Why You Need A Budget

You Need A Budget – It’s About Time!

In a previous post, I mentioned that I need just over $3 million in order to achieve Financial Independence and maintain my current lifestyle. This equates to $7,000/month in today’s dollars at a 3.75% Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR). This is a rate I feel will be able to sustain me for a long retirement as compared to the traditional 4% SWR, especially in this low interest rate environment.

But how did I actually know my expenses would be about $7,000/month? By budgeting of course! Budgeting allows me to track my expenses so I know exactly where each dollar is going and allows me to make an accurate forecast of what I’ll need in retirement. It also allows me to identify unnecessary spending and identify areas that can be cut. If you don’t have a budget and rely on “mental accounting” to get you by, I’m afraid I have bad news: you won’t be able to achieve FI. At least, not easily since you’re just guessing and that’s no way to plan.

You won’t be able to achieve FIRE without a budget.

To start budgeting accurately, you’ll need to track where your money is going. You can certainly do this by hand or in an Excel spreadsheet, tracking and categorizing where every expense goes. But this is tedious. I highly recommend that you take advantage of tools that allow you to do this automatically. Two free tools to help you here would be Personal Capital or Mint. They allow you to link up your checking account & credit card accounts and pull in transactions automatically. Then it’s a trivial matter to build a budget off it. Yes, you do give up some privacy for this but I think it’s well worth it. Of course, you can pay for budgeting tools that may alleviate any privacy concerns you may have but for me, the free tools are fine. I would personally suggest Personal Capital over Mint as I’ve had issues with linking & syncing on Mint.

For most people, their expenses will naturally fall into several big categories: housing + associated expenses, utilities & recurring monthly bills, insurance (auto, life insurance, long term care insurance, and most importantly health insurance), food costs, and lastly other expenses. How you group these expenses is completely up to you. As a single person, I put food in the “Other” category and kept travel as a separate category altogether so I can easily track it. I would suggest these major categories and sub-categories:

Main CategorySub-Category
HousingMortgage or Rent
Property Tax
Homeowner’s or Renter’s Insurance
Maintenance, HOA + other fees
Bills & UtilitiesElectric & Gas
Water & Sewer Fees
Trash Fees
Mobile Phone plan
Cable & Internet
Netflix + other streaming services
InsuranceHealth Insurance
Auto Insurance
Life Insurance
Long Term Care Insurance
Auto Related Expenses
Eating Out
Personal Care
Other Services + Spending
Suggested Budget Categories
Downtown San Diego Skyline – Raychel Sanner

The main reason that I need a comparatively large nest egg is that I live in a High Cost of Living Area (HCOL) in San Diego, CA. According to Kiplinger in July 2020, San Diego is the 7th most expensive city in the United States, ahead of cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston & New York. You can argue with their methodology but I suspect they’re taking account not just raw cost but also income. San Diegans call this the “sunshine tax”. You’re going to pay to live here!

By far, the largest cost you’ll have to bear is housing cost. While San Diego is rated as the 7th most expensive city, in terms of median home price, it stands at 15th. According to Zillow, the median home price in San Diego, CA is $644,000 as of August 2020. That factors heavily into my budget. Housing prices have a direct influence on rent, so the more expensive houses are in a city, the more rent will be as well. My caution here is to make sure that you include all costs associated with owning a home if that’s your plan. Big ticket costs will be property taxes and maintenance. You’ll have these costs even if your mortgage is paid off.

Riccardo Annandale

Next would be your utilities and recurring monthly bills. Expenses in this section would include electricity & natural gas, water and sewer fees, mobile phone plan, cable & home internet, Netflix & other streaming services, and any other recurring expenses you think you’ll incur. Astute readers will note that my electricity & gas cost is low. The reason for this is that I have a paid for solar system that generates all the electricity I need.

Insurance would be my next major category. Within this, I only have auto insurance and health insurance. Others may wish to include life insurance and long term insurance as well. A note here on health insurance: as we’re part of the FIRE movement, there is a desire to retire early, whether it’s one year or one decade. If you do truly retire early without part time work that may provide health coverage, you’ll have to buy your own. Health insurance when purchased without any subsidy is expensive. Plan on paying at least $1,000 per person per month. This includes premium cost as well as out of pocket costs. Healthcare is broken in America and will only go up. It’s better to overestimate here than underestimate.

Sergey Pesterev

My next major category only has one item: travel. The reason for this is my desire to retire early so that I have the physical ability to be active and do what I’d like. One of these activities is to travel. It’s another category where you should not underestimate the cost. I’m budgeting $750/month or $9,000/year. That’s a lot but when you take a step back and realize that a trip to Europe can easily be $3,000 – $5,000, this will afford you 2-3 trips a year. Domestic traveling will be cheaper of course and you can hack your way to cheaper traveling, but it won’t be cheap. This is another area as you’re doing your own budget that can be cut down if can’t afford it. My expectation is that travel costs can be quite large the first 5-10 years of my own retirement and should then subside as I get the travel bug out of my system.

Last but not least is my catch-all category – Other. I did something here that may look odd: I put food/groceries in other. It works for me since I’m single, but for couples or those with dependents for one reason or another, groceries may be a big expense and may warrant its own main category. Aside from this caveat, other expenses that would go here include auto expenses (maintenance reserve + gasoline), clothing, eating out, entertainment, personal care, online services (cloud subscriptions for example), and any other expenses.

