What Is Discretionary Income? Understand the Basics

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Understanding discretionary income can help you make the most of your money. This is especially true for students who have student loans they need to pay back. In fact, there are several federal plans for borrowers who have trouble making their payments. These income-driven repayment plans can provide some relief.

This article will help you understand discretionary income and how it relates to general budgeting and student loan repayments.

What Is Discretionary Income?

Discretionary income is the amount of money you have remaining after paying for bills and essentials like food and housing. It’s what you use for anything extra that you don’t need to live, like entertainment, vacations, debt, investments and nonessential services.

Unfortunately, discretionary income is usually the first thing to get cut from the budget when people lose their jobs or get a pay cut. So while income taxes decrease with lower pay, other essential bills like food and housing don’t.

Did You Know?

There’s a difference between discretionary income and disposable income, although they may sound the same. Disposable income is the amount of money left over after paying federal, state and local income taxes. The government tracks this metric as a key macroeconomic indicator of the overall state of the economy.

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How Is Discretionary Income Used?

Here are two ways that understanding discretionary income is essential in achieving your financial goals.

General Budgeting

One of the most important things to do to ensure personal financial success is to track your income and expenses. Having a budget might sound scary, but it’s a proven tool to make sure your money does what you want.

One way to understand how discretionary income fits into any budget is by using what’s known as the “50/20/30 rule.” Senator Elizabeth Warren popularized this approach to budgeting. The rule simply divides up your after-tax income into the following three categories:

  1. 50% on essential needs
  2. 30% on wants
  3. 20% on savings goals

In this scheme, both the 30% on wants and the 20% on savings would be considered discretionary income.

Student Loan Payments

Outstanding student loan debt has climbed to over $1.7 trillion. While President Joe Biden and his administration are considering canceling some student debt, it’s still a painful reality for many students.

If you’re having trouble paying your student debt, there are several federal plans you should know about. You might be able to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which considers your discretionary income. Here are four plans to consider:

  1. Income-based repayment
  2. Income-contingent repayment
  3. Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
  4. Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
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Each of the plans has various income qualifications compared with the federal poverty guidelines. For example, the income-based repayment plan defines discretionary income as the difference between your annual income and 150% of the federal poverty guideline.

Key Takeaways

  • Discretionary income is the amount of money you have after paying your taxes and essential expenses like food and housing.
  • It’s a vital part of maintaining a budget to make sure you achieve your financial goals.
  • For those with student loans, there are income-driven repayment plans that take your discretionary income into account.

Our in-house research team and on-site financial experts work together to create content that’s accurate, impartial, and up to date. We fact-check every single statistic, quote and fact using trusted primary resources to make sure the information we provide is correct. You can learn more about GOBankingRates’ processes and standards in our editorial policy.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffries is a seasoned technology professional based in Florida. He writes on the topics of business, technology, digital marketing and personal finance. After earning his bachelor’s in Management Information Systems with a minor in Business, Scott spent 15 years working in technology. He's helped startups to Fortune 100 companies bring software products to life. When he's not writing or building software, Scott can be found reading or spending time outside with his kids.
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