I’m Frugal, But My Spouse Is Not

This sentiment comes up quite often in the comments at The Simple Dollar: people leave notes complaining that they make frugal choices, but their spouse interprets that move not as a long term financial benefit but as more money to spend right now. Thus, their frugal ways go without the long term reward – they’re careful about spending their money, but their bank account balance doesn’t seem to grow.

I’m lucky – I have a spouse who is very frugal and has most of the same philosophies that I do. In fact, she’s probably more frugal than I am – her only weakness is books, but she participates in PaperBackSwap to help keep that low. She’s also in line with all of the same goals I have – freedom from debt, saving for major purchases so we don’t have to go into more debt, and so on. Our goal as a family is to eliminate all of our debt by my fortieth birthday – a goal we’re both on board for.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t in such a lucky situation. They may be in sync with their spouses in a number of ways, but in terms of personal spending, they’re in different worlds. Naturally, the frugal spouse is going to be frustrated, watching their efforts dissipate in a spending binge by their spouse. On the other hand, the spending spouse probably feels some frustration too, as their spouse won’t “live a little.”

How can these two sides meet? Here are five suggestions, culled from a number of sources, particularly my own experiences interacting with my spouse and observing couples as well as the excellent It Pays to Talk.

Accept that your spouse is operating from a different set of beliefs than you. You believe in the power of frugal living and have chosen to live frugally – that’s great. Realize, though, that it is a choice and that your spouse has made a different choice. You can’t force someone to make a different choice, but you can convince them over time to make a different choice for themselves.

Accentuate the positives of frugality. Point out some of the most obvious frugal choices and indicate how much of a difference that will make. “If we hold off a year in replacing the car but save up the money now, we’ll save $6,000.” “If we skip out on one shopping spree a month and turn that saved money into one extra house payment a year, we can pay off our mortgage five years earlier – think about how much extra money we would have each month then!”

However, when making spur-of-the-moment entertainment or social choices, suggest frugally but don’t point it out. If your spouse wants to do something today, take the initiative and suggest something that doesn’t break your budget in half. Instead of a trip to the mall, suggest going to a free museum. Instead of going out to eat somewhere expensive, propose that you make a romantic dinner at home. The best tactic is to suggest the idea spontaneously, but don’t focus on the fact that it’s cheap.

Make your saving automatic. One reader had a spouse that, at the end of the month, felt like it was her obligation to spend most of what remained in the checking account under the idea that it was extra money. A much better approach is to treat saving like a bill – set up a separate savings account and have a certain amount transfer to that fund on a regular basis. That way, there isn’t “left over” cash in the checking account and you can use that savings account stash for major purchases, like a car down payment.

Propose “equal spending.” If none of the above work well, propose to your spouse that the “extra” money should be spent equally, then sock yours away. That way, if there’s $200 left to spend at the end of a month, you each take $100 of it, your spouse spends it, and you save it. This works well if it’s pretty clear that your spouse will likely never come around to making frugal choices.

Most of these ideas have one thing in common: they strive to show the benefits of frugality without the preaching. Don’t tell your spouse about how great frugality is and how “bad” they are for not believing in it – that will just drive them away. Instead, walk the walk and let the benefits show themselves – when something goes wrong, just pay for it with the cash you’ve been saving and then suggest that saving money has a lot of benefit. Eventually (hopefully), the power of frugal living will become clear.

Never, ever push it to confrontation, though – that will just result in two unhappy people in a marriage. If you’re constantly telling your spouse to spend less, there is probably already a level of resentment building up, and that’s a tactic that will always end in failure. Instead, focus on being a good example of frugality and when the benefits are clear, point them out. Also, be willing to compromise a little – if your spouse wants to go out to a nice dinner on occasion, go along with it sometimes. Marriage is about compromise, in the end.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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