What’s one value that should absolutely make its way into your values-based spending plan? Your marriage (if you’re married, of course)! Let’s face it: the health of your marriage is very important, but it’s also easy to ignore.
People may avoid spending on these areas because they perceive that it will be very expensive. As with anything, you could use the label “value” to justify lots of ridiculous spending. No one needs to spend hundreds of dollars a month in order to prioritize marriage.
It’s true you can’t buy love, but don’t cheap out on your marriage. That’s like telling your spouse, “Honey, I love money more than I love you.”
Here are 5 ways we spend on our marriage, and three price-points that should satisfy anyone
1. An annual getaway.
Before having kids, we jaunted around the world when we wanted to and could hang out alone at home. Now we’re in full-time parenting mode and quality time has to be planned ahead–and away. So we escape alone together for a night or two once a year. If you can pull it off twice a year, even better!
We are very grateful to my mom for babysitting for the weekend of our 11th anniversary this year. Getting an overnight sitter isn’t the easiest task for some, but it’s worth the effort if at all possible. More on that below.
The $$$$ way: Dinner at the city’s fanciest steakhouse, tickets to the best show in town, and drinks at a posh bar afterward. Pay full-price for nice hotel. (Seriously, this is not a terrible way to spend your money once a year.)
The $$ way: Book free hotel with rewards points. Our weekend away included free entertainment like the beautiful city library and art museum (I’m a hopeless nerd). We spent on our favorite ethnic foods and incidentals like parking. We packed snacks and drinks for the hotel.
The broke way: Drop them off at sitters, head home, promise not to clean or fix anything, explore free entertainment in your town, prepare meals together, or inexpensive local dining.
2. Monthly dates.
Getting outside your home and spending time together really makes a difference when you’re in the thick of parenting or just the busyness of life. It’s easy to be tempted to clean up, work on projects, or veg out in front of the TV. Netflix and take-out is a great way to relax, but in my experience, not always the best way to connect. Especially when dinner conversation consists of talking about Star Wars with a five-year-old. Again.
The $$$$ way: Fancy dinner and a movie (or other pricey entertainment) every time.
The $$ way: Moderate dinner, split an entrée, go to relatively inexpensive place like Chipotle or whatever you like. Neil maintains that our best dates have been at Taco Bell. We also like hiking, biking, or visiting parks or thrift stores. Sharing a common hobby or experience together is a great relationship- builder. Dating is about connection, not consumption.
The broke way: Get takeout during lunch specials, and reheat after kids the kids are in bed. Turn off the TV, hide your phones, light a candle, pour a glass of box wine, and try to stay awake. Or go out for ice cream, coffee, or a walk.
#1 and #2 may require another expense: babysitters. We realize not everyone is as fortunate as we are in this department. But there are plenty of options for finding a sitter, and worth the effort to find one. A good babysitter is an invaluable asset for your family.
If you don’t know anyone who can watch your kids, I’d suggest trying to forge a relationship with someone who can. Think neighbors, friends, local high school or college students, people from church, or resources like Care.com. And if the cost is a concern, I’d recommend looking for other areas to cut back in to allow for some childcare spending.
The $$ way: We hire a sitter for our weekly home church, and events or dates when our parents or friends aren’t available.
The broke way: We also swap babysitting with other families, and ask friends and family members.
I’m not a made-up kind of girl, but I do occasionally purchase new clothing or makeup to look nice for my husband. This is an area where you need to “know thyself.” If you live in yoga pants and haven’t showered in three days (moms represent!), maybe you could allocate $20 for sprucing up for your next outing. If you have a history of over-spending in this area, mix it up with what you already have.
In short, I try not to look like complete hell all the time, just to save money.
The $$$$ way: Buy a new outfit for every event. (NEVER!)
The $$ way: Occasional thrift store or clearance chic for a special occasion, or update “date night shirt”.
The broke way: Borrow clothes from a same-size friend or family member. Or ask a talented friend to do your make-up or hair for your next date.
Some people don’t exchange gifts with their spouse because they are frugal. We choose to buy gifts for one another, because we are frugal. We often delay purchases and ask for the item as a gift. Or surprise each other with something we noticed the other could use. After 14 years together, we are way past any danger of trying to buy each other’s love. But gifts can be a thoughtful way to express love, and some people feel particularly loved this way. If your spouse is one of them, please give them gifts!
