Sarah and I are frugal people. We like to cook at home. We fill our free time with lots of low-cost activities. Our social calendar involves a lot of potluck-style dinner parties. We often do things like make our own laundry detergent. We like to calculate the cost of everything.
Still, there are lines we don't like to cross. We do not like to make other people feel uncomfortable in our home for any reason - we try really hard to treat guests as well as possible. We don't skimp on things we truly rely on and will invest in things that will last for many years. We are pretty generous with gifts, too.
To us, that's a line of "cheapness." Being "cheap," in other words, means that you're doing things in a way that increases personal difficulty far beyond the amount you save or that you're treating guests in your home in a poor fashion. At least, that's our definition of "cheap." On the other hand, "frugal," to us, means that you're maximizing your balance of low price, time, and personal value.
These aren't hard and fast terms - they have a lot to do with personal opinion. I view it as a spectrum, actually, where there are a lot of things in the middle that some people could view as frugal while others would view them as cheap. That line has a lot to do with personal experience, income, and other factors.
Thankfully, Sarah and I are in pretty close agreement as to what is "cheap" (which we want to avoid) and what is "frugal" (which we encourage and celebrate).
Unfortunately, there are many couples out there who aren't in close agreement at all when it comes to the line between "cheap" and "frugal." The end result of that kind of disagreement is that one partner will do things that he or she considers "frugal" - meaning they think of it as a good thing - while their partner sees the very same action as "cheap" - meaning they think of it as a bad thing.
For example, a recent email from a female reader (who asked me not to publish her story, but was okay with me "retelling" it, which is why this isn't in a reader mailbag), who we'll call Mary, told her tale of being very frustrated with her husband, who we'll call Jeff, who won't sell an extremely rusty car that has holes in the floorboard that allow you to see the ground below (it's now covered up with a chunk of plywood). He also refuses to go out to eat anywhere and eats leftovers that are more than a week old. These behaviors, which she calls super cheap, really bother her.
The real problem is this: They have different ideas of where the line between "frugal" and "cheap" happens to be. Clearly, Jeff's line between frugal and cheap is well into the area of things that Mary defines as cheap. Thus, there's a big set of things that Jeff finds "frugal," while Mary finds those same exact things to be "cheap."
This is bound to cause arguments between Jeff and Mary - and it's completely understandable as to why. They have different views on what is appropriate use of the financial resources they share. Mary gets frustrated because Jeff won't spend money on things she really feels need to be taken care of, and, although I didn't hear from Jeff, I'm sure that he often feels frustrated because Mary spends money on things he views as basically unnecessary.
So, how can Jeff and Mary resolve this? How can anyone resolve a conflict like this?
Step One: Communicate Without Anger
The most important thing to do whenever there's a conflict in values like this is to simply talk about it without getting angry. Neither Mary nor Jeff are trying to make their spouse upset - unless their marriage is truly dysfunctional, they don't want their spouse to be upset.
So, the first step is to avoid anger when handling this situation. When people get angry, they get irrational. They become defensive about their position and refuse to change things, even if it's the right move. Anger is poison to any discussion or compromise or solution.
If you feel yourself getting angry about your partner's spending or cheapness, spend some time calming down about it. Figure out why you're angry when your emotions aren't boiling. Work through the exact problem that caused you to be upset. What did they do that you disliked? Why did you dislike it?
When you feel calm about the situation, have a conversation about it. Sit down together and air out the situation that is causing you discomfort. What is your partner doing that makes you unhappy? Why is it making you unhappy?
Step Two: Look for Compromise, Not Absolute Change
It is unfair for anyone to expect their partner to change to match exactly what they want. Your partner is an independent person with values that are going to be somewhat different than yours on various things. If you truly expect that your partner should change his or her practices or viewpoints just because you want them to, then you're looking for a robot, not a partner. That's not how relationships work.
Relationships work because you figure out ways to accept each other's differences some of the time and you figure out ways to compromise in other areas.
