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Frugal Tip: Give Yourself an Allowance





When some of us were kids, our parents gave us an allowance to spend on important items like candy and visits to the arcade.  In other words, it was spending money to use as we please.  But now as adults, we make our own money and we need to decide how much of it goes towards discretionary spending.  For some, it’s difficult to distinguish between discretionary, saving and expenses which is the reason for the insane amount of debt held by individuals/families today.

The key to successfully implementing frugality as part of your lifestyle is to ensure that you never feel deprived.  How do you save money but still spend money on the little things in life without feeling guilty for breaking the frugality rules?  Give yourself a set monthly discretionary spending allowance!

Frugal Tip:  Give yourself (and spouse) a monthly allowance to spend as you please.

As we advance in our careers and our salaries, it’s easy to spend more money as more of it is available to spend.  Using this allowance system will help keep the frivolous spending in check and help increase your savings.

This strategy works great if you are in a relationship with combined finances.  After household expenses are taken care of, it sets equal spending limits for both partners and allows buying items with no questions asked.  For our family, we each get $100/month in cash to spend on whatever we please.  Any unused cash can be saved for slightly larger purchases in the following months.

Do any of you use this strategy?

photo credit: John-Morgan





45 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. 1. Miranda

    I love this tip. Sometimes we got so caught up in pinching pennies that we forget to remember what money is FOR. You have to have the ability to spend it one something frivolous every once in a while. But, it you have to save up a $25 “allowance” for a few months to do it, so be it. Because at the same time you still have to live within your means.

  2. 2. mjw2005

    We do….and it works really well….we each get the same amount every two weeks to spend how we please. My wife likes to use it to buy shoes from ebay….its her money I don’t see the need for many pairs of shoes but its her money so I don’t complain….I sometimes save my spending cash for spending on camera stuff….she probably thinks thats pointless but its my cash….anyways it works well….

  3. This is pretty much the same approach that we use- a bit of money that is absolutely discretionary. I can spend it on whatever I want, whether that’s tools, electronics, or obscure and pointless kitchen things, or I can save it up for a rainy day. It makes saving much easier, and it’s also nice to have a little bit of indepedence from the family budget.

    I have heard of some couples encountering a problem with this, though. When the base budget is tight, sometimes one partner will dip into his or her “mad money” to cover any additional expenses or unexpected items. This can lead to a little bit of resentment, as on partner’s “personal” money is being used to cover the household necessities while the other spends theirs on frivolity. The obvious solution is to adjust the budget, of course, but there can be resistance to this as well.

  4. 4. Stephen

    Yup, $50 a month for both my wife and I. I buy mostly computer and electronics stuff and she buys mostly clothes she doesn’t really need. We also use this to pay for gifts for each other so that the gift has a little bit more meaning and involves some sacrifice.

  5. 5. stefan

    I completely agree, an “allowance” is the best way to not feel guilty and place blame on the other for spending money. However, I’m quite surprised to see that some have fairly small amounts for allowance. This is an area my wife and I are having some trouble with, she feels like she doesn’t have enough say in what she can buy and when, so we agreed on a $200/mo each allowance. I find the number kind of high, but she really thought that was a fair number. So for now we have that.

  6. 6. Ramona

    Been doing this for quite some time. It’s $40 a week for each of us – paid in cash. I have a tendency to use mine as I’m a little more “social” than my husband – so lunches, events, and pedicures. My husband has been saving up most of his mad money & has a real sense of accomplishment at seeing his twenties increase. Some day he will experience the joy of spending it on something he truly wants.

  7. 7. Terry

    Yep, that’s how we do it too, but we allocate $150 bi-weekly for our fun allowance. That money has to cover any eating out, booze, DVD’s, clothes and any other entertainment we need. We also try and save some of the $150 for big events like a twice a year shopping trip down south or a night away etc.

    I don’t know how the heck you can manage on $100 a Month…unless you have a separate budget for Entertainment or Clothing etc.

  8. Excellent post FT. I give myself an allowance, but sometimes I’m tempted to ask myself for a raise. Luckily I have no problems saying no to myself. :)

  9. 9. Chuck

    We budget for discretionary spending.

