An Allowance: Not Just For Kids!
My first experience with an allowance was back in elementary school, where every Friday I would get $2. Up to this point as a kid, I never got money or toys unless it was a birthday or a holiday, so when I was told I would be getting an allowance, I was psyched. I would dutifully go to Target or Walmart or wherever, and spend as much time as my parents could tolerate, perusing the toy aisle looking for what I could buy with that amount of money. I inevitably landed on Barbie wigs for $1.99 each. Yup, wigs for my Barbie dolls.
I never was much of a saver, so instead of saving up a month’s worth of allowances and hopefully purchasing a more exciting toy, the money burned a hole in my pocket until I could beg my mom to take me to the store to pore over the toy aisle and inevitably walk out of the store with yet another Barbie wig. I didn’t necessarily want the wigs—they were super hard to squeeze on my Barbie’s head—but that didn’t stop me. They were all I could afford, and I wanted a taste of the autonomy that came with spending my own money.
Fast forward to high school, when my mom started giving me both my lunch money and monthly allowance on the first of the month. This must have been an attempt to allow me to practice budgeting, but all this did was make me count out exact change for a slice of pizza per school day for that month, and then go straight to the mall to buy clothes with the rest of the lunch money (combined with my allowance). My mom caught on and stopped doing this since she wasn’t sure I was eating enough (I wasn’t) and went back to giving me my lunch money weekly. She was right in assuming I was less likely to save up my weekly lunch money over time to go clothes shopping—I still had not learned to delay gratification.
This behavior followed me into early adulthood. When I was younger, money was a scare resource and some years were leaner than others. As I got older, when I had money, I spent it. It’s as if I didn’t trust that I would ever get more, and really, future planning was scary anyway. It was short-term thinking only for me.
As I eased into my late 20s, I discussed with my mom the novel idea of me giving myself an allowance. I was so proud of myself for coming up with a way to budget for any “extra” spending. I learned that she had been giving herself an allowance for decades! This woman was a single mom for a lot of our lives, had 3 kids, and did a fantastic job of providing (without child support some years). Y’all, in the thick of it, I literally didn’t even know we were poor for several years of my life. She struggled and parented and raised us into adults, and I can’t express how much I admire her. I digress—the point is: the most fiscally prudent person I know has an allowance!
In my current life situation, a big part of taming my spending included giving myself this personal allowance. Very similar to when I was a child, I can use this money for coffee while out, a product off Amazon, lunch with friends, nonsense, whatever. I pay myself an amount biweekly to be used for anything or nothing. I can spend it right away, or save it, but I won’t get another infusion for 2 weeks, so I have to keep this in mind.
Initially, when I began giving myself an allowance, I admit it was a rather high amount. I wasn’t sure what the upcoming 2 weeks would hold, and I didn’t want to have to put myself in a position of saying no to myself, or not getting what I wanted. As I have mentioned in previous articles, spending money on what I wanted, when I wanted, was part of “being an adult” in my eyes and made me feel capable and successful. Like I was doing this life thing right.
As time went on, I was able to parse out things from my allowance that come up frequently enough to be their own line item on my budget. For example, I visit my nephew in a town about 3 hours away pretty frequently. He moved there 5 years ago to live with his dad, and I went from seeing him 4-5 times a week, to seeing him, at most, 1-2 times a month. Visiting him was a huge priority to me, but the travel, the spending on dining out and kiddo activities etc, needed to be budgeted for. After trying to eek out weekend trips like this on my biweekly allowance, I finally gave up. I reduced my allowance, and made those monthly trips for the weekend their own budgeted item.
While I became more familiar with spending only what my allotted allowance would cover, I incorporated the habit of checking out the 2 weeks ahead on “Pay Day” (aka Allowance Day). I usually glance over my calendar for the next two weeks, see if there is a friend’s birthday coming up, or a lunch date, to make sure I reserve from my allowance whatever amount I think is necessary for that special event. With this strategy, I am able to not blow it all on the first day, as I did when I was a child, because I know that something more exciting and worthwhile will require the very same spending money in the future.
My allowance today, compared to a few years ago when I first started this exercise, is quite small. I have built a life around not spending money on things that I do not value, so I have no desire to buy lunch every time I meet a friend, or pick up a new make-up product. Having to make value-based decisions on how I will spend my limited allowance has made me more aware of what things I actually value. Without meaning to, I began spending less and less of the amount I was giving myself for an allowance, and was able to build my cushion, or savings, quicker. At one point, I actually ended up reducing my allowance, then realized that I reduced too much. So I bumped it back up (I am not trying to deprive myself after all), and have been using the same allowance amount to fund my “fun times” for the past couple of years. My set amount and your set amount may be different, and this does not matter. The important thing is, we have a set amount.
Throughout this process, I have been able to build up the skill of delaying gratification to where I don’t rely on my allowance for every little thing I want; I instead budget for it. If I know I want to get a massage next month, I will make sure I can put it as a line item. If Christmas is coming up, I begin setting aside money for it months in advance. If I want an expensive face cream (this is one of the few items I am unwilling to cut from my personal care spending), I track how long it takes for me to use it all up, and budget accordingly (in this case, its every 3 months).
Surprisingly, putting a “restriction” on myself, like a personal allowance, has made me feel more free, than when I was spending as I used to. There is a contentedness and a satisfaction from spending my hard-earned money only on things that I value and enjoy. A personal allowance can be budgeted, just like anything else, and will keep your budget unharmed as you work toward Financial Security.