My Stubborn Money-Management Flaw (With a Silver Lining)

My Achilles’ heal in financial management: discretionary money

Do you ever get sick and tired of your own flaws? When it comes to money management, I am so tired of having to confess my very poor record with my discretionary fund. DH and I decided in 2012 that we would each get an “allowance”, to cover needs that involve personal taste and a broad price range – like clothing and shampoo – and also to cover wants like gifts, gym memberships, snowboarding, blog expenses, and meals or snacks out. When I tell you what we each get for our allowance, you’re going to be surprised at how much it is. So I’m a bit hesitant, but here we go: $600. Each.

Maybe you’re not so surprised. Maybe you’re thinking, Well, if I add up the meals I eat out and the odd coffee and muffin that I pick up on my way home from work – and if I add to that gifts, clothes, books, hygiene products, my gym membership, and my get-away weekends,  I go way over $600 per month. Likely though, you’re more frugal than that, and you’re thinking, How can she not manage with SO much?! And I’m with you.

DH’s discretionary money management vs. mine

DH does so much better than I do. He always maintains a balance of several hundred in his discretionary account – if not a thousand or two. This past winter, he was able to get away with his snowboarding buddy for two different weekends at a resort. He enjoys the odd meal or snack out – often treating me or our youngest daughter (who still lives at home) when he does. You wouldn’t get the sense that he is in any way deprived of “fun money”, but he says that there are lots of things he doesn’t do that he’d like to do. He maintains an awareness, and he chooses what and when to spend with a disciplined mindfulness.

I, on the other hand, have tended to look upon my discretionary fund as my Whooo-hoo! opportunity to kick off everything that has allowed us to make great progress in paying down our debt over the last four years ($148,000 down and $109,000 to go), and to be foolish carefree with money like I used to be. If I get a burst of generosity, I’ll treat someone to coffee and a snack. If I go shopping for clothes, it’s with an overly flexible budget and a high likelihood of succumbing to temptation. If someone says, “Let’s get together at a restaurant,” I want to be there! If I have an idea for how much I’d like to spend on a gift, I blow it – and put it down to being just so darned nice. And if I get hungry while I’m away from the house . . . My purchases of food, my careless shopping, and even my desire to give – impulsive as it often is – all combine to drain that $600. Each month. In fact, I usually run out before the month is over.

Missed opportunities

The biggest problem about my bad management of this discretionary fund is that when something comes up that I’d REALLY like to do, I so often can’t. Earlier this month, for instance, my sister who lives on the west coast came to town to visit. While I did get to see her, I did not join the rest of my family at the restaurant where we’ve all eaten on many memorable occasions over the past few decades. In a way, it’s good that I showed discipline and restraint. But I would much rather have been in a position to go!

And earlier this week, a friend of mine from church e-mailed me to ask if I’d like to join her on a women’s week-end get-away at the end of April. There would be a group of women from our church going, and the event would include great guest speakers and singers. I would LOVE to get away for a week-end with my friends! The total cost would be somewhere around $150 – but I didn’t have it. “Let me get back to you,” I replied.

I talked with DH about the possibility of an extra allowance – just so that I could take advantage of this opportunity. After all, we did that once for him. DH went out west to snowboard at Whistler shortly after Christmas a couple of years ago, and we gave ourselves an extra few hundred each. (We keep it even. So although we were motivated to splurge because of his trip, I got the same extra amount.) But the two situations weren’t the same, DH said. We had a lot of extra money for the first one – since DH, who is self-employed, had just earned a lot from the Christmas rush. We don’t right now. “You should be able to afford this without anything extra,” he said. “This should motivate you to manage your money better.”

For a second, I felt hurt. For a moment, I let myself think, OK! So when it’s about what you want, we have the extra money, but when it’s about what I want, we don’t. But it passed, and I knew he was right. It was simple. I’d messed up, and I was experiencing the consequences of messing up. “I’m sorry,” I e-mailed my friend the next day, “I won’t be able to go this time around. I hope to next year though.”

