September 27, 2022

What are discretionary expenses and why should businesses pay attention to them?


Modern companies have several types of expenses, some essential and some not. You might have heard of the term discretionary expenses in a business context. 

This guide will help you understand what these expenses are, along with the following:

What are discretionary expenses?

Discretionary expenses are costs that are not central to your business’ survival. They are also called non-essential expenses or non-essential spending. However, do not confuse non-essential for unnecessary or unimportant.

For example, marketing expenses are not as essential to your business' success as operating expenses like rent and utility payments. However, marketing expenses boost revenues and are important. Similarly, you could spend money on research and development or choose to avoid spending in that area.

However, if you neglect to pay rent or interest to your bank, you will jeopardize your company's standing very quickly.

Why should you monitor discretionary spending?

You should monitor discretionary spending because these expenses are largely under your control. If you monitor discretionary expenses, you can reduce costs associated with your business and boost net margins. This is why discretionary spending analysis is critical to successful small business expense management.

For example, if you want to boost net margins by five percent over the following year, you can reduce discretionary spending to achieve that goal. Reducing non-discretionary expenses (also called necessary expenses) such as bank interest or utility bill payments is far more challenging.

This is why you must track business expenses and discretionary spending. For instance, you can reduce your marketing budget by allocating less money for ad spending. While your marketing department will not be as prolific as in the past, your business will likely cope with these cost reductions.

Discretionary expenses are subjective

You can figure out which expenses are discretionary and non-discretionary by examining them literally. For instance, the amount of money you devote to research and development is at your discretion. The amount of bank interest you pay is not. In this case, the former is a discretionary expense while the latter is non-discretionary.

Some non-discretionary expenses at one company might be discretionary for another. For example, let’s consider two companies: Company A, a supermarket, and Company B, a remote-first SaaS company.

Company A's rent payments are essential to their survival. Without retail space, A will struggle to sell groceries. However, rent payments are probably non-discretionary for Company B. Its teams work remotely, and the amount of money B devotes to office space is at its discretion.

The lesson here is: Examine how critical an expense is to your company's survival and classify it accordingly. Labels from other companies might not suit yours since your business' economics are unique.

Examples of discretionary business expenses

While every company's discretionary expenses are unique, some expense categories tend to fall under the discretionary umbrella more often than not. Here are some examples of discretionary spending with an explanation of why they're so.


Marketing expenses are important for companies of all sizes. However, the amount of money you devote to marketing is at your discretion. For example, you might decide to spend money on paid ads and inbound marketing. Or, you could decide to execute just inbound marketing strategies.

What's more, your strategies might change from one quarter to the next. A growing small business might decide to invest more into paid advertising, given the success of its existing marketing campaigns, for instance.

Here are some types of discretionary items within marketing:

  • Advertising
  • Content production
  • Public relations
  • Brand design
  • Website design


A successful business might profit immensely by making the right investments. For example, your company might decide to buy a vendor that supplies essential raw materials. This investment will reduce procurement risk in your supply chain.

Like marketing, investments are important but discretionary. Here are some examples of other discretionary expenditures that fall under the investments umbrella:

  • Buyouts
  • Mergers
  • Real estate
  • Research and development

SaaS subscriptions

Every small business uses tools to smooth its workflows. Accounting, invoicing, expense management, and productivity tools are a few examples. While you must invest in these tools to boost your ROI, the amount of money you spend on them is at your discretion.

For example, you could communicate with your team members via pre-recorded videos or an instant messaging tool. These options' costs vary, and you must choose the one that best fits your needs. As a result, the money you spend is in your control.

Some tools might seem indispensable. However, you can still opt for cheaper plans or alternatives, reducing your expenditure. This is why SaaS subscriptions are discretionary.

Employee perks

Perks are essential to attracting top talent to your company making them the most essential cost on this list. However, you control the amount of money you spend offering perks.

Here are some examples of employee perks:

  • Transport
  • Pantry and food
  • On-site entertainment
  • Gym memberships and fitness passes
  • Parties
  • Team building exercises

As with SaaS subscriptions, many of these perks are essential to retaining top talent. However, you can control how much you spend on perks, depending on your priorities.

Travel expenses

If your company employs sales teams, then managed travel expenses are a significant expense for your business. Some products need in-person demos to answer prospect concerns. However, while travel expenses are important, you can regulate them with expense policies that define which items you will cover.

For example, you might choose to cover accommodation costs but not food expenses. Some companies, especially large ones, offer generous T&E expense allowances. These allowances might not suit small businesses, offering an example of why travel expenses are discretionary.

Workspace enhancements

Workplace enhancements have taken a backseat in today's remote-first or hybrid working era. In the past, companies spent significant resources turning their offices into attractive places to work. For instance, companies like Apple and Meta spent significant resources to turn their offices into architectural beacons.

These days, workplace enhancements have changed. With many people working remotely, companies offer perks such as equipment allowances, home office upgrade allowances, and upskilling opportunities.

While these allowances are essential in attracting top talent, they are under your control. You can moderate your spending depending on the type of talent you wish to attract, making these expenses fully discretionary.

5 ways to avoid discretionary expense bloat

Discretionary spending is under your control. However, if you fail to monitor it, you might find expenses increasing too quickly, leaving you with unsustainable margins.

