Leaving the Nest, Part 1: The Preliminary Budget

Hello again, fledglings! The looooooooong delay since my last post owes itself primarily to the insanity that was my final semester of college; an exciting time, to be sure, but a very exhausting one. Now that I finally have a little spare time to start posting again, I thought I would share some of my experiences with setting budgets, applying for jobs, and searching for housing. These three important tasks are truly the first steps in leaving the nest for good.

I’m hardly an expert in any of these things, but let’s start with the budget, as it influences all else.

You start planning a budget by putting in all of your fixed expenses, using actual numbers where possible and generous estimates otherwise. Fixed expenses are all of the things you are obligated to pay in a month, and include such things as auto and student loan payments, bus and subway fare, rent and utility bills, and health and auto insurance.

Next, plug all of these factors into a spreadsheet, such as Google Docs. (If you have a copy of Microsoft Excel leftover from school, feel free to use that, but Google Docs is included for free with a Gmail account.) Give yourself a column to name the expense, and a column to list the monthly cost or estimation, making sure to always over-estimate costs rather than under-estimate. Round out the budget with a column of calculated annual costs, and a field for calculating minimum hourly full-time wage in order to meet that budget.

The completed spreadsheet, ready for adding costs and estimates.

The budget sheet, complete with calculated fields and 25% income tax. Download the file to use in Excel or Google Docs.

For easier viewing, I broke my expenses into three groups: residence, transportation, and personal. Under “residence”, I listed such factors as rent, gas & electric, water & sewer, and sanitation (trash), as well as renter’s insurance and internet service. Depending on your needs and preferences, you may want to have cable TV service or plan to use your cellular service for all your internet access needs. Although many landlords will include some of these services in rent costs, it is better to estimate these costs on top of any rent, so that you’ve budgeted for the “worst-case” scenario.

Transportation costs will vary depending on if you’re making payments on a car, own one outright, are planning to get one, or if you’re living in or moving to an area where public transportation is sufficient you won’t need a car at all. If the latter, be sure to budget for train and bus fares even if you think you’ll be able to walk or cycle anywhere you might want to go.

Personal costs are where the variable expenses start to come in, and makes things a little more complicated. Insurance and student loan costs are going to be fixed, you could probably get by with a much cheaper cellular plan than the one you really want, and cooking your own food is always cheaper than dining out. It’s always better to start planning for the future as early as possible, so consider contributions to a retirement plan. I also have cats, so I have to plan for food, litter, and vet visits. If you have any “addictions” such as cigarettes, shopping, sports, or hobbies, factor those in plus any other miscellaneous expenses, keeping the estimations generous.

Figuring out the numbers to put into these fields will require some research on your part. Don’t know the cost of rent in your area of preference? Find some places you like using HotpadsZillow, and/or Craigslist. Ask for free quotes from insurance agents and average utility costs from landlords. Track your personal expenses for a month or two (especially easy to do if you have online banking) to figure out what you’re actually spending.

Complete the form and check it against the average annual or hourly wages for someone in your field. Is it way too high? If so, figure out where you can reduce fixed costs first, such as getting a less-expensive apartment, before moving on to less-vital and variable costs like cable TV and personal spending. Once you’ve set your budget to a reasonable-but-still-generous estimation, you will finally have a solid understanding of how much you’ll need, so that you’ll be on better footing for negotiating a salary at your new job.

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