Episode 46. “The ghost of FIRE still haunts our money mindset—we can’t enjoy money”

Gavin and Carolyn

Date: June 7, 2022

Carolyn and Gavin have been married for ten years. They have three small children and bring in about $130k annually—with a healthy $500k in investments. So what’s the problem? Once we look closer, specifically at their obsession with money mechanics, we see a deeper issue.

They learned these bad habits as members of the FIRE community, a lifestyle they’ve left behind but that continues to haunt their money mindsets to this day. To make matters worse, Carolyn has disassociated from the family’s money conversation completely.

How do you work as a team when one member refuses to participate? And how can you reset your instincts related to saving and spending after so many years repeating bad habits? Listen in to find out.

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Episode Transcript

Download PDF of the transcript here

Gavin: [00:00:00] There wasn’t as much joy in money, in savings, in finance that there should be. Basically, I tried to get everyone around me involved in the FIRE community. That’s my special help. 

Carolyn: [00:00:13] I’ve always just thought of it as a mechanical thing; you make money; you save money; you invest money; then you spend it on groceries, or a trip or whatever. It’s always been extremely mechanical for me, the idea of putting all this emotion into it. Even when you spend it on something fun, it’s just very foreign to me. I don’t think of money maybe as being a joyful conversation. I mean, obviously, I don’t. 

So he comes in annoyed with me already, that I’m not interested in that when he said we have a meeting, I rolled my eyes. So he already comes in with all this information and pulls it right up. There was never any warm feelings that it was going to be good. 

Gavin: [00:00:57] Yeah, I mean, it’s spot on. I’m definitely condescending.

Ramit Sethi: [00:01:02] You’re? 

Gavin: [00:01:03] Yeah, I think so. And I can be a bit of an asshole. So I’m okay with that. I mean, I’m not okay with it, but I’m okay admitting to it.

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:01:15] Today, I’m speaking with Carolyn and Gavin, who have been married for 10 years and have three small children. They bring in about $130,000 in annual income, and they have about half a million dollars in investments. So what’s the problem? Well, Carolyn is totally disengaged from the family’s finances. She doesn’t want to take part in any of it. 

And this has isolated Gavin. It’s created a vacuum in how they make decisions. Even when Gavin tried to set up a money meeting to talk about their finances, Carolyn was completely uninterested. She wanted to get out of there as quickly as she could. 

So how do you work as a team if your partner just doesn’t want to talk about money? And what if they use all kinds of different techniques to avoid it whenever you try to bring it up? Gavin and Carolyn reached out to me because they want a way to talk about money together. But I spent a lot of time in today’s episode gathering clues. 

I want you to pay attention to a couple of ones in particular. The first is that they used to be part of the FIRE community, that’s Financial Independence Retire Early. And the second clue is that they are obsessed with the mechanics of money. They’re actually obsessed with the mechanics of everything, how it works rather than what it means. I’m Ramit Sethi, and this is I Will Teach You To Be Rich. And let’s get started.

[Interview]

Ramit Sethi: [00:02:45] Gavin, can you tell me about the last time that you tried to have a monthly money meeting with Carolyn? 

Gavin: [00:02:54] The first time it was horrid. I was like I was talking to a brick wall. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:02:58] So what happened? You sat down and what happens? 

Gavin: [00:03:01] We sat down. We had some cocktails. I opened up the spreadsheet, which was the first mistake. I started talking about the numbers in the spreadsheet. I said, “Well, you know, here’s our net worth. And here’s what we have invested in our investment accounts.” And that didn’t work at all. It’s like she was not interested in having that conversation at all. She pulled out her phone. She was looking at something on her phone, looking off into the middle distance, not at me. It wasn’t a conversation. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:03:37] And did she ask you any questions?

Gavin: [00:03:40] No, I don’t think so. I don’t recall any questions. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:03:44] What did it feel like to you to be in this meeting?

Gavin: [00:03:46] It felt like I was wasting my time. I had a sense that I didn’t have her attention and that I hadn’t started off correctly. I almost had a sense that we should try it again. I mean, it was a short meeting, 5 to 10 minutes. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:04:08] How short? 

Gavin: [00:04:09] 5 to 10 minutes. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:04:10] Okay. First money meeting five minutes, that’s not usually a good sign.

Gavin: [00:04:16] Well, at least we’re having the meeting, right? 

Ramit Sethi: [00:04:18] Yeah. I like a lot of what you did. You put it on the agenda, you put it on the calendar. That’s great. You had cocktails, making it more fun. I like that. The rest of it, we could tweak some of that. But I like the idea in concept. So when this meeting wrapped up approximately five minutes after starting and you both parted ways, when you reflected on this meeting, what did you think? 

Gavin: [00:04:46] If we’re going to have another meeting it can’t go like that. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:04:48] Did you know why it didn’t work?

Gavin: [00:04:50] Yeah, I think so. My sense was that I hadn’t talked to her about things that were of interest to her or worked at it from an angle that was going to be appealing to her. I immediately started it off with my spreadsheet like the spreadsheet’s my baby. And it’s not that interesting to her. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:05:13] You’re proud of your spreadsheet. 