The $$$$ way: Pricey gifts for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Anniversary, MLK Day (j/k).
The $$ way: Modest gifts for Christmas & birthdays.
The broke way: Skip the gifts to save money. Craft them something, make a special dinner, or write a heartfelt card.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Neil went all out for me this Christmas. I’m typing this on a new laptop! In addition to its killer specs, it has amazing features such as being able to close the screen, having all the keys connected to the keyboard, and not crashing if you don’t put it in sleep mode. Thanks Neil!
How do you spend on your significant other? Where do you tend to fall on the broke-to-$$$$ spectrum?
I met my husband the second day of college, two weeks after my 17th birthday. Fast forward three years and it was obvious we were heading toward marriage.
When he suggested tying the knot before commencement, I was surprised and a bit resistant. That’s simply not the typical order of operations. But I warmed up to the idea and happily married when I had one semester left, and he had three.
We had very little money and even less income during the early months of our marriage, yet our youthful union turned out to have unexpected financial benefits.
Phase 1: Both in school
During our first few months, I was student teaching and not earning income. Neil worked about eight hours per week at his internship, for a monthly net income of around $1000. We were also paying for private health insurance until one of us got a job with benefits. We lived off of his income, with a bit of help from our pooled premarital savings and wedding money.
Phase 2: Kalie graduates
During the first summer, Neil interned full time, I worked as a nanny, and we were both relieved that I landed a teaching job for fall. The back-up plan was for me to work as a substitute teacher. At the beginning of his senior year, Neil accepted a full-time position with his company upon graduation.
During the following year, Neil worked fewer hours per week than he’d ever worked during college. His grades had always been solid, but they improved since he was finally able to focus more on his coursework. Though he already had a job, finishing a rigorous five-year program with a GPA hike was encouraging.
It’s no secret that first-year teachers don’t make much. We had a lot more money than the year before, but decided to live like college students as much as possible, for as long as possible. Getting married while still in school set our standards of living fairly low. Sharing a quiet one-bedroom apartment felt luxurious compared to the many roommates we’d rented with previously. Our rent was less than the combined amount we’d been paying for rundown houses in a pricey college town. I even convinced Neil to pack a lunch instead of buying Taco Bell near campus.
For many couples, marriage marks the beginning of being a “real adult,” so to speak. That’s when it’s time to buy that first home where you’ll start your life together. Then you remodel and decorate the home to make the space yours. Perhaps you purchase a new car or two.
We didn’t have any money for these “adult” steps, so we embraced the simple lifestyle that worked just fine throughout college. We bought used furniture, accepted hand-me-downs, and shopped at the same discount grocery store we knew and loved from our student days. For entertainment we walked our new city, and invited friends over.
Phase 3: Neil graduates
Once Neil graduated, our income increased, but our lifestyle increased only slightly. We splurged on a trip to Europe we saved for that first year. We took road trips, went out with friends, and I got a membership to the gym within walking distance. While lifestyle creep is all but inevitable,measuring your spending against your college-day budget can provide welcome perspective on wants vs. needs.
Simple living. If we had waited longer to marry, I imagine we would have spent more on our wedding rather than keeping it simple. We also would have set up our home differently, probably opting for a larger apartment or buying a home much sooner than we did. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been willing to live in our friends’ basement. Spending wasn’t really an option, so we kept a simple lifestyle and largely stuck with it, even after our income increased. From the beginning we made a habit of giving money to our church, missions work, and poverty relief. Establishing this from day one has helped us practice generosity consistently.
Working as a team. Getting married so young made it easy to combine not just our finances, but our dreams. Travel, giving, and volunteer ministry were values we shared. We also began operating as a financial team. Neil was better at seeking financial education by reading about personal finance. I was better at budgeting and keeping our living expenses low. We each taught the other our fortes, rather than attacking each other about our weak areas.
We grew up financially together. Neil’s interest in personal finance certainly paid off. We learned about topics like investing, insurance, and mortgages together. Every choice we made was researched and discussed until we could agree on a course of action. Though we’ve certainly had differences of opinion, our basic financial philosophy was formed in a process we were both very much a part of. This blog is one outcome of this financial formation.
Transition to parenthood. Our early days taught us to live on one income, which prepared us for allowing me to stay at home with our young children. We agreed this was our plan before we got married, and six years later we had a seamless transition. I’d already left my full-time job for freelance writing, which I continued part-time until our second child was born. We also put the student loans behind us and purchased a home we could afford on one income.