    Also each quarter we sit down and discuss what spending we think we need to make like clothes for the kids, or a new microwave.

  10. Nice tip.. But I believe that most people are already saving money each month in tax defferred accounts.. In order to be able to afford “discretionary spending” several decades down the road..

  11. 11. Richard

    When I was single I used to take out $100/wk which had to cover gas, meals out and entertainment. Now that I’m married, we each automatically contribute a set amount from each pay to a joint account to cover house expenses, meals out etc. Anything left in the account at the end of the month we use to treat ourselves. Savings is primarily left to come out of our individual accounts on a schedule.

    Now that I’m starting a new business, the discretionary amount will be limited but I’ll still try and take a little bit each week for myself.

  12. 12. Xenko

    My wife and I have spending allowances ($175 a month) that we can spend in whatever fashion we so choose, or roll-over to the next month. I think the amount you get depends on what you “include” in discretionary spending. For example, we don’t include household items (cookware, furnishings) in discretionary spending (we have a miscellaneous section in our budget each month to cover this), but we do include things like clothing, shoes, computers, membership fees (gyms, etc.) which is why we have a larger allowance.

    So really, the amount you give yourself really depends on what items are included/not included in that discretionary spending.

  13. Well we’re the exceptions in this bunch, I guess, because we don’t. Our savings/investments transfer when we get paid, we pay the bills we each are responsible for, and the rest is a mishmash of grocery money, walking around money, fun money and gas money (for him). The no questions asked part of your post is more important than the fixed allowance, in my mind. Some money bloggers and their commenters seem (although it’s probably not as bad as I think) like real control freaks that I wouldn’t want to be living with. We both work hard for our money and save hard too so if one of us wants to blow a crazy sum on clothes, concert tickets, smokes, lottery tickets, charity, expensive books or whatever, we do and do without guilt or the need to report back to HQ.

  14. We sort of do this. We each get $80 twice a month, but that also covers the odd thing of milk or eggs as well.

    On top of that we keep $100/month to put on Visa to cover the odd things that come up like caulking for windows so you don’t have to use your spending cash for things like that.

    Overall the system seems to work for us. The trick is to check in once in a while to determine if the amount seems too low or not.

    Tim

  15. This strategy is based off of David Bach strategy of “Paying Yourself First.” This strategy kind be used in a variety of ways. You can pay yourself first buying investing in your 401k account, decreasing the amount that you spend on things away that you don’t need, or giving yourself an allowance like stated in this post.

  16. 16. Victor

    We do the opposite of this suggestion and it has worked well for us so far.

    We’re both employed and have a number of joint bank accounts. Each week we each put $500 into the various shared accounts. One account pays the mortgage, another pays utility bills, food, gifts for common friends, home improvements, etc. Basically every expense that we consider ‘shared’. The bulk of the money is in a high-interest savings account.

    The remainder of our salaries are ours to do with as we each see fit. However, we definitely don’t blow all this on frivolous purchases – most of it gets saved/invested. Basically it’s up to each of us to handle our long-term savings plans in a responsible way.

    So far, so good.

  17. 17. Mat

    We don’t do a fixed allowance of any kind. We have all on our investments/savings on pre-authorized payment plans, so any money left the necessary life expense is free to use however we see fit because we know that we have already done our saving. Of course, if we want we can just not use the money and save it, but that’s up to us.

  18. 18. Sam

    I’m newly married and we have tentatively agreed to such an arrangement. Thankfully both of us are frugal, however it’s always a relative term. At the same time, we both are high income earners, and need a plan.

    This is something we will both work on once we finish the renovation to our house, something that is draining our reserves. My question is, how do you guys handle vacation money, it’s probably the biggest spending amount in the ‘discretionary’ account. Everything else sounds more trivial.

    Advice please :)

  19. 19. Gates VP

    Wow, my wife and I must be the “super-non-frugal” people here as our allowances are definitely more than $40, but we still have the same basic practice.

    Typically used for entertainment and small purchases. We prefer to do it all in cash as you can’t “overspend” that way.

    Like others, we buy gifts for each other from this fund as it actually has that sense of being a gift. You’re sacrificing something that’s honestly yours. It’s also good on “dates” together as one of us can earnestly pay for the meal from “our little piece of the money”.

