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Hard-won tips from trial and error on how to most effectively get your partner on board with financial change. Whether that’s early retirement, upping your savings rate, or just remembering to pay the bills on time, here’s what has worked for us.
The great thing about being an adult is that you get to do whatever you want with your money. Blow it all on champagne and cars if you like, or save it for a rainy day. No big deal.
Except it is a big deal if you’re planning to live your life with someone who has a totally different approach than you do. Say you want to do this crazy early financial independence thing while they are still running the society’s normal playbook. As the one with the unorthodox ideas, your zany ideas are probably viewed as a ‘major change’, with the status quo being the default. So how can you convince your partner to give your way a try?
I met my now-husband when I was 22 years old. He had a strong foundation around living below his means, but the ideas I wanted to implement in order to achieve extremely early retirement were a totally different level for him. In other words, he thought I was absolutely nuts.
I’ve had my own experiences convincing a partner to get on board with major financial change. And you can use the the steps we did to get on the same page, whether you want to retire extremely early, get out of debt, or just increase your savings by a few more percentage points.
Paint a Picture But Give It Time To Set In
Maybe you’ve recently found the FIRE or personal finance community. You’ve been binge reading The Money Habit, Mr. Money Mustache, and dozens of other stories about people who have saved 60%+ of their income and retired decades early. That night you sit down to dinner with your girlfriend.
“How’s your day?” She asks, taking a bit of pot roast.
“Good,” you reply. “I’ve decided I want to retire 20 years early and give up consumer goods, upend our entire way of living, and take a path totally different than any of our friends our family. Sound good? Because obviously I expect you to be on board.”
What do you expect with that kind of announcement? And yet that’s just what many of us filled with FIRE excitement want to do. We want to announce to our loved ones this magnificent paradigm shift. We want to share the fruits of this knowledge with them so that they, too, might benefit. And that’s all great. Except what has been weeks or months in the making for you has been a single moment for them.
You can substitute this conversation for any sort of financial makeover, even if you aren’t particularly interested in early retirement. Maybe it’s just being able to get to a 10% savings rate together instead of living paycheck to paycheck.
In my case, I had been thinking of early retirement since I was 12. So by three months into my relationship with my then-boyfriend now-husband, I made a bit of a mess of things when he asked me about my future plans.
There’s no great way to break the news. What I was contemplating was a life-upending concept. It shattered the status quo. I am not telling you to find a way not to make it earth shattering. I am telling you to revise your expectations of how your partner will react when you first bring it up.
In short, they are likely to push back, panic, or shoot it down dismissively. And you can’t be discouraged. Your real measure of whether you two can get on the same page is a month or two or even 3 months from now. You can’t judge your compatibility based on one conversation about a totally new way of living, particularly when you’ve had much more time to absorb and process your thoughts than the other person has. So remember that the first conversation is just the opening salvo. Measure anything less than throwing you out the window as a success.
You’ll get even better mileage if you set up the conversation from the get-go with a few caveats. What you are about to tell them is pretty unorthodox. You are pretty serious in your thinking about this and it’s important to you, so while you know they’ll probably have strong reactions to what you’re about to say, your plan is to have several conversations about this with them and you’re not looking for anything from them today except just to clue them into your world a little bit. Reassure them that nothing happens that you both aren’t signed off on but that the conversation has to start somewhere.
Find Common Ground
A conversation or two later, come back to the table, and get a sense for where your common ground is. There are two major aspects to a FIRE plan: there is the process and the outcome. Most people react negatively to how feasible they believe the process is. Almost no one has a complaint about the outcome.
So focus for right now on the outcome. Set aside the challenge of how to accomplish it for a separate part of the conversation. Practically no one who would say ‘No, I find traveling the world with you full-time and working on projects we love unappealing.’ When people push back, you need to separate the negativity as being against the outcome vs the process or its feasibility. Ask them to day dream with you just for the space of half an hour of what it would be like to be retired at age ___. Spend that half hour pretending you’re already there. Give it time to set in. Maybe you do this again once or twice.
My husband and I explored and discarded many ideas this way. If we were both retired early, we could spend 2-3 months in different countries, doing slow travel and living in local apartments rather than hotels. We eventually decided that didn’t fit with our timeline for kids, so we discarded it. It was the first exercise, though, where my husband saw how exciting early retirement could be for both of us.
