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Examine Your Monkey Brains Before Tying the Knot

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Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…

“Opposites attract, but after marriage, opposites attack.”
–Charles Lowery

There comes a time in every serious relationship where the two people involved open up the closet door and show the other person all of the skeletons hiding out in the broom closet. Let me rephrase that. There should come a time in every serious relationship where the two people involved open up the closet door and reveal the skeletons. It doesn’t always happen. But, in my case, it did. I’d spent my 20s being quite the profligate young bachelor living carefree in Germany and I was having to pay the piper. My girlfriend at the time was more of a tightwad. She’d been brought up to respect money and to spend less than she made, so she had a healthy balance sheet and approach to the Benjamins.

I wasn’t exactly proud of my past and the current state it had brought me to. I’d been a spendthrift, but I wanted to be a tightwad. She was a tightwad and quite happy in her position. Actually, I was a spendthrift who was having to be a tightwad while going to law and business school in the hopes of making lots of money so that I could become a spendthrift again. Let’s not kid anyone. But, in the meantime, during my sere money days in graduate school, I wanted to dial back and gain some modicum of self-esteem again.

So, not only was I attracted to this woman, but she represented the financial profile that I wanted to become. That wasn’t the primary attraction for me, but it did play a role. I could have my own accountabilibuddy.

Romantic, huh?

While it’s not a romantic ideal, research from Wharton, Michigan, and Northwestern University shows that this type of attraction happens pretty often in couples. While in many cases, we look for commonalities in finding our mates, such as a sense of humor, love of travel, similar religious beliefs, and the like, there are times when we look for the opposite in someone. Our primary search for the opposite in our lives is when we have a trait that we don’t like, and the other person possesses the trait that represents what we’d like to be. If we don’t like dogs (shame!) but wished that we did, then we’d be attracted to dog lovers.

The area where this mutual opposite attraction really comes to light regards our spending patterns. If you’re a tightwad, then chances are that the pain that you feel in your limbic system is higher than normal, and so the joy that you need to receive from spending has a higher threshold. The result is reduced joy in life, and the tightwad probably wants to be able to loosen up the reins a little. Comparatively, a spendthrift feels little pain when spending, spends a lot, and then looks back in regret when opening up the credit card statements. This is how I was in my twenties. I knew I needed to change my habits, and a tightwad represented the person I wanted to be.

This is all well for the initial attraction. The two happy people skip along, hand-in-hand, talking about long walks on the beach in moonlight, how much they loved The Princess Bride, and how wonderful the world will be once they finally tie the knot. Their Monkey Brains are plotting for how they’re going to use the other to change themselves and get an appropriate stream of bananas flowing into the cage. OK, realistically, the spendthrift’s Monkey Brain is reasonably happy with the flow of bananas, but doesn’t like the regret the morning after.

Everything is idyllic until the first few bills start pouring in. That becomes the litmus test for how well this “opposites attract” theory works. As the previously cited research from Rick et al reveals, what actually happens in most cases is that neither person in the relationship actually changes behavior and this dichotomy creates a lot of tension in the marriage. The spendthrift wishes the tightwad would loosen up a little, and the tightwad gets ticked when the spendthrift comes home with a 183” flat screen TV and boxes full of Jimmy Choo shoes. The happiness in the marriage plummets, and each of them points to money as the problem child in the relationship.

The irony of the arrangement is that spendthrifts are better off financially when they marry tightwads, but they’re not as happy. Spendthrifts who marry spendthrifts are happy in the relationship, but, unsurprisingly, are deep in debt. Tightwads who marry tightwads are both financially well off and happy in the relationship.

All of the data collected regarding spending habits, money personality types, and happiness in the marriage point to one obvious conclusion:

Change comes from within.

In a world where we think that we can get a six pack from a pill, can master foreign languages by listening to CDs while we sleep (yes, I tried that, and it didn’t work), and can get rich quick, we fool ourselves into thinking that there’s a quick and easy solution to behavioral change and that it won’t require hard work. That’s the story that Monkey Brain loves – change in six simple steps with no muss, no fuss, and no pain. If we’ve wanted to change our behaviors and been unsuccessful, then, Monkey Brain reasons, why work harder? Why not just marry someone who is like what we want to be, and, voila! Magic change overnight!

