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Gen Zers can't always afford to have fun. Here's how I budget my $80,000 salary to save for a house and still enjoy my 20s.

Charissa Cheong   

Gen Zers can't always afford to have fun. Here's how I budget my $80,000 salary to save for a house and still enjoy my 20s.
  • Emma Sandke, 24, is a data analyst living in Boston.
  • She budgets every dollar she spends, including on non-essential, fun activities.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Emma Sandke, 24, from Boston, about how she's budgeting her finances in her 20s. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In July 2023, I started my first job after graduation. I was lucky that my parents paid for the majority of my college tuition and rent. I knew that covering living expenses would be my responsibility once I started working.

I'm a data analyst at a large retail company. I've been making $80,000 a year pre-tax and recently got a raise to $87,200 — a salary I'm very happy with and feel privileged to receive.

When I first started making adult money, I didn't have a good grasp on what I was spending. I tended to impulse shop and then have buyer's remorse. Moving into my first apartment after graduation in September 2023 came with more costs, such as apartment fees and furniture. I looked back on the month and thought, "Where did all of my savings go?"

That's when I began to budget every dollar I spent. It's not necessarily that I'm spending less money, but I'm way more intentional about how I spend it.

Every generation has unique challenges. Covid-19 and the increased cost of living have impacted my generation. Activities like concerts and going to the movies have become luxuries in a way that I don't think they were for previous generations.

Older generations could support themselves — and sometimes even a family — and enjoy life simultaneously. But my generation has to choose between these things; having fun in your 20s is harder now. I want to own a home, travel more frequently, and build a strong retirement savings fund. But I also think I deserve to have fun in my 20s.

I keep track of my monthly expenses so I can afford to enjoy my 20s

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my spending. My take-home salary is roughly $4,500 a month. I budget monthly rather than weekly because my weeks were too varied. At the end of each month, I spend around 30 minutes working out how much I will spend on specific things over the next month.

Boston is an expensive city to live in. If I lived elsewhere, my money would go much further — but I think it's a great place to spend your 20s. There are young people; it's super walkable and has great restaurants.

My rent and utility budget is $1,650. I share a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, who also have similar budgeting habits.

I budget $400 a month for groceries and another $400 for food and drink — going out to bars and restaurants and ordering takeout. It depends on the month, but I typically spend this amount on both categories.

I set aside money to spend on enjoyable activities every month. In addition to eating out, I budget $50 a month for entertainment, like going to the cinema. My budget for each category can change. For example, if I plan on buying concert tickets, I'll up my entertainment budget. This month, I set aside $300 for shopping — things like buying books and thrifting.

My parents taught me about the importance of savings accounts. I contribute $800 a month to my Roth IRA. I aim to max it out every year while I'm under the income threshold for contributions.

I also have a high-yield savings account where I keep my emergency fund of money I made while working during college. Additionally, I have a 401(k) and Health Savings Account, but those payments are made pre-tax.

I'm 'loud budgeting' in 2024

In December 2023, I came across "loud budgeting" on TikTok. The concept refers to being comfortable and open about saving money.

For example, if your friend said, "Do you want to get dinner tonight?" you could respond with, "I don't have that in my budget right now." My friends and I are all very honest with each other when bowing out of something because of the cost.

The phrase gave a name to what I felt I was already doing — trying to limit spending and sharing my budget on my TikTok account. In January, I posted my own videos about how I'd be loud budgeting in 2024.

@emma02115 #greenscreen Personal finance tips I’m implementing this year! we are loud budgeting and taking the shame and guilt out of spending our money :)) #loudbudgeting #loudbudgetingtips #saving #moneytips #personalfinance #postgrad ♬ original sound - emma | budget content

I wouldn't call myself frugal. I want to enjoy my 20s. That means being intentional about purchases and building fun into my budget rather than cutting it out.

My savings also go toward fun things I'm looking forward to in the near future. I have a few upcoming trips this year and keep a travel fund in my high-yield savings account.

Budgeting is a way to have fun and be responsible

There's a misconception that budgeting is only for people paying off debt or living paycheck to paycheck. For me, budgeting is about having guidelines to ensure I'm living within my means and hitting my savings goals.

I'm lucky to be in a situation where money doesn't have to control my life. I'd love to own a home someday, but I don't have home-ownership tunnel vision. There are certain things I don't want to sacrifice right now — like traveling and going out to eat. I want to look back on my 20s and feel I was responsible with my money and had fun.

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