happy monday, friends! here in the u.s., it’s the presidents’ day holiday, which we’re convinced is just an excuse to have a long weekend for skiing in february. but if you’re off today, hope you’re getting some extra time to relax!
in honor of valentine’s day yesterday (which we didn’t celebrate with chocolates or gifts or a fancy dinner out — not because we’re holier than thou about valentine’s spending — just because we never think of such things), we got to talking about how we’ve grown up together over the years. and, as often happens these days, we talked specifically about how we’ve grown up in our views around money. we’ve talked about parts of this before, like how we went from ballers to savers. but to us, it’s more than just a question of changing our habits — it’s really about evolving together as a couple.
we met when we were 24 and 27 (we’re now 36 and 39), which seems both like a lifetime ago, and like it was just yesterday. at those ages, there was already a lot we knew about ourselves, and our values were pretty much identical to what they are now: we both wanted to do good in the world, and we wanted to live lives of adventure and creativity. we didn’t have a lot of the particulars envisioned yet, in terms of where we wanted our lives to go, but we already knew what we stood for, what we believed in, what was important to us.
what was less formed about us — what carl sagan might have called our financial primordial soup — was our behavior around money. take me, for example. i had been promoted once or twice but was still earning essentially an entry-level salary. despite that, i had $12,000 in credit card debt, a $16,000 car loan, and most of my $10,000 in student loans still to pay off. i had no emergency fund, and lived paycheck-to-paycheck. solidly in negative net worth territory. and yet i regularly shopped for clothes and shoes, which i justified as needing so that i could project a certain image at work. (can we all please recognize what negative spending habits are reinforced by the mantra, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”?) then there was mr. onl, who had been promoted several times, had already paid off his credit card debt, had a good start on his 401(k), but was definitely living a bachelor lifestyle — fancy home theater, fast car, new year’s trips to exotic locales with the guys.
in short: neither of us was anything close to a financial role model.
we’ve gotten the question several times in comments and via email about what advice we’d give for how to choose a frugal life partner. and we couldn’t tell you, because neither of us has ever done that. if either of us had decided that bad financial habits were a relationship deal-breaker, we wouldn’t be together today. and that would for sure have ended up being the biggest mistake we ever made.
this is of course something we can only see in hindsight, but it’s clear that we based our decision to stay together on the important stuff: our core values. and on those, we’ve always aligned pretty close to 100 percent. we are both honest with each other, we value people and experiences over things, we don’t care about status (ahem, airline status notwithstanding), and we enjoy spending time together more than anything. we seemed to know intrinsically that all of that was the important foundation, and that the money piece could grow out of that. that we didn’t need to be fully formed adults on the money part, and could grow up together on all things financial. and that’s exactly what has happened. but — and we think this is super important — we knew we could figure the rest out because our relationship has always inspired both of us to be better. that goes for everything — being better partners, being better in our careers, getting better at adulting, you name it.
one of the things we also talked about yesterday was ends versus means. we’re convinced that some people find the means satisfying. people who truly love running, and would do it even if they weren’t training for a marathon. people who love being frugal for its own sake, whether or not they have some bold financial goal. but that’s never been us. we are all about the ends. we need goals. and early on, we opened up about our finances, and decided that resolving my debt was our first joint financial goal, and spent two years totally focused on that. mr. onl paid the rent and most expenses, and i paid off debt. (this was before we were married, so we hadn’t combined our finances, but we still approached our money as a team sport.) though we didn’t realize it at the time, it was the first time either of us stayed focused on a financial goal for an extended period, and the fact that we did it together certainly boded well for our future trip down the early retirement path. but we weren’t magically transformed at that point — our highest spending years were still ahead of us.
after dispatching the debt, we had a few years of mediocre saving, because we didn’t have any big goals in our minds. it was in the mid-2000s, before the end of the housing bubble was in sight, and it was feeling like we’d never be able to afford to buy a home. so instead of saving for a home, we traveled and dined out a ton. we still don’t regret those years, because we’ll always have the memories from them (to maggie’s dismay, we ate gold, more than once!), but they’re a reminder to us of what happens when we don’t have goals, or maybe instead what happens if our goals are purely present-focused (because on some level we very deliberately chose to live that type of lifestyle, and to spend our money that way).
some of the gold leaf that snuck onto our desserts during our most recent trip to london
fortunately, it wasn’t long before we decided that we wanted to save for a home, and that new goal gave us purpose in saving money. and since that day, we’ve never stopped saving, we’ve only accelerated our saving, thanks to a succession of new goals that we’ve formulated and committed to together. first we saved to buy our first home, and then we kept on saving to pay for improvements to it, and then to buy our “forever home,” and then to begin funding our early retirement accounts. that last goal marked a turning point, because, prior to starting to save for early retirement, all of our goals were short-term, something we’d focus on for at most a year or two. but as we got stronger at envisioning goals and achieving them, our focus started to shift from the present to the near-term and finally to the long-term. our goals now stretch out 50+ years in front of us, which is a far cry from where we started 12 years ago. and we hope to have many more years in front of us than we have behind us, and it’s exciting to know that we’re going to grow a lot more together in that time.
so in the end, it’s probably not so surprising that we’d say our view on relationships is a lot like our view on life generally: focus on values first, and let the money follow. in life, figure out what’s most important to you, and spend accordingly. in relationships, make sure you are with a partner who shares your values and vision, and — assuming you have a solid foundation of openness and trust — it’s okay to let the money stuff evolve over time. you certainly do not have to have it all figured out — or be perfect adults! — from day one. we sure didn’t.
we’d love to hear from you guys! do you see bad financial habits as a deal-breaker? anyone else had a great experience of growing together with a partner and putting bad habits behind you, like we did? please share in the comments!