In our last episode, we reviewed a particularly spirited example of the classic battle over frugality, cheapness, and the freedom to spend one’s own money the way one sees fit. Some version of this same clash is surely occuring a thousand times over in every city of the world on a continual basis, for it lies at the root at human nature itself. This is why I find it so interesting.
For example, while some couples end up at war and never get anywhere, others find that frugality brings peace. Check out this quote from an email someone sent me the very next day in response to that last article:
Another woman shared her story of sudden Mustachianism-induced change the same day:
We could write a whole encyclopedia about personality types, feelings, and relationship dynamics before we even got to the start of what is going on here, then move on to take an expensive series of counseling sessions. But to take a massive shortcut and just go right to the answer, I believe that the biggest cause of fights like this is in our different responses to authority.
Through a combination of genetically-inherited temperament and socially programmed character, we all end up at different places on the obedience scale. Some kids actually listen to their parents and do things like eating whatever is put in front of them at dinnertime, whereas my own son will gladly enter a battle to the death before accepting verbal commands to do something he feels is irrational or unfair.
I could write this off as childish, but unfortunately I am the same way*. If a person or society imposes a rule on me, it had better have some identifiable logical reason behind it. Otherwise, I find myself digging in and willing to fight against it – quite enthusiastically to the death if required. Watching the response of Gimli (that Invincible Dwarf with the Giant Beard in Lord of the Rings) when the prospect of battle comes up, I feel an eerie kinship with the diminutive badass.
So let’s suppose you are the frugal one in your relationship, and your spouse is prone to wasteful spending. Hey, I’m on your side too – most of the shit we spend our money on is rubbish and you end up richer and much happier if you just simply stop buying it. But how do you spread this obvious logic to your spouse?
Well, for starters, you don’t do it by watching over his or her spending and then nagging every time you see something you don’t like. While this is your natural temptation, and it does work for those who happen to have obedient spouses, it will backfire miserably for the other 75% of us. This is because you are trying to impose authority on someone who does not like to be bossed around. Note that in the success stories above, each side was fueled by the positive results of frugality rather than just obediently following the instructions of a spouse.
So instead of nitpicking the symptoms (individual spending decisions), you need to address the root cause: Your Goals in Life.
This step may take minutes, or it may take years.
There are plenty of good Whys out there, but they can be elusive at first. My own Why is simply “to live the best life possible”, from which stems a desire for health, personal growth, free time to explore my interests and even more free time to raise my son. I found that none of these could be optimized with a full-time job getting in the way, so my very first task was eliminating dependence on that job.
When you add in the environmental side of things and the fact that to waste natural resources is quite simply to be an asshole to all other humans and other living beings on the planet, the choice for me became even clearer.
Some people might get stuck with irreconcilable differences at that very first step. A vegan might find it unacceptable for moral reasons to live with an omnivore like myself, for example. And I’m personally stubborn enough that I couldn’t live with someone who insisted on a full-sized SUV for personal transport. Better to just sidestep such lifelong conflicts instead of spending a lifetime fighting them. But if you’re already locked in with a wife and kids, it is time to be more patient and creative because honoring your responsibilities comes above serving your own personal ideology**.
Once you can agree on your definition of The Best Life Possible, it often helps to start by Painting the 10-Year Picture.
For example, one brilliant reader named Andy wrote in and shared a story of his own success at flipping the frugality switch. His approach in a nutshell was, “If we keep doing what we are doing now, here’s where we will be in 10 years. But if we do it this other way (sell the expensive car, pay off our debts, live a different way), we will be over $200,000 further ahead, which will make our lives much better.”
He conveyed this message by giving a slightly silly Powerpoint presentation to his own wife. And the results were so good, he sent in the slides to share with you:
Make Our Money Sing: A Money Mustachian Adventure
Most people cannot see the connection between lattes, sandals, V-8 engines, and a million dollars. But it’s really there – changing relatively simple spending habits will indeed make the difference between Broke and Millionaire over a reasonably short time period. A slideshow like that one makes the math clear.
Other people might be more impressed by emotional appeals rather than monetary ones. The fact that you start living more happily immediately when you spend more time outdoors, for example. The relationship between debt, stress, and death. The idea of retiring in your 30s or 40s instead of after you get your discounted senior citizen bus pass. Or the incredible benefit of not having to worry much about money and careers when you’re busy with the bigger job of raising your kids.
All of these things are the direct result of living a frugal lifestyle, which is in turn just a slight change to a few dozen little daily life habits. These little changes are ridiculously effective, and also ridiculously easy, which is why I find it ridiculous that almost everyone is broke in this country except those with such ridiculously high incomes that they can’t manage to spend it all.
But the enforcement over those little decisions needs to come from within each person, rather than from an outside authority or an angry budget. You can make yourself save, and Mr. Money Mustache can make you save because you’re reading this freely and then independently deciding whether or not to implement it. But your husband or wife can not make you save. At best, they can only inspire you to want to save.
On the other side of the coin, the Frugality Enforcers among us may need to sit back and do their own math. If you are already saving over 50% of take-home pay, for example, the odd indulgence will not derail your dreams of early retirement. And if your income is really high, you can indulge almost constantly – you just have to be a bit strategic and avoid the biggest money pits like luxury cars, long commutes, and yachts. My own frugality is hampered by my taste for luxurious housing and food, for example. But by approaching these luxury add-ons as part of a generally calculated and frugal lifestyle, the bank is not broken and the family’s spending still ends up around $2000 per month.
In fact, I find that allowing yourself to be imperfect enhances the experience of being human. Beer and wine are bad for me, but I still get drunk occasionally. I know that luxury is just another weakness, but I still indulge in it occasionally. The key to all this is to acknowledge that you are doing something unnecessary and slightly wimpy, laugh at yourself, and then do it anyway with full gusto. Then you’re free to get back to your normal disciplined self in regular life.
Start with your regular life. Start introducing challenges for yourself which build your Frugality Muscle. Embrace the successes and laugh at the inevitable failures. Note how quickly this becomes fun and makes life worth living. Now throw in the odd unnecessary luxury and laugh again at how large and decadent your life is. You could do this all day. What were all those other people whining about who said this would be hard?
*And have been since birth according to Mom. This is why I cut my own son some slack for his stubbornness, and attempt to use rational logic rather than fist-backed discipline to do my half of the family’s management.
**Which sounds a bit Unyielding and Old Testament, but the science on happiness seems to back this up: being honorable and consciously choosing to serve others leads to a happier life, because you’re constantly challenged and reassured that you are doing the right thing. Making selfish choices is like having that third piece of cake: thrilling initially, but quickly followed by a much longer period of unhappiness and repercussions.