I’ve been plugging away at the Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month Challenge, and one of the daily prompts is about discussing financial goals with a partner. I am not currently in a relationship, but the writings on this theme have actually helped me in a very concrete way as I head down my road to financial freedom.
I’ve only begun to dive into the world of personal finance blogs, but there is a ton of supportive, encouraging advice to be found. In just my recent readings, I’ve come across a number of posts about discussing finances with a partner:
- Money and Marriage at thefrugalfarmer.net
- Mrs. Frugalwoods talks about Finance Dates at catherinealford.com
- Frugalwoods’ Behind the Scenes of a Happy Frugal Marriage
- Matt from Mom and Dad Money’s Starting Your Marriage on the Right Financial Footing at thefrugalfarmer.net
Why exactly will these tips help me, a single mom of a young adult, get out of debt and onward to financial independence?
Because I’m up against 30+ years of a different mindset toward finances: Myself.
It wasn’t until I started looking at my financial habits from a different perspective that I was able to truly identify ways I could move forward. It’s not that I didn’t want to change before now – but it was too easy to slip back into old patterns a time or two. Thinking about my financial goals as if I’m talking to a different person (and am a different person) has been crucial to the ease with which I’ve changed my former attitude towards “a coffee” here or “a new notebook” there.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when talking with a partner about money is to just start talking about it.
For myself, thinking about my finances in vague terms and having a very general idea of what I owed wasn’t getting me anywhere. I had to sit down and examine every penny of my debt to see the true picture. This meant a good day of looking up online statements, writing everything down, and being a bit horrified as the numbers kept adding up. But as they say, knowledge is half the battle, and instead of a vague “pay off debt and be freeeee” idea floating about, I now had a very concrete number to begin to tackle.
It’s not enough, however, to just lay out numbers and hope for the best. It’s also not enough to lay out numbers and make a plan for killing the debt. Figuring out why you want to be debt free or financially independent is key to being successful. Having a visible goal gives me motivation to slog through the boring times, after the thrill of finding a new project to tackle has worn away to a mundane routine. This has been the hardest piece for me in the past; I couldn’t see past the motherhood/scrimping/paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle I’d been in for some fifteen years. The reality of my son moving on with his own life gave me the push to really evaluate what I want out of my own life, and I realized it’s not punching a time clock 50+ hours a week for the next 25 years!
Among successful marriages and partnerships, checking in with each other regularly is a common practice. I actually think this is even more important when you are solo. There isn’t anyone else to pick up the slack or give you a gentle reminder that you’ve gotten off track a bit, and before you know it, you’re back in a hole. Last year I was pretty smug about my financial outlook — I’d managed to pay off all my credit card debt and had recently financed a vehicle (for the first time ever) which I was not happy about but it was a great rate through my credit union and was easily within my budget.I’d also refinanced my mortgage to a 15-year rate, dropping PMI and at 1.75% less than my previous mortgage but with a slightly higher monthly payment – also within my budget.
Over the course of the year, however, I was still spending as if I had the same wiggle room in my budget as the previous year. I started dating someone and didn’t pay attention to my food and gas expenditures climbing rapidly – we were both pretty frugally minded and enjoyed hiking and cooking from home, so I didn’t think twice about the impact it had on my finances.
Then my family had multiple medical procedures including one urgent surgery, and instead of really buckling down and looking at the true numbers, I let the credit card balance float while we were on vacation. In my head I thought it was maybe $1000 and I’d get that paid off no problem over the summer – my property tax refund would cover the amount if I didn’t. I was still sticking to my “regular” budget, but just the act of ignoring that one debt meant that by the time I actually sat down to figure out my plan for the year that debt had climbed to a LOT more than $1000. A lot. It was used only on vacation, and on nothing extravagant – gas, cheap diners, road tolls mostly – but holy crap, mindless spending adds up fast.
If I’d had a plan and checked in with myself regularly, instead of just assuming things were chugging along happily, I would have seen that pattern emerging much sooner and could have stopped myself in my tracks. I’m not dating at the moment and even though that external motive to spend money is now gone, I constantly have to make sure my internal motives are in line with my new ultra-frugal plan.
The reason I’ve stuck to my new plan for over two months now, through the holidays!, is that I check in with myself weekly. Once a month wasn’t often enough to truly evaluate my progress. This will likely change as my frugal ways become more of a habit, but right now it’s both necessary and fun.
For couples who are on very different ends of the finance spectrum, acknowledging those differences and making allowances for them is often successful. For me, this means that even though I’ve become Uber Frugal and have found it increasingly easy to say no to impulse purchases, I allow myself the room to Say Yes. Being single, my relationships with friends and family are my primary relationships (although I’m sure my pets disagree!), so making allowances in my budget for activities and time with people I love is an important piece of maintaining those relationships.
Ok, so this advice so far isn’t so different from advice given to individuals. What’s the big change in my thinking, then, that comes from reading advice targeted at couples?
I evaluate my decisions as if I am speaking with other people: my Past Self and my Future Self.
This might sound a bit nuts, but it has been the biggest factor in my ability to shift my thinking to a goal-oriented mindset rather than constantly trying to make up for the past.
It’s made such a big difference to my emotional progress around handling money that I even label my debt in my budget as payments to my Past Self. I’ve made a commitment not to just do differently with my money this time, but to be different. I’m no longer a person that feels guilty she financed a car, because my Future Self will be able to pay cash from now on. I’m no longer a person that buys a fancy latte on payday as a treat, because my Future Self would rather work less and play more. I’m no longer a person that feels the need to live for the weekend, because my thinking is already shifting to my Future Self’s life unencumbered by a traditional workweek.
Thinking of my past choices as if they were made by a different person has also been helped by marriage advice:
Appreciate each other’s differences, even as you each change and grow in different ways, and be Gentle in understanding each other’s mistakes.
I am not the same person that I was 20 years ago — none of us are! Being able to grow and learn and change with a partner is one of the greatest gifts we have as humans. It was while reading a Frugalwoods post on their marriage that the concept of my Past Self really clicked. I can’t change the choices I made, but all those choices have led me to this spot right here, where I have some pretty amazing people, critters, and even “stuff” in my life. Historically, feeling bad about my decisions was a big percentage of my thoughts on my finances. But if I were hearing the same story from a friend (let’s call her Past Self), would I be so harsh and judgmental? Of course not! Past Self did the best she could, and sometimes didn’t, but that’s OK because she learned to identify patterns and thought processes that weren’t healthy.
Forgiving oneself is often much harder than forgiving others. But to me, forgiveness is really just about truly understanding someone else. If we can have true empathy for someone’s actions that hurt us, and really know the why of their actions, well, forgiveness tends to follow on its own. We can acknowledge we were hurt and then move on, building a new relationship.
Looking at my Past Self objectively let me better understand the impulses behind my cyclical debt, and focusing on my Future Self and what her life looks like have both helped me better understand who I am right now. I can move forward, knowing that I made mistakes, sometimes more than once, but my relationship with myself and my money is different now.