I'll give you an example from our own marriage. Sarah is very passionate about martial arts training. She has involved all three of our children in it - in fact, the only reason I'm not doing it right now is because there are child care needs during the adult classes, and that may change in a few years when our whole family can attend adult classes. She doesn't hesitate to spend money on the necessary gear: uniforms, protective pads for sparring, boards for breaking, and so on. I personally feel like she spends too much on this hobby.
On the other hand, I am passionate about board games. This isn't exactly a secret to those who have been reading the site for a while. I love sitting down at a table with friends and with new people and enjoying a game with them - it's a social lubricant and a thinking experience all rolled up into one package. Of course, that means that sometimes I buy more games than I should and I tend to overstuff our two shelves devoted to board gaming. I'm sure that Sarah personally feels like I spend too much on that hobby.
So we compromise. Instead of me demanding that Sarah spends less on martial arts or that I spend less on board games, we each agree that we can each spend a reasonable amount each month on whatever we each want. All bills are open to both of us to look at and if it ever looks like that amount is being exceeded or anything, we have a conversation about it. Other than that, we just move forward with our compromise.
So, what can Jeff and Mary do to compromise in that situation? Perhaps Mary could identify a few of the things that she really feels need to be repaired or replaced and they agree to spend the needed money to take care of it, but then Mary steps back and accepts that they're saving money on some other things in their life and appreciates the positive impact it has on their accounts. Perhaps they could replace the car as Mary wants, but then stick to home-prepared meals as Jeff wants (while maybe finding a more food-safe leftover rotation system).
Step Three: Revisit Past Compromises, Especially the Successes
Often, a good compromise will just work. It will fulfill the most urgent part of each person's needs and desires and just click right into place without a second thought. Sometimes, it will take work to make a compromise fit.
What I've found over the years is that when you're working on a new compromise, revisiting old ones - particularly the successes - can go a long way toward making you both want to work toward a new compromise.
For example, Sarah and I have compromised on our housing several times over the years. For one of our moves, we moved to the place that Sarah wanted to live, but I was able to convert most of a spare bedroom into a home office that gave me the space to launch and build The Simple Dollar into a success. For another move, we moved to a place where I led the charge, but Sarah had a ton of input on how we ended up planning out and organizing the various rooms. In both cases, we wound up pretty happy - the compromise worked each time.
Now, when we discuss compromises and they're a bit difficult, we can talk about how we've worked things out in the past and it goes a long way toward making compromise seem like a great solution. We're both willing to work a little harder for a compromise because we can see how it's worked in the past.
Step Four: Revisit, Remix, Remake
Sometimes, a compromise just won't work. Sarah and I have tried some "division of household labor" compromises that just flat-out failed. It happens. It's okay.
If you find that a compromise just isn't clicking, don't be afraid to look for ways to rework it. For example, perhaps Jeff really feels that the best car solution is to drive that car until it doesn't run any more but is more willing to eat out on occasion instead. Jeff and Mary might find that it's a better compromise for them than buying a new car and continuing to eat at home for every meal.
For Sarah and myself, we just kept trying different approaches to make it work until we've found some balances that really work well. For us, it works well to do things in "phases," where when one of us is really busy with work, the other one steps up for a while, and then when things return to normal, the other person takes a larger load of household chores. Rather than formalizing things, we've just found that this works well as a natural compromise and it only comes up for discussion if one of us feels like it's currently a bit out of whack.
Don't be afraid to abandon compromises and go back to the drawing board if it's not working. Try adjusting the compromise a bit, or try something completely new. Again, this should not be a source for anger. If you're angry, wait until your anger is out of the way before discussing things.
The key to any value disagreement in a marriage is communication and compromise. It's pretty hard to turn away from your spouse if they're telling you sincerely how much they value certain things and that they're willing to compromise on other things to make it work. If you put your best foot forward, your spouse likely will, too... and if he or she will not, then there are bigger issues at work than frugality and cheapness.