My sister’s wedding was the worst day of my life. I would like to say it was because I felt like I was losing her. But no, I was fine with that. The real reason was because she had a nightmare frugal wedding.
The Terrible Prelude
My sister’s wedding had about 75 people and cost a few thousand. It’s not the frugalest wedding of all time but it’s pretty good.
My brother in law chose his only brother as his best man. I am my sister’s only sister. My sister chose to have three bridesmaids and no maid of honor. She wanted us to be equal. I really felt like this was a slap in the face. My sister stated though that there would be no toasts at the wedding so it wouldn’t matter. Remember this detail.
The Garbage Rehearsal
At the rehearsal, the church wedding planner created name tags for all of us. I was designated the maid of honor, because I guess she needed one for staging purposes. I was also the tallest, which probably made the pictures a bit easier.
At the rehearsal dinner, one of my BIL’s relatives opted to bless the meal. His prayer had some line about being overjoyed to be able to celebrate the wedding of [my BIL] and ..pause. I hiss my sister’s name. He seems to finally remember the name of the bride. I wanted to stab him.
The Nightmare Wedding
So the wedding day arrives. My sister said the bridesmaids could all wear black dresses we owned. I’m of course mistaken for the bride. (Ugh all Asians don’t look alike! Plus the bride is the one in the big white dress).
The ceremony starts at 10am. My sister is chillzilla. But around 9:40 she ponders, should I wear makeup? So we decide on some foundation. Some gets dripped on her dress. I immediately make a beeline for the groomsman who told me he would bring a Tide pen. Crisis averted.
Wedding goes off fine, if a little long. The kiss, well that’s a whole other story. (It was all everyone but me could talk about after the wedding.)
Anyway, the reception is in the church basement. My sister said she had heard of weddings where the friends and family would serve the food buffet- style, and it cuts down on catering costs and people are happy to help.
The food has been delivered but there are no caterers. There are no waiters. Which means there is no one to figure out where the food will be served or to bring out the large buffet trays. A bunch of people come up to me wondering, so what do we do?
The Disastrous Climax
I enlist the help of the ushers (these guys were godsends and I hope my sister and BIL realize what treasures these guys were). We assemble the tables, bring out the food, find the serving wear and well, serve the guests. Fine, everyone’s eating. I sneak in some food. While I’m sitting at the head table by myself (the newlyweds were making the rounds and the other bridesmaids and groomsmen were elsewhere) the emcee starts his schtick. He congratulates the new bride and groom. Then he says words that haunt me to this day.
Now for the maid of honor toast.
And he shoves the microphone straight in my face while I’m eating my dinner alone. And 75 heads turn my way. I swat away the mic, a look of horror spreading on my face.
Fortunately, my dad jumps up and gives an impromptu speech. Thanks, dad.
And it goes on
Then it’s time for cake. I again enlist the ushers to bring all the food back to the kitchen. (I don’t remember what happened to people’s dinner plates). So then we served cake.
The reception was pretty much over at this point. Except for one thing: we are supposed to clean all the dishes. Surprisingly, the wedding party all has plans so they leave tout de suite. I’m left with the two ushers. We clean dishes for a few hours. The floor is a puddle of water so I can’t even take off my four-inch heels. I also make sure the church is back in tip top shape. When the ushers leave, I wished I had firstborn children to give them. They were super amazing.
Then, my sister’s friend asks for a lift to go buy a gift. He’s a good guy, if a little scatter-brained. I literally cannot feel my feet and can barely walk at this point so I say he can take my car but he has to drive. I slink into the passenger seat, my dress covered in food smells. It’s only a few miles to the Best Buy. But my friend gets into a fender bender with a car in front of him. Thankfully, my car is a beater, but still, it was the perfect cap to the worst day of my life.
Oh and then for bridesmaid gifts, my sister gave me a copy of her favorite children’s book. I don’t want YOUR favorite children’s book, I say. And she happily takes it back.
Why Frugal Wedding Advice is Infuriating
To her credit, my sister is not a personal finance blogger. Because so help me, if she writes a how-to on having a frugal wedding, I will ….think really bad thoughts about her. (Incidentally, my sister’s uber-cheap bridesmaid friend copied my sister’s wedding to a tee. She even requested the same church – which she doesn’t attend – and asked to take my sister’s dress. Two of a kind).
Weddings are that funny occasion when personal finance bloggers do not put their money where their mouth is. Look at any list of frugal wedding tips and they’ll tell you to be dishonest (don’t tell them it’s a wedding, tell them it’s a retirement party!). These are the same people who will encourage you to side hustle in one post. But with regard to weddings, they’ll encourage you to get your hard side-hustling friends to work for free.
A personal finance blogger will say, ignore the expectations of your peers. But their ideas of a frugal wedding still abide by the same rules. You have to feed everyone a meal, you have to have alcohol, you have to have music, you have to have professional photography, and new fancy clothes. The only way to do those things is to be kinda rich already (so you can stockpile booze or have connections for cheap food) or to use people (free photography, free music, free setup and cleanup).
