When with one of my friends recently, I walked past a building covered in “for rent” signs from a property management group in Chicago, where we live. “Oh, hey, it’s the company that robs me blind every month,” my friend muttered as she saw the logo.
A lot of people feel that way when it comes to cutting a rent check (and Chicago isn’t even that bad, as far as housing costs in big cities go). A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University says more than half of people who live in the highest-cost metro areas put more than 30% of their income toward rent (aka cost-burdened renters). Nationwide, nearly half of renters shell out more than 30% of their pay for housing, and roughly a quarter pay more than 50% of their income toward rent.
For a large number of people, that’s the reality of renting in the U.S.: It’s really expensive, and finding a way to make it work can be very difficult. But if you’re living in a place like San Francisco, where the average rent price increased 14.9% from 2014 to 2015, according to Zillow, how exactly are you supposed to find affordable housing at all? The first step is to figure out what “affordable” means for you. Everyone’s priorities and circumstances are different, but math can be a harsh, yet helpful, equalizer. I put the topic to members of the Financial Planning Association, and most of them insist on putting no more than 30% (or even less) of your annual income toward annual rent expenses.
Still, there’s a lot more to consider than the equation of (annual income) x .30 = maximum annual rent. Here are some things you need to do in order to figure out how much rent you can afford.
Make a List
What are your major financial goals? Because for every dollar you put toward rent, that’s a dollar you’ll never get to put toward traveling, homeownership, retirement or anything else you need money to accomplish. Even things that aren’t as easy to quantify monetarily — how much you value living in a certain area, your ideal commute time, access to certain transportation methods — need to go on your priority list, too.
“It may not be that we can have everything we want right now,” said Eric Roberge, a certified financial planner in Boston. “It’s about prioritizing your goals and building up to living in the place of your dreams, especially when you’re graduating you have plenty of time to spend in the city — you don’t have to be there immediately.”
Roberge said that’s a frequent dilemma he sees among his clients (he works with 20- and 30-somethings in Boston): Young people want to live in high-rent areas before they can really afford to.
Do Some Math
You have to look at more than just the advertised rent pricing on a living space, because you’ll have many more regular expenses associated with your house or apartment. FPA members recommended keeping the rent portion ideally at less than 25% of your income, to allow room for costs like insurance and utilities.
You may need to think of transportation as part of your rent costs, too, especially if you have to pay for a parking permit or parking space because of where you choose to live. The more of these add-on expenses you have (for example, are the utilities included in your rent payment?), the less you should try to spend on your base rent.
What About Your Other Expenses?
If you’re like many Americans, you have debt. This is especially prevalent among young college grads. That has to be a factor in deciding what you can afford in housing costs.
“The conventional statistic is that no more than 28% of gross salary be spent on housing and no more than 36% on consumer debt. However, that does not at all take into account other obligations in people’s budgets,” said Kristi C. Sullivan, a CFP in Denver, in an email. “Student loans are a large bill for many and if that’s the case, you can’t afford to spend 28% on housing because then you’ll have nothing left for food. Rent is not the fixed expense people think it is. You can lower this cost by living in a less desirable area of town, having roommates, or living in a smaller place.”
Roberge said a common mindset he sees is that people will find a place, decide to move in and figure they’ll make everything else work afterward. To improve your chances at financial success and stability, you need to plan more carefully. Be honest with yourself about where your priorities lie (not just those that give you instant gratification, like a sweet apartment), and you’re less likely to find yourself in trouble with debt or a savings shortage. Keep in mind that paying down your debt and making payments on time will help you build credit, which will come in handy later on when you’re looking for that dream apartment or home. You can track your progress by checking your credit scores regularly, which you can do for free on Credit.com.
More Money-Saving Reads:
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.
Get the latest tips & advice from our team of 50+ credit & money experts, delivered to you via email each week. Sign up now.
Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for Credit.com. Previously, she managed communications for the Society of Professional Journalists, served as a copy editor of The New York Times News Service and worked as a reporter for the Oregonian and the News & Record. More by Christine DiGangi