5 Ways to Win Your Lover (to Being More Frugal)
I’ve shared many of my convictions from my missions trip to India already. But I’ve been withholding disclosure of my biggest takeaway. Because how do I tell you all that I spent $3500 and two weeks, traveled over 17,000 miles, and realized I needed more than anything to come home and say “I’m sorry” to my husband?
I saw beauty, culture, people, poverty, and God at work. I’m motivated to give money, raise awareness, pray, preach, and cook curry. I have a long to-do list that I’ve only started tackling. But the first item I had to cross off was a marital apology from the depths of my soul. And little did I know I’d be returning to over $7500 of savings at Neil’s hand.
One of the key elements to genuine, effective frugality is getting on the same team as your spouse or significant other. You may remember that those “pretending to be frugal” compete over money with their spouse, while the Pretend to Be Poor couple works together to optimize spending. We’ve had our fair share of fights about money, from whether we should pay off student loans before buying a house, to the aftermath of accepting free couches that happened to be harboring a few fleas, to whether Taco Bell is an acceptable date night destination. And there’s always the “What did you buy at Target that was $80?” conversation, which can be annoying when you’re shopping for thrilling splurges like diapers, toilet paper, and a new mop.
My financial regrets in marriage center not on extravagant shopping sprees or secret credit cards, but on heart attitudes that can be just as destructive as retail therapy or pricey penchants. At times I’ve been controlling, distrustful, disrespectful, and discouraging. These attitudes weren’t limited to money, and without getting into non-financial details, these are the wrongs I apologized for upon my return. I’ve also experienced real victory in these areas, and we’ve truly enjoyed becoming a unified, financial force over the years.
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of iterations of the age-old question: how to get your spouse to be better with money? The short answer: you can’t. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I married a saver. You can’t make other people change, but that doesn’t mean other people never make changes. I can tell you how Neil and I have influenced each other’s view of money and spending habits over time, and I hope you can glean some practical principles from our story.
Lesson 1: Get on the same team. I’ve heard so many spouses bicker about who gets to spend more. For the most part, we’ve resisted this pattern by agreeing to play on the same team. Rather than viewing resources as a tug-of-war competition, we recognize that we are on the same side of the rope and pulling toward common goals, such as deflating our lifestyle to increase our usefulness.
For example, we’ve agreed to talk to each other about non-routine spending over a certain dollar amount. It’s not so much about getting approval as opening the frugal spouse synergy. As teammates, we view the other spouse as a frugal problem-solver who might come up with a thriftier solution, such as a repair, substitution, or gift card & coupon combo. Our agreement also means I’m not going to nag Neil about occasionally spending $5 on fast food, and I’m not going to use that “unnecessary” cost as justification for splurging on myself. Finally, we also see our teammate as a safeguard and rich source of critical thought when making larger financial choices.
If you can’t get aligned on larger financial goals, you can control your own spending. Rather than competing over money, find ways you can minimize spending in your areas of influence. Instead of complaining that your family goes out to eat too much, start cooking irresistible homemade meals. Even if efforts like these don’t “make up for” your spouses’ spending, you are setting a good example, modeling the principles you’re preaching, and avoiding worsening the problem with revenge spending.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t give each other a hard time about expensive mistakes. I felt incredibly supported when Neil quietly DIYed the repairs from my recent fender bender. Likewise, I zipped my lip over his last speeding ticket. (We’re really not that bad of drivers, these examples just came to mind!)
Lesson 2: Release control. Sometimes one teammate has to call “my ball!” and the other spouse needs to yield. In our early days of marriage we agreed to keep living like we were in college—because we were. What we didn’t agree on was who would be the financial point person. In college we both lived with large groups of roommates. And we had both handled the “house finances” in our respective homes–evenly dividing costs like utilities among the housemates, and making sure the bills were paid. Neil wanted to oversee our post-nuptial finances, but I wanted to claim that mantle since I was the “more frugal one.” However, I sensed my underlying motive was to control every penny we spent and knew that would not end well. I reluctantly released the reins.
