One of the interesting things when discussing financial independence (FI) is hearing other people’s rationalisations why it’s not possible for them.
One that often comes up is the spouse that is not on board with the programme:
Yeah, all that freedom sounds very nice Mr TEA, but my situation is different. You see my wife would never agree to cutting our spending and pursuing financial independence…
Possibly because The Escape Artist is a bloke, I hear this more frequently from guys than I do from women. But it can definitely cut both ways – there are plenty of frugal girls and spendy guys out there.
This week’s article is going to stray onto the subject of relationships, which is ironic as The Escape Artist has never been accused of being an expert on relationships. Quite the contrary. But, whilst there may be several billion people better at relationship stuff than me, very few of those write entertaining English language blogs about financial independence. So here we go.
I advise putting FI on the table as early as possible in your relationship. If you are single and looking for a partner, when you meet someone new you want them to know asap that you are not a consumerist muppet and why.
Remember debt is invisible. You can’t see a prospective partner’s overdraft or County Court Judgements in a nightclub, but you can see their bling. So idiot spenders can sometimes enjoy a temporary unfair advantage in the mating market.
In contrast, you are an enlightened person that wants potential partners to judge you by your character, intelligence and values, not by your clothing logos or car badge. So explain your values to potential mates early. I know…duh!
If you are already in a longer term relationship, then you may have had a spendy past but now want to change and head towards FI. I call this lifestyle disinflation – the process by which you squeeze out your more wasteful spending habits whilst improving your life at the same time.
I originally met my wife at University. At the time I lived in a student house that was a downmarket version of the house in The Young Ones. If you met your wife in these circumstances, you can be confident that she is not a gold digger. Back then my only assets were good legs (from rowing), a schoolboy sense of humour and an absence of STDs.
Time passed, we got jobs and moved to London where spendy consumerism can creep up on you imperceptibly, like a frog being boiled in a pan. Our lifestyle inflated and outgoings ratcheted up. My favourite example of our spending in London was when our cat seemed unhappy, we got an animal pyschologist to visit our house and diagnose the issues from her kittenhood. It was about this time that I realised there was probably some scope to cut back our spending.
You can reverse the ratchet and implement lifestyle disinflation. You can also take your Special Love Muffin (SLM) with you on this journey but its important to communicate as early, deeply and often as possible on this stuff.
Do not assume that they will magically “get it” by process of osmosis. Remember you are up against the most powerful pressures in the world – the combined forces of peer pressure and global capitalism.
You need to be clear and upfront on why you are cutting spending and what the advantages will be for them. Aim high: you don’t just want their grudging tolerance (although that would be a good first step) you will be wanting their full support and love. You will need to win hearts as well as minds to co-opt them onto your Escape Committee.
So, without further ado, here is The Escape Artist’s easy to follow guide to getting the approval of your Escape Committee:
1. What’s the worst that can happen?
The reason most people fail is that they don’t even try. When guys say: “My wife would never agree” they are revealing that they haven’t ever had the conversation. As Steve Biddulph says in Manhood, too many guys do all their fighting in the office. Stressed and tired by commuting and office politics, they can’t face the prospect of more arguments at home about money.
Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen? The unspoken fear is that their partner will dump / divorce them and they will then be forced to live alone in a bedsit eating Pedigree Chum on special occasions and roughing it the rest of the time. This is unrealistic.
Give them some credit – after all, they chose you. The worst that should happen is that you don’t agree immediately. You can always try again later. Like they say in the self-help books: not asking is an automatic No!
2. Do your homework
Before I told my wife I was going to quit work, I had been reading FI books and blogs and listening to podcasts for several months. Do your homework. If your idea of research is typing: “How do I get Rich Quick?” into Google, you are not trying hard enough.
Prepare for The Talk with at least as much commitment as you would prepare for a major presentation at work. You’d never go into an important work negotiation without having defined your own objectives, done your background reading, put yourself into the shoes of your counterparty and worked out what you are going to say. So why would you do any less before The Talk? Details matter: pick a time and venue that gives you the space to talk freely when you wont be interrupted by children / email / whatever.
3. Start with your own actions
You don’t need to wait for your spouses consent to change your own spending decisions. We should always start by improving the things we can control: ourselves.
In relationships, that means getting your own shit together and leading by example before you can persuade your SLM to make changes. Why should Imelda ease back on the shoes if you are still pissing away money on golf bats, loud chequered trousers and SUVs?
If your partner sees you cut out spending on things they know you previously valued, they know this is an honest signal and this is not just some trick to deprive them of goodies.
4. They did it…why cant we?
Show your SLM some examples they can relate to. Find examples of FI amongst people that seem comparable in terms of age, geography, values, family set up etc.
I knew that my wife would ignore any lifestyle example that didnt include raising a young family. So I got my wife to read Mrs Money Mustache’s articles on the MMM blog. These were harder to ignore…these people seemed like good parents and they’d made FI work.
5. Understand their perspective
As it says in The Seven Habits: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and focus on what is important to them. Only after your partner feels they have been listened to and understood will they be receptive to listening to your proposed changes.
If family and children are the most important thing for your partner, then focus on the upsides of FI that matter to her: no money worries when raising children, more of your time, help and parenting input because you will no longer have to split your time four ways between home, commuting, cubicle and business travel. Who wouldn’t welcome having a partner that is not grumpy from their job?
I used to wonder why my wife cared more than I did about what other people around us thought. A little bit of evolutionary pyschology is helpful here. In pre-history, women probably needed support from the rest of the tribe more than men. It takes a village to raise a child and sensible women would have formed a network of close relationships to support them during the inevitable hard times that could strike at any time. Particularly if your idiot husband got himself killed showing off hunting.
6. Explain the higher purpose
One of the (many) mistakes I made was not communicating clearly enough the purpose of saving and my frugality. My wife used to ask…what is the point of all this saving? This is not an unreasonable question. For many years I didn’t have a clear enough answer for her. I hadn’t seen anyone else around me achieve FI so I wasn’t sure it was even possible and I didn’t want to sound like an unrealistic idiot.
It should be obvious that saving a few quid on the groceries each week is not an end in itself. It is the accumulation of those savings, invested and compounded, that allows you to achieve freedom and spend time with the people you love, doing things that make you happy. Think about what lies at the top of the pyramid of financial independence.
Be ready to explain the difference between frugality and cheapness. Buying Christmas decorations once and re-using them each year is being frugal. Buying a Poppy once and then re-using it each year is being cheap.
7. Agree what you can agree
Rome was not built in a day and you are never going to cover everything in a single conversation. FI cuts across all aspects of life(house, car, job, children, schools) so don’t try to deal with everything at once.
Be calm, be persistent, show them you mean business and are prepared to be patient. When you seem like you are at an impasse, try not to get too frustrated. Bank the areas of agreement and come back to the other points at a later date. Be like the water that eventually wears down the stone.
Its helpful to start by finding some quick and easy wins that you can both get behind. This starts the process of co-operation and helps you away from arguing about how to split the cake and towards co-operating to make the cake bigger.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it.
It turns out this relationship stuff is actually not as hard as I’d thought! Believe me, if The Escape Artist can do this, you can too. What’s next? Perhaps we can get David Beckham to blog about how to solve thermodynamics equations?