Hey, Big Spender! Can You Afford It?

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Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

Big goals can carry price big tags. Whether you plan to buy a home, a new car or treat yourself to a much-needed vacation, you’ll need the money. And before you can really start planning for these big expenses, you’ll want to ask yourself, “Can I (or should I) afford it?”

If the answer is yes, then begs the question, “What’s an appropriate amount to spend?”

Here’s some advice on how to tackle a few big-ticket buys. And, if saving money isn’t exactly your strong suit, keep reading. I’ve included some of my favorite resources to get a jump-start at the end.

Buying a House? Cap Monthly Payments at 30%

When it comes to budgeting for housing costs, my rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30% of your take-home pay. That includes the mortgage, property tax and maintenance payments. The truth is that becoming a homeowner comes with hefty responsibilities and often, unforeseen costs.

Should your new home require a repair, you’ll want to be able to comfortably afford it without stretching yourself too thin. A rookie homeowner mistake is assuming you can spend the same monthly cost on a mortgage as rent. But renters aren’t necessarily required you to pay for plumbing damage or repair broken major appliances on their own dime.

Once you’ve calculated how much you can spend per month, figure out what size mortgage that equates to and that should help you narrow down homes by price. Home search website Zillow.com has a calculator that produces your target home price based on your annual income, monthly debt payments and the size of your down payment.

Speaking of, you’ll want to prepare to put down 20%, especially in competitive markets. For more on the specifics of home buying, check out my previous blog post.

Save more: To minimize monthly mortgage payments, be sure your credit is in great standing. Borrowers with high credit scores (often a 760 or greater) are best suited to qualify for the lowest interest rates on a home loan in today’s market.

Eyeing a Car? Ideally, Budget 15%

When it comes to purchasing a new car, aim to spend no more than 15 to 20% of your take-home pay. This includes maintenance and gas. if you pay with cash, take your annual salary and multiply it by .15 to calculate a max spend.

If you plan to finance or lease the vehicle, take your monthly take-home pay, multiply that number by .15 and that is a healthy budget for car payments (assuming you don’t have other major outstanding debt).

Save More: Go pre-owned. If you’re okay with a few scratches and some wear and tear but with the assurance that the car comes with a manufacturer’s warranty, then opting for a pre-owned vehicle could be a great way to save anywhere from probably 10 to 25%. This option can be more costly than going with a regular used car. But CPO’s come with benefits like a longer warranty and proper inspections.

If you’re set on purchasing a new car, wait until the end of the year when dealers are desperate to unload the current year’s models to make room for new inventory.

And for what it’s worth, waving cash at the dealer won’t necessarily earn you any discounts (unlike in years past). I recently purchased a new car and thought we would get a lower price by offering to pay entirely in cash. Wrong. Turns out, by signing up for auto-financing I was able to score a discount. With the loan interest rate at only 2% I decided to finance the car and commit to paying it off within the year (as opposed to four years) to keep interest payments to a minimum.

Fancy a Piece of Jewelry? Or any Luxe Item? Mind Your Savings.

Who doesn’t want to treat themselves to a little something every once in a while? Personally, I’ve been eyeing the new iWatch.  But for such discretionary expenses (aka “splurges”) it’s best to pay them with cash on hand. If you can’t pay it off in a month, then I question whether it’s really something you can afford. If it’s a financial stretch, perhaps it’s wiser to hold off on the purchase?

For discretionary or miscellaneous expenses, I think it’s responsible to cap spending at no more than five percent of income and that includes things like luxury items and recreational spending. If you need to tap savings, just be sure you replenish the account within the next month and aim to leave yourself with at least a six-month rainy day cushion at all times.

Save more: Similar to pre-owned cars, what about buying secondhand? Tradesy and Poshmark are two websites that have a large inventory of gently used (or in some cases brand new, but discounted) designer goods. These online vendors verify that items are authentic and match the seller’s description.

Sallie Krawcheck, Wall Street veteran and co-founder and CEO of the online investment platform Ellevest, revealed to me on my podcast So Money that discount site The RealReal is her go-to place to splurge. She calls it “financially savvy.” Hey, if it’s cool for her, then it’s cool for me!

Longing to Getaway? Time it Right.

I always say it’s most rewarding to spend on experiences, especially travel. It’s important to recharge your mind, body and soul or to simply learn about other cultures.

For vacations, again, coming from your discretionary budget, aim to spend within 5% of your take-home pay.

Save more:  Depending on when you book your flight you can earn more bang for your travel buck. Data from FareCompare show airfare tends to fall to its lowest level all week on Tuesdays starting at 3pm. That’s typically when airlines release the greatest number of deals and subsequent pricing wars lead to low prices.

Need Help Saving?

All of the above assumes that you have money left at the end of the month after covering your bills to save up and spend on big-ticket items. That may be a big assumption. Many of us live paycheck to paycheck and quite frankly, as humans, we’re not exactly hard-wired to save. As famed behavioral expert Dan Ariely once told me, “We see something, we want it and we go for it without thinking very much. The world is designed to tempt us and we follow and get tempted.”

Here are some free tools that can help us to curb some of that ill-fated temptation.

  • Digit – Save money without really having to think about it. Sign up for Digit by creating a free account. After a few days, Digit checks your spending patterns and moves a few dollars from your checking account to your Digit account, if you can afford it. Users can easily withdraw money any time, quickly and with no fees.. Over time, you’ll build a nice slush fund for yourself
  • Qapital –Qapital lets you set a savings goal and then create rules that trigger automatic transfers toward your goal. For example, users can charge themselves a determined amount for a guilty pleasure. Say they choose to charge $5.00 every time they order takeout, that $5.00 will go toward a goal of their choosing. Or, users can round purchases to the nearest dollar and the change will be allocated toward their specified goal. On this platform, the average user saves $44 each month.
  • SmartyPig – This is a free, high-yield savings account that lets you allocate money toward different financial goals. It can be hard to save for a big purchase if you’re lumping it in with your regular savings or checking account. But by compartmentalizing your savings for a particular goal (e.g. a new car, vacation, etc.) you can better track your progress. Like Digit, you can transfer funds at any given time.


Have a question for Farnoosh? You can submit your questions via Twitter @Farnoosh, Facebook or email at Farnoosh@farnoosh.tv (please note “Mint Blog” in the subject line).

Farnoosh Torabi is America’s leading personal finance authority hooked on helping Americans live their richest, happiest lives. From her early days reporting for Money Magazine to now hosting a primetime series on CNBC and writing monthly for O, The Oprah Magazine, she’s become our favorite go-to money expert and friend.

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further