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Discretionary Income: What It Is, How to Calculate, and Real-Life Examples

Last updated 03/28/2024 by

Alessandra Nicole

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Discretionary income is the money remaining after an individual covers taxes and essential expenses like housing and food. It enables spending on nonessential items such as vacations and luxury goods. This article distinguishes between discretionary and disposable income, emphasizing their roles in economic well-being. Exploring how discretionary income impacts economic health, we delve into its calculation and what constitutes a healthy level. For those dealing with student loans, we shed light on how discretionary income factors into federal loan eligibility. Understanding this financial concept is vital for sound financial planning.

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What is discretionary income?

Discretionary income is the amount of an individual’s income that is left for spending, investing, or saving after paying taxes and covering personal necessities, such as food, shelter, and clothing. This financial term plays a crucial role in personal finance and economic analysis. Let’s explore it in greater detail.

Understanding discretionary income

Discretionary income forms the financial foundation for nonessential spending, which includes leisure activities, entertainment, luxury goods, and vacations. It represents the funds available to individuals once they’ve met their essential financial obligations. These funds empower people to make discretionary purchases that enhance their quality of life.
However, it’s essential to note that discretionary income is not the same as using credit cards to finance such expenses. Increasing personal debt doesn’t equate to having discretionary income. It’s about having real, tangible funds beyond what’s needed for essentials.
Discretionary spending is an integral part of a thriving economy. People only indulge in nonessential spending when their financial situation allows for it. This spending fuels various industries, from tourism to consumer electronics, and contributes to economic growth.

Discretionary income vs. disposable income

Discretionary income and disposable income are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings in personal finance and economics.
Disposable income, in simple terms, is the net income an individual takes home. It encompasses all expenses, both essential and nonessential. It’s what remains after taxes are deducted and represents the net income available for spending, saving, or investing.
Discretionary income, on the other hand, is what’s left from disposable income after covering expenses like rent or mortgage, transportation, food, utilities, insurance, and other essential costs. It’s the portion of income that remains after meeting these obligations.
For example, if someone’s monthly income after taxes is $4,000 and they spend $2,000 on essentials, they have $2,000 in monthly discretionary income. If their income decreases to $3,000 due to a pay cut, they can still cover their essential costs but will have only $1,000 left in discretionary income.

Discretionary income and the economy

Discretionary income serves as a vital indicator of economic health. Economists use it, alongside disposable income, to assess various economic metrics, such as the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), marginal propensity to save (MPS), and consumer leverage ratios.
During economic upswings, when gross domestic product (GDP) and other economic indicators are strong, discretionary income levels tend to be high. This is because a robust economy typically leads to higher incomes. However, inflation in the prices of essential goods can reduce discretionary income, assuming wages and taxes remain relatively constant.
An illustrative example is the personal savings rate in the United States. During the 2005 debt-fueled economic bubble, the personal savings rate dipped into negative territory for several months. Consumers spent not only their discretionary income but also accumulated debt through credit cards and loans. Conversely, during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the personal savings rate reached record highs, with many individuals saving a significant portion of their discretionary income. In 2022, the rate began to stabilize at around 7%, aligning with the long-term average.

How is discretionary income calculated?

Calculating discretionary income involves a straightforward process. It is a subset of disposable income, which is the total income remaining after taxes. To determine discretionary income, deduct all essential obligations and expenses, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, loans, car payments, and food, from your disposable income. What remains is your discretionary income, the amount available for saving, spending, or investing.

What is considered a good level of discretionary income?

The ideal level of discretionary income can vary based on individual preferences and financial goals. However, many financial experts recommend that discretionary income should make up around 10-30% of your take-home pay after taxes. This percentage aligns with the 50-20-30 rule, where 50% of net income covers living expenses, 20% is allocated for savings or investments, and 30% is earmarked for discretionary spending.

How is discretionary income looked at for student loans?

When assessing federal student loans and repayment plans, the U.S. government evaluates eligibility based on discretionary income. The government defines discretionary income as your annual gross income after taxes, minus 150% of the federal poverty line (which varies by state and family size). It also considers any fluctuations in your income over time. This calculation plays a significant role in determining your eligibility and repayment options for student loans.
Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.
  • Financial freedom: Discretionary income enables individuals to make choices beyond basic needs, enhancing their quality of life.
  • Economic growth: Discretionary spending fuels various industries, contributing to economic development and job creation.
  • Savings and investments: It provides the means to save and invest, ensuring financial security and future wealth accumulation.
  • Unplanned spending: Without proper budgeting, discretionary income may lead to impulsive and excessive spending.
  • Financial stress: Sudden reductions in discretionary income, such as job loss or pay cuts, can lead to financial stress and debt accumulation.
  • Debt accumulation: Misusing discretionary income through high-interest loans or excessive credit card usage can result in debt accumulation.

Frequently asked questions

Can discretionary income vary from month to month?

Yes, discretionary income can fluctuate based on changes in income, essential expenses, and nonessential spending. For instance, unexpected medical expenses or a salary increase can impact your discretionary income for a particular month.

How can I best manage my discretionary income?

Effective management of discretionary income involves creating a budget, allocating funds for savings and investments, and maintaining financial discipline. Tracking your discretionary spending is essential to avoid overspending.

Does discretionary income affect my credit score?

Discretionary income itself doesn’t directly impact your credit score. However, the way you manage your discretionary spending and debts, such as credit card balances, can influence your credit score. Timely payments and responsible use of credit are crucial for maintaining a good credit score.

What are some examples of discretionary expenses?

Discretionary expenses include activities like dining out, entertainment, vacations, hobbies, and luxury purchases. These are expenses that are not necessities but enhance your overall quality of life.

Key takeaways

  • Discretionary income is what remains after covering taxes and essential expenses, allowing for nonessential spending and investments.
  • It plays a significant role in the economy, influencing consumer spending and financial well-being.
  • Discretionary income differs from disposable income, which includes all expenses, both essential and nonessential.
  • The calculation of discretionary income involves deducting essential obligations from disposable income.
  • Experts suggest that around 10-30% of take-home pay should constitute discretionary income.
  • For federal student loans, eligibility is evaluated based on discretionary income, factoring in the federal poverty line and income fluctuations.
  • Effective budgeting and responsible financial management are crucial for maintaining a healthy level of discretionary income.

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