If you are like most Americans, you probably don’t have a good sense for how you actually spend your money on a month-to-month basis. Sure, you probably know the precise amount of your mortgage payment and your car payment, and you probably have a good idea of what your “regular” bills like your cell phone or your cable TV bill add up to every month. But do you really know how much you’re spending on your morning latte, sneakers for your kids, that lunch you grabbed at the deli between meetings, or those last-minute trips to the big-box store or the mall?
Discretionary income is loosely defined as the portion of your income that is spent on goods and services that fall outside of the “necessities” like food, shelter and utilities. Discretionary spending is the natural result of having discretionary income. Having discretionary income is certainly not a bad thing, but not keeping a keen eye on your discretionary spending CAN be. Undisciplined discretionary spending can negatively impact your overall financial situation in two very important ways:
a. Accumulation of unexpected and unplanned-for debt;
b. Less money to fund your investments and long-term financial goals.
The second point is more straightforward than the first; if you’re spending discretionary income on “stuff,” you’re not using that income to fund your investment portfolio, or your retirement account, or your rainy-day fund. Curbing unnecessary spending leaves you with more money to invest, and having more money to invest will, in all likelihood, provide better long-term results than the “stuff” that you acquire haphazardly.
The first point is more ominous. These days, it’s too easy to rack up high-interest debt one unnecessary purchase at a time. Credit card debt is the most obvious issue in this scenario; it’s very easy to fall into the trap of “pulling out the plastic” for those “little things” that we need or want on a daily basis. The end result is accumulation of debt, a little at a time, that puts a further damper on your ability to contribute to your financial future. Instead of getting returns on your investments, you’re paying down interest. Your money is effectively working against you in that scenario, not for you.
If you want to get your discretionary spending under control, and manage your debt effectively in the process, we suggest taking two critical steps right now:
1. For a pre-defined period of time (at least a week; a month is better), keep track of everything you spend money on, from your major bills and expenses to those “little things” like lunches and haircuts. At the end of the time frame, add up your fixed expenses (mortgage, rent, food and utilities, etc.) and your discretionary expenses (all of those “little things” you spent money on). Chances are, once you see in black and white how the discretionary expenses add up, you’ll have a good idea of where you can start cutting back on discretionary spending. For further insight, determine what percentage of your monthly income is taken up by discretionary spending. We bet it will be an eye-opening number.
2. Once you’ve made a plan for trimming back your discretionary spending, make the savings work for you, and stick to it. The first riskless strategy is to pay down high-interest debt. So is putting money into an investment vehicle of your choice, even if it’s just an interest-bearing savings account.
Taking stock of your discretionary spending and resolving to make that money work FOR you, rather than against you, will go a long way toward helping you manage your debt and strengthen your financial future.