Gavin: [00:05:14] I am. Who isn’t proud of their spreadsheet? 

Ramit Sethi: [00:05:18] I listen, you’re preaching to the choir, man. I’d spent years trying to convince my wife how cool my spreadsheet was and that didn’t work. But I told her, “But do you understand how it all flows?” And she still was not interested. 

Gavin: [00:05:36] Look at this graph. It increases from the left to the right. It means that we’re on trend. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:05:40] Yeah. So maybe you and I should just have a money meeting where we talk about our charts. I can tell we’d be excited. Okay, Carolyn, tell me what happened the first time Gavin proposed having a money meeting. 

Carolyn: [00:05:54] I thought, Oh, God, here we go again, because he does like to talk about money. He just tried. I mean, it was not the first time he’s ever tried it or we’ve ever tried to talk about money. And I knew he was listening to your podcast. I think the problem with that meeting was that there was not a clear goal for me at all. I had no idea what we were going to do. And I don’t think he knew what we were going to do either beyond “Okay, we’re going to talk about money.” 

So he comes in hot. He comes in maybe a little condescending with a whole bunch of numbers. I don’t think his spreadsheet is particularly easy to read. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, not just because– 

Ramit Sethi: [00:06:28] Let me stop you right there. How dare you insult this man’s spreadsheet? 

Carolyn: [00:06:34] He just love it. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:06:34] How dare you?

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:06:35] Listen, I can help a lot, but I can’t work miracles. If somebody insults his spreadsheet, that’s out of my hands.

 [Interview]

Carolyn: [00:06:41] I also like spreadsheets. I’m pro spreadsheet. I have my own, but his is hard to read. I couldn’t follow easily. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:06:48] Okay, so there’s usability issues. Okay, let me file this away. So he comes in hot; he starts talking about numbers. And then?

Carolyn: [00:06:57] I just shut down. I mean, I think we already knew how this meeting was going to go. I think we both came to it with pre-conceived ideas about it. So even though there were cocktails, even though it was on a schedule, I knew I wasn’t going to want to do it. And he knew I wasn’t going to want to do it.

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:07:18] This is an extremely insightful comment by Carolyn. She just said, “We already knew how this meeting was going to go.” Well, if you believe the meeting is going to go badly, then guess what? It’s going to be bad. I think in a relationship every partner learns which topics to avoid, which topics to walk on eggshells around. 

But for some topics, like money, they’re so important. You have to find a way to build a bridge, even if it’s uncomfortable. Well, I guess you don’t have to. You can end up like most Americans who only talk about money when they fight, who think it’s weird to create an agenda to talk about money, who constantly complain they can’t get ahead, but they’ve never read a single book on money. Maybe I’m digressing here. Back to Carolyn.

[Interview]

Carolyn: [00:08:09] So he comes in annoyed with me already that I’m not interested in that when he said we have a meeting, I rolled my eyes. So that was already existing before the meeting started. And he has all the information. I have access to the spreadsheet. I do, but I don’t look at it. And I can’t read it very clearly.

So he already comes in with all this information. And he pulls it right up, and here it is. There was never any warm feelings that it was going to be good.

Ramit Sethi: [00:08:48] That’s interesting. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And I appreciate you saying that. So it was, we have a meeting. You said it doesn’t work. It’s not particularly warm, I get that. I will say him asking for the meeting I bet you shows caring from his perspective, but I don’t think you perceive it like that. It seems like it’s an obligation to you, a chore. I think that he did a nice touch with the cocktails, so a very nice touch.

I think his intention was probably good. Showing the numbers, I think he probably wanted to celebrate a bit because I’ve seen your numbers. They are very impressive. But it seems like he jumped right into it without warm up. Would you agree with that? 

Carolyn: [00:09:41] Yes. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:09:43] Okay, Gavin, hearing this, what strikes you?

Gavin: [00:09:49] I mean, it’s spot on. I am definitely condescending.

Ramit Sethi: [00:09:54] You are? 

Gavin: [00:09:56] Yeah, I think so. And I can be a bit of an asshole. So I’m okay with that. I mean, I’m not okay with it, but I’m okay admitting to it. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:10:07] Okay. I like hearing both of you admit these things, “Hey, yeah, I’m a little condescending.” Okay, put it around the table. I need to know this stuff. And Carolyn, I like hearing you admit, “I wanted this meeting to end.” Okay, fine. Now we can work with that. What I can’t work with is self talk that just spins around and around and doesn’t really get to the truth. 

Deep down most people know the truth about themselves. They might need a little nudging, they might need to unpeel a few layers, but deep down we know the hard part is having the courage to be honest about it. But in a rich life, a rich life means you’re honest, honest with yourself, and honest with the people around you. 

Carolyn: [00:10:56] We’ve been married for 10 years, and I’d feel perfectly comfortable rolling my eyes at him and looking at my phone and being, “I don’t want to talk about this.” But the discomfort manifests itself differently in different situations.

