Budgeting for Bills, Savings and More

National housing markets have flip-flopped dramatically. Rental households have grown more than homeowner households every year since 2006 due to fewer young adults leaving home, foreclosures, empty nesters downsizing and a flailing economy. According to Harvard’s The State of the Nation’s Housing 2011, renters now make up 37 million households, jumping 692,000 annually, while owner households fell 201,000 each year. Although lower interest rates and home prices have made housing markets more affordable for those who qualify to buy, apartment prices increased 19.8 percent from 2009-2010, signifying an increasing need for tighter household budgeting.

What is a Budget?

Allocations you make on a regular basis to pay your bills and to maintain living expenses is called a budget. Budgets include your income and all your outlays: electric, water, food, clothing, doctor visits, rent, mortgage. Each budget is unique for each household, but each contains income, fixed and discretionary expenses. The equation:

Income minus fixed expenses minus discretionary expenses equals net income left over for the time period (usually month).

You may think you need an accountant to keep track since even our nation’s President and Congress seemed stumped on how to balance the nation’s budget. For the majority of renters, even first-time apartment dwellers with little or no experience on their own, budgeting is as simple as making a spreadsheet. Putting your income and expenses down in black and white may open your eyes to categories that can be downgraded or cut altogether. The toughest part of budgeting is putting it into practice.

State of the Nation’s Housing 2011 Fact Sheet

A Guide for First-Time Renters

Real Life Budgeting Time and Money

HUD: Tenant Rights by State

How to Make an Apartment Rental Budget

A Budget for First-Time Renters

What Can You Afford?

Household Record-Keeping Tips

National Renter’s Association Financial Planning Kit

Security Deposit Limits by State

First Time Apartment Checklist

Cutting Expenses

Apartment Renting 101 

Expenses Checklist

Over 10 million renters pay at least half their income for rental payments, leaving those families with children an average of $593 to cover remaining expenses such as food, utilities and other necessities, according to the Harvard study. Those living in the bottom 25 percent of the income level are called “severely burdened” households. They spend $160 less on food, $28 less on healthcare, $152 less transportation costs, and $51 less on retirement savings every month than those considered “non-burdened” households.

Higher income renters often snap up affordable housing units, leaving lower-income renters with fewer apartment and single-family rental choices. The number of units with rents less than $400 was just 5.6 million in 2009, down from 6.2 million. Budgeting is crucial for making ends meet anytime, but more so in tough times. Many rely on the welfare system to get by, but cuts in public assistance and stricter rules mean uncertainty. So grab your coffee, pencil, paper or computer and jot down these basic apartment income/expense rental categories and get to work!


  • Income can be anticipated or current, yearly, monthly, weekly or daily.
  • Budget your net or take home pay, not your gross paycheck amount.
  • Gather pay stubs, bank statements


Fixed Expenses


  • Rent should be no more than 30 percent of your net income.
  • Security deposit (usually one-time fee, may be broken into payments at landlord’s discretion)
  • Pet deposit (usually one-time fee)

Renter’s Insurance

  • Low-cost insurance that pays you to replace possessions lost in fires, etc.


  • Gas is usually cheaper than electricity.
  • Sometimes paid by landlord.


  • The utility most paid for by landlords. Extremely handy if your town is paying for a new sewerage system which can skyrocket costs.
  • Utilities, in general, should account for no more than 10 percent of your net income.

Telephone/Cell Phone

  • May also be listed under discretionary expenses.
  • Usually don’t need both a telephone and a cell phone.
  • If you are already paying for internet/cable service, you might want to consider a “bundle” package, which can be less expensive.

Car Payment

  • If you live in a city with public transportation, you might consider if you need a vehicle.
  • Carpooling is inexpensive and social.
  • Two to five percent of your net should go to transportation.

Parking Fees

  • Larger cities often have fees for parking spaces. These can be quite expensive.

Student Loans

  • Consolidation can reduce payments.
  • Many loans are “income-contingent.”
  • If you choose to defer your student loans, consider paying interest during the deferment to save money.
  • Automatic withdrawals can reduce payments by up to 2.5 percentage points.

Credit Card Payments

  • Use sparingly, pay off each month if possible.
  • Experts say keep one major credit card for emergencies.
  • Debit cards can be used like credit cards; some with cash back, even though the money is taken directly from your checking account.
  • Student loans and consumer debts should be no more than 15 percent of your net income. Aim for five to 10 percent.

Health/Life/Auto Insurance

  • Expensive unless employer paid or partially paid.
  • If no health insurance and you have children, you may entitled to receive state or government assistance.
  • Term life is inexpensive peace of mind.
  • Shop around. If you are ex-military or a student, get good grades, or have more than one policy or vehicle, than you may finagle discounts.

Discretionary Expenses


  • Often groceries have store cards that can be used to reduce gas prices.
  • Carpool or use public transportation.
  • Use gasbuddy.com to find the lowest prices on gas near you.
  • One-time moving expenses

Car Maintenance

  • Check car vitals often (oil, filters, belts, fluids, tire pressure).
  • Simple maintenance can avert expensive repairs.


  • Clip coupons or print them out on the computer.
  • Shop when you’re not hungry or stressed out.
  • Make a list and stick to the list to reduce impulse buying.

Personal Necessities

  • Includes clothing, toiletries and other non-food items.
  • Food and other personal expenses should be no more than 12 to 25 percent of your net income.


  • Washing machines and dryers can cost you up to $5 per load.


  • Preventative care can reduce costly later care.


  • Putting five to 10 percent of your net income into savings or other investments, like a 401(k) or 403(b) annuity account builds up quickly.
  • You won’t miss it if it is deducted automatically from your gross income each pay.
  • Ask your employer about pre-tax savings plans to save extra money.


  • People say tithing 10 percent of your net income or giving to other charities comes back 10-fold eventually.
  • If you can’t give financially, giving of your time makes you feel like a million dollars.

Entertainment/Restaurants/Miscellaneous Expenses

  • You don’t have to eat out or go to the casino or movies. If you need to curb expenses, taking going on a picnic or taking a walk in the park is fun and inexpensive.
  • Should be no more than one or two percent of your net monthly income.

After you determine your budget, simply minus your expenses from your income to get your balance. That balance can be put into savings, used on some discretionary expense or to pay down current debt. The greatest challenge is to keep to your new budget when times get burdensome and to keep yourself honest when listing your expenses. Every penny counts. If you rent an apartment, you may not need all of these categories.

Utility Bill Assistance

Kiplinger Budget Worksheet

Consumer Financial Rights

Federal Student Aid Budget Calculator

Types of Income

Listing Expenses

Budget for Moving Expenses

How to Budget for Charitable Donations

Entertaining on a Budget

Making a Money-Smart Savings Plan

101+ Ways to Save Food Dollars

Gas Buddy

How Did I Spend My Money Today?

National Credit Counseling Budget Worksheet

Budget Worksheets