The timing of our wedding was unconventional, but I’ve never regretted it. What’s best for each couple is different. Just don’t assume you have to follow the “normal” timeline of life events. I wouldn’t recommend marrying before you can support yourselves, but that may be easier than you think if you avoid drastic lifestyle changes.
Have you ever deviated from the norm when it comes to life events? What would you say to someone who wants to get married while in college?
Everyone knows the marriage is more important than the wedding, yet the average American wedding runs $30,000. Our realtor wisely advised us “don’t marry your house,” i.e., don’t get in over your head financially. The same advice applies to engaged couples—your wedding is one of the most special days of your life, but there’s nothing special about starting your marriage weighed down by wedding debt.
A wedding is many things–a public commitment, a legal or spiritual event, a family celebration, an epic party, and more. But one thing my wedding was NOT was a showcase of my personal sense of style, creativity, uniqueness, or Pinterest-prowess. It certainly included personal touches, but I felt no need to channel every ounce of my personality into each minute detail. If anything, it was my low maintenance approach, not the centerpieces, that may have spoken volumes about me.
I was very fortunate that my parents offered to pay for my wedding. I am so grateful for their financial support, but I never viewed their generosity as a license to spend. My mother, to whom I owe my frugal genes and know-how, helped me plan a catered celebration for 180 guests for $7,000.
The first day of my engagement, one of roommates (who was NOT engaged) proffered her secret stash of wedding magazines to me. Defying stereotypes, I’d never spent any time dreaming about my future wedding. In fact, I said I’d never get married and instead dreamed of running an orphanage in a poverty-stricken country. How’s that for a fantasy? (Now with two children of my own, I realize how delusional I was.)
Rather than lusting over the magazine’s lavish celebratory scenes, I flipped to the bridal checklist since my main concern was how in the world I, freshly 20 years old, was supposed to organize a grand social affair for all the people we and our families knew. All while being in school full time, working part time, and writing a senior thesis.
Oh, and did I mention we were only engaged four months? At least the short engagement didn’t leave me much time to over-spend.
What I Skipped
The first thing I did with the bridal magazine checklist, whose timeline was two years, not four months, was start crossing off stuff that was obviously superfluous. I can’t remember all the ridiculous expenses I was supposed to accept as normal now that Neil had put a ring on it. But here are some common wedding costs that I felt free to bypass altogether:
- Save the date cards—I didn’t have time! But most weddings I’ve attended didn’t issue these.
- Engagement photos—also no time! Someone snapped a decent shot of us at my shower, which was sufficient for us.
- Fancy invites—I bought some at Staples and a friend printed the invites from their home printer.
- Bridesmaid’s dresses—don’t worry, my bridesmaids did wear dresses, but they weren’t from a pricey bridal store. Instead we found nice, reasonably priced dresses at a department store. The bonus—the bridesmaids rocked them at other events, such as a Homecoming dance and a different wedding, because they were actually normal, wearable dresses in normal, wearable colors and fabric! And they didn’t need expensive alternations, in part because they weren’t floor-length.
- Alternatively, several recent weddings I’ve attended have asked bridesmaids to select any dress of a particular color. Not any style of the over-priced bridal store’s dresses, but any dress from any store in black, red, dark green, or whatever. This Choose Your Own Adventure bridesmaid dress surprisingly looks just fine.
- Or you could skip bridesmaids altogether. I like the idea of having people “stand up” for you, but my sisters skipped this for their weddings, and I must confess I was honored not to have to buy an overpriced, ugly dress and stand in horrible heels for an hour while trying not to bawl away all my eye make-up in front of hundreds of guests. That said, I will always be honored to serve as a bridesmaid, as well (if anyone ever asks me after that rant).
- Wedding colors—speaking of wedding colors, I just didn’t have them. Or, I didn’t choose them ahead of time. Rather than limiting our bridesmaid’s dress search to a particular color, I went with an open mind and considered any seasonally appropriate hue. We tied the bridesmaid dress color in with the wedding programs (which are unnecessary, but were a beautiful handmade gift), and that was about the extent of my chromatic commitment.