    Even though “Adult Allowances” sounds funny, I would highly suggest this method to any mature couple, especially those living together. It’s really easy for couples to become resentful of the other’s spending, especially when times are tight. The agreed allowances really helps curb the issue.

  20. 20. SmileS

    Golly gee whiz! An allowance? I never had one of those. If I did, I’d need to spend it all every week, even if only “on beer and popcorn”. Then there are days I need wads of cash (joining sports teams, taking classes, days I need a big pick-me-up) that I’d have to save up for. Do you get advances on your allowance?

    Why does it sound like everyone who uses the allowance combines their incomes? Keeping separate finances is easy, and I can be in charge of my own money. No competition, no sneaking, no arguments.

    And allowances can not be even. Even frugal girls spend more money than boys. Accept it. It’s part of the cost of living in a first world nation. Girls need more clothes than boys. (How many times can you wear the same shirt in a row with no one noticing?) Girls need more products for personal hygiene. Girls are more socially inclined. Boys eat more groceries. Is that considered with allowance structures?

  21. 21. Gates VP

    OK, Victor, I just read your post and I’m impressed, that sounds like an efficient setup.

    Are you two married though?
    …Basically it’s up to each of us to handle our long-term savings plans in a responsible way…

    From a legal standpoint, isn’t retirement savings up to both of you, not each of you?

  22. 22. DAvid

    No allowance, and no joint accounts. My partner & I have considerably differing incomes, and we made a decision as to who pays which bills, and go from there. This leaves each of us with proportional discretionary income which we use as we please, whether that be saving for vacation, buying shoes, or other items. We aren’t giving one another ‘permission’ to spend any particular amount, but live jointly within our means, setting appropriate goals for major purchases such as housing, vehicles, etc. We each manage our retirement plans separately, with a joint discussion on the steps to arrive at our final destination.

    DAvid

  23. 23. Victor

    @GatesVP – It’s worked well for us so far, but it helps that we a) both earn good salaries, b) both earn comparable salaries, c) both have similar long-term goals, and d) share philosophies about saving and frugal living. If any of those four were greatly different, things might not work as they do.

    Regarding your question of retirement savings being up to both of us, the simple answer is I don’t know. Regardless of the legalities around retirement, we are each handling our own savings strategies for now.

    We are on our way to common-law marriage as we have lived together for about two years now.

  24. 24. AndrewP

    Unfortunately, I seem to be in the group whose debt is mounting. The busyness (and expenses!) of a new home, combined with my first ever job after graduation, AND the desire to give my wife whatever she wants creates a need for more income!

    How long until my next performance review?

  25. I also like this approach. It’s good both for kids and adults. $100 a month for spending is not bad at all.

  26. 26. Gates VP

    Hey AndrewP: …The busyness (and expenses!) of a new home, combined with my first ever job after graduation,…

    Have you sent FT an e-mail with details? Are you OK with sharing details?

    We have lots of pros who surf this blog with lots of good ideas (I’m just a hack :)

    I’ll tell you though, off the top of my head, I couldn’t afford a house with my first job after graduation. I was working in the computers field and making $30k (2003, Winnipeg). I lived in an apartment, b/c $650 (all-in) was less that the overhead on any equally safe Winnipeg home I was going to find. I’m still in the field, now making $75k and I still don’t own a home (or a car).

    Owning and operating a home tends to be very expensive. I graduated at a net worth just above zero, but even with down payment money in the bank I would not have been able to afford a home and a car and savings and maintain a positive cash flow.

    In general, starting professional salaries tend to be small. Whether you’re in residency as a doctor (making 40k!), working your first engineering job or working towards your first electrician’s ticket. It’s OK, it tends to curve up very quickly (I more than doubled in ~5 years). But those first years are going to be tight. You may technically be a [insert profession here], but you won’t be able to live as one for at least a couple of years.

    Of course, this is just off the top of my head. I could be horribly, desperately wrong. So drop FT a line with details and maybe we’ll have more ideas that can help keep the cash flow positive.

  27. 27. DAvid

    Gates VP,
    I was thinking I would run into financial difficulty trying to meet the “give my wife whatever she wants” part of the sentence!