Ramit Sethi: [00:11:11] So root is not you rolling your eyes at Gavin, which I also think is probably not the best strategy for your partner, but, as you said, it manifests itself differently. Until you become comfortable with money, it’s just going to manifest in very peculiar ways in different scenarios. And to get comfortable, you have to get confident. To get confident you have to get competent.

[Naration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:11:40] Gavin did have good intentions, but the money meeting did not go well. I will say I think it means a lot that he tried to have a money conversation. Maybe he didn’t approach it in the right way. And we know that Carolyn certainly didn’t take it seriously. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be stuck like this forever. To help them, I need to understand what’s really behind their disconnect with money. 

[Interview]

Gavin: [00:12:06] We moved back from Germany in 2015. We lived overseas for my work. And about that time I got into the FIRE community and started going through actually adding some rigor to our finances, which were always pretty good. But that added some rigor. And then I started questioning small things and laying it down a little bit second in terms of, “Is this a good idea? Do we need to spend this much money? Let’s go through the grocery receipt and look at what we’re actually purchasing.” 

Ramit Sethi: [00:12:43] That’s my special help. Gavin, how did you get from the FIRE community to meet because the FIRE community loves their receipts?

Gavin: [00:12:53] Basically, I tried to get everyone around me involved in the FIRE community. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:12:57] Oh, wow, that must [inaudible 00:12:58].

Gavin: [00:13:02] I got good reception in some places and not such good reception in other places. But really it was my brother. He’s like, “You’re ridiculous. You’re out of control.” He didn’t say you’re cheap. But that–

Carolyn: [00:13:18] Oh no, he did. He definitely said that.

Gavin: [00:13:24] And he kept suggesting that I read your book, and I just wasn’t into it. And finally, when the podcast started coming out, he said, “You should listen to this podcast.” And I did and I had already started to change my perspective a little bit. But I think the podcast and reading the book solidified it for me.

Ramit Sethi: [00:13:53] What did it solidify for you?

Gavin: [00:13:58] There wasn’t as much joy in money, in savings, and finance that there should be and that you can be too absolutist. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:14:11] Yeah, I totally see that. In fact, of all the things I asked you what do you both speak about money, there wasn’t one thing that was joyful.

Carolyn: [00:14:24] That’s interesting. It’s a very interesting thing that I noticed because that’s true. I can’t think of a joyful conversation about money. It’s things like, well, I bought tickets to California and we’re going to go, isn’t that exciting? So the trip is fun, but like–

Ramit Sethi: [00:14:44] For everybody listening, Carolyn has an absolutely dumbfounded look on her face right now. I think that’s accurate description, right, Carolyn? 

Carolyn: [00:14:58] Yeah. Again, I don’t think of money maybe as being a joyful conversation. I mean, obviously, I don’t.

Ramit Sethi: [00:15:00] You’ve just heard massive clues on what is really going on here. First, with Gavin telling you that he used to participate in the FIRE community. In fact, he was almost evangelical about it. How do you think that affects him and Carolyn, who got very quiet when she admitted, “I can’t think of a joyful conversation about money”?

If your entire perspective of money is a negative thing, then it’s no surprise, you want to avoid talking about it. If your entire perspective on money is that you should accumulate as much as possible, and squelch all joys, and save and hoard and track your spreadsheet every day so we can escape this job that we hate, how do you think that affects your view on money?

So people think of money as a chore, an obligation. They prefer to avoid talking about money or even thinking about it. Others think that money is evil. If you earn more, you’ll become an asshole, you’ll get too big for your britches like all those evil rich people out there. Some people think that focusing on money or admitting they would like to make more makes them vain.

In almost every case, there’s a complete lack of joy around money, and often a hyper focus on the mechanics of it. But if you only focus on the mechanics of it, like certain communities, then you never develop the connection between money and joy. And that explains Carolyn’s dumbfounded look when I asked her that question. 

It would be like me asking somebody, how can you use concrete to create joy in your life? What? Concrete? What are you talking about? Many people literally cannot see the connection between how money can lead to joy. And that’s my job here.

Why now? You could wait years. Your life is fine. You have a nice family; you have a lot of money. Why? Why change?

Gavin: [00:17:16] Why wait to start living bigger and better? We’re at a crossroads. My job is changing. Carolyn is looking at going back to work. We’re looking at a major move. So when we talk about these big life decisions, and there’s major things happening in our lives. I think it helps to be in alignment. It makes it more present. The lack of alignment, you become more aware of the lack of alignment with these kind of big changes. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:17:57] Carolyn, what do you think? 

Carolyn: [00:17:58] Yeah, I think the same thing. I think it’s definitely this idea that we’re going to move and essentially start a new life in California.

[Naration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:18:07] All their answers are so generic. They’re using intellectual words like lack of alignment, and vague phrases like start a new life. But part of my job is to not take people’s answers at their face value. I don’t have to believe everything people tell me. Half the time they’re lying to themselves, and they don’t even know it. 

