How couples can create a shared plan for the future

How couples can create a shared plan for the future

J.D.'s Intro
Last December, I took a trip to Europe with my cousin Duane. Before I left, I received email from a GRS reader named Matthias. “If you come through Switzerland, let me know,” he said.

The stars aligned so that Matt was able to join us for several hours on a train across the Alps. He brought Swiss chocolate and a bottle of whisky. As we talked — and became pleasantly buzzed — he told me about how he and his wife tackle couple goals together via five-year plans for their future.

“I love this idea,” I told him. “Will you write about it for Get Rich Slowly?” He did. This is Matt's story about creating a shared vision as a couple. Enjoy!

J.D. and Matthias

In the spring of 2006, I'd been living and working in Taipei, Taiwan for two years and my contract was about to expire. Soon, I'd be returning home to Switzerland.

On a pleasant weekend evening in my downtown flat, my Taiwanese girlfriend and I were reminiscing about all of the wonderful memories we'd made. We waxed nostalgic about the two years we'd enjoyed together. But it dawned on us that if we didn't make some bold moves, our relationship might be coming to an end.

We opened a bottle of fine wine in order to enhance the depth and wisdom of our conversation. Before long, we'd switched from sweet nostalgia to dreaming about our potential future — together.

How to set couple goals

Imagineering the Future

My girlfriend had just graduated from college and was working in her first job. For my part, I’d just received an offer for my dream job — but it meant I'd have to move back to Switzerland.

The wine was an effective dream enhancer. We let our imaginations loose as we talked about how we could potentially live our lives together. The future took many shapes.

  • Where would we live?
  • What jobs would we work?
  • How could we both be as happy as possible together?

Honestly, it was overwhelming. Our lives three months ahead were like a blank slate. Everything seemed possible! Nothing was certain! Anything could happen!

In order to conceptualize our thoughts and concerns, we decided to write down all of our dreams and goals on yellow stickynotes. This mother of all brainstorming sessions took us half an hour. We each wrote down what was important to us, stuff we’d like to achieve, skills we’d like to acquire — in short, what we’d like to do with our lives in the next few years.

Next, we organized those dreams in terms of feasibility, urgency, and requirements. (To meet certain goals, we had to accomplish others first.) During this process, we tried to keep things fair. We both got the same number of stickynotes. All goals were open to debate, yet at the same time we tried to figure how to best help each other achieving them going forward! Our aim was to work together as a couple.

Step three was to put up an A3 formatted white paper on the wall, draw a timeline from 2006 till 2011 – yes, we were going to plan out the next five years of our life! – and arrange our couple goals in a meaningful way to our life’s “game plan”.

The first five-year plan

Our dreams included things like:

  • Get married.
  • Move to Switzerland.
  • Save for a new home.
  • Learn German.
  • Start a business.
  • Become parents.

In a nutshell, nothing extraordinary — the things young people usually dream of. It was clear that some goals had to be achieved before others. We agreed that pursuing them in a specific order made sense. Then we arranged them accordingly on the timeline.

Becoming a Dream Team

Planning our future was an ecstatic activity. In fact, doing so was the defining evening for our relationship.

That very evening, we actually decided to get married. We decided to chase our dreams together as a team. She was 23 years young; I was 26. Little did we know that this shared activity would help us tremendously on the path to our dream life. We had become a dream team!

We got married in early 2007. My wife started to teach Chinese in Switzerland, and she learned German while I pursued my career in banking. Together, we saved up for a home. In 2011, we became parents and moved back to Asia — this time to Singapore. It was exactly five years after having put up our dream map on a wall. Somehow, we'd achieved every single one of our couple goals.

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” – Earl Nightingale

We got so excited once all of our dreams had became reality that it wasn't the last time we’ve opened a bottle of wine while plotting our future. It has actually become a habit that we both enjoy and look forward to. We’ve done a new and updated five-year plan three times already. Currently, we’re in the middle of the 2016-2021 cycle.

