My 2016 Budget Challenge: How to Turn Your Spouse Into a Money Saver

[Editor's Note: This is another episode in Max Wong's journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

My husband, Mr. Spendypants, grew up as the youngest of six kids, so he pretty much hates hand-me-downs of any sort. Except for food. He's like a coyote with leftovers.

It's not that he's fiscally irresponsible, he is just averse to stuff he sees as weird penny pinching. Like his refusal to use cornstarch to prevent jock itch — as opposed to the much more expensive baby powder — even though (as I have pointed out to him) the bottle of baby powder he uses reads: CONTAINS 100% CORNSTARCH.


Even so, I have managed to successfully inch him onto my $31,000 savings plan this year through a variety of nefarious ways.

I Own My Crazy

If you have been following this series (and you can, right here!), it should be obvious to by now: I am the bonkers one in my marriage. Finding an extra $31,000 in the household budget is just one of my goals for 2016. I am also trying to downsize my personal possessions to just 1000 personal items. (FYI: This does not include shared tools or furniture. I count personal possession as items that I use 95% of the time, that I paid for, and that I brought into my house). So yes, it does pain me to come home to discover that my husband has gone out and purchased more stuff that has to be stored and dusted.

However, I know that my position on ownership is on the extreme side of extreme. My husband's desire for material goods is not more or less stupid than my desire to travel more. My fever to save $31,000 is exactly the same. It's my fever. Mine. His main motivation for even participating in this budget challenge is not financial independence. He's doing it to make me happy. Every time he puts more money into savings, I acknowledge this act of love.

We Share a Goal

Although my husband previously had no burning desire to pay down our debt this quickly, he does want to fulfill his lifelong goal of traveling to Easter Island. He wants to take this trip for his 50th birthday. Funnily enough, I also want to take this trip for his 50th birthday. Mr. Spendypants just turned 48. Neither of us will be able to afford to go to Easter Island in two years if we don't pay down our debt this year so we can save up the money next year for that adventure.

We Compromise

Compromise seems like an obvious solution, but more marriages end over money than any other reason, so clearly this advice is easier said that done.

I can cut my expenses to the bone. I have enough free entertainment in the house to last me for years. So does my husband. However, it would be very hard for me to sell him a cut-to-the-bone budget that doesn't sound like sacrifice to him. Instead, we created a budget for luxuries. We both agreed on the amount, but what is purchased out of the account is up to him. So, I never have to ask him whether this new guitar pedal or that lunch out is really necessary. My only question is: Will this fit in the luxury budget?

We Accept That Different Saving Strategies Aren't a Separate Vision

My husband and I both have similar retirement aspirations. We'd love to live abroad and spend our days on simple hobbies like listening to music, cooking, and reading. If I had my druthers, I would have moved to Rome six years ago, even if that means working as a janitor until I keel over. (Not that there is anything wrong with being a janitor, just that I hate dusting). But, Mr. Spendypants really loves his Los Angeles-centric work that also happens to pay well. I would rather be in a happy marriage and retire abroad at 65, than make my husband miserable and retire at 55. A decade more in Los Angeles won't kill me.

We Make the Cuts That Don't Sacrifice Lifestyle First

If we waste food or any other consumable, we really aren't spending money wisely. If we are wasting food, then we won't miss it at all if we don't buy so much in the first place. We can save money and the planet without feeling the slightest financial pinch.

Last year, Mr. Spendypants decided that he needed a tablet for work so he bought a refurbished iPad Mini. So far, the quality of his work has not been impacted by the fact that he spent $300 on a used machine, instead of buying a new iPad for $450.

Waste doesn't only apply to physical objects. I switched from a 12GB data plan on my phone to sharing 3GB with my husband when I realized that we weren't using close to 12GB per month even though I live on Instagram. If I go over the limit on the 3GB data plan, it still costs $20 less per month than the 12GB plan, even if I get dinged with a $15 overage fee. If I went over the limit every month, I would still save $240 a year on our phone bill.

Because I started our saving strategy by asking to cut the waste and not the fun from our budget, Mr. Spendypants saw that our huge savings in January had no downside. This was so exciting to him that he has tried to match that same rate of savings every month, even though that has meant making cuts that he can feel.

We Delay Gratification

Delayed gratification is not deprivation. I am lucky that my husband is not that guy who wants the coolest phone always. But even if he were, I still think I could get him to switch out his phone every 18 months instead of every 12 months and save 33% on phone costs.

Although it's counter-intuitive, recent scientific studies that show that anticipation actually increases the pleasure of consumption, especially when it comes to spending money on experience-based purchases. Instant gratification is just that — it gratifies for just an instant.

Mr. Spendypants has a wish list. At the end of year, if we've paid down the $31,000, he's going to buy the stuff on that list as his reward for being patient with his stubborn wife. I have a sneaking suspicion that as the months go by, his interest in owning some of the wish list items will wane because his savings account will look so much more attractive by comparison. Also, if he really wants to go to Easter Island, then that's where he should spend his money.

We Find Role Models

Our friend Martin and his wife work just the minimum amount necessary to maintain their health insurance. They aggressively worked to pay off their house in just a few years. Their kid goes to public school. Because they have both figured out how to work from home, they don't pay for childcare.

Because they made very smart financial decisions and continue to live below their means, Martin and his family go out to eat and attend more cultural events than pretty much anyone we know.