    Seems like our new correspondent may be learning many things about finance if he stays around!

    DAvid

  28. 28. Susan

    We have done this throughout our 10-year marriage. I think we started out at $20 a week, and we are now up to $40 a week each. Our joint accounts cover all of our needs and a few of our wants, and this money allows for a few more of those wants. A lot of our friends give us a hard time over the word “allowance,” and that’s fine; we laugh about it too. A couple of our friends, though, are really quite bothered by our system, and consider it very controlling (of me) and degrading (to my husband) that a grownup should have a limit placed on his personal spending.

    I’ve never really understood that and figure that whatever word you use, all couples have to make some decisions about how their money gets divvied up each month. Nobody can just spend and spend and spend with no limit.

    We don’t really care what the naysayers think. The proof is in the pudding. None of our friends have their financial house in order the way we do, and we’re laughing all the way to the bank.

    My husband spends most of his allowance on playing poker with his buddies. I am currently putting some of mine in a Roth IRA. So it’s not necessarily about more spending. It’s about each of us having some control over the items that we feel may be missing in the rest of the budget.

  29. 29. DAvid

    Susan,
    I, too, would consider it demeaning if one spouse decreed an allowance as parents do children. However, a situation where both have come to an agreement on the expenses and costs, and allow a portion of ‘Mad Money’ each month is a very different situation. Possibly your friends concern arises from their definition of the term ‘allowance’.If you wish, you could help them better understand by choosing a term less associated with teaching children the value of money, and more fitting to the reality of the situation you and your husband have created.

    As you have stated, we all have limits placed on our personal spending. Mine is described on my paycheque every other week, Yours, likely similar. Should an appropriate opportunity arise, and you friends wish to learn (unlikely?) you could explain how your family budget and the certainty of expenditures lets you reach the goals you have, whether that be debt freedom, travel comfortable retirement, Vegas trips, etc.

    DAvid

  30. 30. Xenko

    “I, too, would consider it demeaning if one spouse decreed an allowance as parents do children. However, a situation where both have come to an agreement on the expenses and costs, and allow a portion of ‘Mad Money’ each month is a very different situation.”

    A good alternative word is… BUDGET! You have a “personal budget” every month that you can spend with no questions asked, which means that there should no arguments about whether the item is a waste of money or not: if they want to spend their budget that way, it’s up to them.

    Problems can arise when 1 person is always going over budget, and then you get into arguments about “fairness” and what not, but that is why discussing this in detail with you significant other is important, so that you both know exactly how the system works, and your relationship must be open enough to be able to discuss any new situations that you haven’t accounted for. Unlike some previous comments, my wife makes significantly more that I do, but when we got married (and even before that), everything was “ours”, so everything was pooled together and there is no differentiation because one of us makes more than the other. We pay all our expenses first, and we both decided how to allocate the rest between savings and spending.

    To one of the earlier comments about vacation money, we set aside an amount of money each month to a vacation fund, and so when we want to go on a vacation, or plan one, we know how much money we have to work with. Basically, we estimate how many vacations/what type we want each year, and figured out about how much money per month we need to save to achieve it. Works well for us.

    I find that an allowance for each is especially useful when you get unexpected windfalls or un-budgeted income (overtime pay, etc.). Instead of just spending it, my wife and I decided that we would each get 1/6 of the windfall added to our respective allowances, and that the other 2/3′s is put to savings (currently building up a down payment for a house). It works swell for us since overtime is common, but varies a lot each month. Our total budget is set based on base salaries, but we know where the extra money is going to go in advance so there are no arguments.

  31. 31. Susan

    @DAvid
    They blame me because they know that I’m the one who handles the money in the family, and it was originally my idea. My husband is fully in agreement with it, however, and not only are there no arguments about the way the money gets spent, unlike other categories in our budget, we never go over. We take our allowances in cash, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

  32. 32. DAvid

    Susan,
    Someone has to pay the bills and keep track of things. It seems to me your friends have a very narrow way of defining things in their lives. If you and your husband have agreed to a set of expenditures (budget) and modify it as the need arises (the gas bill is up this month……etc), it really should not matter whose signature is on the cheque.

