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April 18, 2012

Love and Money

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

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.)

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.

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.


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