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What's the Difference Between Fixed and Variable Expenses?

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Couple sorting out bills
Pascal Broze. ONOKY/ Getty Images
Definition:

Your budget is comprised of both fixed and variable expenses. But what do these two words mean? How do they differ from necessities vs. discretionary spending?

Fixed expenses cost the same amount each month. These bills cannot easily be changed.

Your mortgage, for example, is a fixed expense. While you could theoretically change your monthly mortgage payment by refinancing your loan or by appealing your property tax assessment, this is not an easy switch. (The same is true if you pay rent. You could change this expense by moving to a cheaper home or getting a roommate, but these are major lifestyle changes.)

Your health insurance, car insurance, life insurance, and homeowners or renters insurance are also examples fixed costs. You would have to spend several hours researching alternate plans in order to change these monthly payment amounts.

The major lesson here is that in spite of its name, “fixed” expenses are not necessarily set in stone. If you lose your job or aggressively want to start saving, you could devote a few hours to culling your fixed expenses. Since fixed expenses typically represent the biggest chunk of your budget, the money you save in this category can be quite substantial.

Saving money on fixed costs has a second advantage, as well: you won't feel as though you’re curbing your lifestyle. Shopping around for a cheaper health insurance premium or a less expensive cellular phone plan will only require a few hours of your time each year. Once you’ve found these low-cost vehicles, you’ll automate frugal choices into your monthly budget.

In other words: lowering your fixed monthly bills won’t make you feel like you’re being frugal, because most people don’t think about their monthly fixed costs. You’ll “feel the pinch” much more when you make day-to-day decisions like “Should I eat at a restaurant tonight?” or “Should I buy those jeans?”

Variable Costs

Variable expenses represent those daily spending decisions like eating at a restaurant, buying clothes, drinking Starbucks and playing a round of golf with your buddies.

These costs are not considered variable because they’re discretionary. Rather, they're "variable" because the amount that you spend differs from month-to-month.

While most variable costs represent discretionary spending (such as restaurants, Starbucks and golf), some variable costs represent necessities.

Most families, for example, spend variable amounts of money on groceries each month. Most people spend variable amounts each month on putting gasoline in their cars and paying for necessary car repairs and maintenance.

Variable costs are usually the first expenses that people try to cull when they need to start saving money. Unfortunately, variable costs are also some of the toughest expenses to cut back on, because it requires a daily commitment to frugal decision-making.

Trimming a fixed cost, like your cell phone plan or your cable package, requires only making a decision once, and then living with that decision for the next several months or years.

Trimming variable costs, on the other hand, requires actively making multiple decisions everyday about whether or not to buy certain items or participate in certain events.

The Bottom Line

If you need to start cutting back on costs, look at both your fixed and variable expenses. Devoting a Saturday afternoon to reviewing all of your subscriptions, insurance plans, and recurring monthly bills may help you trim hundreds of dollars from your fixed monthly budget.

If you can cut back on some variable costs in addition to your fixed monthly bills, you’ll free more money to save for retirement, build an emergency fund, pay off debt or invest.

Also Known As: fixed costs, variable costs, monthly bills, recurring bills, set expenses

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