The third five-year plan

Half-way through, we've made good progress toward our current couple goals. By mid-2017 we’d achieved financial independence. I was able to quit my job in Singapore, which gave me time to focus on a new business and on my blog, Financial Imagineer. Our family (now four!) moved back to Switzerland to enjoy more quality time with my parents and extended family.

Creating a Five-Year Plan

Before you can start living your dream life, you have to plan it. (And if you have a partner, you should plan it together.) They say that if you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail. It’s crucial to find the map to your dreams before you go into the woods! A good plan makes all the difference.

With your partner, pick a date to meet about a week or two in the future – preferably a nice evening where you won't feel pressed for time. Set aside two or three hours. Maybe make it a date night.

You both want to get your brains started in advance on what you want to do with your lives. Don’t share too much with your partner before that evening. Don’t think about limitations or potential difficulties. Dream big! Think outside of the box. Think about what you really would like to achieve in life.

As the big night approaches, prepare the following ingredients.

  • A fine bottle of wine (or any other fine adult beverage of your choice).
  • Two glasses.
  • A large piece of A3 paper. (For you Americans, that's about 12 inches by 18 inches.)
  • Some small stickynotes.
  • A pen.
  • Two open minds willing to share their dreams.

When the time arrives, tape the A3 paper to the wall, open your wine (or other beverage), and start a conversation about where your thoughts and dreams have drifted over the past couple of weeks.

As you talk, draw an x-axis with the next five years: 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024. We like to use the y-axis to indicate urgency/importance. (The higher the goal is on the paper, the more urgent and/or important it is.)

Next, each person should take ten or twelve stickynotes. On each, write one of your dreams or goals for the next five years.

When you've both finished writing down your goals, share them with each other. Share why you believe certain dreams are worth pursuing. Share what kind of time or money or other resources it will take to fulfill each dream. Drink another glass of wine!

After you've discussed all of your dreams as a couple, start putting the stickynotes onto your dreamboard. If two (or more) goals conflict with each other, take the time to talk about them. A little friendly, loving debate can be good when developing couple goals.

When you're done, take a photo of your dreamboard, then “seal the deal” by finsihing your bottle of wine.

Going through this process will allow both of you to express your wildest dreams. Don’t be shy about expressing big ideas. Dream big. Think big. No limits shall be set in this part of the exercise. It’s all about letting your imagination flow freely. This allows both of you to fully understand the wildest dreams of your partner.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

Matthias and Martina

Plan, Take Action, and Persist

The next step is planning how to get where you want to go. Here, you ought to discuss the details. What will it take to accomplish what you want to accomplish? Where and when will you do these things? What do you need to change in order to realize your dreams? As a team, decide how to allocate and invest your (limited) resources.

After you've planned, it's time to take action.

Many people are living their lives on autopilot. The majority of humans will only change course in their lives if they don’t have a choice. Spelling out your dreams and making them into goals helps to switch that autopilot off — but you’ll have to learn to fly by yourself.

You won't actually be alone, though. You’re a team. This is very powerful because you can become each other’s cheerleaders. Together, taking (bold) action becomes half as frightening. Don’t fear failure. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Then you try again. Fail more, fail better. Don’t stop trying. Don’t get stuck.

Once you've agreed to achieving your couple goals together, you’ll have the strongest partner you could ever imagine. Once you take the first baby steps, this bond will only get stronger. On the way towards your new goals, you’ll have to outgrow your comfort zone, you’ll have to learn new skills, you’ll have explore and grow.

It’s paramount to be persistent. A team of two has better odds at succeeding in the long run. So, stick together. Everything is figureoutable!

Think of this dream-teamwork as an alignment of forces or vectors. Only if you’ve discussed and agreed on how to move ahead as a team can you actually drive at full speed towards your future and make your dreams work.

The how, any potential issues or problems will shrink together to merely nothing if you align your lives. Understand your partner, empower him or her, permit each other to pursue dreams and support your choices going forward. Stop wishing, start doing. Be bold, don’t be afraid: Re-imagineer your life!

“Imagination has no age and dreams are forever.” – Walt Disney

Making a Pact

The following photo was taken in Japan in 2017, where we made our last dreamboard together before switching gears in our lives once more. My wife and I had made a pact to build our best life possible.