Our limbic systems, when we see this magical unicorn of a person who exhibits the traits that we desire, actually fire up the same signals of attraction as when we see similarities to the personality traits that we have and that we like. Our ideal mate is represented by the person that we want to become, not by the person that we actually are (unless we’re megalomaniacs and think that we’re perfect, in which case, nobody can meet our standards!).

Therefore, unconsciously, we’re setting up our potential mates to be the saviors that we ourselves should instead be. We subconsciously expect this person to not only be an awesome mate, best friend, and confidant, but we also expect him or her to help us get our acts together.

It’s an unrealistic expectation. As the study shows, we really want our spouses to work on changing us about like we want a drill sergeant to wake us up at 5 AM every morning to start the day and like we want our parents to hang around behind us telling us to clean our rooms. It doesn’t work.

Understanding the psychology of motivation

Motivation, according to the University of Nebraska’s John Barbuto, comes from five primary sources:

  • You enjoy what you’re doing. This one is pretty self-evident. If you like something, then you want to do more of it. Whether it’s reading, playing sports, working out, eating steak, enjoyment of the activity is enough to make you want to do more. It’s a basic and simple motivation. For most people, though, saving money is not particularly enjoyable in itself. For the tightwards, it’s a means of pain avoidance, not a source of pleasure. The spendthrifts are asking “are you kidding me?”
  • You’ll get a reward. Push the buzzer, and out comes cheese (which would be, for me, an anti-reward). Fill out this survey and get $10. Play the lottery, and you might win a gazillion dollars. When it comes to actually changing your spending patterns, though, rewards aren’t always the best motivator. Yes, you can set intermediate goals and give yourself some rewards, but if you’re involving your spouse in this effort, then you quickly cross the line from social norms (I do this because I love you) into making it a business transaction (if you keep within budget this week, I’ll cook dinner). Making interacting with your money in a more healthy manner one that involves a transactional relationship with your spouse will break down the social rubric and can make that transactional interaction spread to other areas. Want me to take care of you when you’re old and in an adult diaper drooling over yourself? You better massage my back every night for the next 40 years! That’s not a formula for marital bliss.
  • You want others to view you as possessing certain traits. You want so badly to be a cool kid. You want the admiration and approbation of others. You want people to walk by you and say “now, there’s someone who can control his cash!” You hope when people are whispering to each other and looking at you that they’re saying “that fellow over there can keep his wallet in his pants!” Who’s the person that you most want to admire you? Your spouse! As long as you’re not sucked into trying to keep up with the Joneses’ values and truly want to receive the admiration and plaudits of your spouse, this is a pretty good motivation to have. Happy wife, happy life, right?
  • You want to become the person you think that you should be. This one is the strongest of the motivations. If you’re a spendthrift who wants to dial it back a little or a tightwad who wants to dial it up a little, you’re suffering from cognitive dissonance in that your actions don’t reflect the type of person that you tell yourself you are. If you change your behaviors to be more in line with the values that you tell yourself you have, then you’ll reduce the dissonance. There is a danger in this source of motivation, though; you may wind up changing the story about who you are to match the behavior rather than changing the behavior to match the story about who you say you are.
  • Making goals. This source of motivation is closely tied to the previous one; if you make a goal that gets you closer to becoming the person that you want to be, then you’re more likely to derive motivation from it. Compare that to some of the goals at the corporate office at work (if you’ve ever worked there) which seemed to be unrelated to reality in the least and were randomly pulled from the ether. Were you driven to meet those goals? Not in the least. Unless, of course, #2 was involved, and there was a heavy reward for meeting the goal!

The sources of motivation can be broken into two categories: internal sources and external sources. Two guesses for which source has the higher likelihood of getting you to change your behavior. Yes, it’s internal sources of motivation. Internal sources of motivation can compel you even in the absence of external sources of motivation, and while the external sources of motivation can help you, they won’t always be around and you can’t count on them. Internal sources of motivation will always be there, assuming you can channel and remember them in times of conflict (like when the Jimmy Choo shoes go on sale).

Tying this back to premarital counseling

I’m no couples counselor or marital coach, although I can certainly say that I’ve seen many cases where the money fights were indicative of deeper problems that were usually rooted in communication problems. But, in order to communicate with your loved one, you have to first be honest with yourself. One of the questions that you need to ask yourself about your relationship is whether or not you’re looking for that special someone to help you change who you are and your relationship with your money.

