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Financial Feud: Energy costs vs. Amenities

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In Dispute:

$15 a month

The Argument:

John

My partner and I are trying to cut down on energy costs but things have started to get competitive. Our bill recently jumped from $40 to $55 a month, so we're trying to get it back down to where it was before. We've already made a lot of adjustments, but my partner says I could be doing more. He thinks I need to toughen up and quit using a heater to warm the bathroom in the morning. I say there are some things I’m just not willing to give up. AM I RIGHT?

Expert Opinion:

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John

The Argument:

Financially, my partner and I are fine. We put away 10 percent of our earnings into savings. We don’t spend money on cars, because we live in a city with great transportation (San Francisco). And we certainly don’t need to bicker over an extra $15 a month on our electric bill. It’s not going to prevent us from going out to dinner or buying a bottle of wine during our next trip to wine country. But that’s not really the point.

My partner and I have always been conscious of our energy consumption. We use energy efficient bulbs and have a tankless water heater. We also only run major appliances during off-peak hours, when energy demand and prices are low. Recently, however, we noticed that our energy rates have been steadily rising. The change hasn’t been drastic, but living in California, we are wary of sudden price increases and possible energy shortages (see Enron and the California Energy Crisis).

Now, things have gotten competitive. I charge all my personal electronics at work, so I don’t have to plug them in at home. My partner bought a blue tooth device so we can play music from our phones instead of a computer. Lately though, he’s taken things to a new level. In addition to pestering me about my bathroom heater, he says I shouldn’t use hot water to rinse the dishes -- they’re going into the dishwasher anyway. He even resorted to buying an electric voltage meter so he can monitor my usage.

At this point I think he’s won the competition – I’ll admit that I use more electricity than he does – but there are some things I’m just not willing to give up – no matter the cost.

This sounds an awful lot like a Seinfeld plotline. But, obviously, this is real life. My first inclination was to suggest that you write your partner a $180 check for a year’s worth of extra electricity use. Then you can turn on the bathroom heater before your morning shower guilt-free. But I suspect we’re not really just talking about an extra $15 a month on the electric bill here, are we?

Managing money alone is hard enough. Try doing it with another person -- someone who has their own financial baggage … their own way of doing things and ideas about how to spend, save and invest -- and things quickly go off the rails.

Since preserving your long-term relationship is critical, you have to approach your problems like partners, not adversaries. So while I agree with you that he’s “won” this electricity use competition (because, let’s be honest my friend, he’s playing to win), what's more important is that you both get something out of this running tiff. I suggest you use it as a springboard for a more in-depth discussion. Focus on the things that REALLY matter to the health of your relationship -- financially and emotionally.

Here’s your homework:

Air your dirty laundry -- but be civil about it, please: Take turns talking about your biggest and most sensitive financial concerns. Talk about what matters to YOU, not what you think should matter. Be concrete and as specific as possible. For example, instead of saying "I get worried about what we have in the bank,” spell out what you envision: "I'd feel a lot more secure if we had $3,000 in our emergency fund.”

Stop sweating the small stuff and go big: Sit down together and come up with a list of larger money goals. Not just “an electric bill that’s $40 a month,” but something more aspirational. Highlight the places where your goals overlap (e.g. saving up to buy a yurt or an electric car or even a yearly savings target).

Look forward: Yes, the past matters. But more important is what you do from this day until death do you part. Pick goals that keep you both jazzed about what's in store for your relationship. Plan your vacation, early retirement or home addition. Then map out the money details that will get the job done -- like how much you need to save each month -- and start tracking your progress. When you have goals to keep you excited, that makes dealing with the daily money struggles (and the fight over the thermostat) a lot easier.

About the author

Dayana Yochim is The Motley Fool’s consumer-finance expert and a frequent "phone a friend"/"referee"/"tie-breaker" when her coupled friends get in financial tiffs.

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