Money & Career

Is $800 In Weekly Spending Money Realistic For A Young, Deep-In-Debt Doctor Who Lives With Her Parents?

A look at what Jen spent in one week, and an expert's take on why she ought to embrace "spending awareness."

A week in the wallet: Spending awareness

Only in the last months of medical school did Jen, a 24-year-old new doctor, really look at her debt — at its worst, over $100,000. “It suddenly sunk in: Whoa, I owe a lot of money,” she says. Luckily, since she’s currently living at home with minimal expenses, she can put lots more towards debt repayment than most from her new healthy salary (almost $60,000).

But Jen has other expensive goals too: She’d like to save for a down payment on a house, or at least move out within the next three years, and beef up her emergency fund too. “Another aspect is retirement planning,” she says — and not just her own. “I’m an only child, so knowing that I have to support my parents is also on my mind.”

And yet, even living at home, Jen’s money gets gobbled up fast by groceries, her phone and Internet bill, her car and gas. Then there’s the high price of socializing: Weddings (she went to five last year), evenings out at the movies and food all add up. So does an online shopping habit. “I get the newsletters with the deals,” she confesses. That’s where just some of her money went this week.

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Feb. 18:
Gym membership (twice monthly), $28
Animals Critters fundraising event, $15
Black Panther ticket, $17

Feb. 19
Gas, $20
Indigo, $37
Donation, $22
Professional membership fees, $268

Feb. 20
Parking, $2
Lululemon, $33

Feb. 21
Zehrs for groceries, $40

Feb. 22
Buffalo Wild Wings, $14

Feb. 23
McDonald’s, $10
Pioneer Gas, $38
Shoppers Drug Mart, $39
Bath & Body Works, $28
Apple Store, $2 ($112 minus $110 gift card)

Feb. 24
Telus, $136
Thai food, $38
Zehrs for groceries, $32
Dollarama, $7
Soccer team fee, $10

Weekly spending total: $836

The Expert’s Take

Jen’s remaining $85,000 in debt may seem daunting, says Sandra Hanna, founder of debt-management site Smart Cookies, but it’s not as bad as it seems. “She’s actually in a dream position that many people would kill for at her age,” says Hanna. Jen has a good income (that will quickly get even better) and limited expenses — a perfect situation for aggressively paying down debt.

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Jen doesn’t need to choose between debt repayment or accumulating savings, says Hanna, nor does she need a major mindset makeover. “Her situation is so common; she makes good money, she’s got great goals, but her everyday spending really isn’t in line with the goals.” Jen’s ideal financial plan — $1,000-plus to debt repayment and $700 to savings each month — is very workable, if she gets her day-to-day incidentals under control. This week, for example, not-so-necessary purchases (new gym shorts at Lululemon, fancy soaps from Bath & Body Works, dinner from Buffalo Wild Wings) add up: “There’s over $200 here in extra spending — in a month, that’s more than your savings right there.”

Here’s what Jen should do: “Set up all the payments automatically so she doesn’t even see the money she can’t spend.” $1,000 in debt repayment is great, Hanna adds, but $1,500 would wipe it away in six years rather than 10-plus. Ditto for her savings account and an RRSP for retirement.

As for the rest, Hanna suggests Jen embrace “spending awareness.” This doesn’t mean she obsess over every penny, but it does mean all purchases get an extra minute of thought by asking these three questions: 1. Is this essential? (If so, get the best value, and if not, ask yourself the next question.) 2. Is this purchase getting me closer to my goals? (i.e., Would you rather be debt-free in five years instead of 10 — or do you want the wings?) And 3. Do you really, really love it? (If yes, dig in and enjoy.)

This post is part of Spend It Better, a personal finance collaboration between Chatelaine and MoneySense about how to get the most for your money. You can find out more right here.