Salary vs. Discretionary Income

by Miranda Marquit · 9 comments

One of the ways we measure our financial success (and, in some cases, success as a person) in our society is to look at our salary. However, just looking at your salary provides an incomplete picture or your financial situation. This is because your salary does not always provide an accurate representation of how much discretionary income you have.

Discretionary Income

In the most traditional sense, disposable income is meant by what you bring home for saving or spending after taxes are paid. Discretionary income takes it a bit further, including what you have at your disposal for saving or enjoyment after you have made your credit card payments, your housing payments, loan payments (such as a car loan or student loan), your utility bills, insurance and maybe even your groceries. If you have money automatically deducted from your paycheck for savings or retirement investing, this is also taken out before you calculate your discretionary income.

Discretionary income is what you have the freedom to spend as you wish, on things that you enjoy, rather than on bills and other obligations that may not give you much pleasure. In terms of personal finances, I believe that discretionary income offers a better picture of your situation than your salary.

Factors that Influence Discretionary Income

Yes, your salary is related to your disposable income. But what you have left over from your salary to use as you wish depends on a number of other factors, including:

  • Cost of housing.
  • Cost of transportation.
  • How much debt you have.
  • Cost of food in your local area.
  • Expense of your utilities

These items, and others, that influence discretionary income can vary, depending on where you live. My husband’s cousin recently complained that his salary is smaller since he moved to our town in Utah, than the salary he had where he used to live in California. My husband and I asked him, though, to take a step back and look at his discretionary income.

Lower Salary Can Equal Higher Discretionary Income

In California, even though his salary was higher, he spent more than half of his monthly income on a rented one bedroom apartment located far from his work. His family spent more on utilities, as well as on transportation and groceries. Now they live in a two-bedroom townhouse with a fenced yard, and it costs less than a third of what they paid in California. He doesn’t have to drive as far to get to work, saving them money on gas, and food and utilities are less expensive. Indeed, once we pointed it out to him, my husband’s cousin realized that in California, even though he made more, his family spent every penny on the basics of survival. Here, his salary is smaller, but he has more discretionary income to do things he enjoys: going to a movie occasionally, or going out to eat. Plus, his family’s house is the best he’s lived in since he married his wife.

Before you go off chasing a higher salary, consider the area. It could be that you enjoy a better quality of life, even with a lower salary. Salary isn’t the be all and end all of income.

Paying Down Debt

One of the biggest drains on discretionary income, though, is debt. No matter where you live, or how much you make, debt is an obligation that cuts into your financial freedom, and limits what you have available. When you are paying interest, you are no longer using money for what you want. Consider paying down debt so that you have greater financial freedom, and more discretionary income.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

kt- lifedividend July 20, 2010 at 8:07 am

i have a business debt of a little over a hundred dollars and i want to pay it back with interest as soon as possible. I was familiar with the concept of discretionary debt but i did not know that this was the term they used for it. Personally i measure financial independence by the percentage of my income that remains after the basic needs are taken care of. The larger the percentage the better

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vered July 20, 2010 at 11:39 am

“Lower Salary Can Equal Higher Discretionary Income” – absolutely. We were impressed by salaries in the Silicon Valley, until we moved here and realized how expensive everything is.

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Cd Phi July 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Yep. There’s a huge difference between one’s salary and one’s discretionary income. For instance, I might get paid a much higher salary in NYC but living there would probably cost a lot so my discretionary income may not be much in the end afterall. Thanks for distinguishing the two.

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Reasonable July 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I know people who will drive two hours to work just to take advantage of a lower cost of living in one city and a higher salries in another; absolutely discretionary income matters.

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Benjamin Bankruptcy July 20, 2010 at 6:01 pm

I had more discretionary income working part time in the country. I lived in the nurses quarters for free and did no driving because I lived were I worked. Country recreation tends to be cheap as well

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Financial Samurai July 26, 2010 at 3:46 am

Hopefully higher income means more discretionary income, but like one said in Silicon Valley, it’s tough, unless you are making well over $300,000 a year per person (not couple).

The hardest thing is not giving it all up to live in my parents paid off place somewhere in paradise. The draw is immense, but I must forge on and continue my own path.

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Briana @ GBR November 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm

If I look at my discretionary income, I’m not making much at all. I guess I should focus more on increasing that, using passive income to help me out

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Raj Sharma June 2, 2012 at 1:40 am

Yep. There’s a huge difference between one’s salary and one’s discretionary income. For instance, I might get paid a much higher salary in NYC but living there would probably cost a lot so my discretionary income may not be much in the end afterall. Thanks for distinguishing the two.

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