How Can You Get Your Spouse on Board for FIRE?

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! 

 

The importance of teamwork

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!

 

Here’s what NOT to do…

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…

 

Lead by example

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.

 

Paint a picture

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.

 

Paint a different picture

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.

 

What if they’re a full-blown consumer?

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?

 

The other side

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.

 

You could separate your finances

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.

 

The boardroom approach

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.

 

What worked for me…

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.

 

Final thoughts

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…

29 comments

  1. Great article! My other half still struggles to understand that if we give up expensive holidays in the short term then we can have a lot of holidays in the long term! Enjoy your blog over here in NZ! Keep up the good work!

    1. Separating our finances was the best idea we had. Early on in our marriage sharing bank accounts did not work. I saved and she spend it all. We both work so once she pays her half of the bills pro rated as she gets less income i let her spend the rest. Past 7 years i convinced her to participate in buying wesfarmer shares through her employee share scheme. I let her have the growing dividends to spend. Keeps her happy and motivated to continue with it. She never realises she investing for the future.

      1. Great to hear an example of this, thanks for sharing! Even better that she’s started investing too.

    2. Cheers Kurt!
      Hopefully the message will sink in sooner or later. After all, what’s better than making your entire life a holiday, with work being optional 😉

      1. This is such an important topic. Thank you as always Dave… My ex was a profligate spender. I just couldn’t get her to join me on the jouney to FI. Was definitely a factor in driving us apart in the end. Ignore spousal motivation at your peril…

        1. Cheers Jeff. I think it’s the different values that drives people apart, more than certain financial decisions, which is mostly just a way to express the values one has. Tricky business alright!

  2. Great topic Dave and some fantastic points you make.
    Unfortunately I think consumerism is just another addiction, so it can be a massive challenge to break the chain.
    Has there ever been a greater eye opener in the last 100 years regarding how unsafe personal job security is as what we have just witnessed with this pandemic?
    I don’t think so, However BNPL is flying out the door, just to mention one form of easy credit. So in regard to ‘how lucky we are in this country’.
    Scomo and Co. Just continue to roll out the gravy train of support, sure this a good thing if it used for those in genuine need.
    If not which I suspect, it’s just a backstop for the debt mountain that continues to climb.
    Last thing I try to break it down when i speak about as 1 step at a time being ‘FI’ and the simple positive benifets of that, then further down the track the penny might drop about ‘RE’ that’s what I hope for anyway.
    Looking forward to the next podcast congratulations to yourself and Pat, excellent work by the way for a pair of Aussie trailblazers.

    1. Thanks Dwayne!
      Well said. Spending is a bit of an addiction, or just a strong habit that can be hard to break. I’m confident that small adjustments can prove to the individual that spending less is not the life shattering experience they think it’ll be, and progress can grow from there. Then again, it depends how much someone’s self-image is tied up in their current purchases/lifestyle.

  3. “…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.”

    LOVE IT!!!

  4. “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.”

    I think the accumulation of automated habits owes a lot to advertising – it has a huge influence on our spending decisions, and the majority of people don’t give it much thought as it’s such a ubiquitous part of our lives. Everywhere you look or listen – TV, radio, social media, outdoor billboards, sports grounds, you name it – there is some product or service being spruiked at us.

    Kids in school these days get taught critical literacy (how to determine the real motive of a text) but many adults, especially those of us who are a bit older, have never had any exposure to the concept that there is no such thing as a neutral text. (Text in this sense being a message, regardless of whether it’s literally text/words, or imagery or something audible.) Every text has someone behind it who wants to achieve something with it, whether the message is advertising, opinion, politics, etc. A colleague of mine used to say to her kids, whenever they talked about wanting something from an ad, ‘yes, and someone got paid a lot of money to make you think that’. I find that idea works for adults too, though. 🙂

    1. Love that example of your colleague, it’s spot on! I have a friend who tries to teach his daughter the same thing, and to make sure she’s thinking for herself.

      Have never heard of the concept of neutral text or critical literacy to be honest, but that’s well pointed out. I guess that’s a nicer way of saying that people aren’t taught to develop their own ‘bullshit detector’, or simply find the motive behind a message 🙂

      1. Pretty much – in a way, critical literacy is like the face to face skills we’d use in evaluating what we’re being told. Face to face, you have body language, facial expression, vocal tone, timbre & volume to provide clues as to the quality of the information you’re receiving. For anything that’s not face to face, CL provides a good (and structured) way to examine the message. 🙂

  5. Another great article Dave.

    As you state, not everyone thinks the same way as us striving for Financial Independence. What we see as financial common sense can be interpreted as anything from being ‘stingy’ to ‘dangerous’. As you have mentioned the consumerism being forced upon us is easier to accept then essentially evade (to most Australians it seems anyway ).

