Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?

Remember the magic of childhood allowance? You could buy toys or candy, or watch it amass if your piggie bank with Scrooge-like glee. And no bills to pay with it!

What if grown-ups could have the same guilt-free, responsibility-free spending experience? If you’re married with joint finances, that might be just what you need to relieve marital money tension.

Call it what you like: blow money, fun money, spending money, allowance, discretionary funds, or the old-fashioned pin money. It’s the idea that you have some that’s designated as yours, that you can do with as you like. You can spend on Starbucks or shoes or Taco Bell or tools, or whatever else you want, without having to ask or answer for it.

If you’re single, it always makes sense to budget for the types of things this “fun money” might cover in marriage: treating yourself, going out, and other “fun” purchases. But you probably have way more autonomy is choosing how much and how to spend then someone who has joined finances for life. (Skip to tips below about determining the amount.)

While Dave Ramsey and other PF gurus make blanket prescriptions about spouse allowances, I think it depends on you, your spouse, and your marriage. If you’re married, you might need an allowance if:

  1. You have different financial personalities. We all have a natural bent toward saver or spender. This may be influenced by your upbringing or life experiences as well as temperament. Were you the kid who spent every dime that came your way, or did you (like me) hoard it in your piggie bank, and are still rolling the coins? (True story).

Opposites tend to attract, so it’s pretty likely you married someone with a different financial personality from you. And you’ll see it, among other ways, when one of you makes a purchase the other doesn’t understand or agree with. “Why do you need another _____?” You fill in the blank. Or maybe someone’s coffee habit or smoking habit or gym membership or hobby adds up more than the other feels is reasonable. Even with like financial personalities, our individual tastes are often incomprehensible to our spouse and therefore feel like unjustified spending.

I don’t know how the stars aligned for me to marry a fellow saver, but a huge part of the reason we actually don’t practice the spouse allowance is that we’re just both pretty tight with money. We generally trust each other to make good choices and respect the other’s decisions even if we wouldn’t have made them ourselves.

If you’re both spenders, you might not feel the need to institute an allowance, but it could be a wise idea for your finances. If neither of you minds the other’s spending, great! But if you’re both frittering away money needlessly without accountability, you might want to reign it in by setting a limit ahead of time.

  1. You fight about spending regularly. I don’t suppose there are many couples out there who have never argued about money. In fact, the first argument of our dating relationship centered on who should pay for gas (we were both trying to pay). But for many, it’s more than the occasional tiff; it’s an ongoing tension that can affect the overall health of the marriage. If this is the case for you, please try giving each other an allowance! It won’t solve everything, but if you feel like your purchase of new sheets turned into World War III, budgeting for spending money could really help.
  2. You think marriage should be fair. Though we might not realize it, a lot of us come to marriage under the illusion that everything should be equal, 50/50, fair. Here’s a sample conversation:

“The bank statement says you spent $50 on Starbucks last month. I think you should try to cut back.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you must’ve spent at least that much going out with your friends. Do you have to cut back, too?”

If you keep accounts like this and use it to justify your spending, whether to yourself or your spouse, it might be time to try an allowance.

Trying an allowance will not solve disagreements between how much to spend on major purchases, or setting your overall financial goals. It won’t turn a spender into a thrifty person, though they could learn some things about their spending habits and triggers from it. And it certainly won’t solve the underlying causes of marital tension. But it can be very effective in giving each spouse the freedom to do some autonomous spending while working together toward bigger goals.

How much is enough?

That is a question only you and your spouse can answer. First, decide what types of purchases should be covered by allowance versus the regular budget. For example, you should have a certain amount budgeted for clothes that covers everyone’s needs. But if you want something above and beyond that, you can use your allowance, perhaps saving up several weeks’ worth.

Next, consider looking at your last couple months of spending via bank statements or your tracking software. How much of those purchases fall under the categories you decided should be covered by allowance? (Or how much went above and beyond what was budgeted for those categories?) Are you comfortable with spending that much, or would you like to cut back a little?

Look at your first month or two of allowance as a trial. You can always tweak the amount—and what allowance needs to cover—as you go. Regroup after the first month or two and have a conversation about how it’s going, whether it’s helping, and if you both feel satisfied with the amount you first set.

What if your spouse won’t agree to it? If it’s a matter of the other person not wanting to restrict spending, you can always institute an allowance for yourself that you promise not to go over. One person budgeting and saving is better than no one doing it. If your spouse doesn’t want anyone to have an allowance, see if you can have an honest conversation about why. Is there fear or other feelings surrounding money? Have you overspent or broken trust in this area? This can be tough—feel it out, and remember, the health of your relationship is more important than you getting what you want.

