What’s Your Personal Discretionary Spending?

The past couple months, my husband and I have been easing into a his-hers-ours version of joint finances. As part of that system, we each get $600 of discretionary “allowance” money, no questions asked, shielded off from each other in our own personal accounts.

Spoiler alert: I’m having a hard time with it.

I knew I had inflated my lifestyle since I started working six years ago. What I didn’t realize is just how much. You can see in my previous budget update that I like to eat out a lot, though I guess I’ve documented that pretty well over the months. In addition I go to a fancy climbing gym near our home — it’s so convenient, I love the exercise classes, I guest in friends all the time. And then there are my material wants: nice clothes, noise canceling headphones so I can actually focus in my open office. My wants are overwhelming. I am, very clearly, not frugal.

The other thing we’ve been trying to calibrate as a couple is what actually counts as discretionary spending, like:

  • Clothes: I’ve been putting clothes on my personal account while he needs business casual clothes for work and has been putting on the joint.
  • Haircuts: He has more expensive hair maintenance than I do (dying and more frequent cuts)– is that a him thing or an us thing? We’d previously discussed this as being individual, but lately he’s gone to a cheaper place and wants to put on joint.
  • Gym: I could go to a cheaper gym but I like the nicer gym more, so I’ve defaulted to eating the expense in personal. On the other hand, I go frequently and it is an important facet of my health maintenance– physical, mental, and social. His therapy is a joint expense because it’s important for his self-care, so shouldn’t my gym membership be too for the same reason?

Writing it out, I realize part of the angst I am feeling is that in a lot of these cases we’re defaulting to his self-care as being a joint expense and mine as being an individual expense. There’s a lot there, including how we approach self-care and a lot of differences in our self-image (particularly our own body images) wrapped all up in there. So yeah, some “fun” (read: difficult but probably necessary) conversations to be had there. Whee.

Obviously, I / we don’t have answers to all of them, but we’re sorting through it. But I’d love to hear feedback from y’all:

Do you have a budget for your discretionary spending? If so, how much do you spend?

Is self-care an individual or a joint expense? What type of self-care is a “want” versus a “need”?

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23 thoughts on “What’s Your Personal Discretionary Spending?

  1. That’s a such a tricky situation! Without knowing the full story (and commenting on someone’s personal circumstance or finances is SO hard), I would say if an expense is for the *sole* benefit of one person only (i.e. haircut or gym) then it should be paid for out of his/her personal account or allowance.

    Perhaps as part of your difficult conversation, you could have some ‘ground rules’ for what should be paid out of which account/allowance.

    I’m curious though, what are the reasons for self-care being a joint expense?

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    1. Some kinds of self-care feel like obvious joint expenses, at least to us. For instance, medication is a form of self-care I think most partner’s will split the cost of, even though it’s only used by one party. In sickness and in health and all that.

      Self-care encompasses a lot of things though so it’s tricky. For instance, in our case, my husband goes to therapy as part of his self care. We treat this like any other medical expense (joint). However, because the forms of self-care that are important to me aren’t medicalized (e.g. going to the gym) then it’s been treated like a personal expense. However they are both expenses we incur to maintain our mental health.

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  2. I think a big key for DH is that his discretionary spending (allowance) is the spending we don’t have to talk about. He can just spend it. If it’s going to go on the joint account we talk about it. I’m not 100% sure what his allowance is, but if I had to guess I would say it is $35/week and $350 at Christmas and his birthday. From this comes most of his hobbies, fancy food things he doesn’t buy at the grocery store, presents for me, and the occasional paying for a mistake kind of thing to make me happy (ex. parking tickets). It does not cover clothing, and it wouldn’t cover the gym or medical stuff if he had it… but we talk about those things first.

    Re: the gym, one thing we do sometimes is the cost of a low-end or average thing will come out of the joint account but if DH wants a really nice version the difference will come out of his allowance.

    (I don’t have an allowance– I do all the money stuff so I don’t need to spend a predictable amount for me to do planning since it’s my spending and don’t have the need to spend all the money vs none of the money that DH has and I don’t get enjoyment out of the shopping process like he does. Generally this means we talk about every penny I spend that’s not on grocery/utilities/etc.)

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    1. Do you ever feel tired asking each other permission to spend money? I feel like that’s something neither of us really enjoy doing so I’m interested in hearing feedback from couples that have made that sort of system work.

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      1. I just don’t buy frequently (my MIL is so generous with the kids that we rarely have to buy more than socks, underwear, and the occasional orchestra outfit). I buy clothing in one fell swoop once every two years on a full day shopping trip and shoes every few years. The things we talk about are things we should talk about like what kind of stove to get or whether to replace the projector or what summer camp to send our kids to or to drive vs fly. Also I tend to put smaller things on my amazon wishlist throughout the year and people buy them for me at Christmas.

        When we were younger and poorer we discussed more individual purchases, but these days we can afford to buy whatever can be bought at the grocery store out of the joint account. When I buy something I mention I’m going to do it and he says ok. He pays for his hobbies and coffee and meals without family out of his allowance (meals with family are joint). It’s not so much permission as discussion and informing. Money is a tool to provide happiness, and we want to balance what it can do in terms of present vs future consumption.

