Financial Problems in a Relationship – How to see Eye to Eye

Earlier this year, my fiancee casually mentioned our plan to reach Financial Independence, or FI, by our mid 30’s to her father. She used the phrase, ‘we plan to reach retirement in our mid 30s,’ which naturally set off a lot of bells and whistles. I wrote more about this experience in an earlier post; it was the first time I found myself explaining early retirement to someone, let alone to my future father-in-law.

Before writing that post, I googled the topic of early retirement in relationships. I then started to google some of the common issues couples face. I was genuinely appalled at some of the articles. When it comes to financial problems in relationships, many of the headlines read similar to, “How to Convince My Wife to Save More,” or, “How to Handle Significant Other Who Has No Interest in FI.”

I started to ask myself this basic question: “Why is there such a disconnect and what should people DO about it?”

What do we do if one person is on board with early retirement or reaching financial independence at an early age and the other is not?

I understand the idea of having a strong belief and wanting your partner on board, but we can’t convince or “handle” someone into adopting the same set of beliefs as us.

The approach that worked for us is to first seek to understand and then to be understood. I first learned of this principle from Steven Covey.

Part of the reason I created Distilled Dollar was to share in how we managed to get on the same page. It was a long road and one I’m grateful we were able to travel successfully. If we believe personal finance is sexy, then why wouldn’t we want to be on board, right?

Sadly, it isn’t that easy. People have varying degrees of priorities and values.

Pick your poison. For me, I love pursuing my hobby of triathlon training, which can be expensive when you add up the cost of things like a road bike, shoes, accessories, and other miscellaneous costs such as race registrations. For her, she loves to have a glass (or bottle) of wine with dinner.

Realize that if you’re strong in your ability to craft a budget and stick with it, and if your partner is weak in that area, then that this is an opportunity to grow together.

The second critical component is he or she is going to be stronger in some other area of your lives that matters. So, be respectful and think about it from his or her perspective.

This isn’t a chance to go on a diatribe about how FIRE is the greatest thing in the world and that he or she NEEDS to be on board because it is so awesome. You shouldn’t mention how spending on luxuries is the greatest travesty ever and that he or she NEEDS to read every article by Mr. Money Mustache ever written.

Trust me, you need to bottle that feeling down and take it step by step.

Seek first to understand what’s important about money to your significant other, and work from there. In the end, you’ll likely converge on similar themes such as having more freedom, more security, and more options.

A 2nd Option to Mend a Financial Problems in a Relationship

Another example I’ve seen played out follows the old quote, “The best revenge is a life well lived.”

Sadly, the word “revenge” is a bit drastic, but you can see the point.

If you disagree with someone, the best way to utilize your energy might be in succeeding in what you’re trying to accomplish. Let them see you become happy and fulfilled, and then they’ll see the value. They might even come around and change their life to adapt more to your FIRE habits.

Actions speak louder than words here, so I want to demonstrate this principle in real life by leaving you with a story by another personal finance blogger I admire, Brandon from the Mad Fientist.

One of the reasons I came to admire Brandon is because he did not try to convince his wife to pursue financial independence. He spent many years before his wife ultimately saw the value in his path of living and wrote him a letter expressing her respect, admiration, and a few of her new insights into how she was going to live her life a little differently.

Of course, there was no need for her to change. In a strong relationship, it is not uncommon for both people to come together on the same ideas, attitudes and behaviors over the course of time. We become two peas in a pod.

What do you do when you notice a gap between you and your partner? Have you tried either approach or a different one of your own? If it is something that needs to be addressed ASAP? If so, how do you plan on approaching the conversation? Do you routinely touch base on finances with your significant other?


Master Distiller

23 comments… add one
  • Ms. Montana Sep 30, 2016, 5:28 am

    Mr. Mt and are very much on the same page with our big goals, but our spending personalities are quite different (as was evident in our net worth update!) Having separate accounts for our “fun money” has made all the difference. We can each express our short term perseverance with out sacrificing our long term goals. Or annoying each other.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 30, 2016, 6:32 am

      Haha, that’s a great approach and similar to ours. Like you put it, it is all about the little things adding up over the long haul. Nice work on the net worth update too.

