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How to Talk to Your Financially Irresponsible Partner
My wife Sarah and I have a good financial relationship. Sure, there are times when I feel like she spends too much on things like crafting supplies and extra camping gear, and there are times when she feels like I spend too much — usually on Kindle books or tabletop game items. We’re not perfect by any means, but we’ve reached a point where we’re clearly headed toward our shared goals and we recognize that we both are imperfect and make mistakes sometimes.
It wasn’t always this way. There were many times earlier in our relationship, particularly before we started taking our finances seriously, where we both perceived the other person as being financially selfish. I’d see Sarah getting tons of expensive coffees and believe in my head that she was the one being selfish and causing our financial problems, while she’d see me with a new video game or an armload of new books and believe it was me.
The feeling that your partner is being financially selfish and the cause of your shared financial problems is a common one, and it’s a tough issue to tackle. Often, people don’t know how to tackle that sense of a partner’s selfishness, so they either sit on that negative feeling until it festers and grows into an outburst, or they try to immediately address that feeling in a clumsy way and cause a fight. Obviously, neither one of those outcomes is a healthy outcome.
What should you do, then, if you feel like your partner is being financially irresponsible?
6 things to consider when you feel your partner is financially irresponsible
Remember your partner probably doesn’t feel irresponsible
This is the single most important thing that you need to realize when you’re feeling frustrated by your partner’s irresponsibleness. It is extremely unlikely that they view their behavior as selfish. They likely view their behavior as living a good life, and it’s very likely that it’s a life they want you to share in.
It’s common for you and your partner to believe that the other one is spending beyond a reasonable, unwritten budget. However, if your partner does not view their behavior as irresponsible, you will get negative backlash if you dive in and accuse your partner.. No one likes to be viewed negatively, especially if they don’t see their behavior or mindset as financially irresponsible. They’re going to get defensive, and when someone gets defensive, the conversation is just going to fall apart. You have to take a completely different approach.
Come up with a meaningful alternative
This is the first step in that process. If you want your partner to step back from behavior that you view as irresponsible, there has to be a meaningful alternative they care about and feel like they’re contributing to in a meaningful way. More importantly, just because you care about a goal doesn’t mean that they care. Try stepping back and talking about both of your individual goals, financial and otherwise. What are the things you want out of life in the future? Which of those things are things that you share?
You might find that the things you think that your partner really should care about, the things that they’re being irresponsible by not contributing to, are simply things that your partner doesn’t value. You might be all about early retirement, for example, but your partner loves their job and doesn’t want to walk away from it. You might really want to buy a house together, but your partner likes the apartment you live in now and doesn’t want all of the extra work of home care. You may find you’ve fixated on a goal you view as “shared” because you see benefits for your partner, but it’s not a goal that your partner values at all. That approach will never work. Your partner will resent giving up lots of things they care about to fund a goal that they don’t care about just because you care about it and want to pretend that they do.
Start by asking your partner to define some of the goals they have for their own life. What would their ideal life be like in 10 or 20 years? What would make it great, within the realm of possibility? Make your own list at the same time. Try to make a fairly long list, but stick to things you actually want and care about. It’s a good idea to mark the three to five things you care the most about, but you should list a lot of things. Make it clear that you’re not writing things down just to please someone else, but actually writing down the things you truly want most.
Then, sit down together and compare the lists. They will not fully match, and that’s OK. What you’re really looking at are things that you both deeply care about that also appear on the other person’s list. It’s even better if they are things you both deeply care about, but as long as those key things are things that actually show up on the other person’s list, that’s great.
It’s likely that you’ll have a list of several things that show up on both of your lists. Those are your shared goals. Those are the meaningful things you both want out of your future in the coming years. Those are the things you can present as a truly compelling alternative to the things your partner does that you consider selfish.
Remember to compromise while staying true to yourself
Neither one of you should abandon any of those top five things you care about. Rather, you simply should recognize that goals shared with your partner should at least receive some significant attention and focus from both of you.
However, you can’t expect your partner tot abandon goals that they individually find important that you don’t share, just as they shouldn’t expect you to do the same. Rather, the whole point of this is to define some things that you clearly share and can put at least some of your efforts toward together.
Start contributing to shared goals
This is the point at which you set the stage for a clear alternative for selfish behavior: you simply start defining what needs to happen for these goals to become a reality. Let’s say you share a goal of retiring at 60 so that you can travel more. This is something you both want on your own and both highly value. Great! Now, how do you get there? What do you both need to do to make it happen? In other words, what steps need to occur for you to get from your current situation to that goal? Do you need to save 20% of your income for retirement? Make sure that you are both on the same page about how you are contributing to these shared goals.
Don’t worry about where that money comes from at the monent. Just clearly define the things that would need to be accomplished to get to those goals. Turn it from something nebulous in the future to something you can actually make happen starting right now.
Cut spending together
OK, so how do you get that 20% for retirement? That’s the key question. You’ve got that shared goal clearly defined and you know how to get there, but what does that mean for each of you in terms of actually taking things away from other, less important things in your life?
One approach is to simply go through all of your bank and credit card statements and highlight everything from both of you that doesn’t fall in line with the goal. At this point, it doesn’t matter who is doing that spending — you’re simply trying to establish where that money might come from. Let your partner actually do some of this themselves; invite them to do so. Just have them mark things on bank and credit card statements that aren’t essential and don’t lead to those goals.
The goal here isn’t to cut all of those things, but to better orient all of your spending — both your and your partner’s — towards the goals you share. Do this together and openly. There doesn’t need to be any conversation about who’s to blame; you’re just trying to identify what’s possible. Eventually, you’ll likely discover that if you eliminate these expenses over here, cut these by half, and renegotiate a few bills, you actually can make this work. The goal is real. You can do this.
Use yourself as an example
It is always better to start off using yourself as an example in these kinds of situations. Rather than starting off telling your partner what things they can change, start by talking about the things you can change. What are you willing to give up that you care about? This sets the stage for your partner to do the same.
For example, if you think it’s a really good idea for your partner to have some kind of spending restriction for their “fun stuff” that makes you feel like they’re being selfish, start by putting restrictions on your own non-essential spending. Look at everything you’re responsible for spending money on and identify what you can cut back on.
I find it’s useful to think of these changes in percentages. “I’m willing to cut my book spending in half to make this happen” is the right way to approach this. Why? This gets rid of the issue of inequality in your current spending habits. If you have a less expensive hobby than your partner, for example, asking your partner to give up 80% of that hobby while you give up nothing looks like a raw deal. It gives the strong appearance that you expect them to sacrifice things they care about, while you make much smaller changes. For a shared goal to really be meaningful, there has to be a sense that you’re both giving to it, and the best way to cut out inequity in what you’re both cutting is to focus on percentages.
This sets the stage to let your partner think about what to cut back on and make that decision for themselves. It’s a perfect opportunity for your partner to do a bit of self-evaluation, figure out what things they’re responsible for that are less important to them, and cut back on those things.
Once you’ve decided what to cut, talk about ways to gently enforce it. One good way to do this is for each person to have a credit card with a fairly low limit, that all “fun” spending has to come off of that card, and that there’s a budgeted automatic payment on that card that comes out of the checking account each month. So, you might each have a card with a $1,000 credit limit that can be used for fun stuff and the checking account makes a $300 payment to each card every month. If you run over the limit, then you have to cut back on your own spending. It also means that charging right up to the credit limit means much leaner months as you’re having to pay off interest, too.