What to do if your partner becomes obsessed with tracking your spending

How do I get my partner to dial back her money obsession?

The situation

My wife, Gina, takes care of our finances, including our retirement accounts. Lately, she’s become money-obsessed. She gets alerts whenever we use our credit cards, and she’ll text me asking why I just spent $20 at Shake Shack or at a networking event. A recent dip in the market had her moving money around to different stocks multiple times a week. And don’t get me started on her “bargain hunting.” Every month or so, we have a big fight when she freaks out over my spending. In general, our finances are good, but she makes me feel like we’re on the brink of insolvency. How can I get her to mellow out?

—Fred, Columbus, Ohio

The solution

This is a great question. I spend a lot of my time encouraging people to pay more attention to their finances. But everything in moderation, right? Money isn’t an end; it’s a means. And when tracking every penny starts to matter more than appreciating what those pennies can buy (even if that’s just peace of mind), the goal is lost. It sounds like your conscientious wife may have fallen into that trap. Talking about this with her could be tricky, because she’s likely proud of her frugality—and she may think you’re the problem, not her. But it can definitely be done—especially if you make some changes, too.

  1. Offer to help her out. If your wife has morphed into Scrooge McDuck, you’re partly to blame. She may be anxious that she’s solely responsible for whether the two of you end up retiring in a pup tent in your kids’ backyard, or a beach house on Maui. My advice to all couples is to manage household finances jointly, even if one person does the day-to-day accounting. Ask your wife if the two of you can sit down, perhaps once a month, and review your household spending and progress toward shared money goals. (Make sure she knows this meeting isn’t a performance review, but rather an attempt to partner with her.) Once you’re both on top of the money situation—there are some free tools that can ease the transition—your wife may not feel so overburdened.
  2. Tighten your own spending. I know, I know. You want advice for how to deal with the Money Monster you married (with apologies to the 2016 George Clooney thriller). But it’s easier to do that once you’ve addressed your own bad money habits. From what you say, much of the tension over your spending involves your bills. Networking over cocktails and the occasional meal out seem like reasonable expenses, but is it possible that your tab runneth over? So the next time you’re at Shake Shack and you get one of her superhelpful texts, reply: “Bringing lunch from home tomorrow.” Then, commit to tracking every penny you spend on food and drink for a week, or for a month if you’re brave. Next, look at the data with your wife and the home budget analysis tool on my website. Are there ways to rein in your spending? This whole exercise could address a personal spending issue you’ve been slow to see because you’ve been so focused on her. And the best part: It will show your wife you’re willing to compromise.
  3. Make big changes so there’s less need to sweat the small stuff. I admire your wife’s commitment to bargain hunting, but these financial gains are marginal compared to the big expenses in your life: housing, transportation, and food. Ask your wife to sit down with you and take a look at the bigger picture. Downsizing from a pricey rental or a house with a hefty mortgage may save the two of you hundreds or even thousands a month. Skipping a long commute by working from home or moving closer to your employer can cut down on the costs of gas, parking, and maintenance—or allow you to ditch a car altogether, especially if you’re a two-car household. Cooking at home rather than eating out will take a healthy bite out of your food budget. (See my “Burger Rule.”) If you two make big changes, your wife may not feel she needs to count every nickel and dime.
  4. Point out that overmanaging investments is counterproductive. Slip this into a conversation with your wife: Research shows people who buy and sell stocks frequently actually earn less money from the market than those who buy stocks and then let them sit there. Each time you buy or sell stock, you generally pay a commission, and all those commissions add up and erode your profit. In fact, when two business professors studied the market behavior of a large group of investors, the 20% who traded the most earned 38% less than the 20% who traded the least. In a separate study, one of those professors found that when you sell one stock to buy another, the old stock often outperforms the new one. I’m a big fan of set-it-and-forget-it investing, and of buying index funds rather than individual stocks. Your wife might actually make more money—and produce less adrenaline—if she stops scrolling investing blogs.
  5. Encourage your wife to live a little. I usually preach the gospel of financial prudence, but it’s also important to have some fun (and, yes, savor your occasional ShackBurger). Happy Money, by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and business professor Michael Norton, is full of advice, all based on research, about how to get the most pleasure from the money you have. One of my favorite tips is to prepay for things like vacations, so the “pain of paying” is over by the time you’re enjoying your trip. (The polar opposite of this concept, of course, is debt, which lets you consume now and then pay the piper later; I have yet to meet a single person who enjoys paying their credit card bill.) I hope you’ll both be able to stop worrying so much about money if you start to spend it more meaningfully, to maximize your happiness.


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