Where’s the “Silver Lining”? (See title & image.)

So where’s the silver lining in all of this? It’s in that bit about my not holding onto any hurt or anger towards DH. This week, Hannah from Unplanned Finance wrote a post entitled “Money isn’t the problem. Marriage and money fights.” Hannah and her husband Rob, who have just welcomed their second child into the world, got in a spat over money recently, but as Hannah soon recognized, “The money fight, it turns out, wasn’t a money fight at all. Instead, it was an attack that revealed my insecurities and character flaws.”

There’s a smoke and mirrors effect when it comes to money fights. A slim bit of reality gets mixed in with character flaws, unresolved issues, and confused interpretations of past events to produce conflict that has little to no basis in any actual event. DH and I have experienced these smoke and mirror fights many, many times. But we didn’t this week. And we could have! I think I can safely say we would have – three years, maybe even one year ago under the same circumstances.

The difference? Although I show no signs of improvement in managing my discretionary fund, I am becoming more self-aware. And although I’m sensitive to criticism, I have learned how to agree with it when I know it’s true. DH wasn’t being harsh when he said, “This should motivate you to manage your money better.” He was being hopeful. Stubborn habits are only broken through a wake-up call – one that involves discomfort or pain. He wouldn’t want to “rescue” me from such a blessing.

Is this my discretionary money wake-up? I hope so! I can’t know for sure at this point. What I do know is that the smoke in my relationship with DH is clearing. And instead of disorienting reflections from mirrors, I’m seeing reality for what it is. And not only does that bode well for the future, it’s proof that a lot of good has already happened.

Do you budget for “discretionary money”? Do any of your old bad money habits (assuming you had some) still have an influence? Have you ever had “smoke and mirrors” money fights? Your comments are welcome. 

48 comments on “My Stubborn Money-Management Flaw (With a Silver Lining)

  1. Love your honesty here, Ruth. And I’m SO proud of you for taking it in stride and using the situation to see how you can do things better next time. What about taking a certain percentage of your discretionary money and putting it into a separate savings account each month? Then it’s off the top and gone, you’re living on less and building up a fund for when those extra opportunities come along?

    1. Thank you, Laurie. That’s an idea I’ve tried a couple of times, but here’s the problem: I know how to access that separate account. For this stubborn, stubborn bad pattern, I hope that with a growing awareness, I’ll reach a point where I can discipline/behave my way out of it. I’m hoping that I’m there now. We’ll see in another few months.

  2. We do have buckets in our budget to cover discretionary spending, but don’t have his/her line items. It’s a balance. My wife and I have to communicate often about out of budget purchases. We do a pretty good job of keeping each other in check, before old habits creep in. Honestly I can’t remember the last real fight / screaming match. It’s more disagreements with each other that we have to work through. I’m sure there are moments when she thinks I’m a dumb-ass, but hey who doesn’t have that. 🙂

    1. Ha! I wasn’t expecting that last line : )
      Interesting that you don’t have his/her discretionary spending. I think that if we did it that way, we’d be arguing about it on a regular basis. Clearly, you two are more on the same page with each other than we are when it comes to discretionary spending. No one-size-fits-all solution, right? Each person/couple has to do the hard work of figuring out what works for him/her/them personally. I’ve clearly got some more work ahead of me.

        1. If it’s working for you as a combined discretionary account, why change? I think it’s admirable that you two work that way.

  3. What you could do is take 10% off the top, right as soon as the $600 goes in, just take it out and set aside, or create another ‘fund’. Call it your ‘no touch fund’ and it can be there for bigger opportunities down the road. You’d just be starting off with a little less but since it would not technically be there at all if you take it out right off the bat, you could probably make the adjustments that way versus trying to make it so there’s money left at the end of the month.

    1. I actually tried that – and it was 10% as you’ve suggested. I sabotaged it pretty quickly though. If I were trying to coach someone else on this, and that person acted as I do, I’d just shake my head. But maybe now that some time has passed and I’m more aware of how negative this bad discretionary $ management is, I’m ready to try that strategy again. I’ll give it a go, and we’ll see how I’ve done in a few months. Thanks Mr. MB.