Most people crave someone who they trust, who will gently ask them questions like, “Really? Are you sure about that?” Because most of the time, we have not thought deeply about these issues. So when I question people, I don’t usually say, “Hey, I think you’re lying to me.” Sometimes I will, but usually I don’t. 

What I’m really trying to do here is to interrogate them gently, to ask them to interrogate themselves, “Really? Do you believe that? Where’d you get that from? Is that the truth? Or is that just story you’re telling yourself?” And when they can do this themselves, suddenly, they can start to uncover their own invisible scripts. Suddenly, they can realize, “Well, I’ve believed this thing for 15 years and I never actually checked if it was true or not.” And that can hopefully lead them to designing their rich life. 

[Interview]

Ramit Sethi: [00:19:22] When you think about your overall financial picture, your net worth, income, all that stuff, is it in an easy-to-access place?

Carolyn: [00:19:32] No, so we tried one of those wallet apps. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:19:36] Forget all that. Forget all that. Get a piece of paper and a crayon and write it in that way if you need to. I looked at several couples’ financial documents for each other, it was so complicated. They’d every single thing split out. I go, “God, I’m getting overwhelmed and I do this for a living.”

They’re splitting out all kinds of subcategories. I go, “You guys are optimizing for precision. You should optimize for simplicity. Just get 85% of the way there. Who really cares about the other 15% at this stage of the game?” You should be able to put all your stuff on one page. You already sent me a one pager. Use that. Take it, make a copy. And what I would suggest, Carolyn, is for you, you have to take the lead on this one, to ask Gavin, what you need in a document that would make you feel comfortable.

Carolyn: [00:20:35] Starting with our income and savings and investments, and then specifically where those investments are is interesting to me and how much– 

Ramit Sethi: [00:20:48] And what if you just wrote Vanguard or Fidelity? Would that answer your question? Or do you want to– 

Carolyn: [00:20:52] Yeah, that’d be fine. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:20:53] You don’t care about the logins there? 

Carolyn: [00:20:55] Well, I have them. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:20:57] Well, you told me like 10 times in this conversation that logins are a problem. 

Carolyn: [00:21:00] They are. I hate that. I mean, I could access them. I don’t have them in my head. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:21:05] Well, do you have a password manager? 

Carolyn: [00:21:08] Not really. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:21:09] Okay. So you don’t have them. Do you use Safari or something that can save your passwords? 

Carolyn: [00:21:14] Chrome. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:21:15] Okay, so what’s the problem? Chrome saves them. 

Carolyn: [00:21:17] I feel like fine financial passwords shouldn’t be just on your computer. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:21:24] So they should be locked up somewhere where you can’t use them at all.

[Naration]

Oh, my God, they were so stuck in the mechanics. She couldn’t even get beyond passwords. They’re so stuck in these weeds. They can’t even see what’s important. And truly, she’s lying to herself by believing that passwords are really what’s stopping her from engaging with her money. 

Try to ask yourself, what do you think they are getting out of this? What do you think that this hyper focus on mechanics is doing for each of them? That’s the question that I’m thinking of right now. 

[Interview]

Ramit Sethi: [00:22:01] Carolyn, work with me here. You asked him that in that document, he should tell you where the investments are. I said, is it enough to just write Fidelity or Vanguard? And you said, “No, I want to be able to log into them.” Okay, so what do you need in order to be able to log into them just like a Subway sandwich will have all of its ingredients right in front of the sandwich maker? 

Carolyn: [00:22:28] I mean, the passwords. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:22:30]  And where do you want the passwords to live?

Carolyn: [00:22:35] I’d love for them to live in my brain, but I don’t think that’s possible.

Ramit Sethi: [00:22:39] I’m going to ask you again, where do you want the passwords to live?

Carolyn: [00:22:42] I’d like to write them down on a piece of paper.

Ramit Sethi: [00:22:45] Okay, fine. Fine. Do what you want. For everyone listening, get a password manager, 1Password, LastPass, whatever. But honestly, just figure out a way to get the passwords somewhere where you can access them. 

Now I will tell you something, Carolyn. I suspect that if you put these pieces of paper with the password somewhere in some box or some drawer somewhere, you’re not actually going to go and get them. 

Carolyn: [00:23:13] Yeah, I think you’re right. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:23:15] So can we just be honest? You’re not going to go and pick out those hidden pieces of paper from under a drawer. You’re not. You know the truth.

Carolyn: [00:23:26] Yeah. What if he gets hit by a bus? I’m going to need the passwords. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:23:32] You need the passwords. They cannot live in his head. But you need them in a way that’s easier. Gavin, you want to jump in here?

Gavin: [00:23:42] Yeah, I’d be willing to look at some of those password minders. It comes down to providing that security and providing that access and taking away any perception of inequality in the finances. And maybe the risk is worth the return on that. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:24:07] I agree. You guys want to do it, right? Get a password manager. Pay for it. And then the two of you have access to your shared passwords, and it is secure. Do it. This is a solved problem. The fact that we’re spending 10 minutes talking about passwords is fucking crazy to me. Do you not realize that? Why are you spending my time talking about passwords when we could be talking about millions of dollars that you have to spend?