  • Jon @ Be Net Worthy Sep 30, 2016, 5:48 am

    My wife and I have usually been on the same page financially and she has certainly never been a big spender. Luckily, she is actually the editor for my site, so she is getting a first rate (in my opinion 😉 ) education in personal finance from reading my posts! And that helps to keep us on the same page.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 30, 2016, 6:34 am

      Hah! I feel the same way. I’ll write a post that my fiancee edits, then a few days go by, and she’ll bring up a few topics or concepts and maybe ask a few questions. For us, it has really helped our spend and our net worth, so I’m happy to have the conversations each time.

  • The Green Swan Sep 30, 2016, 6:16 am

    Nice post, Matt. It is always good to be open and honest in having these discussions, and having them frequently if need be. For my wife and I, we try to revert back to our life goals. If we have disagreements over money, we’ll talk and examine whether those practices are moving us closer or further from our goals. I guess to back it up even further, one of the first things we did was lay out our life goals and it helps that we are on the same page from this standpoint.

    The backdrop of it all is how relationships are tricky and you can’t let things fester. More often than not there is a common ground and you can find a compromise.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 30, 2016, 6:38 am

      Thanks JW – that was a great perspective on how to handle these discussions. Coming from a place of common ground makes it much easier when/if a topic comes up where there is a disagreement.

      As a big goal orientated person myself, I love that you two have set up life goals in the past. We’ve done something similar, but I might need to circle back as we’re not as clear as we could be.

  • Jay Sep 30, 2016, 6:56 am

    Awesome post Matt. I think this is a very important concept that doesn’t get discussed enough. I like your approach of trying to understand your partner, and what’s important to them. And as you implied, at the end of the day most people want more security, more freedom and peace of mind so as long as you can find a way to tap into that then there is lots of common ground to work from.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 1:57 pm

      Exactly. We might disagree on the surface level, but deep down we have the same intentions in mind. It might take some work to build up from the bottom, but it is much easier in the long run than finding a quick fix at the surface level.

  • Matt @ Optimize Your Life Sep 30, 2016, 7:24 am

    This is one of the more common questions that comes up in the Financial Independence subreddit. It seems like people discover the idea of financial independence, dive in head first, and then try to strong-arm their significant other into following along.

    Your advice is spot on. Not just for getting on the same page financially, but for most value disagreements. Seek first to understand and lead by example. It seems like everyone’s instinct is to try to shoot down the other person’s points until they finally admit that you were right all along, when that just gets people more defensive and dug in.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 1:58 pm

      Well said on your last point. Even if someone was on the fence about making a choice, they might dig in and defend their position. Once they do that, they’re basically rationalizing in real time and making a larger commitment to that cause. The attack creates more problems.

  • Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies Sep 30, 2016, 7:46 am

    My husband and I were (and still are to some degree) financial opposites. He spent every penny he ever made until we got engaged. He also thinks we’re loaded now because we have more money in savings/investment accounts AFTER buying a house than he ever did. A lot of our differences shook themselves out organically over time. It has been, hands down, the biggest stressor in our relationship. I’d like to say it’s water under the bridge, but I know that’s not true. Maybe one day I’ll blog about it.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 2:01 pm

      We have a similar situation in that my fiancee is not used to have cash on hand. Now that our cash buffer is growing, we’ve set ourselves up to pay more into our student loans. My fiancee was scared and stressed out at first because she’s not used to our higher level of cash buffer just yet.

      I’ll be curious to hear more of your details if you decide to blog about it one day. 🙂

    • NZ Muse Oct 5, 2016, 2:28 am

      Same boat – I could literally have written this entire comment, Penny! Money has almost always been the biggest stressor for us, it nearly broke us during his most recent spell of unemployment.

      I’m personally not interested in FIRE but funnily enough I suspect he would be, if he felt it was realistic! My current thinking is getting him to think more about career paths, entrepreneurship (which he is starting to talk more about) so that we can have more flexibility in the future etc.

  • Financial Panther Sep 30, 2016, 9:27 am

    Ms. FP and I are both very much fairly natural savers, and while we both have a vague idea about reaching FI, it’s not quite written in stone, especially with our 30s coming along. Things like house, kids, school, buying a practice, etc might cause some big money issues down the line, especially since I know I don’t want to keep lawyering, whereas she knows she wants to keep doing dental work. We’re very open about finances, but will be interesting to see where we are in 5, 10, 15 years, etc.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 2:06 pm

      The most important part is getting today right. Sounds like you’re building the great habits now and as I like to think about it, you’re laying a brick each day into your foundation. Overtime, that foundation will turn into a palace and you’ll have plenty of additional options (to FIRE, to keep working, to travel more, etc.) as these habits continue to improve your lives.