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        1. I mean I guess it just doesn’t seem like a big deal to say I’m thinking about joining this gym (or I would like to join this gym), it costs X, what do you think? Back when we couldn’t afford all our wants I’d have looked at our cash flow and emergency savings and I would have been able to say if it was going to put too much pressure on the joint account or if we could handle it.

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        1. I think I have a lot tied up emotionally in being the higher earner, the one who wants FIRE, the one who manages the finances, and the one who is more likely to defer or actively deprioritizing my wants for the sake of frugality. I am sure we’ll get better at this over time, but it is definitely good to hear it gets easier.

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  3. We stopped using allowances after several years because it took us that long to adjust our spending patterns to be in sync enough that we didn’t feel the need for things to be separated out so much. But we had to do all that figuring out too in the beginning. We count clothes and health (including working out) as joint expenses, hobbies and hair are separate.

    I tend to want to keep clothes as a separate item because to some degree, you have a choice there as to how fancy you want to get and you can shop sales and clearances etc. On the other hand, it’s much easier to keep that as a joint expense when your spending isn’t so disparate and needs clothes is needs clothes, whether for business or just you’re not walking around in more holes than cloth. So in the end, that became a joint expense.

    We treat all health as a joint expense because as a separate expense I tend to cheap out and simply not do the things that I need for my health. I still have trouble viewing my massages as a need even though I know it makes a difference. Part of PiC’s hobby crosses over into working out and self care so a large expense there came out of joint while the monthly maintenance fees came out of his separate account early on.

    We felt comfortable not tracking quite so much once we were in agreement as to what’s cheap and what’s not and knowing that we were being frugal at least 80% of the time but that took a long time because we come from very different backgrounds and we had to align to each other more. Compromise!

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    1. That’s great you and your PiC have been able to get to a place where you feel aligned on your spending! I think we’ll get there eventually, it’ll just take a while. And neither of us feel in the mood to dig into new spending paradigms with our mutually stressful jobs. I was hoping having personal allowance would help us not have to ask these questions for each little thing, but I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to readjust.

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  4. We…struggled with this a lot this year. We originally started out with $500/month each because that’s what I spent last year and my husband had had a really expensive year replacing basically everything (new iMac, new phone, new bike), so he didn’t feel his spending was comparable. We renegotiated that amount several times, to $1,000 in March when we had some buffer money from our income tax refund, to $600 in May, and then a sharp increase in June when I realized I wanted to do several expensive things that I didn’t have the funds for. Since August we’ve been doing $750/month (each) and that seems happy now. If either of us wants to do something we don’t have the funds for, then we discuss. We’ve spent about that on average this year ($700-800/month each). It’s definitely gotten a bit smoother over time…but it was really annoying for quite a while. We still have debates occasionally. We are contemplating, for example, if replacing my husband’s commuting bike is a household or personal expense… Also, how we should cover the taxes on the sales of separate property investments when only one of us is currently working… The important part is to just keep discussing!

    When we first started this system, any food that wasn’t groceries or together counted as personal spending, but now we include any food that is with other people as personal spending and any other food is household. Fancy shampoo originally counted as my personal spending but normal amounts counted as household, but now all shampoo counts as household.

    My personal spending covers: barre classes, any electronics replacement since we have our own (my computer, Fitbit, phone, iPad, etc.), socializing with friends without my husband, books just for me, eyebrow waxing, hair cuts, my domain names, clothing, purses/backpacks not for travel purposes (luggage is household), solo/friend travel, and athletic footwear. My husband’s covers: the same things as mine does, plus bike rides, his road bike and its maintenance (but his commuting bike’s maintenance is household) and video games. The one item of mine I’ve been contemplating if it should be household is the athletic footwear since that’s for health reasons. The orthotics at least might be covered by our healthcare plan, so that seems like household.

    I would find it really odd for one spouse’s hair cuts to be household and the other personal. I would consider increasing the personal spending amount because it sounds like you don’t have enough for both of your wants and needs in it. Have either of you tried budgeting your personal spending amount to see if it’s enough?

    We don’t count therapy as a self-care expense. We count it as a health expense since it’s covered by insurance and as such, it comes out of the household side. If he needs business casual clothes for work, I would consider increasing his personal spending amount before taking his clothes out of joint and yours out of personal…

    I would say that with a $600/month “allowance”, that’s on the “large” side, which means that either it should be able to cover most of your individual needs and wants (increased in amount if necessary to do so) or some items for both people that are needs should be moved back into household coverage. Just some food for thought, hope that helps 🙂

    Krystal talked about this a bit in her post on their joint budget: http://www.givemebackmyfivebucks.com/2018/10/26/a-peek-at-our-new-joint-budget/ She said that her personal spending allowance is higher than her husband’s because she has more self-care expenses. So you could consider that approach too!