So you are both causing yourself to play small by letting these little logistical details get in the way. And because it’s what you’ve been doing for years, what a tragedy? You’re going to end up, by the time you’re 65, with $9 million. And you’re going to be sitting here talking about a freezer and debating over ordering a CSA? No. We can’t let that happen. I won’t let it happen.

Carolyn: [00:24:58] The idea makes sense to me, but your points about the mechanics are difficult. I’ve always just thought of it as a mechanical thing. I mean, you make money, you save money, you invest money, then you spend it on groceries, or a trip or whatever. It’s always been extremely mechanical for me. The idea of putting all this emotion to it, even when you spend it on something fun, is just very foreign to me. 

[Narrattion]

Ramit Sethi: [00:25:26] Ding, ding, ding. This is a huge clue. If you see money as mechanical, why would you want to engage with it? You don’t. You want to minimize it and get on with your life. And try to think where did they come up with this concept of money as mechanical? Who was the one who was really into it? Who was evangelical about spreading the word? And how do you think that affected this relationship? 

Yeah, it is. That’s why my readers are so successful because they quickly learn by using all the other free stuff out there, that mechanics only gets you so far. And you run into trouble with yourself and with your loved ones when you just try to beat people over the head with a spreadsheet or all these investment logins. 

You also minimize yourself to thinking that life is just a series of mechanics. I mean, if we’re going to do the same thing for your kids, isn’t it just mechanical? You wake your kids up in the morning, you feed them some food, and then you make sure they don’t drown, and then you put them back to sleep. Hey, that’s mechanics. But is it missing anything? Yeah, it’s missing everything important– love, caring, intentionality, all of it, even yelling at them.

Listen up, people. I don’t want to talk about fucking password managers. I don’t want to talk about your stupid money apps or your cool productivity app. They’re all worthless anyway. The best people in the world do not obsess over tools. Losers on social media do. They’re the ones posting their 49-minute videos on how they use Roam Research and Inbox Zero and their simple morning routine of 39 Cosmedix. Pick something simple and move on. 

The point is not to optimize your password manager. The point is not even to live Inbox Zero. Who cares? The point is to live a rich life. If you and your partner had a sticking point like this, then zoom out. Ask them, “Hey, what’s really important to us here? We want to have easy access to our passwords so if one of us gets hit by a bus, the other one isn’t left in the lurch.” Fine. 

Do you have an idea for a password manager? Oh, you do? Oh, I don’t agree with 100% of the features. Fine, let’s do that. It’s 85% of what we both want. And I want to move on so we can focus on the bigger picture here. That’s how you do it. I can already think of 10 other things that the two of you could be talking about more joyfully. 

[Interview]

Ramit Sethi: [00:28:00] Carolyn, what were your rich life items?

Carolyn: [00:28:06] I mean, a house that’s big enough. We have three young children, so a house of good size with– I’d really like it to be somewhere where I can see the stars with a telescope so if not a lot of light. A dog [inaudible 00:28:20] dog right now. Being able to allow my children to pursue whatever it is that interests them and not be worried about if they want to play a different sport, or if I need to buy them a trombone, whatever it is, just being able to pursue that with no problem. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:28:38] Sounds like a beautiful vision. And how old are your children? 

Carolyn: [00:28:42] Seven, almost five, and two. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:28:44] And Gavin, what about your rich life? 

Gavin: [00:28:47] Yeah, I mean, it largely mirrors Carolyn. So we would definitely like to take our kids to experience things, different cultures, not necessarily at the peak of luxury, but getting there I can definitely see upgrading from coach. Europe would be fantastic. There’s these fantastic little huts in the Swiss Alps and I’d love to go on a hiking trip.

Establish productive children is a big one and just a lot of opportunity for them to play and be outside. Add large environmentally conscious property with animals and food growing there I think is important to both of us. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:29:36] Love it. Okay, great. So I get excited listening to your rich life items. Did you two have a good time talking about these? 

Gavin: [00:29:44] I love it. I love talking about this. 

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:29:47] Let’s step back and think of how much we’ve covered in the last 10 minutes. It’s been quite a journey so far. We went from critiquing the security capabilities of different password managers to building a full, rich life vision that takes Carolyn, Gavin, and their three kids to this beautiful Swiss Alps travel rich life vision. 

Do you see now how powerful a change in perspective can be? And do you see how much work it takes to get out from those mechanics, from those weeds, and really elevate yourself to creating a vision? In talking to a lot of couples, I have learned that many people have lost the ability to dream. We all have those kids. But when you think about money, a lot of people put on the sour face, and go, “Okay, time to talk about money.” It’s like when people talk about marriage, “Time to get hitch. Time the old ball and chain.” What a terrible way to look at marriage?

If you’ve lost the ability to dream, might I encourage you to quickly get it back? Because it’s one of the most important things I think anybody, certainly any couple can have. Now, back to the one sheet. We’ve honed in on Carolyn and Gavin’s why. So this makes it a lot easier to talk about joy in the next part of our conversation, which is building a conscious spending plan. 

