Ask Brianna: How much 'lifestyle creep' can I afford?

FILE - This April 2017 file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Brianna McGurran, a columnist for personal finance website NerdWallet.com. "Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column for 20-somethings, or anyone else starting out. (NerdWallet via AP, File)

"Ask Brianna" is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com .

Q: I just got a big raise, and I'd like to move into my own place or buy a nicer car. I've heard I'm supposed to avoid overspending now that I make more. But shouldn't I enjoy my higher salary?

A: Yes, you should. I don't agree with experts who say college graduates should "live like a student" to save money — at least not forever. Sure, your starting salary could require some financial sacrifices. But once you're able to save wisely for the future, you should also be enjoying some memorable experiences in the present. Go ahead and spend some of that newfound cash.

The crucial word there is "some."

Lifestyle creep, or lifestyle inflation, is when you spend more as your income grows. It's not inherently bad. The trouble comes when you move to a bigger apartment or buy a newer car that eats up all the extra money your raise provides. Making more money should be an opportunity to build wealth and protect yourself from inevitable financial setbacks.

Strike a balance between spending more and developing financial security. Follow these steps and you'll forgo excessive lifestyle creep for, simply, a good life.

GIVE YOUR MONEY A DESTINATION

As soon as you learn a raise is coming, decide how to allocate it. That way, the money won't sit in your checking account and fall victim to a Target home decor shopping spree.

"Being intentional is absolutely essential," says Philip Olson, a certified financial planner in Austin, Texas. "Otherwise, it's just going to fall through your fingers."

Estimate your new take-home pay using a salary calculator . A large raise can put you in a higher tax bracket, which might mean a smaller paycheck boost than you expected.

Suppose you'll earn $200 more per month after taxes. One option, Olson says, is to go 50/50: Spend half your raise, or $100, on whatever you want each month. Put the other $100 toward financial goals such as savings and paying down debt.

ASSESS YOUR FINANCIAL SECURITY

What exactly should you do with the financial goals portion? It depends where you stand on the basics.

If you were living paycheck to paycheck and have no savings cushion, send all the extra money to a savings account specifically for emergencies. That will provide backup if, for example, a larger-than-expected medical bill arrives in your mailbox. Fill up the fund until it hits at least $500. Continue adding to your emergency fund, while working toward the other goals below, until you have the equivalent of three to six months of basic expenses saved.

Your next priority should be to pay off high-interest debt. Credit cards in particular typically have higher interest rates than student loans, auto loans or mortgages. The longer your credit card balance grows with interest, the harder it will be to get rid of, which will take a bite out of your future earnings, says Jason Kirsch, a certified financial planner in Santa Monica, California.

Finally, it's ideal to save 10 to 15 percent of income for retirement, including an employer 401(k) match. A retirement calculator will let you know if you're on track. Get closer to that guideline by increasing your contributions at work or opening an individual retirement account. If you've got room in your 50/50 plan to save more, that money can go toward travel, a down payment fund or investing in a brokerage account, among other options.

HIDE SAVINGS FROM YOURSELF

Since it will probably be harder to save than to spend, set up automatic transfers so you avoid having immediate access to the money. Time your emergency fund and individual retirement account transfers so they occur the day after you're paid.

Olson recommends opening new savings accounts for other goals, too (if your bank charges fees for this, consider saving at an online bank). If you decide to save $50 per month in a house fund, name it "Beach Bungalow." The goal is to reward yourself now while also building excitement for the future — and keeping your spending in check.

"Your lifestyle can creep," Olson says. "Just don't let it creep in perfect pace with your income. Because then you'll be broke."

_________

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com . Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

Related links:

NerdWallet: Retirement calculator

https://nerd.me/2qLuSJ4

ADP: Salary paycheck calculator

https://www.adp.com/tools-and-resources/calculators-and-tools/payroll-calculators/salary-paycheck-calculator.aspx

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