Making a pact

Time flies.

It’s already been two years since we agreed to pursue our next set of couple goals. We’re almost at half-time through this five-year period and I’m happy to report that we’re getting there! And we’re getting better as a couple. We’ve kept moving towards our dreams even stronger and more committed than before!

We sincerely hope that this article has inspired you to reflect on your dreams and shown you a way to pursue them with your partner. We all have different dreams, different hopes, different ambitions and goals in life.

If you’re in a relationship, don’t shy away from sharing what’s close to your heart. Communicate your innermost dreams, write them down, and agree to pursue them together as a team.

More about...Planning

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Carmine M. Red
Carmine M. Red
10 months ago

I guess in many cases it can be a matter of personality but I think that planning, casting your imagination into the future and envisioning what might be or what might happen, is SO FUN! (I bet it’s tons of fun too when you have someone to plan with, and gets more fun as you get more aligned and on the same wavelength!) I’d like to think that if you’re an optimist, it’s fun and useful not just because of all the dreams you’d have, but because by organizing, planning, and scheduling them you get a structure to turns those… Read more »

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Carmine M. Red

Dear Carmine, yeah right, it’s SO FUN indeed! Maybe I’m a hopeless optimist [you got me!], but life is so full of possibilities and we’re running out of time day by day literally. We truly enjoy fantasizing about what we’d like to do next – it’s better to put some structures around it and then achieving whatever you’ve set to your mind becomes more enjoyable if you go for it as a team. Thanks for reading! Matt

chris
chris
10 months ago

The wife and I are relatively on the same page with our financial goals and our future. But I love the idea of making it into a “date night” type of deal. Even though our goals seem to align, it may not be a bad idea to schedule one or two of these date nights per year to “check in”.

Thanks,
Chris

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  chris

Dear Chris, if your goals align already, even the better. Then you can celebrate milestones together or prioritize what to go after next.

Thanks as well!
Matt

Anne
Anne
10 months ago

I love this. Husband and I have always set goals, me more than him. Usually, I bring up the ideas and he mulls them over for a few days. But we have achieved many things on our somewhat small incomes. I can see now that a more formal goal session would have been great, especially when we were younger.

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Anne

Dear Anne,
Having ideas is a skill or talent by itself, but deciding the respective goals to make the ideas and fantasy become reality requires another set of skills. Wonderful to read how you put both your unique skills together to steer your lives towards your goals.
All the best, Matt

Joe
Joe
10 months ago

I think it’s great that you found a process that works for you. Congratulations on achieving your dreams as well.
Our process is a lot more adhoc. We talk pretty often and figure it out along the way. Luckily, we both have similar values and goals so it works pretty well. Life is much easier when you have a partner with similar goals.

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Joe

Dear Joe,
Thanks so much! If you’re aligned pretty well already then having an adhoc process is sufficiently good. Our process is maybe more helpful for going after the larger things in life, such as deciding where to live, how to earn a living, when to become parents and when to call it quits and FIRE from a job.
Thanks for reading!
Matt

S.G.
S.G.
10 months ago

I’m curious: When do you revisit your plan? Typically I’ve heard it recommended that you revisit your 5 year plan about every year. Priorities change, as can the reality on the ground. In military terms: no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

Or if you prefer: Mike Tyson – “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”

Plans are important, but I can’t imagine they survive 5 years intact.

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  S.G.

Dear S.G., Having a timeframe of 5 years allows to dream bigger – some goals need to be broken into several smaller steps and as you say, priorities change and hostile forces might set you off course. Love the Mike Tyson reference. We’ve got punched into the mouth previously by the 2008/2009 recession (stayed at first job role 3 years longer than planned, but saved more and got better positioned for later). On the other side, holding the course through storms can be worthwhile, I guess it depends on the priorities and about how important certain goals are. A certain… Read more »

Katelyn
Katelyn
10 months ago

Hi Matt!