[Interview]

On the one sheet, I think, Carolyn, that you should have a conscious spending plan with an amount that you– I was going to say you get to spend every month, but I actually think you have to spend it every month on something joyful. I bet that’s going to really stretch you. So let’s pick a number. I don’t know the exact number. Gavin, what’s a ballpark number of a discretionary amount that each of you would get each month and you have to spend it on something you love?

Gavin: [00:31:57] $1,000.

Ramit Sethi: [00:31:57] Wow. Okay, that’s more than I thought. Carolyn, what do you think about that number? 

Carolyn: [00:32:02] More than I thought. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:32:03] That’s a lot for $150,000 income. What’s going on? 2,000 a month. That’s 24,000 a year of $150,000 gross. But meet me halfway. I almost never do this. Usually I have a bunch of millionaires who are sitting here and they go, “Oh, $50.” I go, “Fuck, $50. I don’t want to ever talk about $50 with you.” So you’re the opposite. You actually picked bigger than I would have, which I love. 

I’m going to rein you back just a little. It’s tough to go from zero to $1,000 a month. I want to set you up for success. Forget 1,000. Pick a number lower than that.

Carolyn: [00:32:43] Let’s go with 500, which is still a huge– I mean, massages comes to mind.

Ramit Sethi: [00:32:50] How much does the massage cost where you live? 

Carolyn: [00:32:52] I think about 110 bucks. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:32:53] 110 buck. You tip, right? 

Carolyn: [00:32:55] Yeah. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:32:57] How much do you tip? 

Carolyn: [00:32:57] Well, yeah, on top of that at 20%.

Ramit Sethi: [00:32:59] Okay, good. Nothing worse than a cheap tipper. Okay, fine. So 500. Gavin, are you putting yourself because you’re a cheap tipper? I’m going to kill you right now.

Gavin: [00:33:10] Yeah, I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Ramit Sethi: [00:33:12] Yeah, here’s how you work on it. Add a zero to your fucking tip. What’s the problem? God, if I really fucked you up? Why? Why can you be a cheap tipper when you have millions of dollars? I don’t understand. How much do you tip? Tell me the truth. 

Gavin: [00:33;29] I mean, it’s gotten a lot better. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:33:33] Shit. When you ask cheap people if they’re cheap, they never answered the question directly. This is what they do. They always go, “Well, it’s not that I’m cheap. I just like to be selective about what I buy.” Gavin’s doing the thing here where he talks about how much he’s improved instead of answering my actual question. 

Listen, people, this isn’t your fourth-grade soccer team, where you get the most improved player award at your pizza party, which is really the nice way of saying, you were the worst kid on the team. This is real life. Answer my question, Gavin. No one ever tells me the truth. Every time the answer is really bad, they always say, “It’s getting better.” I go, “Just tell me the fucking number so we can get into this.” How much do you tip?

Gavin: [00:34:17] I’ll tip 15%. It depends on the service.

Ramit Sethi: [00:34:20] Okay, that’s a lie. When he says it depends on the service, what he really means is, “I always tip less than 15%, and once a year I’ll tip 15%. And therefore I will say it depends on the service so I don’t sound cheap.” I once interviewed a waiter who’d collected thousands of tips, and he explained tipping psychology to me. 

He told me people like to imagine they are highly responsive to service by the amount they tip. In reality, you’re either a cheap tipper or a generous one. Most people tip the same amount all the time. And it’s not about the service you receive. It’s about you. I fucking hate cheap tippers. 

So, Gavin, you love spreadsheets, you love tracking everything. And every so often you’ll say like, “I don’t know, should we get this? Let’s go to Costco; we can save a lot more over there. And like if we do this weird thing where we drive all over town, we can save an extra $6.” And then you bring that home and you mentioned certain cost-saving strategies to Carolyn. Did I get that right or wrong?

Gavin: [00:35:24] I’ve gotten a lot better in the last year. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:35:25] But that’s not what I asked you. Carolyn, tell me the truth.

Carolyn: [00:35:29] I also will drive around for a good price.

Ramit Sethi: [00:35:32] Guys don’t give me a straight answer here. Does Gavin do that? 

Carolyn: [00:35:35] Yes, definitely.

Ramit Sethi: [00:35:37] Everybody’s distracting themselves from answering me. What is going on here? The two of you are wealthy. What is your minimum percentage you’re going to tip from now on?

Carolyn: [00:35:50] I mean, I’ve always tipped 20%. I’m happy going above to 25.

Ramit Sethi: [00:35:54] Okay, 25? Gavin. By the way, this number has to be the same because you two are married. You are a team. Gavin is really quiet all of a sudden. 

Gavin: [00:36:07] I can roll with 25%. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:36:08] 25%, it is fantastic. This is money that you can afford to spend and is quite meaningful to the person you tip. Let me just draw a line here. 25% minimum. You can tip higher if you want. 25% minimum if you are eating at a restaurant, 25% if you are buying a cup of coffee, 25% if massage, anything. And if you’re not sure, tip. You can’t go wrong.