    The media also plays a part in diverting people away from investing by yelling from the tree tops when the market has big falls, yet not mentioning anything of the slower (read ‘boring’) but guaranteed rise of the market overall. Generally those who don’t understand stock markets, fear them because of what is portrayed by mainstream media.

    Anyway to back to main point of trying to convince a spouse to join you the road to financial independence;

    You might be able to point out examples of your spouses (or your own) close friends and family of the older generation. More then likely it would be a mix of some who have are still working past 60 out of necessity due to poor lifetime spending habits. Then there may be other friends and/or family who are enjoying retirement earlier then others because of a lifetime of sensible investment (and spending) decisions. It may even be your or you spouses parents who are the good and/or bad examples of lifetime money management. Ask you spouse if which camp they would rather be in? If they are sane they would rather be in the camp which does not have to work past 60 for survival.

    Another option, and I believe you have pointed this out. Is to get them to look at theirs (or yours if their balance is negligible) super balance. As we know its post contribution value rises faster then inflation without any input from the contributor. This is what got my partners attentions after she realised that while on maternity leave her super balance was static.

    I look forward to the podcast on this subject!

    1. Thanks mate. Oh, don’t get me started on the media… most of the shit that passes for journalism and information makes me sick!

      That’s a great idea, pointing out older people we know is likely to make the concept sink in much more easily.

      Just to be clear, we didn’t do a whole podcast on this topic. It was a listener question at the end of the show, which I decided to elaborate on here 🙂

  6. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for attempting to tackle the spousal FIRe differences.
    I gave up on trying to get my high earning husband on board as he’s determined to work to 65 and to spend as much as he can on his boat/bikes. He isn’t interested in Reading/listening to any financial advice and he most certainly will not communicate with me about a long term financial plan towards retirement.
    One of the things I did a years ago was to sort our Incomings into named accounts (boat, large bills (insurances), food, travel, savings) etc. and put a weekly amount into each. Then he could see where our money went yearly but it didn’t reduce his consumption or spending. The lack of financial thought about our future confuses me.
    I decided years ago to focus on what I could control – educating myself about finance, extra into my super, low fees, drp shares, my portion of splurge money into extra shares, investment bonds for our child, extra into mortgage, teaching our child about compounding interest. We earn around 400k so you’d think it would be an easy Fire climb but No, not without both on board working together.
    To young folk, find out early very on if you and your partner think in a similar way about saving. This is a big deal if being debt free and financially independent is important to you.

    1. Thanks for sharing – good advice 🙂

      You’re doing a fantastic job on your end by the sounds of it. Others might have given up where you’ve decided to do whatever you can. Unfortunately it just sounds like he’s stuck in a certain way of thinking about money – 100% for enjoyment today, and the govt/super/pension will take care of me later. Anyway, keep up the good work!

  7. Thanks Dave. Not an easy topic this one because there are so many factors involved such as being married or defacto, having kids or not, both in the relationship working or just one of them, having to support parents, whether FIRE was discovered before or during a relationship (those dating, consider this as selection criteria for btw lol )

    However, I know that we are 100% responsible for our actions and inactions in life, there’s nobody to blame. If you’re in a relationship and you stay in it, that’s a DAILY decision that you make, there’s always a way out if that’s what you think it’s the best for you, as long as you have learned the lessons.

    I like the idea of separate finances, and that’s what works for me personally, I’ve brought up the topic in my relationship but I’ve learned in the past that imposing it on a partner doesn’t end up well, and there’s nothing wrong with them not aiming for FIRE, they have their own journey. Blaming a partner for not being on board with FIRE could be a very easy excuse for us not reaching it but if we were single we would have to do it ourselves anyway, so I’d rather be accountable with my goals because relationships could end at any time due to our decision or life deciding for us.

    Working towards financial independence AND the life we want after reaching that number is not just about low spending and investing, it’s about who we become on the way there, the change of mindset, the knowledge and skills we acquire and the confidence that we gain to achieving any other goals in life. Be, Do, Have.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Alex. Wise words!
      Your views on 100% personal accountability for our daily decisions really sync with my own thoughts (as you probably know).

  8. Good on you for tackling this one Dave!

    As you point out, everyone is different and I think working out what these differences are is the most important thing. I doubt I’m the only reader here who has read a fair bit of Mr Money Moustache’s blog, and when you read his early stuff you’d swear his wife was totally on board. I remember reading an article either in the New York Times or the New Yorker about him a few years later, and in it the journo wrote he detected “forbearance” in Mrs Money Moustache, suggesting she wasn’t really on board with the lifestyle at all. I can remember thinking the journo was a douchebag and then hearing a few months later that the Money Moustaches had divorced. I have no idea what the cause of that was, but the journo’s choice of words has haunted me since.