I LOVE planning, so this article really speaks to me. With that said, some of the coolest opportunities I’ve had in my life I could not possibly have foreseen a year prior let alone 5. If I had felt locked into a 5 year plan, I probably wouldn’t have said yes to those opportunities. How do unexpected opportunities factor into your 5 year plans? Is that a trigger to start the 5 year planning process all over?

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Katelyn

Dear Katelyn,
As the famous quote goes: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Life must be lived forward and can only be understood backwards. Staying open to arising opportunities is great, financial independence gives the freedom to pursue (or not). Depending on the impact and opportunity it might indeed be the trigger to re-start the 5 year planning process! We like to do 5 years since this will require some grit – but it shouldn’t translate into locking yourself stubbornly into a certain life foregoing eventual opportunities.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!
Matt

Peter R Payne
Peter R Payne
10 months ago

There’s a lot of wine in this post. I approve.

Kudos for finding a great person OP! I, too, won the marital lottery, finding a person who was not only a great partner, had all the accounting and management skills needed for us to found a successful business in Japan.

In our case, I have my “our” plan together and she has her “our” plan. I save/invest more, and she, being Japanese, saves in “safe” ways, and funds our son’s education.

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Peter R Payne

Dear Peter,
In vino veritas!
Yes, strongly approve of your statement: I have won the martial lottery as well. It’s nice to plan and live a life between cultures! The Japanese culture is close to the Taiwanese and I’m sure you guys are complementing each other pretty neatly as well. Your son must be blessed to have two responsible parents.
Cheers to you and good wine!
Matt

MLD
MLD
10 months ago

So easy and nice when there are shared values, goals etc, but what happens when you don’t… how do you reconcile opposites and still end up with a quality retirement. We are a couple that are polar opposites… one saves, the other spends; one great 401K, the other minimal; one wants reliable vehicle to get from A to B, the other wants fancy; one wants to keep working and keep earning, the other wants to retire now, etc etc but you get the idea. Someone write an article on how they retired happily (or not) in that situation. Savers and… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.
10 months ago
Reply to  MLD

Does your SO expect you to support him/her? I have seen two methods work in this situation, but only in specific circumstances. Those circumstances just always include a level of mutual understanding. The first method is that everything is separate. The money I save is mine. And you must continue working until you have your own. I have seen this approach a few times and it seems to work for many people, but it is dependent on that being the understanding going in. The second method is yours/mine/ours. In that case the couple agrees to what “ours” looks like and… Read more »

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  MLD

Dear MLD and S.G., Surely every couples’ situation is different and no two couples are the same or can match the same way. Understanding each other and accepting different points of view, goals and finding a “common ground” should be the best bet on making a plan work. A very good analogy [team building, by Elon Musk] is referring to align people on a team as you would align vectors in an equation. The basic concept is simple: – we can think of the people on any given team as vectors – people vectors have both direction and magnitude –… Read more »

Anne
Anne
10 months ago

It’s not addressed much because there are no easy answers. It’s a major marriage strainer. The only advice I can offer is to agree on how much he/she can spend and let them spend it how they wish. If they stay within the agreed limit that may be all you are going to get.

Matt | Financial Imagineer
Matt | Financial Imagineer
10 months ago
Reply to  Anne

Dear Anne, Yes, it’s not easy. Making a budget and setting up some rules is a good idea. I have seen some cases where both partners tap into the same joint bank account. Whenever she spends X, he also wanted to spend X or he felt left behind. And when he spent Y she felt like spending another Y as well. So, instead of saving, they both each spent 2X and 2Y… a suboptimal result for a couple planning to achieve larger goals in life. Separating and limiting spending accounts seems to be the right choice for this dilemma indeed.… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 months ago

We did 5-year plans until about 10 years ago (in our 40s). They definitely helped us meet some goals. However, our “5-year plans” worked better when we were more often acting than reacting, with fewer responsibilities outside ourselves. Now in our 50s, job insecurity (ageism), health issues, and kids/extended family issues can derail our 5-year plans on a regular basis. I have found that there are times when the joint vision can remain intact for many years, but the implementation ends up looking very compromised. And some opportunities don’t come around as often later as earlier. For example, if we… Read more »

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