Love and Money

Modern love can be summed up in one quick status update: It's complicated. In the second of a three-part series, we explore the role money plays in relationships. For more insight, read five writers' essays on love and race.

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THE RICH-GUY MYSTIQUE
It's undeniable. But can you still be a feminist if you want a man to pick up the check? - By Starlee Kine

Until recently, I had always been drawn to creative types: writers, artists, filmmakers. Or put another way: guys who didn't make much money. I wasn't trying to be noble. Men with money seemed cocky and out of touch, not that I had much concrete evidence to base this on. I felt more comfortable with boys whose closets were full of thrift-store T-shirts and flannels, who would spend weekends collaborating with me on creative projects. When we ate out, we'd go Dutch or, if I was making more money—which, pre-recession, I usually was—I'd pick up the check. And that was part of the allure, this feeling that I was doing so well that I could take care of a guy if I wanted to.

Then, one night at a bar, a man named Kevin offered to buy me a drink. I knew who he was because his first book had been a best seller turned huge Hollywood movie. He might as well have had a dollar sign floating above his head; he oozed the confidence of someone who didn't have to worry about money. He was also super-intense, a little crazy-eyed, sweaty, and didn't make me laugh. And yet, when he asked me to dinner, I found myself strangely unable to say no. I was enthralled by the power he radiated. But it wasn't because of his fame; I've met plenty of well-known authors. It was the rich part.

We met for dinner at a cozy restaurant filled with well-dressed, well-groomed, upwardly mobile diners. We ordered lamb shanks and risotto, along with salads and appetizers. Instead of one glass of wine at a time, he ordered a bottle and then, later on, another. It felt like that scene in the movie Victor Victoria when a starving Julie Andrews tells Robert Preston to order whatever he wants at a fancy restaurant because she has a cockroach in her purse that she plans on planting in her salad to avoid paying the check. Except, instead of a cockroach, my date had actual cash in his wallet, along with a bunch of credit cards that he wasn't likely dodging collection calls about.

I don't remember our conversation. Serious, intense, unfunny things were said, I'm sure. However, something felt different. Without the strain of having to worry about the cost of dinner (a constant concern in my previous relationships), everything felt ... lighter. As Kevin quickly slid his credit card into the leather holder, I had an awakening: I realized that I didn't feel the slightest bit of guilt or the need to offer or insist on paying for my half. And when he asked me out a second time, I immediately said yes.

The next morning, I sent this e-mail to a friend:

"He is a burly, successful author who pays for dinner, and normally I go for angsty skinny boys. I am so confused."

My friend wrote back and asked me if I liked his personality. I didn't know how to respond to that question. For the first time ever, the idea of making decisions based on personality seemed silly.

After our third date, Kevin dropped off without warning. But the experience left an imprint. I couldn't stop thinking about whenever I'd introduce my dad to one of my artsy boyfriends, how confused he would look. My father had always stressed to me the importance of financial stability—in my love life or otherwise. And for the first time, suddenly, his words were making sense.

The truth is, there's a conflict that most of my female friends and I feel about being expected to—and truly wanting to—succeed at work without having to rely on a man, but then when it comes to dating, we're supposed to regress into princesses. These presumptions don't just come from some men, they come from women as well. But often, we also want it both ways. I have one friend, a successful TV writer, who says she's just waiting to get married so she can become what she has always really wanted to be: a housewife.

This is hard to admit because I'm a feminist, and I value my career. But there is a small part of me that also wants to be taken care of, to be treated like a princess—at the very least, to have my dinner paid for. I've seen some in my own circle go after wealthy guys they wouldn't otherwise date. My friends and I even have a term for it: The Hannah Plan, based on a girl we knew who quit a lucrative job to marry a rich guy and launch her writing career. We'd reference it when discussing our own careers: "Well, there's always The Hannah Plan to fall back on." As far as we could see, The Hannah Plan was working. Hannah and her husband seemed happy, and she was becoming more accomplished on her own (with his backing) than when she had a job. But I'd always shake my head, cross my arms, insist that it ultimately wasn't the route women should take. Well, that was before the dinner with Kevin, when I realized that all it took was one perfectly cooked risotto for me to turn from Sophia to Anna Nicole Smith, at least for one date.