    Anyway, the problem is theirs, not yours!

    DAvid

  33. Great idea and a good way to “control” spending!

  34. This is a good tip. For the last two years, my wife and I didn’t do this–we just paid every dime we could spare into debt. When one of us felt deprived, we just bought something and didn’t say much about it. I don’t think either of us hurt ourselves that much by doing this, but that’s the problem. We don’t know.

    This month, we actually sat down and made an honest-to-goodness budget. To encourage sticking with it, it includes line items for big things we want, like new energy-efficient windows and kitchen cabinets. We each also get $100 to spend how we want.

    I don’t know how much that $100 allowance will slow us down. It may actually speed us up since we’ll each be less likely to cheat on the budget. But whatever happens, we’ll feel less deprived. Maybe the $100 will increase, but right now, the budget doesn’t balance with a bigger number in there.

    We did pay off our mortgage this year so it’s definitely possible to accomplish financial goals without that allowance, but it probably would be hard to keep on living that way indefinitely. My wife did say on more than one occasion that we were working really hard without anything to show for it.

    I think the other important thing is for both parties to have input in the budget. I wrote it down and did the math. But when it came to things like groceries, I asked my wife “How much do we spend on groceries?” and then I wrote down that number. That way, neither of us feels manipulated.

  35. This is a great strategy and is definitely necessary in a situation like mine where my fiance calls me “overly frugal” and I think that she doesn’t pay enough attention. An allowance is a great buffer zone between these strategies. I can still choose to save my allowance (although typically eventually spend it in large chunks, computers, tv’s) and she can spend hers. Everyone is happy.

  36. 36. MikeG

    Alot of people are mentioning that an “allowance” is demeaning or childish. A budget is another word for an allowance, when you buget for something you set how much something is allowed to cost. Allowance just has other nuances and memories attached to the base meaning of the word.

    We were really unsure of how much discretionary spending we were doing, and it always felt like my wife spent too much. We implemented the $40 ea. a week (Cash) “allowance” and funny enough, im usually spent by the end of the week and she still has a $20 or more.. hrm not as frugal as i thought, it’s all that Subway and sushi I eat :).

    We’ve also committed to keeping our budget line items, which means if something comes up that is not in the budget, the discretionary is spent. We find alot less “needs” coming up now…

  37. 37. Peter

    Good post. My wife and I have been giving ourselves an allowance for a few years now and it has worked well. We both get the same $40 every week so there will be no disagreements based on income. The money goes into separate chequing accounts that we can spend as we please with no questions asked.

    So far so good… but we will have to look at this again when we have children. Just one of a number of things that will need a major adjustment. :-)

  38. 38. David

    My wife and I give each other a weekly allowance of $75 each. We can spend it as we please. This is “me” money, spend it on things for yourself. That includes personal entertainment, clothing for yourself, eating out by yourself, sports, etc. Or save it up for something bigger.

    Our paychecks go into a joint account that pays the bills and savings.

  39. 39. Telly

    My husband and I have bi-weekly allowances as well but I’m kind of embarrassed to say how much because the number is significantly higher than the numbers being thrown out here. But like GatesVP’s situation, ours includes all discretionary spending, including dining out, clothing, etc.

    SmileS, oddly enough, while my husband has been eating up his spending money, I have a few hundred dollars sitting in a savings account to be used for Christmas gifts.

  40. 40. Karen

    My husband and I just opened a shared account due to the fact that we also recently purchased our first home even though we have been together for a very long time. We’ve always been responsible for various shared expenses and this varied on whose income was higher over the years.

