Monday, April 20, 2009

Money in the Relationship

The night I met Ed, we ended up having a late-night snack at Denny's, and I paid. He was, after all, a poor grad student.

"I felt weird about it even that very first night," he said recently.

Being as I am not a starving grad student, I have generally paid for most of our restaurant meals and other outings over the course of our relationship. I not only have the money, but am willing to spend it in this way, because I really do like going out.

When Ed first moved in with me, last September I believe, our arrangement was that he would continue paying me the amount he paid for rent + utilities at his previous place, which was less than half of my rent and utilities, though certainly more than he cost me by living with me. I also didn't generally charge him for household things like laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc. Once he got a full-time job, it was understood that he would start paying his half.

Now that he has the full-time job, he is indeed paying his half of the bills, which is awesome for me. And a couple of weeks ago I negotiated that, since I cook meals for us two or three times a week and also buy other items for the household, instead of divvying up all of those bills, perhaps he could just pay for a meal out for us once a week and we'd call it even.

It's an interesting situation that I thought was fair when I proposed it. Say I spent $30 preparing three meals for us, and he then spent $30 treating us to a meal out. Aren't we even? Well, yes, except that I'm still forcing him to participate in eating out, so that we're spending $60 on four meals altogether. And Ed is trying to pay off student loans and maintain his former thrifty lifestyle, so he doesn't like paying for meals out.

Yet going out is important to me. I re-negotiated: I will charge him for half of all the mutual household things (meals, paper towels, whatever - and of course he can charge me half if he buys things like that), and if I want us to go out (which is typically once or twice a week) I will pay for it.

This makes him uncomfortable. Now that he could afford to pay for half of our meals out, he feels like not doing so in favor of paying down student loans is practically the equivalent of taking my money and paying his loans with it. Why should he get treated when he has a good income? And I'm sure the fact that he's the man and I'm the woman doesn't help; our culture doesn't really have a good model of a woman taking a man out to dinner.

But I think we have to resort to some principles here. A partner in a relationship should have the right to be as thrifty as they wish. I want Ed to take the best care of himself financially that he can. Yet, a person with a thrifty partner should not be unduly limited by the partner's thrift, I think. I have a job that pays me reasonably well, I am putting money aside for retirement, I have almost no debt (< $1000 as of this month), and I think I should be able to eat in a restaurant with my boyfriend once or twice a week.

Imagine if I had a rich boyfriend who wanted to fly to Paris with me for the weekend, but I refused because I was unwilling (and, in the long-term, unable) to pay my half. It's no big deal to him - he's happy to pay my half! - and my refusal only thwarts things he'd like to do with his own money, like have an expensive romantic weekend with his girlfriend.

Of course, I would be uncomfortable if I had a boyfriend like that, at least until I gave in and decided to just enjoy the largesse, which I imagine I'd be able to do after a bit. (After all, free money and things is basically good and nice, if you don't let principles get in the way.)

I guess there are two ways you could decide to do this, while dating someone:
  1. I refuse to participate in things without paying my half, or
  2. I'm willing to let my partner treat me to things that aren't in my budget.
You can take a stand and go with #1 if you want, but I think #2 is generally a nicer way to be for your partner, if you can relax about it a little bit and also trust your partner to keep their own boundaries intact.

If Ed and I get married and decided to handle our money jointly, some of my excessive spending will probably have to go away; I know that not all of it is justifiable from the perspective of what our joint financial priorities should be. But I do think, under present circumstances, that I would press hard for us to be able to eat out more than occasionally.


Sally said...

I think the "I refuse to do anything unless I can afford / choose to afford to pay my half" sounds like a really good way to annoy not only your partner, but family and friends too. Especially when you are being particularly frugal for a reason (e.g. poorly paid grad student or other low-income situation, currently out of work, really trying to pay down debt). Of course, I'm pretty much okay with being a mooch and don't get really buy into the "paying for myself = independence" equivalence. Maybe that's because I can't afford to buy into it. Well, I choose not to anyway. ;)

Debbie said...

It can be hard to realize that the other person really, really doesn't mind paying your part and will not eventually get frustrated and start liking you less and thinking of you as a mooch that they are sick of supporting. It can also be easy to get dependent on people and start having expectations about what of yours you want them to pay for.

When I have been in Ed's position, I have been able let the other person pay for whatever it is that they like so much and I've been able to pay for something else that's good for both of us (unlike student loans) in return. One guy had a rule that whoever asked the other one out had to pay. I warned him that I only ask people out for cheap things and so he would end up paying more with this rule, but he was okay with that. Another guy likes to go out to eat way more than I'm comfortable with paying for (at real restaurants, not cheap fast food). In return I pay for all movies (which are mostly Netflix).