When it comes to making financial progress, we can all agree that saving for the future is a critical part of the equation. But how much are you supposed to be socking away exactly? According to the 50/20/30 rule, your monthly budget should be divided into three distinct categories of expenses: 50% should be reserved for essentials (think housing and food), 30% should be allocated for lifestyle choices (things like nights out and 121 channels of cable) … and at least 20% should go toward what we call “financial priorities,” which include debt payments, retirement contributions and, of course, savings.

We spoke to LearnVest Planning Services CFP® Tonya Oliver-Boston to find out if we really need to allocate 20% of our income toward financial priorities each year—and how much of that 20% should go into savings.

Why Anyone Can (and Should!) Follow the 20% Rule
For many people, putting at least 20% of their net pay toward financial priorities isn’t actually all that difficult. In fact, Oliver-Boston finds that the biggest problem clients generally face isn’t that they can’t manage to allocate the 20% for financial priorities—rather, it’s that outsized debt, like student loans and high credit card balances, that eats up most of that 20%, leaving little left over for savings. But as Oliver-Boston cautions: ”Even if you have debt in excess of 20% of your net income, you still need to find a way to save!”

Translation: Prioritizing one financial priority doesn’t mean that you can ignore the others—be it debt payments, adding to your emergency fund, contributing to your retirement, or other savings goals, like accruing enough money for a down payment on a house.

So what’s the best way to divvy up that 20% across all of your financial priorities? ”It depends on the individual situation,” says Oliver-Boston. “But emergency savings and payments on high-interest debt tend to fight for first priority.” Retirement, she adds, is usually a strong third because it’s critical for your long-term financial health, followed by other savings goals, like that down payment we mentioned.

Need real-life examples? According to Oliver-Boston, if a client has a lot of high-interest debt but also has emergency savings, the client’s first priority would most likely be the debt because she has money in place to support her should she find herself in a situation in which her income could no longer cover her living expenses. If a client is cash-strapped, however, putting money into an emergency fund would probably take priority because the client doesn’t have the necessary cushion to cover her day-to-day expenses should an emergency arise.

Not sure where to start? Try the free LearnVest Money Centre to see exactly where your paycheck goes or chat to one of our financial experts and let them help you get on the right track.

LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Please consult a financial adviser for advice specific to your financial situation.