Is Your Spending Normal?

Is Your Spending Normal?

How much should I spend on food?

What’s a normal amount to spend on clothing? 

What do most people spend on vacations? health care? eating out?

These types of questions from readers seem to keep popping up in my inbox.

And I understand why – because I, too, have looked for answers to these questions – especially when I was new to realistic budgeting.

I had no idea where to start — and clearly what I had been doing wasn’t working. So I was hoping that someone else could tell me what to do!

But after almost five seven years of living on a written budget, I have learned one thing about normal: There is no such thing!

What works for one family, doesn’t work for the next. And if a third family tries to spend that same amount, they may well end up thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

Instead of plugging in a percentage for every item in your budget, you need to determine its amount by asking ourselves two questions:

#1. How much money do I make? Does this item fit within my disposable income?

#2. What are my priorities? Does the amount that I am spending on this item reflect my priorities?

Some of us earn more, some of us earn less, but unless you are a multi-millionaire (in which case, you probably aren’t reading KOAB anyway), you really should be asking yourselves these two questions – often.

And yet, that doesn’t stop us from wondering, even if we have a balanced budget – “Is my spending normal?”

I know I do! I wonder if the $185 we spend most months on gas for our two cars is a lot – or a little. And yes, I will admit that knowing that it costs me less to fill up my van than the national average does comfort me somehow.

(I’d always rather be on the thrifty side of normal.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported by NPR’s Planet Money, here are some of the American averages for various budget categories.

Rent / Mortgage – 31.5%

Utilities – 5.4%

Groceries – 8.6% (up from 7% three years ago, but still less than half what it was 25 years ago)

Food at Restaurants – 5.7%

Alcohol – .9%

Clothing & Shoes – 3% (women spend about 1.5 times what men do)

Car Payments – 5.7%

Gasoline – 5.3%

Tuition and childcare – 3%

I was feeling pretty good about our comparative spending until I got to that tuition and childcare line.

What about you? Do you wonder what you “should” be spending?What about that tuition line? Did that 3% feel like a swift kick in the gut?


  1. That 3% for tuition and childcare must be averaging in people who don’t have kids or who don’t have those costs, which is not realistic. It would be more interesting and applicable to see the average for people who actually spend that money. (i.e. average $500/month/child in infant/toddler daycare…?)

    • Or maybe 3% refers to the PTA contributions at free public schools.

      If it’s an average, and a majority of people send to free public schools or have family watch their kids etc… then the high costs paid by Yeshiva parents is offset and you get a low average.

  2. ITA! But for most, those daycare expenses eventually end…

  3. I thought the food and dining out percentages were too high.
    14.3% for food/dining out-that just seems so high.
    We are at about 7% for both of these combined!
    Mara, do you think these are fairly accurate across the board?

  4. Hava Freidenreich says

    Our mortgage is in line, but the property taxes that accompany it make the bill more than average.

  5. I don’t see a category here for health care expenses but they can take a big chunk of the income. We always have the maximum flex account for out of pocket health related expenses such as co-pays. We also opted for an HMO which takes less from my husbands paycheck than regular insurance. It has meant less flexibility when choosing doctors. This budget also does not mention homeowners insurance and car owners insurance. Car repairs and home repairs are also high ticket budget items.

  6. Are the percentages being calculated based on net income, gross income, after tax income?

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