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    1. Yeah I think another part if the tension is that I want to keep our overall spending as low as we can to minimize further lifestyle inflation whereas that is not a primary goal for my husband. So I keep deprioritizing my personal spending in favor of FIRE/joint money while he’s like “whatever you say”/is generally incented to move things to joint money n which is a whole ‘nother thing in and of itself.

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  5. I think that a good solution to the haircut issue would be that the haircut itself is a joint expense but the dye job is individual. The haircut is necessary. The color part of the equation is a splurge. I know I consider mine one, anyway.

    As for clothes… How many business casual clothes does he need? (Honest question, not snarky.) If he’s building a base of business clothes, then sure — joint account. But if he’s already got a good base and is adding to it unnecessarily, then he needs to consider that it’s a want and should come out of his individual funds.

    The gym is tricky. Therapy and fitness are both important, but it sounds like you spend a lot more on gym stuff than therapy copays (maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know your insurance situation). So maybe you can go the haircut route: What a basic gym membership would cost comes out of joint, and what you spend above that on your fitness comes out of personal. It’s a very healthy indulgence, but technically an indulgence.

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    1. I think having the bare minimum be joint and the extra indulgence be individual makes sense, just would need to figure out what is baseline and how tactically to move the money around.

      For clothes he needs a lot. Changes in weight has meant his old good stuff doesn’t fit, while his less old stuff is largely fast fashion falling apart. Therapy deductible and copays are 2-3x the cost of gym membership, but I still think the fancy schmancy-ness of it is way more want than need.

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  6. I’m totally unhelpful on this subject – I really appreciate reading the discussion here because, as someone who ideally probably would prefer a “yours, mine, ours” division of finances with a spouse, I probably, er, hadn’t realized how complicated that would be. I have my own instincts about how I’d prefer to handle all these categories, but those ideas are tailored to our financial situations and lifestyles right now, and by the time we’re actually having those discussions, circumstances might be very different. (We tend not to er, discuss nitty-gritty details in advance as much as most other couples seem to.) Among other things, for K and I, gym expenses could probably be join, but er, that would work in large part because we’re both homebodies who can’t be trusted to reliably work out anywhere but home or in a gym in our apartment building.

    Things like clothing, haircuts, etc. would be tough for us to divvy up in a yours, mine, ours arrangement, because I’d always spend a lot more in those categories, some of which is by choice, and some of which… sort of isn’t, because of the different expectations of professional grooming for men and women. So hashing out how to divide that would be really complicated.

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    1. Before we did the joining I totally thought the mine, yours, ours setup would be best. And I guess I still think it is probably the best structure for us. But even having gone through a few rounds of discussions, it seems it didn’t quite work right out of the gate. Which is fine. Iterate!

      It’s hard when one partner’s needs are different than the other (and of course there is a spectrum of needs vs. wants and it is further difficult to draw the line).

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  7. In our household, we use the following strategy:

    Clothes are personal. Eating out or entertainment together are joint—separately is personal. Events with child count as joint. Clothing, tuition, or other expenses for child are joint. Groceries, medical expenses, housing, insurance, taxes are joint. We are in a community property state, so even personal savings are really joint in the long run (retirement savings will become joint income in future years).

    We each contribute 25% of gross income to household account, rest goes to personal account. We tried using allowances at one point (our incomes are very different), but lower-income spouse was uncomfortable spending any of allowance, so we switched to making most of our expenses joint, and only “frills” were personal. Both of us are frugal (some would say excessively so), and so the problem was more one of giving ourselves permission to buy something we wanted, than of restraining excessive spending.

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      1. My wife has not worked full time for over 25 years. She was a SAHM for the first ten years of raising our son, and has worked half time since then. We tried an allowance system when she was not working, but she never spent the allowance on herself, so that did not work well.

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  8. Hello, psychologist here. (full disclosure: I am not a clinical psychologist, but I research clinical-adjacent topic areas and work with lots of clinical psychologists.) Exercise helps with all kinds of mental health issues (okay, at least depression) and if I recall correctly is as or more effective than medication and/or therapy. And your gym is CHEAPER than the therapy copays? How is this even a question — it should be joint!!! Whatever gets you to the gym is important, be that a fun class or equipment. Even if it means a pricier gym. Consider that you might NOT NEED THERAPY BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO THE GYM.
    We do most health (everything beyond my flex spending account) on joint although for a long time we did not (I am the more expensive one here, but we’ve both been lucky that it hasn’t been an expensive enough issue for either of us to really raise until recently) and all health/workout stuff on joint (husband is the more expensive one here — but I made the argument that should be joint for reasons above). Our clothes we do on allowance for the most part. We had some heavy discussions before marriage that led me to believe that his/hers/ours would be required because he is a cheapskate and even though I am more pro FIRE I like nice things and have to maintain a professional presentation at work. Not joint for us: clothes and accessories, personal electronics, presents for each other and personal friends, my skincare regime for face — though things like handcream are joint even though I like more expensive stuff than he does — trims and hair maintenance beyond shampoo and conditioner, eating out or activities separately with friends, special self-care like massages, special equipment for workouts like tennis racquets, professional society memberships.

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