have the same amount of pizza. And if you owned one slice or one quarter of that pizza, now you own two slices. It's, value for value, the same metric amount of pizza, but you're getting two for one.

Sean Pyles: OK. What are the benefits of a stock split?

Alana Benson: Your portfolio could see a benefit if the stock continues to appreciate over time. Studies show that stocks that have split have gone on to outpace the broader market in the year following the split.

But then again, past performance does not guarantee future performance. There's no saying that that will happen again.

Liz Weston: Stocks splits can signal that a company thinks it's got a lot of growth in the future, and it's trying to attract investors. So that could be a good sign.

But does investing before or after the split make a difference?

Alana Benson: Stock splits don't necessarily make a company’s shares any better than they were before the split. But a stock may be more expensive before a split.

So if investing before made things financially tight, after the split, it might make it more manageable. If a stock is $100 before a split, and then it's $50 — and $50 is an easier purchase for you than $100 — then that makes a financial difference.

I think it can be attractive to try and get in on as much company stock as you can, because like you said, we've heard all these stories about people becoming billionaires, because they invested in company stock.

But there is a lot of risk involved, especially if you're putting money up for stock that maybe should be better spent in an emergency fund or going toward your necessities.

Sean Pyles: Right. All right, Alana. We just waded through three pretty complicated listener questions.

Do you have any final thoughts around company stock or how people should think about this situation?

Alana Benson: I think one of the most important things to think about, like we've said, is your own financial situation and your faith in your company. If you really believe that your company can go the distance and become bigger and better and more profitable over time, that's a really good indicator to you.

But if you're at a company where you're saying, "Man, I don't like my team or my manager. I don't understand the strategy. There's no communication," those are all pretty good indicators that that company may not be the healthiest.

Those are all things to keep in mind as well, because you're betting on the success of this company. So if you don't think it's going to do well, you should maybe listen to that instinct.

Liz Weston: We should also talk about the fact that we as human beings tend to value what we are familiar with and it. And it can be really tempting to think, "Oh, my company's got this great future. I'm going to go all in."

But as Sean mentioned earlier, you've already got your livelihood hanging on this company. And you might not be privy to everything that's going on around you or in the company. And you can't predict what the future's going to be.

If you are optimistic about your company, that's awesome. Just make sure that you counterweight that with the understanding that you don't want to have all your eggs in one basket.

Sean Pyles: Before you make any rash decisions, please do talk with a tax professional because this stuff is complicated.

Liz Weston: Yes.

Sean Pyles: OK. Well Alana, thank you again for joining us.

Alana Benson: Thank you for having me.

Sean Pyles: And with that, let's get onto our takeaway tips. Liz, will you start us off, please?

Liz Weston: Yes, absolutely. First, there are multiple different types of equity. Stock options, you have to purchase. Restricted stock units, you don't.

Sean Pyles: Second, don't make taxes an afterthought. If you are lucky enough to have equity, figure out a plan. Exercising at the wrong time can trigger some costly tax consequences.

Liz Weston: Finally, equity can get complicated. Take your time, read the fine print and enlist the help of a tax professional or financial advisor.

Sean Pyles: That is all we have for this episode.

Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds, and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected], and visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode.

And remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Liz Weston: This episode was produced by Sean Pyles and myself. Our audio was edited by Kaely Monahan.

Here's our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sean Pyles: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.