Love and MoneyModern 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.
I'M CEO OF MY FAMILY
What happens when you marry a skateboarding slacker with bad credit? You take charge - By Paula Szuchman
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."
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."
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:
"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."
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.
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
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.
love: friendships, dating, sex & marriage
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