Carolyn Hax: Sort out details of values with fiance

Carolyn Hax:

October 6, 2013 

Dear Carolyn: I was taught by my parents to live frugally, which meant never using more than I needed. We always lived comfortably, but it was definitely a test of limits because our space was only as much as we needed.

My new fiance has a very different view of frugality. He comes from a much stronger economic background, and, while he lives well within his means and is never financially irresponsible, he has never had to be frugal.

Now, we’re considering buying a house together. I believe it’s important philosophically to limit oneself, if only as a reminder that others don’t have as much. In my opinion, we should have just enough to live reasonably well, and that’s it. It’s a value I would like to transfer to my children because it implies a consciousness for those less fortunate.

My husband-to-be, on the other hand, wants a nicer and bigger house with more yard than we could ever use. Such a purchase wouldn’t hurt his/our finances at all. But, to me, buying a bigger house would throw aside one of my most central core values.

My fiance’s lack of understanding about this point is putting me on the verge of breaking off the engagement. Am I digging my heels in too much? Or is it a deal-breaker?


I’ll start with the easy part: Living according to your values is important; understanding and being understood in your marriage is important; setting a good example for your someday children is important; weighing your choices now for their impact on these important things in the future is important. And getting this all said is important, because the details that make up these big concepts get complicated quickly.

For example, when you’re sharing your life in marriage, whose values take precedence when his and yours don’t perfectly align? Do you think it’s OK to have issues on which you or he won’t budge? If so, and if this is one of them, then we can skip the rest: You tell him this is central to your life purpose, to the extent that you’re unwilling to marry unless he buys into your idea of economic fairness as driver of all material choices.

Note the your idea of. Another complication is that there isn’t just one lifestyle that underscores “a consciousness for those less fortunate.” What if, say, you had a big house, and used it to host charity benefits, or house foster children? What about modeling generosity vs. frugality?

There’s also a lifetime’s worth of complexity in the word “reasonable.” Does “reasonable” living space include a guest room — to promote close family ties or idea-circulation via worldly visitors — or a home office so you can get by with one car? Or does “reasonable” mean shelter and hygiene, period?

If you and your fiance haven’t dug into all this enough to get at whats and whys like these, then I don’t think you’re in a position to break or even make any deals, much less impress future kids. A couple’s thinking won’t always match — it can’t. But matching the depth of it, and its transparency, is a worthy bar to clear.

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