Ultimately, I don't think I could commit to The Hannah Plan long-term. Having dinner paid for is one thing; marrying for money is something else entirely. And again, I'm not being noble. I just don't think I'd be able to pull it off. Which isn't to say that returning to those scrappy boys has been easy. I recently went on a date with one, at a place in Brooklyn that had $12 specials. When the check came, he put his card down, then slid the bill over to me. I heard myself saying, "That's a turnoff," and then suddenly we were having a fight. He found it a turnoff that I found it a turnoff. He accused me of displaying a sort of reverse sexism. I didn't know how to respond because I was as confused about my feelings as he was. I just knew that they felt real and important and that trying to resolve and come to peace with this conflict felt more intrinsic to my being a modern woman than simply accepting a split bill.

Finally, with a sigh, he told me not to worry about it and paid for the meal. We pulled on our coats in silence. Moments before we had been cracking jokes about the couple next to us who clearly hated each other, and now they were probably doing the same thing about us. Maybe we would be the example against which they would reconcile: "Now those two have issues ..." We'd been planning on continuing the date, but instead, outside, we offered up stiff hugs, and then turned in opposite directions.

I'M CEO OF MY FAMILY
What happens when you marry a skateboarding slacker with bad credit? You take charge - By Paula Szuchman

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Here's what I brought into my marriage: a robust retirement fund, an excellent credit score, a life insurance policy, and a house in the country.

Here's what my husband brought: unpaid back taxes, shoddy credit, threatening letters from Sprint, and a skateboard.

Not that any of this mattered when we first met. In the limerent haze of our falling-in-love period, our issues were simpler to resolve: Sleep at his place or mine? Make pancakes at home or go out for brunch? Fire Island or Puerto Escondido?

But as anyone who's been in a relationship longer than a few months knows, reality has a way of setting in. Eventually, Nivi and I moved in together. We got engaged, we got married. And soon enough, money began to matter.

For example, the man hadn't filed his tax returns in five years. When he was single, that was his problem. Now it was mine. So one gloriously warm March afternoon, as we sat in a café reading the paper after a run in the park, I decided to ruin the moment by raising the topic. April 15 was less than a month away—had he called the accountant?

"No, but don't worry. I'll deal with it," he said, not looking up from his crossword puzzle.

"I'm not comfortable with that," I shot back.

"'Classic men's hat.' Six letters."

"Fedora. Nivi!"

"Paula!"

See, the thing that sucks about marriage is that your hopes and dreams are completely dependent on another person. If he wants to live in Walla Walla for the rest of his life, that decision is going to affect your plans to milk goats on a Tuscan farm. If he owes the IRS untold sums, you can kiss good-bye any hope of sending the kids to private school—assuming you can afford kids to begin with.

Conversely, if you're a guy like Nivi, who doesn't think about money as it relates to the future, who ignores calls from debt collectors and accumulates parking tickets, then marriage sucks because all of a sudden there's another person nagging you for doing stuff you never considered problematic. You say, "I'll get to it when I get to it," and she hears, "I don't care if I kill your dreams."

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Which is how money came to poison our otherwise reasonably healthy marriage. I say healthy because we were still attracted to each other, and though it might sound strange, he was no less a man in my eyes for so utterly failing me on a financial level. On good days, we could rock it like old times. But yelling about money markets and annual percentage rates is hardly an aphrodisiac. Many a night would culminate in the same pathetic scene: Nivi and me, lying as far from each other as a queen bed allows, frozen in opposing fetal positions, cursing the other one under our breaths. Not exactly the precursor to a night of tantric sex.

Occasionally, I would feel like I was actually getting somewhere with him—only to be blindsided. Consider the case of the unpaid AmEx bill. After many months of gentle pressure-slash—incessant nagging on my part, Nivi finally applied for a credit card. I guess they'll give credit cards to anyone with a Social Security number, because within days of filling out an application with American Express, he was approved for a $2,000 credit limit. At long last! He could use it for small purchases, pay it off every month, and start rebuilding his credit score! Then maybe one day we could buy a house! Exclamation points all around!

He did just fine with the purchasing part of the equation but couldn't wrap his head around the part where you have to pay your bill on time every month. One day, I opened his statement and saw a late fee—not just for that month, but for the previous one, too. It wasn't a ton of money, but it was the principle. I couldn't even trust him to pay one measly credit-card bill. So much for good credit. So much for our dream house. Was he even thinking of me? Something seemingly trivial turned into an argument about all the ways he was insensitive and irresponsible, and all the ways I was self-righteous and condescending.

The tension came to a head one day when we passed a For Sale sign on a particularly pretty block in our neighborhood. Before we even had a chance to fantasize about buying it, the missiles were flying:

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"Like we'd ever be able to afford this place," I said.

