First appeared in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star
Last week, I spent 30 minutes trying to convince a man to break his promise to his wife.
Our pal here, let’s call him Paul, is not the only person on the planet to promise to perform a peculiar project. These brazen promises can range from moving by a particular date to purchasing a certain type of car. Quickly, an intramarital promise becomes about the relationship itself, and not the sanity of the promise.
Take Paul. He promised his wife they’d move to a bigger house in a certain amount of time. That time frame has arrived, and she’s holding him to his promise. But there’s a couple of big buts.
First, their financial situation is ugly, by their own doing. Despite earning twice the median household income in the state in which they live, they have no savings, a bunch of debt, and consistently borrow money from family members. You might be thinking “but how are they able to afford a bigger house?”
Enter, the bank.
“Pete, I understand your concern, but the bank says …” Paul offered.
If a lending institution wants to loan money to someone who has no savings and a bunch of debt, despite making really good money, then they’re making a business decision. The bank isn’t blessing the decision, high-fiving you, or nominating you for a Nobel Prize. Being allowed to deliver on a promise is not the same as validating the decision.
The harsh reality is that when a couple finds themselves in a major financial jam, it’s often on the heels of a terrible financial decision lobbied on by one member of the relationship. The second person eventually bought into the bad idea, but the original bad idea did originate with the original person. This is a difficult pill to swallow. Can you imagine the emotions that accompany the realization that you are the primary driver of bad decisions in your house?
Talking a spouse into a bad idea isn’t exactly a new problem. Hey, I did it last week.
After an especially long day, in spite of us having the ingredients to make a perfectly healthy, quick, and delicious meal, I convinced Mrs. Planner that ordering greasy cheeseburgers was the best path for us. We regretted it rather quickly. And now that I think of it, I’m typically the driver of poor dietary decisions in our home. Fortunately, we’re aware of this and have taken steps to make sure my influential ways don’t leave us both with clogged arteries.
There are two ways to prevent a damaging promise from messing up your life. To begin with, don’t make them. That’s easier said than done. The reality is promises are a form of goals. Think of it this way: “I promise you we’ll move by the summer of 2018” feels the same as “our goal is to move by the summer of 2018.” Adding the word promise actually makes the goal stronger. But in Paul’s case, the promise was the end of the effort. They didn’t try to fix their garbage. Instead, they just sat back and watched time pass. So the goal which was delivered as a promise only became a damaging promise when Paul and his wife refused to address their financial problems.
The second way to prevent a damaging promise from messing up your life is to employ accountability.
Paul knows moving is a terrible idea. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have asked me the question in the first place. Paul should go home, explain to his wife exactly why their promise was ludicrous to begin with, and then create a real plan to improve their financial lives.
Will this result in friction? Yeah, probably. But frankly, a few days of the silent treatment are worth preventing years of financial struggle.
There’s a strange and thin line between doing anything for your significant other and only doing what’s best for you as a couple.
Taking this advice will result in introspection. It will result in friction. But hopefully it will also result in a more stable financial life and a healthier relationship.
Have a question for Pete the Planner? Email him at AskPete@petetheplanner.com or visit petetheplanner.com.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.