- Decorations—one trait we loved about the place we rented was that it was already decorated in a neutral way. The last thing I needed to worry about was fashioning mason jars into centerpieces. Thank God I got married before Pinterest, but I don’t think it would’ve held much allure for me.
- Theme—the theme of my wedding was…wedding! As in, I’m getting married! Going with a cabin or rustic theme for our January wedding sounded cozy, but ultimately we didn’t see the value in attaching a special motif to our very obvious agenda.
- Flower girl—we weren’t close to any girls of the appropriate age, and wanted to keep things simple, too.
- Ring bearer—I honestly have no idea whether we had one. I can’t remember! Maybe our nephew? Just goes to show how relatively unimportant some of these things are—or maybe it shows what a bad aunt I am.
- Cocktails—we had beer and wine available, but were certainly not concocting custom cocktails to show how hip we are. (We aren’t.)
- Favors—to be honest, I can’t remember many wedding favors I’ve received. Usually they are a small consumable item that might be gone before the night is over, and either represent a lot of time or money spent to make them. Since I was short on both these resources, I opted to skip it, and I don’t think anyone had a worse time for it. Do yourself a favor and save the money for the honeymoon!
- Rice-throwing—we figured people would prefer not to stand outside, freezing in the snow, to throw something stuff at us.
- Limo—Neil’s sister graciously lent us her SUV so we could head off to our Smoky Mountain honeymoon cabin safely. The groomsmen touchingly decorated it with sayings such as, “This will be a tight marriage” and, “A little marriage action,” reflecting the already-outdated slang of our high school days.
What I Did Frugally:
- Hair, nails, and make-up—my (cosmetology student) roommate did this for free.
- Videography–my video was done by a blind guy. I’m not kidding. A videographer friend of the family who was losing his vision offered to help out with this, and since videography hadn’t even crossed our minds, my parents said yes. I saw the video by chance at an out-of-state relative’s house some time later, and never again since. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you watch on movie nights.
- Photography—hired my (photography student) roommate. This is the one thrifty move I regret, though not badly. Pro photographers have the equipment to make your photos look way better than an amateur’s. It’s not really a matter of talent, but technology. My friend did a nice job and we certainly got what we paid for, but if I could go back I’d spend more on the pictures.
- Music—hired a friend to DJ, borrowed a family member’s equipment. The ceremony music came from a CD I checked out of the library.
- Flowers—hired a friend. If I had to go back, I might even do artificial for the bridesmaids (sorry, sisters!).
- Minister—Neil bartered fix-it service for the minister’s time.
- The hall—did I mention I didn’t even see the hall before we booked it? That’s right. My mom scoped out a very reasonable venue in my hometown after the places we saw near me were deemed too expensive or too small.
- Tiara—my veil was not cheap, but I picked up a cheap tiara at a craft store.
- Shoes—I couldn’t find anything I liked–everything was pointed-toe that year, and I’m not trendy or a witch–so I picked some boring ones at a department store. This was much cheaper than the $80 ballet flats at the wedding dress store.
- Thank you cards—value box from Target.
- The cake—we had one small round cake for us to cut & smash into each other’s nostrils, plus sheet cakes to serve guests. I actually have no idea how much the cake cost; my mom sent me to the bakery of an acquaintance a week before the wedding and I pointed at a generic wedding cake design and went on with my life.
- Bachelorette party—my maid of honor threw an awesome bachelorette party in my college rental home, pot-luck style. I’ve never been the clubbing type and wasn’t yet of legal drinking age, anyway!
What Was Pricey:
- My dress was outrageous at $750. I tried shopping for a white or cream dress at regular retail stores but those colors were not “in” that season. I probably should’ve looked online but it never occurred to me. My mom and maid of honor talked me out of a less expensive, plain dress that looked like something Laura Ingalls might’ve gotten married in, minus sleeves. I’m forever grateful for their guidance.
- The food & drink was inexpensive per person but multiplied by 180 it was a substantial portion of the total cost. Honing the guest list was my absolute least favorite part of wedding planning. We made some cuts but I’m glad we were able to include many of the family and friends we wanted to.
- Neil’s purview was the ring and honeymoon, and I must say he did not cheap out on these. Nor did he go ridiculously high-end in some misguided quest to prove his love for me. And he certainly didn’t go into debt—despite being in school, too, he secretly saved up while waiting to pop the question. It pays to marry a saver.
- Get pre-marital counseling.
- Read books about marriage.