"We need to get better at saving," he said.

"Your opinions about our finances are irrelevant until you have a 401(k)."

"That might be the meanest thing you've ever said to me."

Oops.

I'd officially become a bully. I mean, the man was trying. Lately, he'd been e-mailing me real-estate listings and had created a Google spreadsheet outlining all our monthly expenses, right down to Starbucks coffees on the way to work. He's a designer by training; creating a visual representation of our finances was helping him understand the basics. Maybe I'd worn him down, or maybe he had to put up a fight for a while for his ego's sake. It probably didn't hurt that this was around the time the economy was tanking and the U.S. seemed headed toward a second Great Depression. Newspapers were screaming about banks going under, hedge-fund managers declaring the end of days, and ordinary Americans losing their homes and their savings overnight. It was enough to scare anyone straight.

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Regardless, old habits die hard, and being bad with money was beginning to make Nivi feel like a failure as a person. The last thing he needed was a wife who rubbed it in. What's more, said wife earned more money than he did, and deep in his reptilian brain, he needed to be the main breadwinner.

Of course, it took him a while to articulate those insecurities, and me even longer to give him a chance. We were a mess.

That was five years ago. Today, we own a house, have two kids, a dog, and two shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Each month we put $100 into a 529 college-savings plan. We are finally adults—but that is terrifying in a totally different way.

I reformed my husband into a somewhat responsible financial citizen of the world and he's managed to make me a nicer human being. Couples therapy helped, and Nivi says that it wasn't until he was able to surrender to the reality of marriage—being beholden to another person—that he could surrender to my financial rules.

We also took on clearly defined roles, mine being the CEO of the family: I pay all the bills, file our tax returns, and manage our accounts. I set up that college-savings account, and I even got Nivi a life-insurance policy. It's a time-consuming job, but hey, Nivi keeps busy vacuuming the floors, taking out the trash, and making meatloaf every week. He gets the car washed and, more often than not, can be found at the playground, pushing our daughter on the swings. After years of trying to reform each other, we settled for playing to our individual strengths and doing the tasks we're good at.

Besides, the work itself isn't the hard part. For me, it was about letting go of expectations—that the labor has to be divided 50/50 and that my skateboarding, American Spirit-smoking husband will take an interest in our mutual-fund prospectus. For him, it was recognizing that his manhood had nothing to do with his income, and that his wife sometimes knows best.

Oh, he would like me to tell you that the $100 a week he brings in teaching yoga on the side pays for our dog walker.

SINGLE BROKE FEMALE
The reality of dating and being poor isn't always romantic - By Maura Kelly

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Whenever I get asked out on a date, I pray that the man won't suggest an expensive restaurant, and if he does, that he'll pick up the check. This isn't just a simple case of being old-fashioned. See, I'm a freelance writer, and as much as I love working from home, it isn't that lucrative. I often don't make nearly enough to cover my basic expenses, and I'm breaking even right now only because I've been watching every single dollar lately.

Sometimes I fear that no man will want to hitch his wagon to a girl who's just barely getting by. After all, we live in a solidly double-income world now and what can I bring to a shared bank account beyond a talent for remembering industrial-strength passwords? In other words, does my poverty make me less attractive to men?

My previous boyfriends, for the most part, were very understanding about my financial state. They seemed to love my bright, cozy little apartment—painstakingly furnished with stuff found on sidewalks, at yard sales, and on Craigslist—as much as I did. One ex did mention a few times how squeaky my 10-year-old mattress was and that he'd be more willing to watch movies at my place if I had a decent flat-screen rather than a laptop, and so I started to wonder if my place was about as sexy as a single-room-occupancy hotel. I'm kind of glad no one is sharing my bed at the moment because there's a hole forming in one pillowcase, and I'll have to wait for the next paycheck before forking over for new ones.

But still, my fears consume me. I'm paranoid that, to men, I look like someone who just scrapes by—which can't be sexy in the Gatsby-land of New York City. Even during a recession as deep as the one we've started to emerge from, it seems like every woman in this city has hair so perfectly highlighted it's like a team of fairies painted each strand a slightly different color; skin so smooth it's like she started getting facials when she was 11; and clothes so chic she resembles a Barneys window mannequin. Here, if you're not throwing down plenty of cash on your appearance, you might as well step away from the blackjack table.