  4. Haha, this is hilarious, I could have written this same post, lol. Yes, we also have allowances, and they’re $500 each and we’ve had them for about 7 years now. Yesterday, Mrs. SSC mentioned that she has a about $1k in cash, a couple of thousand in stocks through Capital One, and about $3k in Vanguard funds…. I replied with, “Riveting… Just riveting…” Hahahaha
    I, on the other hand just got back to “in the black” with my allowance last month. There was a couple month running deficit that was agreed upon by both of us, but then I found other things to buy instead of pay it off immediately. A laptop to replace my 8 year old desktop, running shoes, eating out often with work folks, new clothes from losing weight from running… Ugh…

    I too see it as “woohoo, allowance, I’m rich!” lol. While I’ve gotten better about it (I did save up enough to surprise Mrs. SSC with a paid for by me cruise out of Galveston for one of our anniversaries) I also have had to miss out on things from just being too flippant with my allowance. It’s a tough road to hoe, but I’ve gotten WAY better than in the beginning when I had a virtual zero balance every month, all the time.

    I’ve tricked myself with my “squirrel fund” (not for buying squirrels – rather money I squirrel away from myself) and saved money in cash. I find if I take $20-$60 and stick it in a desk drawer once in a while, it builds up to a couple hundred, seemingly unbeknownst to me. Just a little trick I employ because, well, I know myself. 🙂 Good luck with the allowance spending!

    1. Oh, this comment gives me great comfort! So many parallels here. The discretionary amounts are fairly similar (and since cost of living is more expensive in Canada, our allowances might really be equal), and one spouse managing fabulously well and the other sometimes stuck in the red. My husband laughed out loud when he read your comment and got to the part about your wife’s stellar management and your “‘Riveting…Just riveting…”
      I have tried the squirrel away thing online, but maybe I need to try with cash. The thing is, I’ll know where it is! It’s very impressive that you managed to save up for a cruise. And it’s very encouraging to know that you’ve come a long way in the last 7 years. We’re approaching year 4, so maybe there’s hope for me too? Thank you so much, Mr. SSC!

    2. LOL, love this!!! Yeah, Mrs SSC really makes a bad case for you, Ruth, but I don’t think you should sweat it. Baby steps, my friend – baby steps!

      1. I’m just so grateful to Mr. SSC for sharing a very similar story. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for me : )

  5. You know I adore DH, but in this instance, I must say I am firmly on your side. Okay, I realize you think you don’t have a side, but trust me, you do. Allow me to explain. 🙂 You are a female lady type person. Female lady type persons (FLTPs for short) need more “stuff”. FLTP stuff is more expensive than male gentleman type stuff. It’s a proven fact. I’m sure I read it in one of those glossy Vogue type women’s magazines. So this is just to say that your discretionary fund should be at least $150 more than his. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Ha! You know what, Kay? You’re right. I’ve seen those studies that show the higher cost of being a woman. We’ve actually kind of dealt with that though. DH’s hair is done by me, but I get mine done at a salon, and the cost comes out of our common account. (That was something I negotiated with DH a couple of years ago after I had destroyed my own hair. with bad srtaightening and colouring.) This doesn’t add up to $150 though – so maybe I’d better do some more negotiating : ) Where did you get that $150 number anyway?

