It's important to be on the same page as your partner, but that doesn't mean you have to agree on everything. When we first got together, my fiance and I had completely different money habits, and we fought about it all the time. Years later, we still have those different habits -- but the fighting is gone. Here's how we learned to coexist.
We Learned How Different We Were
The more serious our relationship became, the more I noticed Brian's spending habits. If he got a bonus at work, he spent it all, then and there. If he got a raise, his lifestyle inflated accordingly. Thus, I automatically labelled him a spender. To him, I was a cheapskate: I scrimped and saved to a fault. These labels were easy, but they were also limiting, and they didn't do much for understanding each other.
In order to correct our perspectives of each other, we had to discuss it a little deeper. To do this, I suggested we find our money philosophies (although I'm sure I called it something less corny to get him on board). We simply talked about our relationship with money and what it represented. To me, not having money was scary, and that's why I saved; it represented security. To him, money was just money. You earn it and you spend it, because that's what it's there for. Understanding his view helped me see that money is just a tool sometimes. Understanding mine helped him see money can represent something bigger.
I had a tendency to idealise money; he had a tendency to trivialise it. Learning how we were different didn't immediately solve anything, but the awareness (and a healthy dose of empathy) made the rest of the climb a lot easier.
We Learnt How to Have a Productive Conversation
Active listening is an important skill, and we both had to embrace it to address our differences. Before, I would just nod and dismiss Brian's financial concerns. I felt like I knew better, so I'd say, "That's cool, but we're doing it like this", and then I'd take charge of our budget. As a result, he wouldn't be 100 per cent on board with my plan, so he would overspend, and we would inevitably get into a fight. We both had to learn to truly understand where the other person was coming from.
Beyond that, we also learn the mechanics of a healthy, productive conversation, despite our differences. To do this, we set a few basic ground rules:
- Watch out for "basement thinking": Basically, avoid having a conversation when you're in a bad mood or actively worried and stressed about money.
- Hold regular "money dates": It sounds corny, I know. But we now hold regular meetings in which go over our finances and goals, and it's been really helpful. It makes us feel in control and keeps us on the same page. We don't really incorporate any "date" elements into our meetings, but it still feels like less of a chore, because money is no longer a touchy topic. I've even had a reader even suggest having money dates in public. She and her husband would hold theirs over breakfast. This keeps you on your toes to avoid bickering. For us, it also helps to avoid talking about money outside of these dates as much as possible.
- Don't get personal: When Brian and I talked about money, I had a habit of blaming him without even realising it. For example, instead of, "we should make sure we save enough for retirement", I'd say something like, "you need to save more because you spend too much". It might have been true, but it sounds like a lecture. I had to learn to be objective. One rule of thumb I used for staying objective was to use language that couldn't be argued. For example, "you're spending too much" is arguable. What is too much, after all? On the other hand, "I'm concerned about your spending" is objective. There's no denying I'm concerned, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's doing anything wrong.
Here's another useful tip: Stay focused on the topic at hand. PsychCentral explains:
Sometimes discussions turn into arguments, that can then morph into a discussion about everything and the kitchen sink. To be respectful of one another and the relationship, you should try and keep the discussion (or argument) focused to the topic at hand. While it's easy to get in the cheap shots or bring up everything that an argument seems to call for, just don't. If the argument is ostensibly about who's making dinner tonight, keep it that topic. Don't veer off down the country road of who does what in the house, who's responsible for child rearing, and by the way, who cleans the kitchen sink.
These are just the habits that worked for my relationship; your own mileage may vary. It helps to try a few communication styles to come up with something that works for your relationship. The bottom line: You don't have to agree on everything, but if you want to get on the same page, you have to learn to communicate about your differences effectively.
We Came Up With Mutual Financial Goals
Once we learned about our differences and how to talk about money productively, we worked on a financial plan. This meant drafting our goals. I came across some helpful advice from personal finance writer Tiffany Aliche. She writes:
Identify and take care of your needs first, ie: food, shelter, clothing (this doesn't include trendy must-haves), water, etc. A need is something you have to have in order to maintain life. For example; if you don't eat or drink water, you will not be able sustain life.
Next, identify, write down, and share no more than two loves. This is very important. We often neglect the things we love, in favour of our likes and wants, because likes and wants tend to cost less and take less patience to acquire.
Another way to think of this: how does using your money bring you the most joy? For me, it's financial security (or financial independence) and travel. Having enough money to feel secure and free to live my life exactly how I want is priceless to me. I also love being able to travel. I asked Brian about his priorities. He agreed that travel was a "love", but said he also wants to buy a home someday. At this point, we had three solid financial goals: financial independence, saving for travel and buying a home. Lofty goals, no doubt. But at least we had a starting point.
We Found a Compromise With our Goals
From there, we knew we couldn't afford these goals if we kept overspending on things we simply liked. So we listed out those things: dining out and shopping were things we liked to spend money on. It would be best to avoid our "likes" at all cost, but alas, we're human. We did, however, agree to cut back on those areas drastically so we could someday use our money on things we love.
From there, we had to crunch the numbers. This meant working out a plan that included all three of our goals. We asked ourselves:
- When we would each like to reach each goal, idealistically?
- How much can we afford to save for each goal?
- How much should we fund one goal vs another?
We decided to split funding our financial independence and homebuying goal 50/50. That seemed fair and reasonable for our situation. Since we both enjoy travel, we also agreed to set aside a certain amount per month to take a trip once every couple of years. At this point, we had an action plan for our goals.
A financial plan isn't always about saving though. A few years ago, Brian was in debt, and I'd drained my emergency fund. So while our overall goals were the same, our action plan at that time was to get out of debt and replenish an emergency fund before we started saving.
After outlining our expectations for each goal, it was time to create a budget. We listed our needs, then our goals, and then decided how to allocate our discretionary income, adjusting the numbers when it made sense.
We also decided to have both combined and separate accounts. Our combined accounts are for spending on our shared expenses and goals, and our separate accounts are for our personal discretionary expenses. So when Brian recently bought a pair of shoes and felt like he had to justify the purchase to me, I brushed it off, explaining that, as long as we're sticking to our plan and meeting our savings goals, we shouldn't necessarily care what the other person buys. Of course, if that spending gets in the way of those goals, that's another story. But you can easily avoid that when you pay yourself first.
Over time, I also notice our habits have become less extreme. I'm not as tight-fisted as I used to be with money, and Brian is surprisingly more frugal. He credits his frugality with knowing that his money now has a purpose (buying a home someday). For me, knowing that we have a process in place to reach those goals helps me relax and realise we're in control of the situation. We're still very different, but we've learned to compromise and see the other's point of view a little better.