      I know our FI goal of 35 is not set in stone. We are flexible on our specific target. Only time will tell.

  • Mustard Seed Money Sep 30, 2016, 7:52 pm

    I’m really lucky my wife is more of an extreme saver than I am. At first she was a spender but quickly became obsessed with FIRE.

    I thought I was good with money but she has blown me away with her ability to stretch every dollar. She is constantly searching and saving us tons on groceries and different deals that she finds.

    I thought we would hit FIRE in our mid-40s but with her savings it has been accelerated by a couple of years.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 2:10 pm

      That sounds amazing! That’s the true strength of great relationships – where each party can make the other stronger and feel better.

      In our life, my fiancee is amazing at cooking which helps us save money on restaurant bills. I don’t mind walking the mile it takes to pick up the groceries as I occupy my time with audiobooks on the walk and while I shop. We make an excellent team and that’s one of the best contributing factors to reaching FIRE.

  • Martin - Get FIRE'd asap Sep 30, 2016, 11:31 pm

    Hey there Matt, my other half, Ms MM, and I are not on the same FIRE path but that’s ok. When I first started consciously cutting costs and stupid spending out of my life (after reading Mr Money Mustache from start to finish) I have to say I was a little bit evangelistic about what I was doing and how she ‘must’ join in as well. As much as she respected my decision to do this, she still enjoys spending her money on the odd treat as well as clothes, shoes etc. Since we do have separate finances, I have come around to seeing this as ok even of I don’t necessarily agree with it. She wants to keep working for a few more years as she enjoys her job (and is a few years younger than me) but has bought into the idea that working until 65 is not for her. Our plan is to live overseas in SE Asia in around 4 years time so she’s on board there and I’ll just have to grin and bare it for a few more years. I can see, however, that a couple who are completely at odds with each other about how they should save and spend are going to struggle long term.

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 1, 2016, 2:13 pm

      Wow – reading your post reminded me of our time when we first started dating. There was a good 30 days where I devoured a lot of Mr Money Mustache and told a few friends and of course, my fiancee. I learned real quick that people don’t care much about the amazing new lifestyle I had learned about. They preferred to do what they were doing and like you said, that’s completely fine.

      Sounds like a great 4 year plan you have. Looking forward to seeing it play out. 🙂

  • Cindy @ Smart Family Money Oct 2, 2016, 12:59 pm

    I’m actually working on a post about this same topic! I’m very thankful that my husband and I have always been on mostly the same page with finances (except maybe about his video game spending but that was rectified with a separate fun money account that I’m not allowed to nag about). I’m writing about it on my blog, though, because I hear this sort of question constantly when I lead Financial Peace University. Folks in FPU are usually not concerned about FI, but just about getting out of debt and stopping the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

    A lot of people compare controlling personal finances to the idea of controlling weight… the problem is that losing weight is very personal and no one else can really force you to eat more or exercise less… but with joint finances, your spouse can spend all the money and ruin the best laid plans. I don’t have all the answers to this… but it’s definitely very tricky!

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 3, 2016, 6:04 am

      Your story about FPU reminds me of a story Paula shared from Afford Anything. She said one of her friends was discussing personal finance and basically summed it up as, “If you pay all your bills on time, then you’re great with personal finance.” Paula went on to say how the friend discovered there was much more to it than that.

      I tend to view it as the two of us are rowing a boat. We’re both aligned on where we want to go, and we’re speeding along towards that spot.

  • Finance Solver Oct 2, 2016, 10:13 pm

    I hope that my future wife will be on the same page regarding finances.. I’ve seen a lot of female friends who spend money like there’s no tomorrow and they have no intentions of changing. It’s hard to convince people to do something that’s not the norm. Great post!

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 3, 2016, 5:56 am

      Exactly. If we come from the frame of needing to convince someone, it will likely never work. I find it much easier to seek to understand first, then to be understood and/or live by example. Thanks for the comment.

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