- Maintain other friendships. Marrying your best friend is good advice as long as you keep up with your other friends.
- Talk about your finances before and after the big day. We recommend joint checking, creating a budget together, and delegating who will handle routine bill-paying, shopping, and banking. We don’t budget on a monthly basis anymore, but as newlyweds it’s a good idea to help you get on the same page. And remember to keep dreaming together about your goals!
- Date your spouse.
What wedding savings tips do you have? What was worth the cost to you, and what would you have done differently?
Call us old, but Date Night is a non-negotiable. We even observed a date night while dating, since our busy schedules and separate residences didn’t allow for us to spend most evenings together. We still spend many evenings separately. Thus date night has always been sacred to us.
The Case for Dates
Budget for it as Entertainment, Dining, Date Night, or Marital Survival, but you can’t afford not to date your spouse or significant other, especially if you have children. After about 3-4 weeks without a date our communication stalls out. We start taking the others’ statements the wrong way. I start resenting that I can never finish a sentence at the dinner table. I start wondering if I need therapy, or we need marital counseling, or I need to read more parenting books. But then I remember I just need to get the heck out of my house, away from two-to four-year-olds, and have a fun time and a complete conversation with my husband once a month.
Dates won’t fix all your marriage problems, nor can dating alone ensure the success of a marriage or relationship. But surely never spending focused time together is not a recipe for a happy, healthy lifelong bond. Marriage counseling is expensive. Divorce is really expensive. By comparison, date night is a bargain.
Staying unified with your spouse is a powerful step toward working as a frugal team. Dating even renders the boring budget meeting dispensable for us. Quality time together is the perfect context for dreaming about financial and life goals while emotionally fueling your motivation to work toward them. Nothing will stall your progress like an unhappy marriage. You really can’t afford not to date!
Is Dating Expensive?
Our early dating ranged from expensive theater tickets to cooking dinner together in the dilapidated house Neil rented with up to 12 other guys. Now with kids we aim to get out once a month. I was indignant the first time Neil questioned our $50 per month dating allowance. That time means so much to me and to our relationship, I’d pay just about anything for it. But saying something is valuable doesn’t mean it has to cost a lot, an important tenet of pretending to be poor.
While I don’t find Taco Bell to be a romantic venue, we have found cheaper ways to enjoy our time out without feeling deprived. Zero entertainment spending isn’t a possibility for most parents. Instead we do our best to find volunteer babysitting (thanks to our moms & friends) when possible. Often we swap babysitting with our friends. It’s quite the endeavor with five kids aged seven & under between 2 families, but well worth it. When these resources are exhausted we are happy to hire one of the qualified teenagers we know.
The days of relaxing and connecting by eating leftovers & watching movies at home ended shortly after the birth of our first child. We always buy food when we’re out. If we had to eat dinner at home before leaving, we’d never get out the door. Plus, I produce about 87 homemade meals per month. I need a night off. And I bet you do, too.
How to Be a Cheap Date
Some thrifty date ideas we’ve implemented:
- Split an entrée.
- Go to Taco Bell, Chipotle, Chick Fil A, or buy prepared grocery store foods.
- Use a gift card or coupon.
- Split a fancy coffee beverage.
- A grocery store chain in our region has nice cafe areas where we can chill while splitting ice cream or snack for about $3.
- For more ideas, see Going Out Without Going Broke.
Some free after-dinner activities:
- Peruse a thrift store, library, or book store together.
- Go for a hike or walk in a park.
- Ride bikes.
- Go to a free outdoor concert or festival.
- Walk through a plant nursery.
Neil’s taken me on a lot of awesome dates by scoring free or cheap tickets to things like:
- Professional sports games.
- Professional orchestra tickets (redeeming himself after sports game).
- Boat rides.
- Art museums.
- Performances at a university.
Keep an ear out for free events, concerts, and museum nights in your area and you’re bound to find something to do. We have a somewhat harder time finding frugal diversion during the winter, but we can always chat over coffee or ice cream, laugh at the random stuff in the thrift store, or fantasize over travel guides in the book store.
Dating is about connection, not consumption. Once you have kids you need somewhere to go connect. It’s about conversation, which is universally tied to sharing a meal. It’s about common experience; do something outside your routine. It doesn’t have to be sky-diving or horseback riding, but it probably shouldn’t be grocery shopping, either.
