3 local families share their real-life finances with us

Here’s what it looks like to manage a budget for typical NoVA families.

family budget list written on piece of paper
© H_Ko / stock.adobe.com

The median salary in Northern Virginia is well above $100,000. But just because you’re pulling in six figures in this region, doesn’t necessarily make you rich. We asked three local families to open up their monthly budgets and give us all the nitty-gritty details.

The most common themes? Student loans and child care costs can dramatically impact your bottom line. From a family struggling to pay off six-figure student loans to one who just established financial peace thanks to a well-known money guru, here’s what it looks like to manage a budget for typical NoVA families.

Family 1

Husband, 36, Attorney | Wife, 38, Attorney | One Child | Fairfax 

Total Annual Salary (Combined): $257.800
Salary (Husband): $129,500
Salary (Wife): $128,300
Total Monthly take-home pay after taxes: $11,256

A family of three living in Fairfax County. Both husband, 36, and wife, 38, are attorneys working for the federal government. They have one toddler-aged child.

For this Fairfax family of dual-income lawyers, one might assume they’re financially comfortable, but hefty student loans, child care and a medical diagnosis that equals a high monthly grocery bill mean they’re careful with every dollar.

“Crushing is the right word [for our student loans],” says the woman of the house. “We basically live paycheck to paycheck, and that’s hard.”

The couple keeps a careful budget and checks in with each other before making any unplanned purchases, she says. “I don’t like talking about it. It’s assumed that we’re attorneys and we can handle our sh*t … it’s extremely embarrassing. It takes away from your self-worth. I worked so hard to get where I am. I was the first person in my family to go to college, but I barely make it every month. It’s so difficult to reconcile those two feelings.”

Monthly Major Expenses

Mortgage: $2,500

Credit Card Payments: $1,650
“We pay this off in full at the end of the month.”

Child Care: $1,250
“I want another baby, but we can’t afford [a second] day care right now. It’s absolutely not in our budget. But I’m 40. It’s a daily emotional struggle.”

Law School Student Loans (Wife): $1,355

Law School Student Loans (Husband): $745
“It absolutely impacts my day-to-day life. the past two weeks I can’t go out to get coffee and I can’t go out to lunch … It’s a constant conversation because we have to check in with each other [about even the small purchases].”

Groceries: $1,000
“I have a specific diet I have to follow because of a medical condition and that’s expensive.”

Insurance

Auto: $94
Life (husband): $64
Life (wife): $59
Long-term disability (wife): $64
Long-term disability (husband): $99
Long-term care: $125

Transportation

Car payment: $450
Travel: $325
“To save up for two to three annual trips.”
Public transportation: $20-$25
College savings for child: $250
Gas: $40
Parking: $90
AAA: $10

Utility Bills

Electric: $143
Water bill: $51
Natural gas: $80
Garbage pickup: $28
Phone bill: $55
Netflix: $9
Amazon Prime: $10
Internet: $70

Discretionary:

Babysitter: $35
Personal care: $110
“I just started coloring my own hair [to save money].”
Clothing budget: $40
“We buy everything used. We go to yard sales.”
Entertainment: $60
Gym membership: $25
Charitable contributions: $30
Out-of-pocket medical expenses: $50
Synagogue dues: $289
Lawn cutting: $60
Pet expenses: $40

Monthly Budget Breakdown:

Major Monthly Expenses: 75.5%

Insurance: 4.48%

Transportation: 10.52%

Utility Bills: 3.96%

Discretionary: 6.56%

Total Monthly Remainder: -$124 


hand typing on calculator
© eggeeggjiew / stock.adobe.com

Family 2

Husband, 33, Police Officer | Wife, 33, Program Manager

Total annual salary (combined): $171,800
Salary (husband): $81,000
Salary (wife): $71,800
Total monthly take-home pay (after taxes): $10,300

A family of four living in Loudoun County. Both 33, husband is a police officer and wife is a program manager for a nonprofit association. They have two children, a toddler and one in elementary school.

For this family of four, minimal student loan payments, an age gap between their two children and reliable overtime income from the police department mean they are generally able to live within their means. That wasn’t the case six years ago though, says the woman of the house. The couple was “living paycheck to paycheck” because her husband was working a seasonal job. “He was off during the winter,” she recalls. “We could barely survive when he was working. I don’t even know how we actually got by [in winter]. We were probably making half of what we are now … we didn’t really go anywhere, no extra hobbies, always eating at home was the norm. So, for us to be able to now travel and go out more is a big difference for us.”

Despite the increase in salary, she says she still doesn’t feel rich compared to other families living in Loudoun County. “It’s funny. It really is going to depend on who you surround yourself with. I never really noticed it as much until my child started public school. But interacting with parents and families, I was really getting a feeling for, ‘Oh wow, I can see why Loudoun County is known [for wealth].’ Sometimes it just feels like we’re in a whole different world when we meet new people … If we didn’t have my husband’s job, we probably wouldn’t live in Northern Virginia. It’s really expensive and there’s just a lot of stress involved with being in this area because everybody’s so strapped for time and everything is expensive.”

Major Monthly Expenses

Mortgage: $1,722
“Our house is pretty small, but we sacrificed on the size of our house in order to get our daughter into Loudoun County schools.”

Child Care: $1,340 (Plus $810 for summer camp)
“We do have friends where they’ve had two kids within a couple years of each other. For the most part, either the mom is a stay-at-home mom or both parents make a considerable amount more than we do. Knowing that I’ve always wanted to work, we just decided it was something that would have to wait. At one point, we almost decided not to try for another one because that would allow us to save for retirement, but in the end, we decided to have a baby.”

