When with one of my friends recently, I walked past a building covered in “for rent” signs from a property management group in Chicago, where we live. “Oh, hey, it’s the company that robs me blind every month,” my friend muttered as she saw the logo.
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A lot of people feel that way when it comes to cutting a rent check (and Chicago isn’t even that bad, as far as housing costs in big cities go). A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University says more than half of people who live in the highest-cost metro areas put more than 30% of their income toward rent (aka cost-burdened renters). Nationwide, nearly half of renters shell out more than 30% of their pay for housing, and roughly a quarter pay more than 50% of their income toward rent. For a large number of people, that’s the reality of renting in the U.S.: It’s really expensive, and finding a way to make it work can be very difficult. But if you’re living in a place like San Francisco, where the average rent price increased 14.9% from 2014 to 2015, according to Zillow, how exactly are you supposed to find affordable housing at all? The first step is to figure out what “affordable” means for you. Everyone’s priorities and circumstances are different, but math can be a harsh, yet helpful, equalizer. I put the topic to members of the Financial Planning Association, and most of them insist on putting no more than 30% (or even less) of your annual income toward annual rent expenses. Still, there’s a lot more to consider than the equation of (annual income) x .30 = maximum annual rent. Here are some things you need to do in order to figure out how much rent you can afford. Make a List What are your major financial goals? Because for every dollar you put toward rent, that’s a dollar you’ll never get to put toward traveling, homeownership, retirement or anything else you need money to accomplish. Even things that aren’t as easy to quantify monetarily — how much you value living in a certain area, your ideal commute time, access to certain transportation methods — need to go on your priority list, too. “It may not be that we can have everything we want right now,” said Eric Roberge, a certified financial planner in Boston. “It’s about prioritizing your goals and building up to living in the place of your dreams, especially when you’re graduating you have plenty of time to spend in the city — you don’t have to be there immediately.” Roberge said that’s a frequent dilemma he sees among his clients (he works with 20- and 30-somethings in Boston): Young people want to live in high-rent areas before they can really afford to.