Here are five ways to avoid such a situation and reduce discretionary spending getting out of control.

1. Measure expense ROI

Allocating funds to expenses that do not offer you enough ROI is an easy mistake to make. This mistake happens due to a lack of recurring expense tracking and feedback. For example, you might purchase a SaaS tool to boost productivity, but your employees might prefer another method.

The result is wasted expense that compounds if you are not alert to employee feedback. Take the time to record and track all your expenses. Categorize the business impact every spending decision has, and you'll manage to measure ROI.

Note that some expenses will not offer a quantitative return. For instance, you might struggle to measure the impact of a new HR system subscription. However, this expense might be justifiable if this system reduces employee onboarding time and payroll execution.

2. Categorize and track trends

Tracking trends in discretionary expenses is critical to squeezing the most out of your spending. Expense report trend tracking gives you the following benefits:

  • Reveals your company's changing needs via the money you're spending.
  • Gives insights into efficiency. You might be spending too much on manual processes and can reduce expenses with a tool.
  • Helps you anticipate upcoming costs based on historical patterns.
  • Exposes any seasonal spending patterns in your business.

Breaking your spending into business-relevant categories helps you quickly isolate problem areas. You can dig deeper into specific processes and create greater efficiency. The result is optimized spending and a better understanding of your discretionary spending limits.

3. Establish a cash margin of safety

Your business will experience periods of unexpected turbulence. In times like these, you’ll have to examine your discretionary spending and reduce expenses. Some companies reduce spending drastically, reducing employee morale, and potentially damaging vendor relationships.

A cash margin of safety or reserve will help you scale into your cost-cutting efforts gradually. You can spend more time analyzing your discretionary expense trends and create ideal spending levels without disrupting current workflows.

Most companies believe a six-month cash buffer works best. However, every business is different so take the time to decide what works for you.

4. Set up an expense review process

Take the time every quarter to review your current discretionary spending with your finance team and stakeholders. For instance, if you discover that sales travel spending has increased dramatically, involve your head of sales to understand the issue.

A good review process helps you remain on top of your company's needs. You might discover that some expenses have become non-discretionary. For example, sales travel spending might be non-discretionary currently because of the changes you made in your product lines or client roster.

Create review processes at logical business intervals, and you'll elevate your financial performance.

5. Define and enforce expense policies

You can best control discretionary expenses by defining expense policies. Some organizations struggle with enforcing their expense policies due to disjointed or slow approval processes. These days, you can automate expense approval and free your employees' time for value-added tasks such as expense trend analysis.

A good expense policy will define category spending limits or spending limits per department. These limits help you model worst-case expense scenarios and calculate margins. Make sure you involve department stakeholders before prescribing expense limits.

How Ramp helps you manage discretionary spending

Ramp's automated expense management and corporate cards platform help you monitor discretionary spending and create a robust financial planning and analysis program. Here is how.

Digitized expense policies

Forget manual expense approvals that confuse your employees and cost time. Ramp helps you digitize your expense policy, giving your employees full visibility into approved expenses. You can create rule-based expense workflows such as category or team-based spending limits.

Ramp also helps you set up dynamic and conditional expense logic that adapts to your business' unique needs. Collect receipts, match them, and set approval thresholds to simplify expense management in minutes.

You can issue vendor-specific virtual credit cards and offer employees the ability to request exceptional expenses. Control card spend limits in real-time and always be on top of your discretionary spending. 

You can also view business trip details in one place, including hotel bookings, flight tickets, and itineraries. Your employees can file out-of-policy requests and upload receipts seamlessly.

Analytics to track expense trends

Ramp centralizes all of your company's spending in one place, helping you access expense tracking insights in real time. The platform's AI-powered engine highlights troublesome areas such as duplicate SaaS spending and unused partner rewards.

The result is greater ROI from your expenses. Ramp's powerful reporting platform helps you isolate spending based on every data point imaginable. Forecast your operating budget or drill deeper into your monthly expenses to reveal potential efficiency gains. 

Drill deeper into expense trends per department or category and analyze them in real time. You can also export data from Ramp to your favorite analytics tool to simplify your analysis workflows.

Discover savings

Ramp saves you money in several ways. Aside from highlighting unused partner rewards, Ramp's virtual and physical cards offer you 1.5 percent unlimited cashback on all spending. 

Best of all, Ramp's deep database of SaaS expense data helps you benchmark your costs against your peers, helping you figure out price ranges. 

Discretionary expenses can run out of control with improper monitoring. With tools like Ramp, monitoring discretionary spending is simple. No matter what market conditions look like, you will stay on top of your spending, helping you create an efficient and resilient working capital structure.

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What are discretionary spending items?

Discretionary spending items are related to spending that is not central to your business’ survival. For instance, marketing ad spending is a discretionary spending item.

What is the difference between discretionary and non-discretionary costs?

Discretionary costs are expenses that you can control and moderate. Non-discretionary costs are set by external parties. While you can negotiate these costs, you do not have full control over them.

How do you calculate discretionary expenses?

You can calculate discretionary expenses with the following steps:

  • List all of your expenses
  • Isolate non-discretionary expenses—these are expenses you cannot fully control
  • Sum the remainder of your expenses—this number represents your discretionary expenses.

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