My Experience Planning A Wedding
I’ve never been married but I have planned a wedding. We cut all the corners for the bride and groom (wear clothes we owned, no hair or makeup, as few flowers and decorations as possible) but we would not cut corners for our guests and friends. We hired a friend to do the photography – but we were paying her. We hired a friend to do the ceremony – but we were paying her and had looked into the ordination rules for her. We were going to pay for travel and lodging for family that wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Still, the wedding budget was right around $30k – the average price for a wedding. We were also 1%ers and this amount of money was still stressing me out. The difference for us was that this was about how much money we could save in 5 months. For many couples, that’s one entire salary for a year.
How to Have a Frugal Wedding Without Alienating Your Friends
If you can’t afford the big ordeal wedding, that’s totally fine. Weddings used to be punch and cake in the church basement while wearing your Sunday best. You can create a sustainable, honest wedding. If all you can afford is punch and cake, the people who will be offended will not be around for long anyway. There are a million ways to say, hey wedding industry, I can’t do the huge party. I just want to gather my friends and family together and drink beers. And that’s ok. Personally, I would rather have a barbecue and call it a day than lie or use people.
Living within your means requires bravery. Throwing a wedding that flouts the traditional won’t be for everyone. But I’m betting that a lot of people will hear of your wedding and be relieved. At least one of those people will be me.
My friends still talk about the buffet to this day – raw oysters, fresh shrimp, smoked salmon, caviar, fresh carved top sirloin. And all sorts of other foods that were delicious (and expensive). Beautiful ambiance. It was cheaper than what we thought they could charge, but it wasn’t so cheap that we suspected something.
And it was all a bit too much.
When Being Cool Has a Downside
I have this same feeling whenever I do something obviously cool. Like getting free NFL or NHL tickets. Seeing an awesome concert. Going on vacation. Even traveling at all. I used to take the bus to New York, but now I only take the train (economy class). Once, my ex used his points to upgrade us to first class on the Acela and I thought, wow, this is WAY TOO NICE. In the timeless words of Wayne’s World: we are not worthy.
When the experience is way cooler than I am, I wonder if I’m deserving. I also start to wonder, am I really enjoying this as much as I should? And the weird thing is you feel a little guilty. Like here’s this amazing experience and you don’t know if you’re getting enough out of it. That guilt takes away part of the joy.
I imagine it’s the same if you had a perfect life. If you have the great job, the perfect spouse, adorable children, and beautiful house. I think you’d look around and think, ok this is as good as it gets. Am I enjoying it enough? Am I even happy? And then your perfect life is a little bit less perfect.
The Joy of Being Lame
I grew up in a middle class family of 5 on the East Coast. That meant that we had some pretty boring vacations, because we would go to where we could drive. I mean Kitty Hawk, NC, Pigeon Forge, TN, Dayton, OH. Yep, we went to Dayton, Ohio on vacation and we don’t have any relatives there. My parents thought it would be nice to visit. (We also drove by Gary, Indiana, but we didn’t stick around there.)
There’s nothing wrong with these places. (I’m from a small town in New Jersey – I don’t judge). But they’re nothing to brag about.
I never disliked these vacations though. In fact, I look back at them fondly. Because the experience is so uncool, it takes the pressure off. Your expectations are so low that even when you’re mildly amused, it’s like a jet rocket of happiness. And if you’re disappointed, that’s ok too. When your circumstances are less than perfect, you are finally free to feel however you are meant to feel. You can complain a little sure. You can make fun of yourself and your ridiculous family vacations to Pigeon Forge.
You can also enjoy it.
And the best part of enjoying the weird, bizarre-o vacations is that you know that if you can enjoy yourself in the simplest of situations, you can enjoy yourself anywhere. The awesome place or the exhilirating situation becomes less a focus. You can focus on yourself or on family or friends. You don’t have the pressure to be having the best Instagrammable life ever. It’s nice to realize that your life is too lame to be on social media. Then your life becomes private and precious.
The Joy of a Bare Bones Budget
I like to practice this idea of, well I guess I could call it “being lame,” but also having a “bare bones” lifestyle. I don’t have a problem with lifestyle inflation – I spent roughly on par with my lifestyle from 13 years ago, when I made 1/5 of what I do now. But even so, sometimes it still all seems excessive. Sometimes I still wonder if I’m enjoying this enough. I realize all the blessings I have – good food and drink, nice vacations – and I want to ensure that I can still be grateful without any of these things.
The beauty of a bare bones budget is that you don’t have to pretend that everything is great. You can live a not-so-great lifestyle, and somehow it’s still amazing and wonderful. Because you’re alive and you’re appreciative and you realize that all the luxuries and excess are fun – but they’re not what your life is about.
What this means is that sometimes I’ll have beans and rice (but if you season it well, it’s delicious). I’ll have ramen (actually I love ramen, so this is more of a treat). Wander around my city on a staycation. Spend the day organizing my apartment. Attend free events around my area (super easy to do in DC). I’ll use what I have. If you can derive joy and a feeling of wealth from free lame things, that’s real joy. And that’s real savings.