It’s fine to have a supportive and loving spouse who helps you along the way in the journey, but as the Wharton study shows, looking for your spouse to be the one to change you will simply lead you to disappointment and marital strife. Many of the respondents expected their spouses to change their behaviors for them, and when it didn’t happen, the money fights started, and they blamed their spouses for the problems when they themselves were the problem.

Instead, before you take that trip down the aisle, you need to start changing your own behaviors, and the change needs to come from within. That’s why I discussed sources of motivation at length. You’re going to need your own sources of motivation. You’ll need to get some wins and gain some momentum in becoming who you want to be. You don’t have to get to your goals before you get hitched, but you need to be making progress.

Just like anything in life, relying solely on an external source of motivation to change your behavior probably won’t work in the long run. Once the external sources disappear, so too does your motivation. If you’re relying on your soon-to-be spouse to be that source of motivation, the likely outcome is that you’re going to be dissatisfied in your marriage and that money problems are going to be a key source of dissatisfaction.

I was fortunate. My wife took a gamble on me (probably not one that she realized at the time) because we did have different spending habits. However, by the time we had “the talk,” I’d internalized my goals and desire to have a healthier relationship with money. She certainly provided a great example for me to reinforce my behavior, but the constant “this isn’t the person I want to be” dialogue I was having with myself (I had taped Monkey Brain’s mouth shut; pulling tape off of fur really hurts!) was what really drove me to get back to a realistic lifestyle.

We got there. Now, we’re able to spend on the things which are important to us and live a rich lifestyle. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. It worked because I wanted to get there, not because I wanted someone else to drag me there. If you’re looking for someone else to makes you shape up, then make sure you sign a prenuptial agreement, because you’re heading towards a life of marital disharmony.

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Around a year ago, I wrote about how you should retire TO something. If you haven’t read it, go check it out!

By Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively.

6 replies on “Examine Your Monkey Brains Before Tying the Knot”

Are we tightwads or spendthrifts?
We married with no real debt and few assets , except our excellent educations and middle class jobs. We rented for 16 years and built a house that we did not live in for three. We have travel extensively.
Now, when I travel to see my daughter, I spend all of my clothing allowance and most of my allowance spoiling myself and grandchildren. When my husband starts a new project he spends every penny of his allowance and hobby (used to be clothing 🙂 money on it.
We have lived on this odd system for about 31 years now. We have mutual goals that certain money will not be touched for years and years (sitting in a money market account because we are too nervous to do anything else with it). Before retirement that money was all about buying a house for cash.
Otherwise we live off of retirement income- which covers all of our other needs and a few of our mutual wants. I might say we are tightwads, but the accumulation of things tends to point a different direction.
So, what are we?

I’d put you, according to the research, into the tightwad category. You set limits on your budget and stick to them. Just because you spend everything you’ve budgeted doesn’t make you a spendthrift. That’s why you budget. If you’re way off on your budgets (even to the low side), then you’re budgeting incorrectly. I define spendthrifts as people who spend money they don’t have. That’s why their debts go up and their financial situation deteriorates when two of them get together.

I’d say we’re both tightwads, but each to different degrees. I was definitely a spendthrift as a twenty-something, with the exception that I put some retirement savings on autopilot. Thus, I emerged from my 20s about to start business school with some positive net worth, but all of it in retirement accounts. Student loans reduced that to $0 within 2 years. My spouse came from small business owning family and was really happy spending very little. When we were dating she teased me about the insane amount of money I spent at restaurants and the comparatively pathetic contents of my refrigerator (steak, yogurt and shiner bock if memory serves). The thing is, my family is pretty frugal and tightwad-ness is something I aspired to internally. I over-corrected coming out of business school, and now I would say I’m a classic tightwad in that spending causes me pain, while she is perfectly comfortable spending a reasonable amount of money on things we value. So now I’m working on loosening up on the reigns a little (but not too much).

Sounds like our stories mirror each other, except my fridge had nothing but Paulaner hefeweizens (which do wonders for expanding your waistline, surprisingly).

Even though we’re financially independent, I still grimace at some things which we spend money on. It’s hard to loosen up the reins, even a little, once you’ve established the habits of frugality. In tightwad mode, we think that all spending is bad, which it’s not. If we’re getting good utility out of our spending and it’s not going to put our other plans in peril, we should spend. It’s a lesson that I have a hard time adapting to sometimes.

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