Gavin: [00:36:41] Okay, so how about that little tip jar on the counter at the bakery? Do you tip for that? 

Ramit Sethi: [00:36:49] Yes. Wait. Keep asking. What else? What else are you not sure about?

Carolyn: [00:36:54:] Hotels? He does not believe me that you should tip the hotel cleaning lady.

Ramit Sethi: [00:36:58] Oh, yeah, you tip $20 a night. Look at that face. Everybody couldn’t see that face. He did a face like he just stubbed his toe and he knows the pain is about to come in about two seconds. Yeah, you’re going to tip $20 a night from now on. And you’re never even going to probably see the person’s face, but it’s going to be incredibly meaningful to them. You can afford it. 

He’s writing it down. This is awesome. Gavin, I appreciate you. You’re fully engaged with this. You’re writing it down. I can tell it. That means a lot. This is getting you out of your comfort zone because this isn’t just a Carolyn show. It’s really the two of you here. And I love seeing this. I love it. Carolyn, it’s amazing. You really came to life when we just started talking about tipping. And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I tip all the time. I tip 20%. I have no problem going higher.” You were just boom, so confident. That tells me that money is not just this dark place for you, that there are certain aspects of money that you feel really comfortable and good about. And I just saw it. That’s exciting.

Carolyn: [00:38:03] I do like giving money away. I mean, it feels great to call up NPR.

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:38:08] Bingo. It took me hours to get to this point. But finally I can see how money is not just this mechanical thing to Carolyn. In fact, although Gavin is usually the leader when it comes to money, Carolyn is way more comfortable when it comes to tipping. And once I discovered this, I got excited, because by making this explicit, I can help them see that money is something they can both engage in. 

Sometimes Gavin knows more. Other times Carolyn knows more. And now together they can start to design their rich life vision. And now that I found this out, all it took was me becoming totally outraged over their tipping habits. I want to keep pushing. I suspect their kids are the next place to focus.

 [Interview]

Carolyn: [00:38:55] We definitely engage them and ask them where they want to donate to because, especially our eldest, she’s an outdoor maniac and she loves the wolves and she loves the spiders and all that stuff. That’s–

Ramit Sethi: [00:39:09] Yes. Okay. Hold on, Gavin. One second, one second. Beautiful. Do that. That rolls off your tongue. One thing I want to suggest, I want you to think about who presents this message. Gavin, I’m sure you talk about money more than Carolyn with the kids. They come to you and the Tooth Fairy and all that. 

This would be an amazing opportunity, Carolyn, for you to demonstrate leadership. Imagine sitting down with the kids and Gavin and say, “Dad and I were talking and we have decided that we’re going to donate every year because it’s important for us to give back.” Notice I’m telling them why. I’m teaching them. I’m connecting money with joy. “And we want to get you involved. Dad and I have decided on one charity we want to donate to, but we want the three of you to come up with another one.” And they are seeing you, Carolyn, leading this conversation. What do you think the kids are taking away from this?

Carolyn: [00:40:10] I mean, that it’s fun to give away money and that it’s important part of their responsibility. It’s something that grownups do.

Ramit Sethi: [00:40:17] Yes. And specifically, who is leading this one?

Carolyn: [00:40:21] Mom. 

Ramit Sethi: [00:40:22] That’s right. That is a beautiful moment. Gavin, what were you going to say?

Gavin: [00:40:28] Yeah, absolutely. You pretty much filled it in for me, sitting around the table talking, having a conversation together as a family and, “Hey, what are some of the things that we love and who wants to–” We do this thing at dinner every night, rose and thorn, where we go around the table and say one thorn and one rose from the day. And we could do the same thing with charitable donations, I think, who do we each love or cause?

Ramit Sethi: [00:41:04] Paint the picture for me, Carolyn, what do you want your daughter to see in you? I mean, physically see. What do you want her to see as it relates to her mom and money?

Carolyn: [00:41:21] Being competent, not freaking out because I can’t find my luck. Just being calm and competent about money, just, “Oh, we got to check this real quick.”

Ramit Sethi: [00:41:29] Okay, so let me translate that for you because I want to bring it to again, what can someone visibly see. You want her to see you logging into some of your financial accounts and reviewing certain numbers; is that right?

Carolyn: [00:41:41] Just not avoiding it, not fretting about it. Just having it be part of everyday, regular life. You buy milk, and you go to school, and you brush your teeth, and you take care of your money if you need to.

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: {00:41:58] If you have kids, I want you to sit down with your partner and ask each other, “What do we want our kids to notice about how we treat money?” You’ll notice that Carolyn made a common mistake. She started using descriptive terms like being competent, and not freaking out. So I gently redirected her to this question, “What do you want your kids to visibly see you doing?” Like visibly with their own eyes. They should probably see you logging into your accounts so they realize it’s normal to track money. 

They should see you planning a vacation so they understand that money gives you the opportunity to do these amazing things. They should see you deciding what type of bread to buy, and even audibly weighing out the pros and cons of certain purchases so they understand that money involves trade-offs. Show don’t tell. That is a key principle inside my company, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I want you to use it as a parent too when it comes to showing your children about the importance of money. 

