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Standards for Living Expenses

By , March 27th, 2009 | 4 Comments »

If you’re trying to scale back your spending and live within your means or just save a little more each month, how do you determine reasonable spending amounts for each category of spending in your life like food, clothes, and transportation? Well, there are several government standards that you can use as a guideline.

The Internal Revenue Service has a set of standards for living expenses that it uses with people who are repaying delinquent taxes. Those filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the kind of bankruptcy where you gradually repay your debts, are allowed the same amounts by the U.S. Department of Justice. So it would seem safe to say that these amounts represent at least a bare minimum, if not a little more, of how much these expenses should cost each month.

National Standards: Food, Clothing and Other Items











Housekeeping supplies





Apparel & services





Personal care products & services















More than four persons

Additional Persons Amount

For each additional person, add to four-person
total allowance:



National Standards for Health Care
The IRS allows this amount in addition to a monthly amount for health insurance premiums. This money is expected to cover expenses such as doctor visits, eyeglasses, contact lenses, and prescriptions.


Out-of-Pocket Costs

Under 65


65 and Older



The IRS also allows expenditures for transportation, of course. How could you repay your debts if you couldn’t afford to get to work?

National Standards for Public Transportation



National Standards for Ownership Costs


One Car

Two Cars





Personally, I think the food allowance is very generous. For $528 a month, my two-person household could go out to eat quite a bit or buy all of our groceries at Whole Foods. We normally spend about $300 a month on groceries and a little more for restaurants. However, we spend a lot more than $165 on “miscellaneous.” It’s hard to say what we spend on housekeeping supplies or personal care items since we generally only buy these items a couple times a year — I try to stock up during sales. The health care allowance seems reasonable to me only if you are completely healthy.

I couldn’t believe it could cost $173 a month to use public transit, but some research revealed that a certain commuter bus pass in the Los Angeles area costs $180, and I imagine lengthy commutes on public transit in other geographically large cities might be equally as pricey. The national vehicle ownership costs are based on the monthly expected payment for a loan or lease. According to’s monthly auto loan payment calculator, $489 would be the monthly payment on a $19,300 loan at 10% with a four-year term. Considering that it’s possible to purchase a brand-new, entry-level car for around $10,000, this amount seems pretty generous to me. And if you had this much money to buy a used car, you would have a wide range of options, many of them quite nice — a 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid, a 2005 Acura sedan, or a 2006 Mazda 6, to name just a few I found in a quick perusal of vehicles listed for sale by owner on Craigslist.

Note that there is no allowance for things many of us consider “necessities,” like cable TV or internet or even pet ownership.

For expenses like housing, utilities, and the operating costs of owning a vehicle, local standards, determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, apply. Look up the local standards for your area here. To give you a couple of examples, a 2-person family in St. Louis, Missouri is allowed $1,008 per month for housing and utilities; in San Francisco, it’s $2432; and in Dallas, Texas, it’s $1451. All of these amounts seem reasonable to me; you might not be renting a luxury apartment, but you definitely wouldn’t have to live in a bad neighborhood to meet these allowances. It might be hard in some areas to get by on these amounts if you’re a homeowner rather than a renter, however.

Another standard is the amount allowed for food by the food stamp program. This benefit is not a set amount, but is determined by factors like size of household, childcare expenses, income, and housing costs. For a 2-person household with no income, no childcare expenses, $1000 in housing costs and $100 in utility costs, $323 in food stamps would be allowed. Some people might look at this number as a poverty standard, but my household spends less than this amount on groceries and we’re not exactly living off ramen. Our diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen food items, none of which are particularly cheap. You can use this calculator to plug in variables and calculate a monthly food stamp benefit.

Since the government standards for living expenses mostly seem pretty reasonable, if your expenses fall far above these amounts and you’re trying to cut back, these guidelines should give you a reasonable, if not generous, starting point. How do these national standards compare to your spending habits?

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  • Joan says:

    The healthcare allowance seems incredibly low. Looks like there is a typo for 2 person housekeeping supplies.

  • Monkey Mama says:

    As I Read the first few lines I Was ready to protest. An IRS standard is kind of crazy for those of us in expensive areas.

    Then I read on. $752/month groceries for FOUR people? $72/month for housekeeping supplies? Good lord. Any frugal minded person, anywhere, can do far better than that!

    The regional statistics were far more meaningful though. (Generous where we live; not really enough for where we used to live – but much more reasonable).

    The food stamp thing is interesting. I try to keep an open mind because someone on food stamps probably does not have the times, skills or tools for home cooked meals. But it really should be a part of the program (learning the skills; finding the time). The “thrifty food plan”, just a national average, was $600/month for a family of 4. In comparison, we eat pretty darn well on $450/month, in an expensive zip code. I wouldn’t describe our food menu as particularly thrifty, really.

    Anyway, kind of interesting.

    BTW, I didn’t even really look at the transportation standards because we have always been well below – driving used cars. But I totally understand the expensive LA transit. I used to live and work right by light rail – for about 2 years (California). It was far cheaper to DRIVE. The transit is expensive here and not terribly useful.

  • Fanny says:

    I can understand the standard for public transportation. In the SF Bay Area, it can cost around $7 – $8/day to commute on the light rail system. If you live in San Francisco and have to take the bus also to get to the light rail stop, it’s $45 for the monthly pass. So that would be around $200/month for public transportation a month.

  • JB says:

    Maybe the National Standards for Car Ownership Costs includes a car payment AND car insurance? Otherwise, it seems really high.


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