  6. Okay, well just between you and me (no one else can see this, especially DH, right?), the fact that DH has so much left at the end of the month and you don’t doesn’t necessarily mean you are crazy spendy. I believe it means that he doesn’t have to pay as much for his stuff or as often. For instance, you still have daily hair care (not to mention a LOT of hair, I’ve seen the pictures, it’s magnificent!), makeup, and clothing. Okay, sure,he has 2 of those also, but what does a man need to wear everyday? He can wear the same suit for a year and no one even notices. Women, on the other hand, especially women in the workforce, and especially women who work in a “stage” environment like a teacher, need to not show up in the same outfit everyday. Women need a decent rotation of clothes. Also, women are far more prone to want to take their kids out for a meal or a snack, or have lunch with friends to de-stress, to pick up that little “extra” nicety for the home. So all that is just to say that I really wanted to say you should get $300 extra per month, and DH should get $300 less, but I didn’t want to start a gender war on the board, but I probably just did, so I have to go now. Kay OUT! 🙂

    1. I like it!
      OK, first of all, our school is really casual when it comes to dress code.
      Also, the fact that I am more prone to treat our kids or to have lunch out with friends doesn’t mean that I should indulge in these behaviours, right?
      I rarely buy things like make-up (not nearly enough to warrant DH’s reduction by $300:).
      Last of all, I have to point out Mr. SSC’s comment to you. Have a read, and see if your thoughts on the matter are modified.
      What do you think?

  7. Hmm. My wife and I have separate discretionary budgets in our financial plan. Right now they’re equal at $500 monthly; I spend maybe $50, while she spends $550.

    I suspect the difference in our experience and yours is that toiletries and shampoo and other regular personal-care supplies go under “supplies” not “discretionary”. Yes, she has more supplies expenses — she’s got a higher standard she’s chosen to hold herself to. 🙂

    Frankly, I suspect at least $50 of her discretionary should really be in “supplies”, but she doesn’t let me know which of her online purchases would fit that category. For FI/RE planning, maybe I should just kick $50 from my discretionary to hers, and forestall later trouble …. 😉

    1. Wow! What a difference between you and your wife! You must be growing an incredible savings account if it’s increasing by $450 each month! If your wife overspends her discretionary fund by $50 per month, I’d say either she has to choose what to cut out, or else you both need to discuss a new amount – and make sure you’re on the same page with regards to all that’s in involved with your FIRE goals. Does she wish she could stick to the $500 amount (like I wish I could stick to my amount)? Very interesting scenario there, Sabbaticalia! Thanks for commenting.

  8. Oh Ruth, I don’t know Mr. SSC, but I believe he must be from some alien species or something. 😛 I want you to enjoy every day of your life. What does that have to do with money? Everything. Money is such a stress. Well, lack of money, anyway. When we headed for NY, our EF was down to 3 months. When we went to FL, we had 15 months worth. Now we have a fully funded retirement account to boot. I realize the circumstances, but I have to say this. I have been praying for this exact amount of money for about 20 years now. I didn’t know where it would come from. I didn’t know that was how much I would end up with. But I do know this. God answers prayers and we don’t always need to know how he will answer them. We just need to have faith and continue to say what we want and believe we will receive it. Most important are our words… And also, I’m sticking by my $150 (at least) assertion. Your situation is much more common than Mr. SSC’s. 🙂

    1. I don’t think that Mr. SSC’s situation is that uncommon. I know other couples in which the man is more spendy than the woman. I think the question here is: Does my difficulty in sticking to our (very generous) discretionary amount indicate a character flaw? Or Does it indicate a need to adjust the amount? I really do think it indicates a character flaw. Not because I’m being hard on myself, but because I know my history with money – and it’s not pretty. And while it would be great to receive a windfall of wealth, I actually would choose not to until I’m able to manage my discretionary money much better than I do now. I love this discussion, Kay! I think that part of your response comes from your bias in my favour – which you are welcome to keep : )

  9. Thanks for mentioning my post, and I agree that everyone can learn a lot about themselves when it comes to seeing how we actually spend our money.

    Rob and I don’t do “allowances” but I think for our current stage in life that makes a lot more sense. We would probably have so many discussions about what’s discretionary vs what isn’t that we end up having fewer disagreements by simply budgeting for our purchases.

    1. I really appreciated the honesty of your post, Hannah. It’s not a common thing for people to detail their marital spats, but it’s definitely helpful – especially with the reconciliation that came with your humble openness with each other. If you’ve managed as well as you have without a budgeted his & hers allowance so far, perhaps there’s no need to start?

