When Partners Don’t Cooperate With Setting Goals

Yesterday, I posted an article about setting goals with your partner. In the comments, Brittany left a wonderful question that I felt deserved a post all its own:

What if you have your shared goals, but one partner doesn’t have the financial gumption to see it through? I’m not married, not even engaged, but I’m in a relationship that looks like it might be heading for the long term. But my partner is awful with money and even worse with savings. We have a few shared long/medium-term goals (and one is a life goal of his, so I’m positive it’s not my goal I’m just calling “ours”), but my partner isn’t making any progress towards the goal. He’s far more likely to make a bunch of little frivolous purchases now (”Eh, it’s just $10… its just $20… I’ll save when I have a reasonable amount to save.”)

Normally I try not to push the “gospel of frugality” on anyone, just live my example and take satisfaction from people’s faces and questions when I get to say things like, “Yeah, I know my car (a PT cruiser) is a bit silly-looking, but I paid cash for it when I was still working for minimum wage, so…” But I also don’t have a vested interest in others’ financial futures.

Everything else in the relationship is great, but I can’t see myself becoming financially involved with someone who doesn’t share my financial views (even though this seems like a silly reason to break things off). How do others handle their partners not being on the same financial page as them?

First of all, I would move forward very slow in this relationship. Clearly, the values you have and the values your boyfriend has are in signficant conflict – and if you’re seeing this that early in the relationship, you need to move forward slowly and not jump into anything. I would also, for a very long time, keep your finances as separate as possible.

Value conflicts are the core of virtually every relationship problem out there. Value conflicts are actually resolvable, but they require a willingness by both partners to work through that value conflict, compromise on a solution, and work together to make sure the solution holds.

It sounds as though your partner is not interested in or engaged in long term goals or puts a much higher priority on his own goals than any shared ones you have. That’s in direct conflict with where you’re standing – it sounds like you’re goal-oriented (at least to some significant degree) and are also willing to compromise on the goals you’re both working for.

The only way to resolve this, then, is to simply do what I mentioned above: work through the value conflict, compromise on a solution, and work together to keep that solution in place.

The first part is working through the value conflict. A big part of that is trying to make sure you both understand what each of you value, and how you each act is a very big part of that understanding. By his actions, he seems to put value on short-term rewards for himself.

You can’t really be judgmental here. We all think our values are the best way of doing things or else they wouldn’t be our values (the DINK post from last week is an example of that). The trick is to recognize that not everyone shares our values – and no one likely shares your exact set of values.

Discussions like this are usually painful because when someone you care about says that they don’t share your values, it often feels judgmental no matter how you word it. You have to make it clear that you want to understand what he values and you want him to understand what you value, no judgments or anything.

This requires the ability and willingness to communicate. If you can’t get to this point in the process, then there’s a communication breakdown in a way that will make this relationship very difficult going forward. It will likely require one of you subjugating what you value to the other one, and that’s an unhealthy relationship that either ends up in therapy, an explosion, or with someone in misery for a long time.

The only way relationships work is through compromise – you agree to certain arrangements that allow you both some freedom to retain your values but also respects the values of your partner.

My wife and I compromise on a lot of things. For example, Sarah likes the television series Bones – and I can’t stand it. Sometimes, when I go downstairs after putting the kids to bed, she’s watching an episode of it. Our compromise is that I can just go read a book or something if she’s in the middle of an episode.

However, if I’m doing something similarly engaging that she’s not interested in – say, playing an online game with some friends or something like that – she’ll do the same. She’ll go read a book or something like that.

She doesn’t demand that I stop playing so we can watch Bones. I don’t demand that she stop watching Bones so we can do something more interesting together. We compromise.

Here’s another example that’s money related. Sarah is very, very conservative with investment choices. She does not like her retirement savings to be at risk, even if that means earning less. She would far rather put away more for retirement now and have it be at less risk than put away a little less now and have to take on risk to reach her retirement goals.

I feel differently. I don’t mind some investment risk if the term is really long. Since I’m in my early thirties and don’t intend to touch any of that money for at least thirty years, I have no objection to putting a hefty portion of my retirement into stocks – even foreign stock indexes.

Our compromise? It’s a simple one, actually. She handles her retirement accounts as if I didn’t exist and she was solely responsible for her own retirement. I handle my retirement accounts as if she didn’t exist and I was solely responsible for my own retirement. She has her money in some pretty conservative stuff. I have a target 2045 retirement fund (2045 is a bit past when I actually expect to retire). Add the two together and we have a mix – the majority of the money is pretty conservative (all of hers and a slice of mine) and some of it is in high-risk high-gain areas.

In none of these cases are Sarah and I getting exactly what we individually want. What we do have, though, is respect for what we value and some ability to express that value.

That’s exactly what you guys need to strive for if you want to make this work: respect for what you each value and some ability to express that value. That’s compromise.

So, if you’re a long-term planner and he’s a short-term person who aims to live life fully now, one thing you might want to consider is a “free” account – an amount of money set aside each week/month that he can do whatever he wants with. Perhaps you can even have a small account like this for yourself, if you wish.

That account, though, is the limit of what you can spend frivolously. The money beyond that is set aside for the long-term goals that you guys share.

If your partner rejects such a conversation or any such attempt at a compromise, your relationship is not on a good foundation. If you’re willing to accept his values and bend on yours, then he should be willing to do the same. If he won’t, then he’s requiring you to subjugate your values to what he wants – and as I said above, that won’t end well.

Where can you start? Sit down and talk about this. Try to really figure out what he values. Suggest a good compromise that allows you to keep some significant degree of what you both value. Keep your end of the bargain and live up to the compromise – and see if he’s doing the same. If he’s not, then I would back away slowly from the relationship.