Instead of obsessing over each dollar as I would have, Neil did something much wiser—he read about personal finance. Giving up control over tiny details made room for learning about big-picture topics like investing, insurance, and purchasing a home. This set a healthy precedent of trust for future decisions.
For example, we disagreed about whether to pay off our student loans before saving a down payment for a house, but decided not to fight about. We accelerated our savings rate by renting our best friends’ basement. Because we were saving so much, we were able to buy a house with 20% down and finish paying off our student loans within a year of purchasing our home. Dave Ramsey’s books and podcasts got through to the resistant spouse with no nagging required. (Outside parties recommended these resources.) I’ve found plenty of peace by accepting that my spouse may come to conclusions through means other than me.
Lesson 3: Use what speaks to your spouse. The book that forever changed my mind about money was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I devoured it at age 18, before I converted Neil into a reader (or married him). When he finally read it over a decade later it didn’t have the same impact on him as it did for me. But books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Millionaire Next Door, in conjunction with personal finance blogs, really widened his thinking about wealth.
Maybe your spouse doesn’t enjoy reading. Then don’t try to get him to read about personal finance! Find a fun podcast to play during your next car trip. Take a class like Financial Peace University together. Watch a documentary about debt, affluence, or social inequity. See if she’ll chat with a financially-savvy friend or pick a frugal relative’s brain a la the Live Like Grandma Challenge.
Lesson 4: Support your spouse’s financial goals. Don’t know what makes your husband or wife tick? Ask about his or her dreams and goals and sew your lips shut while you listen. Then unstitch them just long enough to ask how you can help work toward those goals. Who wouldn’t like that?
Even if they’re not your pet projects, get behind any progress your SO makes toward goal-setting or pecuniary change. In our marriage, Neil’s trajectory of learning about personal finance led to increasingly wise decisions. After knocking out the student loans, we started paying our 30-year mortgage like a 15-year, then refinanced to a 15-year and started pre-paying that, too.
But when he first rolled out the early payoff plan I was skeptical. Would we really be able to pay it off that fast? If we set such a goal and something went horribly wrong, like a major illness or accident, would we view ourselves as failures? I also feared becoming greedy and overly focused on money. I wish I would’ve projected more confidence and excitement about his goal. Of course unforeseen events could delay any plan, but that’s not a reason to avoid goal-setting altogether.
Lesson 5: Dream together! The details will fall into place if you are sold on the same purpose. With the mortgage payoff plan in action, we started joking about all the lifestyle inflation we’d indulge in once we were mortgage-free. “No new furniture till we pay off the mortgage,” Neil said. (For the record, I didn’t want new furniture; I just wanted couches that weren’t flea-ridden or flaking pleather everywhere.) Cable TV, a nice bike, a(nother) Mexican vacation…we jested about postponed luxuries until Neil stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache while Googling a techie solution to Internet sharing, and discovered the concept of early retirement.
We wrestled through our philosophy on “financial independence” over the course of many months. It might sound corny, but dreaming together is the secret to turning marital finance talks from stressful to fun. We haven’t pinned down one specific goal because we want to stay open to God’s leading in our lives. That’s why we’re after financial flexibility rather than a “finish line” of early retirement. We disclosed our farm co-op/youth mentoring dream a few months ago. Whatever we do, we want it to fit with our life purposes, not just one goal, and those include simple living, volunteering, and generosity.
With these dreams in mind, I’m happy to endure the occasional Taco Bell date, while Neil gallantly withstands less-than-perfect haircuts at my cosmetically-challenged hand. Learning to be a financially wise and frugal team has only brought us closer. We’ve been forced to get creative and work together for home & car repairs, trash-picking, raising chickens, frugal hosting, investment and career decisions, and much more. We try to optimize each player’s strengths while shoring up the other’s blind spots, all in a spirit of grace. (Sorry for any butchered sports analogies; I was a gymnast.)
What’s your advice on how to become a frugal team? What challenges have you encountered?