[Interview]

Ramit Sethi: [00:43:01] Okay, so she’ll see you not fretting about it, and also logging into your accounts and making it just a normal matter of what you do in a day or a week or a month. What else you want your daughter to see you doing?

Carolyn: [00:43:16] I’d like her to see me, to our conversation earlier, spending money and doing things that are fun, finding some joy and money.

Ramit Sethi: [00:43:25] Families talk about the things that they value. And I just love the idea of the two of you as a team starting to talk about money in a way that’s meaningful to you and then to your kids. So I would say here’s what you do. You have your one sheet, which I’m going to give you some homework to do at the end of this call. Second, you have your monthly call that’s already going so much better than it is, add to it. 

Each month, I recommend that you go– well, you should do it every week, go through one chapter of the book. It’s a six-week plan. So by the end of your second call, you’ll be totally done. You too could probably get through that quite quickly. But don’t rush it. Chapter 4 is your conscious spending plan. I want you two to create it together. And this will be really fun. This isn’t a budget, Carolyn. Budgets are backward-looking. 

The conscious spending plan is where do you want your money to go looking forward. Now you know that each of you has $250 a month for you only spending. So that gets written down right away. And then you have money for the kids. This is where you get to map it out, how much do we want to spend on the kids?

Carolyn: [00:44:44] It was interesting as a starting off point and it had never occurred to me to do anything like that before. And so I did it for a while. And I was like, “Okay, now I have a concept of it and I have no desire to do anymore.” 

Ramit Sethi: [00:44:58] Okay, cool. So, hey, that’s going to come up in Chapter 4, the conscious spending plan, because you’re actually going to have a pie chart. And it actually is going to have recommendations. This is how much you should spend on your fixed costs and your investments and all of that. And my favorite one of all, guilt-free spending money. Guilt free, isn’t that a nice word? Because you already took care of all the other stuff, so this is money, it’s totally guilt-free. And whether it’s awesome food, or a massage, or taking the kids to a coaching thing, guilt free. 

In order to get to guilt free, you have to go through the work of making your plan. The two of you both want this to work. You just may not have the right tools, intentions, and history to make it work correctly. I later learned that you were in the FIRE world for a while, which explains some of your aggressive investments. And that is very impressive. 

However, it has costs. And that became immediately apparent when I asked you about your daily spending. And it was just all mechanics, all mechanics all the time. I go, “Are we going to smile at all? Is there anything happy going on here?” And then we pulled and pulled and then everything came out. 

I feel very confident with the two of you. Sometimes we start with the simplest thing. Let’s do a one sheet. Let’s talk about our numbers once a month. Let’s create a conscious spending plan. And that moves us at least for the next six months. That’s the step I want you to take.

Gavin: [00:46:30] Yes, I’ll totally begin from that. 

[Narration]

Ramit Sethi: [00:46:31] Awesome. This was a really fascinating conversation. With Carolyn and Gavin, the immediate problem seemed to be that Carolyn was totally disengaged with money. But as we talked, it became clear there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on beneath the surface, for example, the fact that they used to be part of the FIRE community. FIRE helped them invest a ton of money and save and change their spending behavior. 

But it also had its costs. And it caused them to look at money through the lens of pure mechanics. When you hyper-focus on the mechanics of how much can we save up? What’s our savings rate? Oh, I don’t know Trinity. Oh, my gosh, when can we retire? That can help you. It’s a very pure thing to work towards. But it also costs you. 

You will often see people on FIRE subreddits and forums talking about the problems that they’ve developed. They move the goalposts. They’ve made enough but they can’t bring themselves to retire. They constantly worry about money. And some of them will even describe even more serious problems, anxiety, mental problems. These are serious things. I want you to be aware of the costs of whichever approach you choose to take. In this case, FIRE as well as other things contributed to Gavin and Carolyn looking at money as purely mechanical. 

Now I received a follow-up from both of them. And you can get the full follow-up at iwt.com/followups. But let me give you a quick excerpt of what Carolyn wrote, “I thought the price we were paying to live so frugally was dinners out and new clothes, which was easy enough to give up. I’m not sure if it would have ever occurred to me that the actual price was the joy that I was getting from occasional dinners out with my family, or well-fitting pants, or that mindset could rob me of joy in the future. Of course, seeing this doesn’t mean I can change it overnight. But I did take my five-year-old out on a mommy Sunday and tipped the barista 25% this morning. That felt good.” 

Yes, you can read the full letters from both Gavin and Carolyn at iwt.com/followups. And I want to emphasize that frugality serves a purpose. I’m still frugal about many things. But there is more to life than frugality. So if spending money to create joy is something you struggle with, go read their follow-up letters at iwt.com/followups to see how they’re doing it. 

Thanks for listening to I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I’m Ramit Sethi. Please follow the show on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you haven’t read I Will Teach You To Be Rich, my book, pick up a copy. You can get it at any bookstore or any library and it will show you the specific tactics for how to build the I Will Teach You To Be Rich system into your personal finances.

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