Start Brainstorming Loose Parameters
Here’s where you start putting details to a plan. The bare bones of these plans tend to be straightforward. You need to agree on how much money you’d generally need in your future years, and what the target nest egg amount is to support that life.
Even if your partner isn’t on board with extreme early financial independence, you’ll need to figure out a target nest egg number for retirement anyway. You can pitch it as “let’s find the target number and ignore exactly what timeline we’re trying to hit it.”
My husband and I had a lot of talking to do on this point. When I first asked him how much he thought a family of four would need to retire, his response was $10 million. 10 million?!
I admit I guffawed in an extremely judgy manner. Word to the wise: don’t do what I did. There’s no excuse for being an ass, particularly if you are asking someone to open up and work with you on a thing they don’t currently want to do. Over time I showed him different budgets, solicited our parents for how commentary on how much they spent to support our childhoods, and all sorts of other exercises to get my husband and myself on the same page. It showed him that he could revise his estimates down significantly; after all, we could now point to concrete examples of a standard of living he was happy with that cost a lot less than he’d thought. We eventually both agreed on a target number within $250k of each other. Not perfect, but a far sight better than where we started.
Ask For A Small Step With The Puppy Dog Close
This is where the rubber meets the road. You want to go 60 mph, but you guys are riding a tandem bike that is starting at absolute zero. Your focus should not be on the finish line beyond the horizon, but rather on building momentum.
Pick one or two small things you guys can try. Maybe you’ve determined that you can save 10% more per month by cooking at home instead of going out, or subbing your drinks out with friends with hosting them at your house. Pitch this idea to your partner, and make sure to use the puppy dog close.
Let me introduce you to the puppy dog close.
The puppy dog close is a sales technique that’s been around for ages and was popularized by sales guru Zig Ziglar. Say you’re a family that walks into the pet store. Your kids see a gorgeous litter of puppies and start playing with them. One really stands out, and before long your kids are begging you to bring him home.
There are a thousand reasons to say no! You weren’t planning for a dog right now in your lives. Who will walk him? How much work will he be to potty train? You like your life just the way it is, thank you very much. Maybe you can go home and think about it, and when you’re ready and it’s a better time, you tell the kids, you guys will come back and pick out a puppy.
The kids are wailing. They can’t leave their new best friend! You are stressed out of your mind. And the owner comes by, and he says this: “Take the puppy home for a week. If it doesn’t work out, you can always bring him back.”
How many families do you think end up bringing the puppy back after the week is up?
That is the puppy dog close. You ask someone to take it home, try it out, and they can always go right back to the way things were if they decide they don’t like it.
Odds are your supportive, open-minded partner is willing to give some small thing a try for you.
You’ve got your shot now and that’s fantastic. There’s just one golden rule you must obey when you use the puppy dog close.
You must honor the “return.” If it’s not working out, you need to reverse things back to the way they are.
Since you must obey the golden rule and only get one tryout, you have to make sure not to fuck it up. Yeah, no pressure. Here are a few slightly more helpful suggestions to accomplish that:
- Pick a time frame that gives you a good chance of success. Research shows that it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. I’d be more conservative than that, as new behaviors often involve kinks at the beginning. I personally like the 2-month time window, 3 months if you can get it.
- Work like hell to make sure your partner has a positive experience.
If the goal for the next two months is to see if you can save 10% of your income by cooking instead of eating out, you had better be the one looking up easy one-pot recipes. You suggest a fun date where you make a fail-proof dinner together. You light candles. You do everything you can to ensure your partner sees this change as neutral or net positive to his or her life.
If you succeed at this first step, your partner will be more amenable to exploring other new changes with you. Remember, this stage is about momentum. So pick something feasible and do everything you can to ensure its success.
Your partner is a human being. The key to success here for you both is treating them like one. Don’t rail about how ‘rational’ your approach is, how beautiful, how superior it is. You can work together to address the fears and concerns about the unknown.
With a steady plan to tackle try things out together, and a promise that things can always go back to the status quo after a full faith effort, you will maximize your chances for getting onto the same page. And getting to FIRE as a team is immensely for fun and more effective than going it alone.