Your income may fund your present life, but does it fund your past and your future too?

Written by
Peter Dunn

First appeared in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star

When your favorite television show goes to commercial, one might get the impression that the entire country is full of millionaires.

We drive amazing cars, we all have high-definition curved televisions, and even if we have a serious medical condition (which can fortunately be treated by a strange-named drug with heinous side effects), we’re still living an opulent life of sailboats, cashmere sweaters, and personal antique bathtubs on a mountainside. You can’t help but to feel inadequate. Not only can the average person not afford most of the wares being hawked on television, but if they even tried, their future would be worse than the side effects which, again, sound worse than the actual medical ailment you’re hoping to cure.

According to Census ACS data from 2016 (the most recent available), the median household income in the United States is $68,260. You gotta wonder what a life on $68,260 looks like. Fortunately for you, I’m currently obsessed with crafting financial lives based on vastly different income levels.

We have to start with a pile of excuses, disclaimers, and caveats. The life of a 25-year-old single woman living in Tulsa earning $68,260 is much different than a 40-year-old married couple with six children living in San Diego on the same income.

I know that if you’re paying down debt or if you have huge day care expenses, the numbers you are about to read will seem ridiculous. The point of this exercise isn’t to debate nuance. It's to put the pop-culture socioeconomic narrative in its proper place.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to not focus on how different my example is than your life, throw your hands up in frustration, and move about your day. You may have never seen what your financial life is supposed to look like until this very moment. To say it’s shocking, would be an understatement.

Your income must not only fund your present life, but it must fund your past and your future, too. In our example, Barry and Carrie don’t have any student or consumer debts, but, like everyone else, they must save for their future. Therefore I’ll show you a life in which they acknowledge their future, and a life in which they don’t. The childless couple lives in Texas, are both 35 years old, and spend $5,000 annually on pre-tax health insurance. I’m not going to project income increases for this couple over the next 32 years, outside of cost of living pay increases, which will in fact cover cost of living increases.

The first path for Barry and Carrie is one with an eye on the future. They choose to defer 10 percent of their pay to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k), which has no employer match. Their contributions to their retirement plan will grow to $1,009,080 by age 67 (calculated with an 8 percent annual rate of return).

The net (take-home) pay for Barry and Carrie each month is $3,490.

This next part is wildly important. You can either spend what someone allows you to spend on major expenses, or you can spend what you can truly afford. The difference between those two concepts is the difference between thriving and surviving. Barry and Carrie can afford a mortgage/rent payment of $872, total transportation cost of $523, and monthly food expenses of $418. They should save $349 for emergencies or other nonretirement savings and allocate $349 toward utilities each month. Next, they should spend $174 per month on the following expense categories: entertainment, clothing, medical, holidays/gifts, and charity. Finally, $104 per month is available for miscellaneous expenses.

Yes, there are lots of expenses missing. That’s the entire point of the exercise. You can’t push the limits of housing and transportation affordability, and still expect to have money left over for vacations, falconry lessons, and trips to Target or Wal-Mart.

Of course, Barry and Carrie have the opportunity to navigate an alternate path. If they choose to ignore their future, they can increase their take-home pay to $4,058 per month. The allocations shift accordingly: mortgage/rent, $1,014; transportation, $608; food, $486; savings, $405; utilities, $405; then $202 per month each for entertainment, clothing, medical, holidays/gifts, and charity, and finally, $121 per month for miscellaneous.

Don’t forget, the second path leaves Barry and Carrie with no money saved for retirement. Also knows as a goose egg nest egg.

I urge you, don’t make this an exercise about "yeah, buts" and gripes about my assumptions. If you spend more on a particular category, fine. Just be sure to reduce the amount you spend on a different category. After you then sift through the numbers and collect yourself, you'll quickly realize my point about advertising. If you’re the median American household, you can’t afford half the things you think you need.

I’ve taken the liberty of breaking down several different household income levels. You can see very detailed breakdowns at

What you’ll find is that it’s possible to become a millionaire at just about any household income level, but it requires you to live a disciplined financial life. And you’ll learn something else — it’s possible to waste a crippling amount of money, no matter how much money you make.

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