June 6, 2020
What happens when you’re totally motivated to become financially independent, but your spouse isn’t?
They don’t get this whole FIRE thing. It doesn’t interest them. They don’t see the point of retiring early, or would much rather “live for today” and focus on spending and enjoying a steady stream of rewards for the work they do.
What can you do? That’s the million dollar question!
We can’t brush this off or ignore it. Because it’s super important for the sake of the relationship, that you’re working together as a team.
I’m no expert in relationships, but it’s not healthy if a couple is in competition to see who can extract the most or in an endless game of tug-of-war.
Honestly, this could be one of the most important topics of all. But it’s very hard to write about.
First of all, it’s complex and there are lots of emotions, deeply held beliefs and core values at play. Second, how on earth do you truly change someone’s opinion on something?
In an upcoming podcast, Pat and I briefly respond to this question, but I thought I’d expand on this and write a whole article about it. So, the following is a collection of thoughts on how to approach this situation. Let’s begin!
Don’t constantly nag your partner to do something. Don’t wear them down with insults or criticisms.
It won’t work. In fact, it’s more likely to backfire and they’ll dig their heels in deeper. Either that, or they’ll end up resenting you for it. Your spouse might end up feeling like you’re trying to control their every move or they’re not ‘allowed’ to do certain things.
It’s easy to say, “yeah, well I don’t do that to my partner.” But I think we have been guilty of it at one time or another, because no couple agrees on every aspect of their lives, financial or otherwise!
In essence, we can’t force others to think and believe what we do (although the fantasy remains lol). However, we may be able to influence them in a variety of ways. So that’s where our energy should go. Here’s a few ways that come to mind…
Often, the disconnect between a couple comes from one person who wants to spend much more than the other. Both have different tastes for simplicity and luxury.
The low-spender probably thinks, “why can’t they just be happy with less?” Some people are still stuck in the trap of thinking higher spending = higher happiness. They’re yet to figure out that for already-rich Westerners, that’s complete nonsense.
So how can you get your spouse to see that it’s possible to be just as happy, or even happier, with a lower spending lifestyle? You show them!
With everything you do. The activities and hobbies you pursue. How you spend your spare time. The philosophy you approach life with. Rather than preaching it, be the undeniable example that it’s possible to live a very satisfying life on far less money than the average household spends.
This goes, not just for your spouse, but with your peer group or even in the community.
We see others enjoying a simple picnic, biking around their town, hearing about their future freedom plans or the hobbies they’re so passionate about, and we think to ourselves, “hey, maybe I should do that too.”
This is why the FIRE movement has grown so much in the last few years. We see others like us who have reached, or are on their way to Financial Independence, and we realise, “shit, why aren’t I doing that?”
I think for most of us, it just takes a few examples for our human brain to be convinced something is actually doable.
One effective way to influence someone is to inspire them with a vision of the future. Paint a picture for your spouse of how life could be.
Obviously, the specific vision will be different for everyone. But the benefits of financial strength, control of our time and the choice over whether to work, apply to each of us.
Maybe this means the freedom to be fully immersed in your kids lives while they’re young. Or it could be about enjoying proper time together as a couple, rather than seeing each other for dinner and bedtime!
So maybe that means exercising, volunteering, going to the beach, or each doing your own little work-from-home business while you take breaks together or take a week-long trip away at a moment’s notice. All the things you’d like to do more of, but can’t fit in due to work demands.
A discussion around the future and what you could achieve as a couple is often all it takes to encourage healthier long term thinking.
Remember, most people think in terms of days and weeks. Not in decade-long chunks.
Many folks aren’t fully aware of why they live and spend the way they do. It’s just become the default setting, due to the accumulation of certain habits and behaviours which are now automatic.
If a clear and enticing alternative is placed in front of us, this can create a realisation that our future could be much better than the ‘default’ path we’re currently on.
But maybe your spouse has a different idea of what a good future consists of? More on this in a minute.
If the ‘alternate future’ didn’t generate any excitement, the next discussion is only logical: what if we don’t do it?
What if we don’t bother saving? What if we focus on today, disregard the future, and see what happens? How does that generally work out for people?
Most of us don’t have to look far to find examples of why this is a TERRIBLE approach to personal finance and life in general.
Financial insecurity is a huge cause of misery, stress and unhappiness. Those who go through life with no savings habit and little thought given to their future, will be pushing shit uphill their whole lives.
It’s much harder to cope with life’s inevitable bumps in the road – global pandemic anyone?
A health event, extended period of job loss, or dissatisfaction in career or life direction creates huge anxiety and feelings of hopelessness for anyone who is in poor financial shape. Why would you voluntarily put yourself in this position?
“Living for today” is a beautifully simple philosophy to have. But taken to its conclusion, it’s also dangerous, childish, and even immoral (since we expect others – typically the government – to step in and save us when something happens).
It takes only a few seconds of rational thought to realise that’s not a great idea. So, at this point saving and investing for the future makes sense. If your spouse hasn’t stormed off (or rolled their eyes through the top of their head!), they may begin to see things in a different light.
Well, this will be a mighty challenge battle from the start. Frankly, I don’t like your chances!
Spending and consumption will likely be their religion and supposed golden ticket to happiness, as flawed and disproven as that is. We can attempt to combat emotion with logic, and it’s worth a shot.
