Thumbnail image for HappyHousewife.jpgOne thing I didn't expect to see so much about as I have in my 1940s housekeeping books is the family budget. I had sort of thought of money management as the domain of men at mid-century, but apparently many housewives kept their families' books. America's Housekeeping Book warns against one-size-fits-all budgeting, but then goes ahead to provide the following template for making a budget:

Rent (if heat is included): 25% of income
Rent (if heat must be supplied): 20% of income
(If you are buying your home, or already own it, the "rent" is the total of interest on mortgage, taxes, insurance, upkeep, and repairs which should not ordinarily exceed 1/8 to 1/10 of income. If payments on principle are included it may reach 1/4 to 1/5 of income.)
Clothes: 15% of income
Operating expenses: 10-15% of income
Food: 20-35% of income (the smaller the income, the larger the percentage that must be spent on food)
Advancement: 15-20% of income
Savings (other than life insurance): 10% of income
Life insurance: the face of your policies should amount to 2 or more years' income

In this case, "advancement" is taken to mean "health, recreation, pocket money, personal care, automobile expenses, gifts, contributions, and education."

As an exercise, and to illustrate how things may have changed, I decided to compare our monthly spending, which I track, to these suggestions. Here's what I found:
Rent (heat is not supplied): 35%
Clothes: 11%
Operating expenses: 7%
Food: 18%
Advancement: 17%
Savings: 12%
Life insurance: policies are worth approx 1.5-2 years income

I was really surprised by this result. I knew our rent would be a higher percentage--the price of housing is high here, and we're renting in some ways "above our income level" in order to get a yard and a good commute for Mark. I'm shocked at how low the other percentages are, though--particularly the "operating expenses" category, which includes all of our utilities. Those bills had previously seemed really high to me. I'm also thrilled at the savings percentage, and not bothered by the lower-than-recommended life insurance, given that we're a two-income family with no children. The need for us to have life insurance is not nearly so great as it was for the family to whom the book was speaking.

The advice on money management goes on to explain lots of ways in which the housewife can be frugal, including marketing advice, energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, taking excellent care of clothing, etc. The most surprising thing about all of it is much it sounds like modern frugal living advice. Other than the dramatic shift in the percentage of typical income (particularly working and lower-middle class income) spent on food, not much seems to have changed.

6 Comments

I just clicked through from my stats page to find your blog... I love it! And I love your new project, "100 Days to a Happy Housewife"! As one of the bloggers you mentioned in one of your posts, I was very interested to read your reasons why you are doing this, and to learn your viewpoints on the housewife role. Thanks for the link to my blog, and I will be following along as you venture forth. For the record, I'm not anti-feminist. It is just cheaper for me to stay home than pay for daycare for four kids. Thank goodness I love homekeeping! I have no desire to live in the 50's but I do love the decor. It just somehow makes this job more cheerful and fun. And trust me - it's a paying job to be a housewife. Our savings on commuting, professional clothing, daycare, lunches out, and more are definitely a type of payment when I see it added to the savings account/MMA each month!

I'm also really surprised that you guys spend so little on food, compared to what the book suggests. I would think that food would have to be more expensive now than it was when the book was written, and that the average house would inevitably be spending more on food as a percent of income.

Part of the reason we spend less on food than our forebears is because the way food produced is very different than it was previously. Today we have industrial farms that grow most of our food. Also, I am not certain about this but i think we eat a lot more meat, so meat overall is cheaper. Supply and demand.

I'm surprised, given the publishing date, that tithing was not a standard budgeting expense.

Hallee

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