Student Loans, Husband: $176

Groceries: $1,400
“Food is the bigger [struggle]. We factor in, unfortunately, a lot of money toward my husband having to get fast food. He works evenings so it’s a bit hard when it comes to trying to plan ahead. We did try and cook more and have him bring his meals to work, but if he’s not near the station he can’t heat up his food, so that was money wasted.”

Car Payment: $750

Insurance

Auto: $135
Health: $369
Life: $102

Utility Bills

Electric: $204
Phone Bill: $130
Cable Bill: $185
Gas: $400
E-Z Pass: $210
Babysitter: $0
“We’ll have family watch the kids. Or we’ll take turns going in and out individually with friends.”

Discretionary

Personal Care: $40
Clothing Budget: $200
Entertainment: $800
“That’s going to be any movies, anything extra, if we go out with friends, any drinks, any type of hobbies. My husband does a lot of outdoor hobbies. I may do some crafting.”
Health (Vitamins/Supplements): $20
Travel/Vacation: $300
“We usually have an annual vacation in the summer. We went to the beach this past summer. My husband likes to do outdoors trips, maybe one or two a year. We’re trying to figure out how we can do some more trips.”
Savings Account: $100
Charitable Contributions: $15

Monthly Fees:

Work Association Dues (Police Officer): $20
Pest Services: $23
Landscaping Services: $275
Auto Services: $190
Out-Of-Pocket Medical: $125

Monthly Budget Breakdown:

Major Monthly Expenses: 52.31%

Insurance: 5.88%

Utility Bills: 10.96%

Discretionary: 14.32%

Monthly Fees: 6.14%

Total Monthly Remainder: $259


white piggy bank next to money
© designer491 / stock.adobe.com

Family 3

Husband, early 30s, Software Engineer | Wife, early 30s, Investigator

Total annual salary (combined): $244,372

Salary (husband): $128,673 (includes annual bonus)

Salary (wife): $115,699

Total monthly take-home pay (after taxes): $13,021

A family of three living in Fairfax with one toddler-aged child. Wife, early 30s, is an investigator with the federal government. Husband, also in his early 30s, is a software engineer.

For this dual-income family, their $200,000 in debt from law school, car loans and credit cards weighed heavily on their budget. But, just this year, they paid off the last of their debts with a fairly aggressive payment plan using the techniques of financial guru Dave Ramsey.

“I discovered Dave Ramsey my last year of law school, which is an awful time to discover how to do a budget and not to be taking out student loan money to buy sushi and go to Forever 21,” says the woman of the house, who got her law degree but moved into a field with a more manageable work-life balance. “My mom always told me not to carry a credit card balance, but beyond that I didn’t really get any financial lessons. And I was always told that student loan debt was great debt, so instead of carrying a credit card balance I just thought, ‘I’ll carry a student loan balance and use that to live off of,’ which is absolutely asinine.”

As they paid off debt, “I kept seeing more and more money in my budget opening up. Now I have an extra $600 a month, now I have an extra $1,000. That’s crazy. It still hasn’t hit me because it’s so fresh, but we had said, ‘We have to clear this debt if we want to have a second child.’ So [when we paid it all off], I felt like I could breathe for the first time. I didn’t have to make decisions based off of circumstances. It’s that feeling of being free. I recommend it to everybody. Literally the best feeling ever.”

With significantly more room in their budget now, the couple has more to spend on fun, is working on building up their emergency savings and upping their 401(k) contributions. Plus, they’re saving money in case they decide to have a second child.

Major Monthly Expenses

Mortgage: $3,202.49
“We looked in Arlington where we were living [before having a baby], but we could only afford a two-bedroom and a den. So we moved 15 minutes west. We live five minutes from the Vienna Metro in a cul-de-sac and have four bedrooms.”

Child Care: $1,300
“I don’t think beyond [day care costs] kids are that expensive. We’ve been blessed with friends who generally gift us with babysitting once a month.”

Groceries: $600

Charitable Contributions: $1,000

Student Loans: $0

Car payment: $0

Credit Cards: $0

Insurance

Health: $677
Auto: $50
Life (husband): $88
Life (Wife): $65
Long-term disability (Wife): $59
Short-term disability (wife): $8

Utility Bills

Electric: $260 (summer), $100 (winter)
Water bill: $28.75
Gas: $155 (winter), $40 (summer)
State Bar Dues: $35
Cell Phone: $100
Internet: $54.99
Hulu: $7.99
Spotify: $15
Gas: $125
Parking: $25
Babysitter: $50

Discretionary

Personal Care Fund: $375
“We take the average total spending for the year and divide by 12 and roll over unspent money each month since I only do my hair three to four times a year.”
Clothing Fund: $347
Entertainment (Family): $400
Entertainment (Wife): $150
Entertainment (Husband): $150
At-Home Gym Subscription: $39
Gifts Fund: $300

Monthly Fees

Biweekly Cleaning Service: $260
House Maintenance Fund: $400
Car Tax Fund: $78
Car Maintenance Fund: $125
Household Supplies: $500
Dog Food: $130
Dog Misc.: $30
Dog Walks: $109

Monthly Budget Breakdown:

Major Monthly Expenses: 46.86%

Insurance: 7.27%

Utility Bills: 5.49%

Discretionary: 13.52%

Monthly Fees: 12.53%

Total monthly remainder: $1,721.78


This post originally appeared in our December 2019 issue as part of the “State of the Salary” cover story. For more cultural reads, subscribe to our newsletters.

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