Here’s my actual budget based on carefully tracking my spending over many years and building an accurate budget off it. Only once you have an accurate picture of your expenses can you then calculate the nest egg that would generate the income need to cover these expenses.

My retirement budget

Once you have a reasonable idea of what expenses you’ll incur in retirement, then you can go about calculating your nest egg. You’ll most often hear about the “4% Rule” or as I like to call it, the “4% Rule of Thumb”. This would suggest multiplying your annual expenses by 25 in order to get to be able to withdrawal 4% a year and hopefully have your money last your entire retirement. Some argue you can go higher and others say you should go lower to be safe. One of the biggest risks you can face once you’ve accumulated a nest egg and begin withdrawing from it is sequence of return risk. It basically says that if you’re unlucky enough, you’ll encounter a number of dramatically lower return years early in your retirement. This will make it very difficult to sustain that 4% withdrawal rate. But it’s a personal decision you’ll have to make yourself. I’ll write about it in detail at some point in the future. For me personally, I’m aiming for a 3.50% Safe Withdrawal Rate and that would require a 29 times multiplier. Here’s a table outlining some SWR and their multipliers. Just select the rate you’re comfortable with and multiply your annual expense by the multiplier:

Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR)Nest Egg Multiplier
5.00%20.0 x
4.75%21.0 x
4.50%22.2 x
4.25%23.5 x
4.00%25.0 x
3.75%26.7 x
3.50%28.6 x
3.25%30.8 x
3.00%33.3 x
Safe Withdrawal Rate and their Nest Egg Multiplier

I hope that I’ve convinced you that you need a budget and have given you some ideas on how to go about it. If you’ve hesitated previously on establishing a budget, you should take the opportunity to set up one as an essential step on your FIRE journey. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a note. Good luck!


A fat FIRE journey?

My fat FIRE Journey

So what’s fat FIRE you may ask? Well, FIRE is an acronym for Financial Independence, Retire Early. Many in the movement are looking at least to FI. Whether the RE part comes (and when!) is different for each person.

Then there are different flavors of FIRE: regular FIRE or just FIRE, lean FIRE, and fat FIRE. Those flavors are determined by how much you’ll need to achieve Financial Independence. A large part of that will be based on your lifestyle and where you’ll live. For example, living a middle class lifestyle in Alabama may be achievable with lean FIRE, where you’d be keeping your annual expenses to $40,000 or less. The same lifestyle in San Francisco, CA may require $120,000 a year to achieve and will definitely result in fat FIRE just because it’s that much more expensive (mostly due to housing). In between those two examples would be regular FIRE. All those numbers are in today’s dollars by the way, as you’ll have to take inflation into account.

Golden Gate Bridge – Joseph Barrientos

Once you know your annual expenses, the traditional way to calculate how big your nest egg will have to be is to multiply that number by 25. The reason to multiply it by 25 is that it would result in a 4% safe withdrawal rate or SWR. There are many blog posts, YouTube videos, and articles written about the so-called 4% rule that you can find so I won’t go into it here. At some point I’ll write about my own personal SWR… hint: it’s not 4%. Nevertheless, the 25 times multiple and resulting 4% SWR is a good place to start.

Stone House – Irene Rego

By tradition, lean FIRE is defined as keeping your annual expenses below $40,000/year. FIRE is having annual expenses between $40,000/year to $100,000/year. Anything above that is fat FIRE and it can go as high as you’d like. These are not hard and fast rules at all but they do seem to be the common convention.

What this means is:

  • To achieve lean FIRE, you’ll need to accumulate a nest egg up to $1,000,000, depending on your expenses.
  • FIRE would result in a nest egg between $1,000,000 to $2,500,000.
  • fat FIRE would then mean any nest egg above $2,500,000 in today’s dollars.

Here’s a chart I made to show the different amounts needed for different types of FIRE. The chart only shows a max of $5,000,000 for fat FIRE but in reality it can go as high as you need it to:

I’m on a fat FIRE journey myself because I live in San Diego, CA. It’s a high cost of living (HCOL) area and while not as expensive as San Francisco or New York, it’s still pretty expensive. I calculated that I would need a minimum of $84,000/year after taxes in today’s dollars to maintain my lifestyle in San Diego. That includes healthcare costs as I wouldn’t yet qualify for Medicare, relatively expensive property taxes, and other expenses. In order to get to $84,000/year after taxes, I estimated that I’ll need to generate $105,000/year pre-tax to account for federal and state income taxes.

Also, as I alluded to earlier, my personal SWR is 3.5% (or less). This would mean that I need to multiply my minimum annual expenses of $105,000/year by 29 instead of 25 (100 divided by 29 is roughly 3.5). This would result in a minimum nest egg of $3,045,000 in today’s dollars. I realize that may seem like a crazy number to many people, but I assure you, it’s not. The one benefit of being in an HCOL area is that income tends to be higher than LCOL areas. That’s just a reality but that higher income does help. You still have to be disciplined, live below your means, and have a high savings rate, but it is doable.

I hope that makes sense for those of you new to FIRE and for those already on the journey, how I’m calculating my own personal number. At some point I may post a budget showing what I think my expenses are once I get to FI.