What Is Considered Disposable Income

Image shows a table explaining the difference between disposable income and discretionary income. Text reads: "Disposable income vs. discretionary income. Disposable Income: disposable income = money left over from salary after all taxes paid; one of five determinants of demand; dictates consumer spending. Discretionary income: what's leftover after paying necessities out of your disposable income, like rent, mortgage payments, healthcare, and transporation; can be spent on non-essentials, such as dining out, investing, and travel; essentially, considered your 'fun money'"

Image by Julie Bang © The Balance 2020

You have likely heard terms such as net income, gross income, adjusted gross income, take-home pay, and disposable income. But do you know what each term means, both in definition and how it relates to your financial health? And if you don’t, how can you move forward with a realistic budget in mind? To understand what disposable income is, it also is important to understand how it differs from discretionary income and how to budget effectively.

What Is Disposable Income?

The money you have leftover from your salary after you’ve paid federal, state, and local taxes is your disposable personal income (DPI), also referred to as your net pay.

Disposable income also has economic significance. Not only is it one of the major determinants of consumer spending, but it is also one of the five determinants of demand. It represents how many goods and services are bought at various prices during a certain period. In short, how much disposable income someone has can help to determine how much money they spend on goods and services.

What Isn’t?

But don’t spend all your disposable income just yet. Disposable income is not to be confused with discretionary income, which takes it a step further. That is what is left of your disposable income after you’ve spent for necessities like rent, mortgage payments, healthcare, transportation, and clothing.

Discretionary income can be spent on eating out, investing, travel, and any other non-essential items or expenditures. It’s your fun money to spend with limited guilt on things you don’t need, knowing that your other expenses are covered.

How to Budget It

It's important to budget your disposable income. While there are various types of budgeting systems—the 50/30/20 rule, the envelope system, the 80/20 method, a traditional line-item budget, or even the "pay yourself first" method—it comes down to personal circumstances and preferences when selecting which method to use. Be honest with yourself because there’s no point in having a budget if you aren’t going to stick to it or if it's unrealistic for your current lifestyle or situation. 

Some questions to consider before choosing a budget: Do you have student loans? Credit card debt? Do you like padding your savings, or would you rather invest your extra funds and only keep the bare minimum in liquid cash? Are you a spender or a saver? How often do you eat out? Do you like to travel frequently, or are you more of a homebody? Do you have expensive tastes, or do you like to be frugal in your purchases?

Many experts say your necessities—rent or mortgage payment, food, taxes—should account for only 50 percent of your budget, while discretionary spending should account for 30 percent or less. The remaining 20 percent should be used for other financial goals, such as paying off debt, saving, or investing.

Once you decide your financial priorities, you can find the budget that works best for you. And when filling in your budget, don’t forget these often-overlooked budget busters, such as entertainment, gifts, or annual dues.

How to Cut Disposable or Discretionary Spending

If the numbers aren’t adding up, it may be time to re-evaluate your spending habits and cut back where you can. Try a worksheet that helps prioritize what you need and what you might be able to do without cutting back on discretionary spending.

Some helpful tips to trim your budget might include:

  • Combining errand trips to save money on gas
  • Stopping or limiting eating out
  • Paying off debts as soon as possible to save money on interest
  • Buying groceries in bulk from a club store
  • Reducing cable bills by selecting a cheaper package

There are probably some discretionary spending items you could probably cut without issue. These include never-used gym memberships, a biweekly manicure/pedicure or other spa treatment, magazine or live streaming subscriptions, professional societies or club dues, and even holiday gifts.

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Article Sources

  1. Fullerton College. "Determinants of Demand." Accessed Aug. 10, 2020.