  10. I have kind of a similar post tomorrow coming out. More along the lines of how I’ve let myself succumb to a bit of lifestyle creep with the new job, so I totally understand where you’re coming from. What to do about it? I’m not sure… those in glass houses… 🙂 When it comes to money and relationships, it’s something I haven’t had to deal with in a long time, but I’m going to take John Wooden’s quote and butcher it for the sake of this blog: “Money doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” (I swapped money for sports)

    1. Amen to that quote, Tonya. Doesn’t look too butchered to me. I remember when you were just starting your new job, I expressed some concern about the possibility of unwanted lifestyle inflation. If it’s a wanted lifestyle inflation – no problem. But I get the sense it isn’t. All the best to both of us as we each get this money flaw thing sorted out.

  11. My partner is way more spendy than me! His allowance is probably around 100 a week. I personally don’t have one and just cash flow stuff when I need it.

    1. Does that ever cause conflict, NZ Muse? It sounds like you’re happy to accommodate your partner’s different spending habits, but that can definitely be an area of relational stress. I say “Well done!” for showing that the woman can be the frugal one : )

  12. Great post and I agree that just about any marital fight isn’t about the surface issue–they often reveal our deeper character problems. We had such a fight this weekend that appeared to be over lawn care, but was more about me being selfish and living in my own world of ideas too often.

    On the discretionary cash–we stopped budgeting our allowance because we found we were spending more. Instead, we’ve established some principles of how we’ll respond to fluctuating expenses like gifts, social activities, and personal wants. We might talk it over first if it’s expensive or we’re looking for creative solutions. But this is just what works for us. Thanks for sharing your story!

    1. I think it’s great that you guys are continually working to be aware of what’s really going on and to refine things. You’re doing great, Kalie. 🙂

    2. It sounds like you resolved your smoke and mirrors spat pretty quickly, Kalie. It also sounds like your honesty and willingness to admit where you were wrong were key in making that conflict short-lived. I find it interesting that you spend less now that you don’t have a discretionary allowance. I’m afraid that without a defined amount, I’d spend way too much.

  13. This article has made me think about the “money fights” my wife & I have. We are both pretty responsible but I’m definitely a lot thriftier than her, especially when it comes to giving gifts. I’m not a big gift giver & I don’t really expect them either.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a guy & recovering workaholic so I like saving up for big things like a beach trip instead of a bunch of little things through the year like ice cream or a hamburger. My wife likes to celebrate the little things in life. I’m working on improving my attitude. I enjoyed the little things as a child that created special memories other than summer vacation, but my perception changed somewhere along the way.

    1. You’re clearly doing some introspection as you consider the areas of conflict that you’ve run up against in your marriage when it comes to money. “My wife likes to celebrate the little things in life. I’m working on improving my attitude. I enjoyed the little things as a child . . . ” It’s wonderful that you are recognizing value in your wife’s priorities – even though they’re different from the ones you have adopted. I suspect your “money fights” will become more rare as you give space for each other’s differences – and even learn to admire them in each other. Thanks for your comment, Josh.

  14. Smoke and mirrors money fight? Like one seemingly about not having monthly money meetings, which really ended up being about my husband thinking I’m obsessed with personal finance and don’t appreciate how hard he works?? Nope, nothing like that here… 🙂

    1. I feel your pain : ( It’s so hard to navigate that kind of thing. I guess all you can do is assure him of how much you do appreciate his hard work – and maybe spoil him, frugally but thoughtfully – and then hope that he returns the favour by indulging you with a monthly money meeting. All the best in getting past the smoke & mirrors, Amy.