We also aim for one overnight getaway per year where we’re solely focused on spending time with one another. We usually get a free hotel room using Marriott Rewards card points. Pretending to Be Poor isn’t about being a tightwad; we’re happy to spend money on what we value while minimizing costs wherever reasonable.
Be generous toward your spouse. Invest in your marriage while keeping it affordable. Your husband or wife is worth it.
What are your favorite thrifty date ideas? Do you budget for alone time with your significant other?
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?
While I was in India for two weeks, I fully expected my family to throw frugality to the wind and dine on fast food at an alarming frequency. I also braced myself to return to a very messy house. (To be fair, this assumption was based on empirical data.) Instead, my hard-working husband saved us mad cash while improving our home through his DIY and negotiating skills.
I didn’t have time to make & freeze meals, so I left him with a couple pounds of thawed chicken, a box of Mac & Cheese, and some microwavable bags of broccoli (which were untouched), and a folder with fast food coupons and gift cards. Had I returned to a home strewn with Taco Bell cups and dirty diapers, I could not have complained. After all, I enjoyed two weeks without cooking, cleaning, or laundry, while experiencing another culture with friends. But there was nothing to complain about.
Here’s the run-down of what he accomplished in my absence:
- Re-built our deck, thus finishing a huge DIY home repair. Savings = $6,000.
- Negotiated a 50% discount on professional treatment to prevent future damage. Savings = $350.
- Fixed a coolant leak on his 13-year-old Ford. Savings = $100.
- Replaced all the living room furniture for $300. Savings compared to buying new = $1000.
- Canned 12 jars of homemade salsa from his garden. Savings = $36.
- Made our son a birthday cake. Savings = $20.
- Moved his behemoth (trash find) desk out of the office to make way for a guest or rental bedroom. Savings = TBD.
- Discovered a more efficient way to hang-dry clothes. (In case you didn’t notice, this means he did laundry! And hung the laundry to dry!) Savings = time.
Grand total = $7,506.
I should leave more often!
The real take-away is that pretending to be poor can make your spouse a more useful person. Oh, and that applies to you, too! Rather than arguing over who spends more money on their hobbies or clothing, we strive to work together as a frugal team. We’re both interested in inflating our usefulness rather than our lifestyle. We haven’t always been on the same page about our frugal lifestyle. But we’ve hashed out our pecuniary values together over time. Last summer we found ourselves on vacation, sipping wine in a hot tub, talking the dirty details of Roth IRAs and early mortgage payoff. If this sounds boring, think of it as dreaming together. If you could do anything you want, without money as a major obstacle, what would it be? Now pray and plan about how to get there. We call this financial flexibility. (Read here why financial independence is not our dream.)
I must mention the invaluable help of our friends and family while I was gone. My mom watched the kids for the whole first work week, and Neil’s professional remodeler brother helped vastly with our home repair. We also had the help of his sister and several of our friends who babysat, cooked, and cleaned during the second week. I can’t thank our gracious helpers enough. It was frugal friends synergy at its finest.
The home repair deserves its own post. Regarding the living room furniture, two free couches, a free TV stand, and a Craigslist HD CRT comprised our living room furniture before I left. The couches did not match AT ALL. They were very comfortable but also very stained (thanks, babies). One of them was literally disintegrating. The kids were picking off the faux-leather finish and dispersing it throughout the house. And you know how some people sort of mindlessly fiddle with things while they’re talking? Sometimes there’d be a pile of pleather crumbs in the built-in (read: hideous) cup holders after certain guests left. The other sofa had issues too dark to mention. I was and am sworn to secrecy.
To say the least, I’d been feeling embarrassed by our furniture but used it as an exercise in the principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences. And our hand-me-down TV stand, though good quality, felt too large for our small living room. Neil scored two couches that not only match each other, but also the rest of our open floor plan decor, on a local Facebook buy-sell-trade page. He replaced the TV stand with a low-profile modern (free) one that’d been collecting dust in our basement. One of our biggest fights over the last five years was over couches–there’s an example of us fighting over frugality–but I’d made up my mind that couches are not worth fighting about. I guess the moral of the story is, if you shut up and leave the country, maybe your SO will replace the furniture. Oh wait, I mean be content, everything doesn’t have to be your favorite, and free & broken furniture is the best. 🙂
How has frugal living made your spouse more useful?