My bank-account balancing act means that I buy myself new clothes about as often as a new president is elected. In the meantime, I eagerly attend every clothing swap I'm invited to and accept hand-me-downs from my fashionable cousin, and I'm not above shopping for dresses on people's stoops. But it's hard to maintain my confidence on a date when I'm sitting close to some new guy at a hotel bar, wondering if he's noticed how my jeans look like they're from Goodwill, how my sweater is starting to pill, or how my ancient bra has lost its shape so much that it looks like I'm attempting to conceal two plush toys under my top. (And don't even get me started about early-stage intimacy! I turn off the lights in two seconds flat—saves me the mortification of revealing my shabby lingerie.)

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It's a good thing, though, that I am, by temperament and circumstance, a no-frills girl. I don't wear much makeup, and I've gotten my nails done at a salon only twice in my life. But unfortunately, my hair can't be ignored—because I'm prematurely gray, the stuff needs color every three weeks. But since there's no way I can drop a few hundred bucks every month, I do it myself at home.

Recently, my worst dating fear materialized. With new guys who don't know my financial situation, I always suggest drinks or coffee, never meals. But in this case, my date made it clear he wanted to treat me to dinner—at a place with a lovely roaring fireplace—and he snatched up the black-leather envelope the second it came. He then groped for his wallet, only to realize it wasn't in his jacket. Or his pants. Or his laptop bag. After a frantic search, he declared the wallet missing. I might have been more upset than he was. I charged the meal to my card, of course—what else could I do?—but I felt slightly faint, realizing I was sending myself into the red. Asking him to refund me via PayPal seemed terribly gauche ... but I was tempted.

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I also try not to linger long after dates, for fear a man might try to put me in a cab I can't afford. One time, rather than let my impoverishment defuse any sexual frisson, I climbed into the backseat cheerfully, waved good-bye—and jumped out a couple blocks later so I could hurry off to the subway. But lately, I don't even take the train if I can help it; I save on the $5 round-trip fare by biking to dates, weather permitting. I park my dilapidated ride around the corner to ensure that my date doesn't see it—my decrepit seat is held together with about 10 layers of silver utility tape, reapplied whenever the edges start to fray. It looks so much like a voodoo head that even my sweet ex-boyfriend, who bore witness to the bike seat in its better days, would sigh whenever he saw it. "Would you please let me buy you a new one?" he'd say. I'd always insist it wasn't necessary, not wanting to take advantage of his generosity.

But for all my insecurities and anxieties, romance somehow still finds me. This weekend, as a pleasant date was ending, the guy insisted on walking me back to my ride, which I'd strategically hidden behind a tank-sized SUV. "Here she is," I said sheepishly. He patted the seat and said, "Nice tape job. This bike has a lot of character." I hugged him on the spot. And since then, I've stopped hiding my beat-up Raleigh. Any guy who can't see the charm of chipped blue paint probably isn't for me.

THE 50-50 RULE
How a teenage relationship shaped a woman's attitude toward her finances forever - By Susan Gregory Thomas

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It was my senior year of high school, and my friends were all applying to prestigious liberal-arts colleges. I had nowhere to live. A team of intervening family therapists had deemed my mother's and my living together untenable. My father, who had flown down to the Philadelphia suburbs from Boston, ostensibly to rescue me, instead dropped me off at a halfway house a few miles away from my mom's apartment. He wished me luck and took the next plane home.

Luckily, I had a boyfriend. And he had an amazing family.

He came from what in Wasp circles is known as "an old family," people whose fortunes were made so long ago that money was not, to them, tangible currency so much as images of lawyers in white-shoe law firms handling trust funds. Like many old families, they were great benefactors: of the arts, of centers for abused women, of colleges and universities. And of me.

Rick, as I'll call him, and his family were horrified at my situation and took me in with no parameters. They made up one of their guest bedrooms and urged me to decorate it as my own. I became part of the family dinners and parties, at which I was introduced as Rick's "dear friend." When it came time for the female members of the family to be presented to society as debutantes, they outfitted me in appropriate gowns and elbow-length kid gloves. They paid for Rick and me to go to bed-and-breakfast weekend retreats in the country.

When my own father reneged on my parents' divorce agreement and refused to send me to college (though he had more than enough money), Rick's parents furnished an apartment we'd found in nearby Philadelphia, where Rick and I lived while attending Temple University, a good and affordable local school. They had saved my life. And in spite of my fulsome thanks and promises, they never, ever made me feel ashamed or obligated to repay them in any way.