Just remember, a grown-up allowance is something you should both agree to and should serve your marriage and overarching financial goals.

Do you have an allowance? How has it helped your marriage and/or finances?

21 Responses to “Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?”

  1. Brian says :

    We like to think of it as a discretionary fund. Its a category in our budget. Basically a set amount we both can safely spend without having to sync up with each other beforehand. It’s a great way to stay on the same page with your spouse.

  2. Revanche (A Gai Shan Life) says :

    We didn’t fight about each other’s spending but I did plenty of judging as the resident saver and realized that it wasn’t healthy so we took the allowance approach in our first few years of combined finances. It gradually stopped being necessary as we became more aligned in our thinking about conscious spending, budgeting, and our long term goals. It wasn’t a crutch, it was a handy tool to help us learn to work together!

    • Kalie says :

      Great point that that silent judgment is also a sign you need a change. That’s great that having an allowance was a step in becoming unified, and that eventually you got to the point where you didn’t need it anymore.

  3. Jeanne says :

    As a single person, I created an allowance for myself decades ago. It’s where I budget for books, music, and jewelry. These are all things I love, but don’t really need to ever buy more of. It gives me permission to spend, but not too much.

  4. Linda Sand says :

    When our daughter was young we established that everyone in the family did chores and everyone in the family received an allowance because we were all family. The allowance did not depend on doing the chores; it existed separately.

    Now that our daughter is grown and gone and we are old and retired, we know we have saved enough to last us the rest of our lives so we just spend when we feel like it. Me more than him but he doesn’t criticize.

    • Kalie says :

      We’ve gone back and forth on the kids allowance thing–whether to tie it to shores. We want them to learn money management, but also hard work.

      That’s great you’re well prepared for retirement and can spend as you like!

  5. Julie says :

    We have always done an allowance for everyone in the family. Everyone got ten cents a week per how old they were. So at age 53, I get $5.30 a week. The kids split theirs into five categories until they reached 18. After high school graduation, the kids didn’t get their allowance anymore but I still saved it in their spending envelope and use it to buy gifts for them for birthday and Christmas. My husband spends his allowance fairly quickly while I will save mine and use it to have lunch with friends or get something I really want. We don’t hassle each other about it.

    • Kalie says :

      Interesting approach! Do you need to adjust for inflation though? $5.30 doesn’t buy what it used to.

    • Julie says :

      No we’ve always been too poor to adjust for inflation but we are good savers and our wants are pretty cheap.

  6. Megan says :

    A spending allowance is great! We like to do spending allowance in cash only since that helps make it tangible and easier to follow. It really has helped us from arguing over small, somewhat unplanned expenses (ie: Taco Bell, wine with friends, coffee run, lunch with co-workers, etc).

    • Kalie says :

      Cash is a great idea. And having funds for impromptu outings does take the pressure off, both in the moment and when you might need to account for it later.

  7. Tonya says :

    I can only speak as a single person but I don’t really have an allowance. I blend my fun money with a category called “life expenses.” That’s awesome you married someone with the same financial mindset!

    • Kalie says :

      Planning for fun money one way or another is a good idea. And yes, I’m very fortunate to have married a fellow saver!

  8. Prudence Debtfree says :

    We began giving ourselves allowances just about the time we started trying to get our money in order. What is has done is put a cap on my “debt by a thousand lattes” tendencies, and it’s kept my husband’s save-save-save-BIG-purchase pattern in check. It has definitely released some of the tension that resulted from our different spending habits/faults. We’ve worked on a lot as a team, but this allowance system allows us to work on what we need to address as individuals too.

    • Kalie says :

      How cool that you both learned and grew from your separate allowances. Sometimes new structure can teach us a lot about ourselves!

  9. mary in maryland says :

    According to my psychologist spouse opposites don’t actually attract. It’s just that couples are never a perfect match, so one is always at least a little looser with money than the other. A case in point–my mother claimed that she married the only man in the state who could make her look like a spendthrift by comparison.

    • Kalie says :

      Haha, yes, I think Neil’s friends have joked about him being frugal and he says you should see my wife. It’s true that no two people are exactly alike. We are definitely not opposites in the financial arena!

  10. Chris Somerset says :

    Hi Kalie,

    This hits home. My first husband had no control and it pretty much sunk us financially but I take some of the blame too. I should have been tougher about it. Thank god my second husband is solid and we’re both on board in the money strategies in life.

    It’s impossible to really get a handle on things if your partner has no concept of budgeting or “an allowance”.

    Will Tweet this one 😉

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