I recently pointed out to Mr. Spendypants that Martin's family actually lead a very decadent life of near leisure. Because Martin and his wife have similar jobs and interests to us, it's easy for me to show that my push for financial independence is do-able. If Martin can do it with a kid, we can certainly do it as two employed adults.

We Do the Math

Like many Americans, my husband didn't understand how compound interest could be a financial tool, not just the punishment for using a credit card. Once I showed my husband with a simple debt calculator how much money we could save if we got aggressive with paying down our debts early, he started looking for ways to reduce debt too. In fact, he's so on board with the math that he's currently trying to refinance his home loan to one where he actually pays more principal!

We Accept That Not Everyone Loves Spreadsheets

I have friends who are superhuman when it comes to Microsoft Excel. They use it for everything from tracking garden harvests to creating custom knitting patterns. Even though looking at budgets is a major part of my job, I hate making spreadsheets. I find them personally crazy-making.

More complex financial tools like credit cards and spreadsheets are actually overwhelming or just straight up annoying to many people. It took me a year of nagging to get Mr. Spendypants to get on Mint, even though it only takes 30 minutes to set up an account. If I could accrue airline mileage by paying cash, I would ditch my credit card in one hot second and use the envelope system because it's visual and completely concrete. There's no technology to master or hidden fees associated with zero based budgeting. Simplicity is my friend when it comes to keeping track of my finances.

(So, before you give up on your partner ever sharing your financial values, make sure that it's really the values they don't agree with and not the presentation they find troublesome).

We Aren't Jerks

There's truth to the old maxim: "Happy wife, happy life." I make a concerted effort not to roll my eyes every time my husband backs another Kickstarter board game campaign. Financial independence will not bring me inner peace if it comes at the cost of my marriage.

Life partners often have different values about money stemming from how they were raised. I have friends who grew up in dire poverty who value financial stability to the point that they would rather be single than in a relationship with someone who doesn't have a high-paying job. My bookkeeper is a scion of a bookkeeping family. She grew up thinking that everyone made spreadsheets to track their babysitting money. But, many people grow up in homes where money and money problems are never discussed. Because Americans are more likely to share information about their sex lives than their budgets, many people grow up financially illiterate.

My husband grudgingly agreed to support this experiment out of love for me, not out of a burning desire to understand the difference between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA. So, as much as I'd like to hustle our savings plan along at a breakneck pace, I'm making every effort to be patient with his learning process, which, to his surprise, he's greatly enjoying. Taking control of your personal finances is empowering.

Mr. Spendypants has, so far, enjoyed this public challenge more than we both expected, in part because the reader reaction has been so positive. He anticipated that we would be flayed by the commentariat and that has not been the case. Thank you, dear readers.

Progress Report

Uhn. The $31,000 budget challenge took a lot of damage this last pay period and most of the carnage was self-inflicted. For starters, we hosted a friend from out of town and spent four days eating our way through Los Angeles and going to movies. We did so much walking we also "had" to get professional foot massages…of course. Total cost of our mini vacation: $800.

Then, Mr. Spendypants bought several thousands of dollars worth in synthesizers and guitar pedals — guitar pedals that were not paid for out of the luxuries account — for $220 from a friend. A huge bargain on music equipment that he will use, but an unplanned expense nonetheless. Another unplanned expense: $300 spent to replace the master circuit board on my husband's Cyntiq monitor that decided to crap out for no reason.

Additionally, even though Mr. Spendypants is the math expert in our partnership, he had some kind of arithmetic breakdown while paying bills and managed to overpay our loan bill by $741. Overpaying just means that we will pay down our loan that much faster, which is great, but we had to take that money out of our emergency fund to make sure we didn't overdraw our checking account. While Mr. Spendypants has been saving between $1000 and $1500 per month since January by dramatically curbing his shopping habits, his April savings were wiped out by the very expected $1000 car repair bill. Yes, one of our cars is still in the shop.

On top of all the expenses, I also had a dismal pay period. I made $270 from writing gigs and $27.84 in sales.

While I did not expect perfect execution of this challenge, I am disappointed that we drifted so far from our goal. We are now $2,763.16 further away from $31,000 than we were when we started the month, and May is not even over! Will we be able to recover this loss?

Goal: $31,000

Amount Raised: $16,375.84

Amount Spent: $10,653.66

Amount Left to Go: $25,277.82

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Guest's picture
Clarissa Hallowell

I love the post. My hubby is a Mr. Spendypants too, but he is on board the savings train. His goal for being on board is when we get our house paid off he gets a long awaited corvette. The only way I would agree is if we paid cash. We follow the Dave Ramsey baby steps and we are on step six, paying off the house. We do have an entertainment budget in place, so my husband doesn't go stircrazy. We are making grate strides even with our $100 monthly entertainment budget. I think the hardest part is not having any friends that are living on a strict budget. I tried to recruit some friends by giving them Total Money Make Over by Dave Ramsey, but didn't really get any takers. That's alright my hubby and I are committed and have come a long way by ourselves. Maybe when we are traveling Over seas and living a more leisurely life, they will get on board. Keep trucking towards your $31,000 goal. It's so worth the journey.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Clarissa!

I so agree with you! The hardest part about saving for us is the social aspect. Most of our friends do not have savings and use their credit cards as slush funds. This is why we are so lucky to have a few friends like Martin, who live super-fun lives because they budget well.