    Sharing money is definitely a learning experience…. What we’ve decided is to put a percentage of our incomes into our shared account for shared expenses & savings. This is due to the fact that we have really different incomes and we also cannot understand each other’s spending habits (me on food & fashion, him on big ticket items and sports). We decided the best way to avoid fights about money was to do it this way. We have barely had any fights over money in the 8 + years we have been together…

    On the other hand, we know quite a number of people who pool their money and have allowances and it feels like all they seem to do is to fight about money. But perhaps this has more to do with their personal budgeting than anything…

    I think every couple does what works best for them…

  41. 41. Boshden

    I’ve recently just realized that Americans are spending way beyond our means. I was astounded by the personal savings rate, which is the percentage of disposable income saved, to be around only 0.3% for the past few years. What’s evening more alarming is if you take out the top 1% earners who make tens of millions of dollars a year, the average American acutlaly has a negative savings rate! I became to examine this problem, and I think the following is a pretty good illustration of the problem:

    The typical pair restaurant goer orders an appetizer each costing at least half to 2/3 as much as the entrees. They also order a drink or two each. Add the two entrees on top of that and desserts, and you have a hefty bill. The worst part is, the pair rarely finishes all the food, and in many cases, a major portion of the food is still left uneaten.

    It’s no wonder the United States only has 5% of the world’s population, but consumes 50% of the resources!

    I, on the other hand, am on the other extreme. I save about 70% of my disposable income after paying for rent.

  42. 42. Scott

    Two things, Boshden:

    1. You “JUST realized that Americans are spending way beyond our means”?!?! They/we have been doing it for YEARS! And you JUST took notice? BTW, American savings are back “up” to around 3% — it only took a global economic near-collapse to make that happen. Go Yanks!

    2. Congrats to you and your high horse for saving all that disposable cash. Now I know why it took you so long to take notice of worldly affairs — because you never leave the house and don’t pay for cable! Paying rent and saving isn’t much of…anything.

    Apologies to you and the other users for the “attack” but come on, listen to some wise old men and they will probably tell you that you can’t take it with you. It’s called “disposable” cash for a reason, not “hoarding” cash. Try saving 65% and go out and blow the other 5% on life and living! Go have a beer! If you are saving up for a down-payment then have a beer and return the empty.

    In a Capitalist society, it really IS all about money, but life ISN’T all about money.

  43. 43. Gates VP

    Boshden, Scott’s right about the over-spending thing. My father was talking about the RRSP pool shrinking in the 90s. Which is to say, it’s been around for a while (and it’s not just an American problem).

    However, the last couple of years have really exacerbated the problem b/c the US (as a country) hasn’t balanced a budget since the Clinton years.

    And saving 70% of your disposable income is scary in lots of ways.
    1. It doesn’t scale over time.: you can’t save that much money for the rest of your life. It sounds like a “diet” decision rather than a “lifestyle” decision. If you do manage to save 70% of your disposable income for the rest of your life, you’ll die with a bunch of unused money. That doesn’t really connect with the common man.

    2. It doesn’t scale over people.: If everyone in the US did what you do, the US would have a whole different set of problems. Look at what is happening to the Chinese with their 25%+ personal savings rate and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Having a population saving 70% of their income is so obviously wrong that it doesn’t connect with the common man.

    3. It can’t be done with a median income: If you took the median US family income and then stripped it bare of anything that wasn’t a long-term health requirement, you still wouldn’t be able to make the average family (not just person) save that much money. Again, your number fails to connect with the common man.

    So Boshden, bully to your for your successes, but please realize that you just seem like a crazy person to the “common man”. This means that no one is going to “get behind you”. No one is going to tell all of their friends I want to live like Boshden, b/c it just doesn’t make any sense to them.

  44. 44. Aspiring millionnaire

    Yes. I use the allowance approach, but I mix the fixed and discretionary amount. I take a fixed sum (larger than the fixed expenses) once a week, and I need to manage the week with that amount. It includes food, dining, clothes, electronics, etc. etc. It is simple, and it works for me.

  45. 45. Dharma

    Our family just started doing this a few months ago. My husband and I each get $40 a week for “frivolities” and we refer to that as “Mad Money”. Because we don’t go over and because we still get to have our own *secrets* (yes I am refering to 1pm Coffee Crisp bars) we don’t argue over money. This has reduced our cash spending by 75% per month. I can tell you we have a lot better things to do with that income.

    Our children receive an “Allowance” at the beginning of the month $30 for the 7 yr old (based on $7.50/wk) and $50 for the 12 yr old ($12.50/wk). They are required to decide how much to put into the bank as savings and they know it has to last the month….no more crying and whining at check out counters, they have their own $ to spend and now when it’s gone….it is gone. Case closed :)

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