You Can’t Make Someone Be Who You Want Them to Be

Change in another person has to come from within them, not from within you.

One of the most regular themes in emails I get from readers is a desire to somehow change the nature of the person they’re married to. “My husband is uninterested in our finances and just wants to buy more gadgets.” “My wife wants to eat out every night and tells me that the future will take care of itself.”

When people make statements and put forth behaviors like these, they’re acting upon their nature and what they believe about the world. Your husband considers finances to be unimportant and, right now, is passionate about gadgets. Your wife values dining out with you and truly believes that your bright future will take care of any problems that might come.

I understand all of these perspectives because I’ve been on both sides of them. I understand what the first reader’s husband feels like when he’s uninterested in finances and much more concerned with getting new gadgets. I understand what the second reader’s wife feels like when she believes that her future self will handle the problems and that dining out tonight seems like the most enjoyable and reasonable options. And, of course, I understand how both of their spouses feel. The behaviors of their spouses are interfering with the frugality, sensible financial planning, and beautiful future that they envision for their marriages.

How did I turn that page? It’s easy and trite for me to talk about the moment when the “switch” flipped for me, but to be honest, that was just one key moment in a long progression from being a wasteful spender to being someone more in control of their money.

First of all, I had inklings that a serious financial change was needed a year before, at least. It was not an overnight change. It was the result of a lot of observations and thinking about my own life.

If you want your partner to become more financially conscious, make a fertile ground for your partner to think about those kinds of thoughts. Talk about the future in terms of specifics – and how you’ll get from here to there. Whenever you make a purchase, talk about what you’re not getting because of that purchase.

Do not expect overnight change. The journey to financially reasonable thinking can be a very long one. Each time you encourage some positive thinking in that direction, view it as a mere step on a long journey. It could take months. It could take years.

Avoid confrontation. If it starts to be confrontational, change the subject. Most people do not like to have their beliefs challenged. In the end, it has much in common with a discussion between a liberal and a conservative on political issues: once it starts getting emotional, the conversation is nothing more than a shouting match between two people who have no real interest in what the other side is saying, only an interest in being “right” while the other person is “wrong.” When you’ve reached that point, you’re both wasting your time.

Second, even after reaching that tipping point, it wasn’t all smooth and perfect. Simply put, there were a lot of individual bad habits that I needed to disrupt. It was not as if I were immediately a financially wise frugal Zen master when I woke up one morning.

For you, this means be patient, even after your partner is starting to make positive moves on their own. They might be getting it, but then they’ll go buy a gadget or go out for an expensive dinner. Don’t blow up – be patient. Give it time and look for ways to find balance between what you want and what they’re becoming.

Plant more ideas for them. If your partner is a reader, put books like Your Money or Your Life or my own book on their bedside table and let them read the books at their own leisure. Send them a link to The Simple Dollar.

The key thing overall is to be patient and don’t give up on them. A radical change in a person’s perspective on how money and the world works never happens overnight. Instead of expecting a thousand mile journey at once, look for the small steps and encourage them.

Eventually, you’ll have a partner who isn’t merely doing things just to please you and get you out of the way, but making financially wise choices for their own benefit.

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6 thoughts on “You Can’t Make Someone Be Who You Want Them to Be

  1. AnneKD says:

    This is also applicable to exercising or losing weight or learning how to do things. Thanks Trent.

  2. Jules says:

    Actually, you can. It’s called “positive reinforcement” and/or “selective bribery” :-) Think of it as training cats :-D

  3. Gretchen says:

    If you were a wife, this could be called “being a nag.”

  4. Evangeline says:

    In order for a person to change, he/she must want to. Otherwise, no matter what method you use, it’s simply beating your head against a brick wall. The best you can hope for is present your case in the best possible light, lead by example and do what you think is right. Hopefully, the other person will catch on. If not, the next step is finding a happy medium. None of these are easy steps, but can be often be achieved.

  5. Eve Mathis says:

    you can give positive reinforcement, talk about “wow look how much money I saved”, or yell. The bottom line for me is you cant make anyone do something unless they want to…I think that in life there are good parents, bad parents, good savers, horrible savers, or ggod cooks and bad cooks etc… LIke I always say ” It is what it is”. I think if I l look back and really look at my partners horrible financial habits when we were dating , the bad financial habits were there ,but I thought he would change..

  6. AniVee says:

    This was a great post, Trent! I was finding the blog a little too “Zen” for my frugalista personality lately but this was Great! In Latinamerica the “iron hand in the velvet glove” is really very effective – patience, patience, positive reinforcement, encouragement … nothing is accomplished immediately…. but can be achieved…” – I used to see this as “manipulative” but if you are really achieveing goals you both really want is the end result, then this is indeed one method that works!

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