At this point, you could try to explain the fact that we already have the highest living standards in history, living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
This sole point highlights just how strange it is to still want more.
As I’ve said before, living a very basic modern life in Australia would be considered incredible to a very large percentage of humans in the world, and all the humans that came before us.
Whether we believe it or not, we really are among the luckiest people to walk the face of the earth. To shrug that off because it doesn’t feel like it, or we’re not that well-off relative to some other ridiculously small sample of ultra-rich humans, is just insane.
To me, that’d seem like the highest form of entitlement, shows lack of gratitude, zero ability for context, and frankly is a prime example of a common spoilt Western attitude which shits me to no end.
It also shows a lack of intelligence and awareness that the sun doesn’t actually shine out of one’s own arse.
But enough of my whinging, let’s get back to problem-solving. What else, productively, can we do to try and get our partner on board for FIRE?
It’s important to get your partner’s side of things too. You want to understand where they’re coming from. Because it’s crucial that both people feel listened to and understood.
So if your spouse has zero interest in saving, being financially independent or having unlimited free time, try to find out why that is. What, instead, are their priorities? Do they have other goals in mind?
Sometimes people just see money as a tool for different things. One for enjoyment. The other for its productive capacity. Both are valid and important in their own way. But often this is where the game of tug-of-war starts.
Step back for a minute. Is there a middle ground you can both be happy with? A place where you can both enjoy the benefits of the money you have now, plus use it productively for the future. Almost always, there is.
For the spender, maybe they agree to saving 30% instead of nothing. For the saver, maybe they agree to saving 30% instead of 60%. This will simply result in a longer road to FI. But if peace and agreement can be achieved here, it’s a fantastic outcome.
And the likelihood is that your spouse will look back in a few years and realise they’re no less happy. So you’ll then have a much easier time keeping your lifestyle the same or even increasing your savings, meaning faster progress without feelings of missing out.
This may sound like a pretty unusual approach. But I’ve heard it works for some people. Each person pays their share towards the household bills, and aside from that, their cash is free to spend as they please.
If that’s a step too far, there’s always the option of setting up an agreed spending allowance for each person. This helps the non-FIRE spouse see that they can still enjoy things they’re accustomed to.
Remember, if your spouse has no interest in early retirement, it doesn’t mean you can’t shoot for it. Any regular savings you can put towards investments will create less reliance on work with each year that passes.
This lets the FIRE-focused spouse have more freedom over time, while the higher-spending spouse gets to keep their current work/spend lifestyle as it is.
There’s also a less popular case to be made, and here it is: Each partner gets to approve/reject the spending of the other person. Maybe if it’s over an agreed amount like $20, $50 etc.
Anything above this, you’ve gotta check with your other half first! Remember, this is your partner in life so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. It’s just that we seem to get upset at people disagreeing with us, like its a personal criticism of our ideas and choices.
But really, when you think about it, if your proposed purchase filled a genuine need, your spouse would recognise this and give the green-light. That’s provided you have a healthy relationship!
Alas, we live in a world where each part of a couple often likes to be extremely independent and our self-worth is usually built upon the purchases we make/don’t make. So even though this approach sounds like the epitome of perfect teamwork, in reality, most people aren’t keen on it.
Which is unfortunate, because this method is arguably the most open, honest, and transparent of all. It fosters actual conversations about spending and values, where the couple becomes a real team with better communication, understanding and accountability.
Remember, a couple is effectively in business together. The efforts of the household brings money in, and expenses send it back out.
We can approve/reject spending options and our household profits can increase or decrease, which helps this ‘business’ achieve its future goals – whether its buying a house or the ultimate goal of being completely financially independent.
All this only works if you’ve already developed a common goal to work towards. Either that, or a very healthy agreement on different goals. Without that, the tug-of-war will likely continue.
I was quite lucky in the sense that Mrs SMA wasn’t against the idea to begin with. But the spending less part was more of a challenge. Completely to her credit, she was willing to give it a go.
All up, it was a combination of painting a picture of the future, communicating what was important to each of us, making plans together and then taking steps in that direction.
Over time, our spending consistently fell as we worked towards financial freedom. And we were left with the realisation that this did not come at the cost of our happiness. Those who tell you it does, are doing it wrong!
In fact, we were continually delighted by the progress we’d made and how seemingly easy it was to string together lots of small changes which created a big benefit. Little chunks of progress will provide you with motivation for further improvements, and your life-enhancing snowball continues.
There’s no escaping it – this is one of the harder topics to navigate. Because there are not one, but two people’s emotions involved!
I’m under no illusions that I can offer a simple answer when it comes to influencing human behaviour. Quite the opposite!
My personality is such that I often find people complex and confusing (looking around, I often feel like I’ve been dropped here from another planet, but that’s another story!).
Ultimately, different approaches will work depending on the couple. So open up the communication lines, find out what values and beliefs motivate your spouse, and create future plans that work for both of you.
Hopefully, over time, they will begin to see that all this FIRE stuff isn’t about avoiding work and living in a shoebox. Really, it’s about freedom, having options and living the most satisfying life we can!
What advice would you give to people who are trying to get their spouse on board? Share in the comments below…