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How to convert your spouse to frugality

Allie Johnson

November 19, 2013

Earlier this year, my husband, Joe, and I got out of debt. That was a fantastic feeling, but there was one problem: We had different visions of life after debt.

I was ready to kick up our saving a few notches to create more financial security. But Joe, after years of penny-pinching, wanted to finally spend freely.

For months, we’d been at an impasse. So I went looking for advice on personal finance blogs, determined to find a way to win him over. I found some great ideas and formulated a plan.

In the end, I got lucky. He recently came across the TLC reality show “Extreme Cheapskates” and put it on our Netflix list because he thought I’d like it. I watched a few episodes one night when he was out.

A couple in one episode reminded me a little bit of a future version of us. They had a cool house filled with eclectic items probably bought at thrift stores, and the guy was really funny. He rode his bike all over town looking for loose change in pay phones and laundromats. A fan of exotic meats, he grossed his wife out when he purchased two cheap goat heads (yes, goat heads) to cook for dinner. I felt sure Joe would like him.

I asked Joe to watch the episode with me the next night. The couple talked about one of their money-saving techniques: going one week without spending any money five times a year (which they estimated saved them $700 each time). And Joe said, “That’s a great idea. We should do that!”

The next morning, as we were walking our dogs, I decided it was time to float an idea. I brought up the couple from the show and mentioned that it was interesting that they didn’t have to work since they looked younger than traditional retirement age. Then I told him I had an idea and he could feel free to say no if it didn’t appeal to him. I said, “What if we were to try to go just one year living only on your income and saving everything I make?”

I had already crunched numbers, so I told him how much I thought we could save in a year.

“Wow,” he said.

“Imagine how great it would feel to have that much money in the bank,” I said.

Then I told him that if we kept going for just five years, we could amass more than a quarter of a million dollars.

He hasn’t agreed yet, but I know he’s interested. I made a sample spreadsheet and started playing around with it so he could see what our budget might look like if we lived on one salary. I plan to give him time to think about it. I’m definitely using “soft sell” tactics here.

Are you trying to convince your partner to become a fan of frugality, too? You might consider trying these four tips for converting a reluctant significant other to a money-saving mindset:

  1. Start by talking about the future. “Paint a picture of the destination,” writes personal finance blogger Mr. Money Mustache, who saved lots of money and then quit his job in his 30s. When I described my idea to Joe, I focused on the good feeling of future financial security, which is more pleasant than thinking about, say, slashing our restaurant budget now.
  1. Talk about what savings can do for you. Both Mr. Money Mustache and Jacob, the blogger behind Early Retirement Extreme, recommend pointing out that money you spend is gone forever while cash you save can earn you more. Jacob writes that he pointed out to his wife that his saved money earns the equivalent of a full-time Wal-Mart salary, so it’s like having someone working for him for free.
  1. Think about what’s important to your spouse. Personal finance blogger Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar recommends compromise. When I talked to Joe, I made it clear that I wasn’t suggesting reducing our “want money” (the amount we each get to spend on anything we want), which is very important to him. I’d be happy with a lot less mad money, but I know deferring to him on that will keep him happy.
  1. Make it as painless as possible. If your spouse thinks he or she will have to suffer for frugality, they’ll probably be less likely to go along with your plans. So, try not to be like the woman on “Extreme Cheapskates,” who got so mad her partner was taking a long shower that she turned off the water while he still had shampoo in his hair and then gloated about how she “made a point.” Instead, Jacob of Early Retirement Extreme recommends cooking $1 meals that taste like $10 meals and bartering or using Freecycle (an online network that lets users swap used items) to get great stuff. I’m already coming up with lists of fun free dates for Joe and me, to help us start our savings journey on a positive note.

While I haven’t yet gotten Joe to officially sign off on this plan, I think he will. And I’m excited about getting frugal again and meeting some huge savings goals.