    My point here is there is a difference between outward acceptance of something and being personally on board with it. I would hate for my wife to share my passion for FIRE at a superficial level just to make me happy or to avoid talking about it properly. Without delving too much into the depths of my thoughts on this, I’ll simply say money habits and views about money run deeper than many of us know or understand. If you marry someone, don’t be in a rush to change them. As the Little Wifey says so politely above, you might actually be making the choice between accepting your partner for who they are or only accepting them once they become who you want them to be.

    I’ve chickened out / softened big time on this… no matter how right I think I am, I’d rather be happy. If there is a middle ground for personal finance in a marriage, find it and rejoice. Financial problems are always high on the list of causes of divorce for a reason.

    1. Thanks buddy, there are certainly no easy answers on this one! Finding the middle ground where both spouses can be mostly satisfied has to be the key factor in all this

      With Mustache, to be fair, they were together for about 20 years, so I don’t really buy into the reason for the split was frugality/money related. Seems unlikely she played along for 20 years. I think he’s a strong-minded personality which would have always been the case. He also mentioned that both of them became unhappy with the relationship, they make their own financial decisions, and that he initiated the separation, so that doesn’t line up with her getting sick of it. Plus, for every FIRE couple that stays together, one FIRE couple will probably separate, given that’s what the averages would say.

      It could be for all sorts of reasons, or no real reason at all, they just drifted apart over time. Many ppl assume it’s money related which obviously makes for juicy gossip for bored internet-people (and implies a downfall or bad mark against his message) but I don’t think that’s fair at all.

      1. Fair points on Mustache… I guess the words the journo wrote resonated for me and I’ve taken them on board as a cautionary tale. As I say, I have no knowledge of the cause of their separation, but I do know generally speaking money plays a part in a lot of them.

        Where the other half comes in, you gotta pick your battles!

  9. Another relevant issue today is that in second (or third significant relationships) where partners have built up different financial positions including investments and/or emergency funds, and are both supporting children from other relationships finances can be very complex and often partners manage and account for their own financial affairs. Convincing a spouse to join you the road to financial independence even if it is possible can be challenging when you come from different financial positions.

    I think it is often worthwhile to consider some joint goals, but also individual goals so that the partner who aspires to FIRE can continue their journey without the stress of having to always convince the other or supplement your partner due to poorer earlier financial decisions or indecisions. I know I will be able to FIRE before my partner but I am open about that and what that might look like, and he is aware he will need to work longer (in part due to poorer earlier financial decisions or indecisions) and is more conscious about spending and investing, including topping up his super.

    1. Yes, excellent point Jane! It can start getting very tricky as you say. Having two sets of goals is an interesting idea. The main thing seems to be having open communication about this stuff so everyone is on the same page with what’s going on for now and the future.

  10. Dave, I really like your posts, a big thank you for putting so much time and thought into them. My partner and I met 5 years ago in our 40s and have kept separate finances which I am extremely happy about. I’ve been saving for my retirement for many years, but my partner has an expensive hobby that makes him very happy, so for this and other reasons, he will not be able to retire when I do. How that will play out practically, time will tell.

    I also wanted to say I enjoy reading people’s comments on your posts – in this one, The Little Wifey, FIREforOne and Chris, in particular. Thanks all!

  11. Nice Post Dave. My wife is more of a spender, I am a saver but we have compromised. Our banking is shared with a fixed amount of around 10% of combined after tax income, going into our splurge account each fortnight. This is for shoes, clothes, alcohol, meals out, coffees, etc. Can be spend on anything, When this is gone, it is gone. It works a treat, it is capped, and both of us have agreed the amount. Even indexed by 3% last year which the misses liked. We get paid on alternate weeks which means it is never too far from getting replenished. Although with covid19 the balance has built up to around 8 weeks worth. A total mindset change from using credit cards, or disagreeing on how much could be spent on clothes etc.

    1. Hey Chris, thanks for sharing your approach. Sounds like it’s working out great for you guys, which is good to hear.

  12. Great article Dave, I’m halfway there with my partner. She is very willing to save to achieve big goals. We have a savings rate close to 70% (and still an excellent, happy life with plenty of road trips, travel and socialising).

    The problem I have is the big goals! She wants an expensive house in City Beach, $25k/yr private schools for two kids, new car, house down south etc. So basically we are on the right track but with different destinations in mind. I’m aiming for FI, she wants Fat FI (a figure probably at least 4x mine). Will probably land somewhere between the two and retire a few years later than I’d prefer, but perhaps will be able to convince her that spending $300k per child on education is not a good idea…

    1. Damn, nice work on that savings rate!

      Yes I can see the conundrum. A couple of years to keep the peace is a pretty good tradeoff I think. At least while you work on building a solid case for a more rational level of what is ‘enough’ 😉

      Good luck!

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