  15. Eeek, I’m going to have to admit that we technically don’t budget for discretionary spending, all though we definitely should. We are up to redo the budget this month and that’s going to definitely have to be a consideration. But don’t feel bad, if I had discretionary, I’d probably be a woo-hooer right along with you. It’s hard not to let loose after being disciplined in so many other areas of your finances, but it’s encouraging that you are seeing the possibilities that could present themselves if you show restraint. This has given me something to think about. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Thank you, Latoya. I’m curious to know why you think you should budget for discretionary spending if you’ve managed without doing so up to this point. For us, it was definitely a good idea – as it provided some independent freedom and some boundaries – both of which were needed. I’ll be interested to know if adding the discretionary allowance to your budget ends up helping you.

  16. My goodness your posts are so wonderful to read and edifying to boot. I totally relate to the “smoke and mirrors” kind of argument about money. I’m having one right now with my hubby. The argument may be about one issue, regarding what I consider could be a misallocation of funds, but I find many feelings of fear, insecurity, and abandonment coming up. These feelings are out of proportion to the current disagreement. I’m reliving historical arguments. So much fun, huh? I have to remind myself to stay in the present and face the current challenge. And most importantly, to see where fear and resentment are clouding my judgement. My impression is that you and your husband are on the same page with respect to valuing frugality and responsible money management. That is a beautiful thing.

    1. So great to hear from you Laurie! And that was quite the timing – reading this post in the midst of a smoke and mirrors argument! It can be very challenging to “stay in the present” when ghosts of unresolved-issues-past pop up. We are definitely on the same page with regards to responsible money management – but we’re not always on the same page when it comes to what that looks like. It’s an evolving work in progress, and that’s OK. I wish you and your hubby very well in finding the page you’re both happy to call your own, and in writing it together. Thanks for your comment : )

      1. Thanks Ruth. And I hope the $150.00 materializes so you can go on that retreat with your girlfriends. You work hard and you deserve to go!

        1. I do work hard, but I have to learn to manage my $ better if I’m to get these treats. I’m totally OK with not going. I believe this experience WILL encourage me to manage better. Stay tuned . . .

  17. I use Geltbox money -automatic download from any website (banks,credit cards) , high level of security (Your financial data is securely stored and encrypted only in your personal computer),

    It allows me to control my finances and stay on top of my expenses

    1. We don’t use any system besides a spreadsheet – and I don’t even use that for my discretionary money. Thanks for the food for thought, Ana. I clearly could use some help.

  18. Regarding the 10% that was suggested by another commenter and that you’ve already tried but found it didn’t work for you because you could always find it.

    Maybe you’ve already thought about this, but how about you give that 10% to your hubby (in cash) and have him hide it for you, so that you’ll have to ask him to get it for you if you really want it? Maybe you could even ask a friend/neighbor/coworker you trust and who you see often to keep it for you, instead of your hubby? I imagine it would be harder to ask them than your husband, so maybe that would help you do it only when you really really want it?

    1. It’s not a bad idea, Maja. I thought I’d dealt with any pride that got in the way of better personal finances, but your comment makes me realize I haven’t. It’s humiliating to think I might need to do this – but I might. (In fact, I think you’ve given me the subject for my post tomorrow.)

  19. I choose to say though: You say you ultimately agreed with your hubby, and of course you know better than me what was really going on, but it still doesn’t seem quite fair to me that he got the extra cash when he wanted it and you didn’t. I get the more/less cash part, but didn’t you also have more debt when you both got extra money because he wanted to og on the trip?

    I hope I’m not out of line (I probably am, I’m sorry), I’m perhaps overly sensitve to unfairness (if indeed it was unfair). I’m wondering (politely) if you would you feel it was fair if two of your daughters were roommates and shared expenses and personal spending money, and the same situation occurred?

    1. I don’t mind you saying this at all, Maja. I do think it was fair. For the previous incident (and you’re right – we were more indebted), there had been discussion and agreement in advance. It had been planned. In the more recent case, it was last minute. Also, to give you more perspective, a couple of years ago, my husband gave me $600 from his discretionary money so that I could fly out west for a week. I didn’t ask for it; he just gave out of generosity. With all things considered, yes, I would feel it was fair with the scenario of sisters/roommates that you suggest. Don’t hesitate to ask these tough questions, Maja! I’m all for it.

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