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.

Doesn’t this photo just scream “frugal team”?!

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.

Here we are, a little more cleaned up.

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?

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31 Responses to “5 Ways to Win Your Lover (to Being More Frugal)”

  1. DC YAM says :

    Awesome post. My wife and I have had our fair share of money arguments and, honestly, some stressful times trying to make our budget work with our relatively large student loan payments. It’s made us much stronger as a couple and I can look back on those times as growth times that made us closer and more aligned from a goals standpoint.

  2. Hannah says :

    These are such helpful tips! I especially love lesson four. It’s not always easy to support my husband who has a very costly (opportunity cost) dream of finishing grad school while my dream is deferred, but I’ve found that sharing a life means getting behind each other’s dreams 100%, even if you can’t do everything at once.

  3. Gregg Sadler says :

    Very wise. Inspiring

  4. Cat says :

    Hubs and I tend to be on the same page most of the time. I am a little more frugal than he is, but a gentle reminder of our future goals, like travel, buying a house, etc. and he’s usually back on board.

  5. Abigail says :

    Tim and I had a LOT of arguments about money. Finally, I realized I had to compromise a little more. But I also had to find a better way to communicate our goal. In that case, it was debt repayment. Now it’s his teeth. At some point, it’ll be paying off the house, then getting a rental property, etc.

    So I try to keep him more apprised and aware of our progress. I remind him that this is our goal, not just mine. And I give him some fun money so that he can buy himself some things without an argument from me about whether we can afford it.

  6. Amy says :

    For the most part, my husband and I are on the same page about our money and goals. However, I’m a lot more detail-oriented, and would like to have formal, weekly, sit-down meetings, with lots of spreadsheets and graphs. He does not agree. I think doing so would get us even more on the same the page, and would enable us to achieve our goals more quickly.

    • Kalie says :

      Neil is the spreadsheet & graph lover in our marriage (I like seeing the info but not logging it). He updates our spreadsheet and I just periodically look it over, ask questions, and suggest changes. We’ve found this more manageable for our schedule than regular meetings. But what works for each couple is different.

  7. Will says :

    I’m cool with everything you said except the about the Taco Bell date. Too far… too far. 🙂

  8. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    These are all really great tips! “How to get your spouse to be better with money? The short answer: you can’t.” So true, but as you said – *they* can change.

    I really resonate with Lesson #5. It sounds corny to “dream together”, but when you share what you envision your life to be – and your spouse wants (mostly) the same things – it makes the unfun times fun. It gives you joy. And joy isnt just about smiling all the time. It requires work, sometimes pain, being uncomfortable, etc. But you have purpose. And you can do anything when you’ve attached a purpose to it.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes–having a larger purpose in life can bring so much joy, even in the hard times. And that is even more motivating than having a goal.

  9. Cheryl says :

    My guy has always been one to save money, spend wisely rather than splurge. I was forced to live frugally because I did not make very much money. We are getting married next year and I am glad he is as wise saving money as he is. We did have an argument becaue I wanted to spend more on the wedding than he did. I was taken aback at first when he asked me how much money I had saved for the wedding which was ZERO, I had borrowed money from him to get my car fixed and still owed him hundreds. That is when he mentioned that being he was paying 100% of the wedding costs, he was not giving me free reign to just spend what I wanted. I went home and cried, prayed on it, and realized I was was being selfish and I apologized and asked his forgiveness. He is starting a new job that will pay very well and has a retirement from his previous job, but I want a bigger house with some land and I need to be patient. He told me he would when the income will support it. I dont know why so many posts include guys getting the bad haircuts while the ladies go to the salon as reward for the money saved at their guy’s expense. My guy cuts my hair every other month and does a better job than the salon as he has done many at home and there is no reason the wife cannot take a seat and ask for a trim to do her fair share and skip the hair color if the budget is tight. I think that is what tean work is about.

    • Kalie says :

      Great story of changing your mind & apologizing. It’s so good to work out some of your different assumptions before tying the knot!

      Haha on the haircuts–I haven’t been to a salon in a decade & have never colored my hair. A friend cuts my hair for $20 once or twice a year. You’re absolutely right that ladies can cut back in this area, too.

  10. Kalen Bruce says :

    I think a very important takeaway here is that you can do your best to practice frugality, even before your lover is on board. It’s important to make it as easy as possible if your spouse doesn’t want to get involved. Setting an actual cash budget for each of you to spend is not a bad idea, if you can get them to agree to it.

    • Kalie says :

      Absolutely–why not make it as easy as possible for them to get on board? I know cash allowances work for a lot of couples.

  11. Diana says :

    So I tend to be the more financially clueless one in the marriage. I am really fortunate to have a husband who understands how to set longer term goals and vision for our family. Sitting down to talk about these every once in a while helps me remember why I try to be more careful about spending. I am not naturally internally motivated to be self disciplined in thos area, but being reminded of the greater goals we have really does help.

    Also, I am also a huge supporter of fun money! 🙂 

    • Kalie says :

      Getting the bigger picture definitely goes a long way. And fun money helps with staying on track instead of getting burnt out and feeling deprived.

      Neil just told me he feels loved when I look at the personal finance spreadsheet he made. I feel loved that he made this epic spreadsheet!

  12. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Oh my gosh. What a great post! You are right in saying, about how to change your spouse’s attitude towards money management: “You can’t.” But as the spouse who changed, I can also confirm your wisdom in allowing other sources to “change the spouse.” Ramsey’s CD book did it for me too : )
    The one area that can be a heart-breaker is #1 – Get on the same team. I know of some couples where one spouse just won’t budge. There’s a silly or stubborn or disrespectful or even bullying disregard for the basics of financial wisdom – and the other spouse feels powerless. In those situations, divorce can seem like the only “solution”. I don’t know how to offer hope to those people.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, Prudence. It’s great to hear your story of reformation!

      I agree that it isn’t even in our power to get on the same team if one of the spouses is unwilling. That’s truly a sad situation, whether it’s about finances or anything else.

  13. Kim Ely says :

    Wonderful post – sorry I’m a bit tardy to the table…love your humble approach and teamwork focus with your husband. I even love the simple concept behind the name – pretend to be poor…so wise! That’s honestly my biggest personal challenge…because we have a big family that we love to visit, treat and spend our money on (just wait – grandchildren are so cute, you just wanna buy them stuff) Anyway, your post has caused me to do some serious thinking – I want to be a better teammate with my husband, and it’s time we do some pretending ourselves! Thanks!

    • Kalie says :

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post and our message. What you say about grandkids must be true–my frugal rockstar mother can’t seem to resist buying my kids stuff, either!

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