But the undercurrents of the debt slowly swelled to riptides. I, for example, had to get a job—which I did, as a reporter—to pay for college, rent, and school supplies. And though I was no legal expert, I knew enough to be certain that my father's failure to foot the bill for my tuition put him in breach of contract. I was saving money to hire a lawyer to sue him so that I could attend the college of my choice, Columbia. I worked overtime.

Rick didn't have to work. He didn't like that I did. I wasn't at home when he wanted me to be, and when I was there, I was studying to produce a perfect GPA. I was not-so-subtly urged to quit my job. His parents would help us again. But I couldn't allow his family to pay my freight: I needed to do it. So, against his discouragement, I persisted—and declined help.

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But the trouble escalated. If there was a function Rick was obliged to attend and I couldn't make it because of work or school or both, he would be furious and slam the door on his way out—or, on many occasions, browbeat me into shirking my duties. If he wanted me in bed—to sleep, to talk, to cuddle, or beyond—I felt bound to comply. I met new friends at school and on the job. Rick didn't like them—and didn't like my hanging out with them. Such episodes led to fights, which, ultimately, led to the blunt truth: His family had done everything for me; I owed him. He didn't have to say it. It was unmistakable.

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I envisioned following the path that was being laid for me: marrying young, producing 2.3 children, volunteering at their prep schools, assuming a role in the Junior League. And transforming into a pretentious, resentful soul in a Lilly Pulitzer frock.

Four months after we had moved in together, on New Year's Eve, I was alone after a particularly vicious fight about my not being able to afford a night of pricey debauchery. I snapped. I couldn't bear the thought of a life that resembled the one I was living. I moved out and moved in with my mom (time apart had led to forgiveness on both our parts) until I could find a roommate to share a cheap apartment. I spent the next year saving money for the lawyer, sued my dad, settled, and went to Columbia. I worked my ass off, won the English department's award for critical writing, landed a job at a magazine—and paid my way for all of it.

At my first job out of college, I met the man who would be my husband, and he told me he was thinking of quitting the magazine for which we both worked and taking an adventure through Central and South America. When I asked who was going to fund this excursion, he replied: "My parents." Not on my watch, I said—and went on to lecture him about the importance of self-sufficiency, shoving at him my dog-eared copy of The Sheltering Sky to underscore the demise of entitled wanderers. Within a week, he came around.

In our 16 years together, we always split everything 50/50. I was obsessively self-reliant, leaving New York—and him—for two years because I was determined to write for The Washington Post, even living in a group house to keep my expenses low. When I decided I was done with D.C., I refused to return until I'd lined up a job in NYC, not willing to lean on his earnings for a second. I always maintained my own bank account; we divided bills down the middle. After the births of our two children, he kindly offered to support my staying home to care for the babies, a proposition that many of my friends took their husbands up on. I couldn't. Instead, I scrambled for freelance work and, when that didn't pay enough, garnered a book deal so that I could be both a working and a stay-at-home mom, sleep and reliance be damned.

In hindsight, it's obvious that some twisted, unconscious psychosexual calculus had been burned into my thinking—that allowing myself to be supported, even by my husband, somehow would make me a kept woman. That if I had none of my own money, I would have no voice, no rights. It's no way to look at marriage, and again, looking back on it, obstinacy could well have played a role in its eventual dissolution. To avoid making my husband my sugar daddy, it's as though I regarded him as my roommate rather than my partner.

That was eight years ago. We have since divorced, and I remarried an antiques restorer whose work evaporated during the recession. I have come to know poverty, the disgrace of qualifying for food stamps and of having the heat turned off because we couldn't pay the bills. Though I could have pushed for it, I never asked for child support from my former husband because he was paying a large part of our children's school tuition. Moreover, he didn't offer because it never would have occurred to him: We split everything, together or not. I'd set it up that way, the corrosive effects of financial dependence on a man having been indelibly imprinted on my DNA a lifetime ago.

I have now been the primary breadwinner for four years, albeit not a great one, and I am definitely enthusiastic—indeed, rabid!—about my husband earning a steady income. But I have learned how to be grateful for his help and that from my parents and in-laws. I'm also grateful for my experiences with my rich boyfriend, my ex-husband, even my father: They taught me how to be a scrapper, to deploy inner resources I didn't even know existed, to get to the other side of hardship. I'm there now, and as harrowing as it has been, I have learned that being a lone pilot is just as damaging as being a helpless charity case. I see now that I am part of a team.

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