It’s fitting that I’m posting this at the end of Ramadan. I think the tradition of fasting for a month is so beautiful – as a reminder of those who do without. The joy of a bare bones budget is that you realize that you can appreciate what you have. The joy comes from knowing that you wouldn’t be any happier with more. And the best part is that you know you have the freedom to choose if you’re happy or not – and you choose yes.
When you’re giving advice, one of the main tensions is the idea of balancing tough love with, well, love. Balancing responsibility with empathy.
Part of me is team responsibility – team “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.” I made all the right decisions. I put in the hours at a high-paying job and I’m frugal. Obviously you have to make the right choices or you won’t succeed. In order to make the right choices, you have to have the mindset that you’re the only one that can help yourself, because often, you’re the only one who can.
Part of me is team empathy. I’ve been in gifted and talented programs since I was in second grade. I’ve been surrounded by smart kids who have made all the right choices. And still, because of health or other circumstances beyond their control, some of them don’t get the same outcomes. It’s not all a matter of mindset or making the right decisions, but a matter of luck and timing.
So how do you balance these two competing ideas -how do you encourage or advise people to keep making the right decisions when luck is so integral?
When to Use the Responsibility Mindset
To me, it makes a lot of sense to focus on what you can control. I think talking about privilege is pretty stupid, honestly. Let’s take Bill Gates. He’s “privileged” in that he’s a healthy, white man who grew up in a wealthy area. Would he have gotten where he is if he were Asian? Why does it matter? Even if we prove that Bill Gates was lucky – so what? Everyone still has to play the cards they’re dealt.
Judging your life based on other people’s cards is futile. It doesn’t make any difference to look at others who might be more advantaged (envy) or less advantaged (pity). If I don’t like my life, I have to focus on what I can do to change it right now. And I have to believe whatever I need to believe to advance myself. Learning about my disadvantages doesn’t serve me. Neither does complaining.
There are often different mindsets between those who succeed and those who fail so mindset is generally important but it’s not essential and it’s not enough.
When Mindset Doesn’t Work
There’s this scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte and Carrie go to a seminar with a dating self-help guru (bear with me and try not to roll your eyes too much). The guru is all about manifesting and mindset (I told you to stop rolling your eyes!).
Here’s the scene: a woman in the crowd has just stated that she followed the plan of daily affirmations and has met a great new guy. Enthusiastic applause. Then, Charlotte stands up.
Charlotte: I’m just wondering how long that woman was doing her affirmations because I’ve been doing mine every day. And I want to believe but nothing is happening. I just don’t think it’s working. I just don’t think it will work for me.
Guru: I hear fear. I hear doubt. You have to believe love to receive love. Keep repeating your affirmations and eventually your heart will catch up with your head.
Charlotte: That’s the thing though. I did find love. I believed that there was someone out there for me. And I met him. Finally. And we had a beautiful wedding. And then everything just fell apart. …. And now I just feel lost. And I am I’m trying to put myself out there but I feel hopeless.
Guru: Perhaps you’re not really putting yourself out there.
Guru: …I mean emotionally and physically…. Maybe you’re not really trying.
And at this point, Charlotte’s friend, Carrie, intervenes and defends her friend, saying Charlotte really is trying. Charlotte really is doing the best she can do and her mindset is strong.
I was reminded of this scene after hearing so many personal finance gurus talk about “Mindset! Mindset! Mindset!” What happens when the guru is pressured – hey, the mindset isn’t working? Well, the guru places the blame on the person, of course. You’re not following the plan! And I think this does a disservice to people following the plan for the following reasons:
Mindset isn’t everything.
Empathy is always important.
The Difference Between Good Decisions and Good Outcomes
You should all read Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets. Basically, Duke says that when we look back at our decisions, we tend to judge whether they’re good or bad based on their outcomes. The problem is that you’re ignoring the presence of luck.
This plays out often in the personal finance world. You’re told over and over to go to college. Georgina goes to college, gets a great job and benefits and can easily pay off her loans. Georgina must have done everything right. George goes to college, has trouble finding a job and struggles to pay off his student loans. Well, he shouldn’t have taken out the loans. George made a mistake.
The problem is that you’re presented with a scenario and people are trying to figure out cause and effect. Basically, they’re trying to place blame. We want to think we live in a world where we put in A and get out B, but that’s not the world we live in. Also, we’re terrible at figuring out cause and effect.
So what do we do? We haphazardly place blame whenever someone has a bad outcome. We see this play out in every aspect of our lives.
You got sick? You should pray for healing. If you’re not healed? Well, you didn’t pray hard enough. Or you have secret sin.
You’re fat? You should be more self-disciplined. Didn’t lose the weight? You’re not trying hard enough.
Can’t make ends meet? You’re not budgeting strictly enough. You likely have some secret luxuries.
Sometimes you can do everything right and be sick or fat. Sometimes you can cut your expenses to the bone and still not earn enough. Sometimes you can do everything right and the outcome comes out wrong. And the worst part might be the people that don’t know you, telling you where you went wrong.
When to Use Empathy
Pre-civilization, people used to think that if something bad happened, you must have done something to anger the gods. We haven’t actually gotten that far away from this kind of thinking. We see a bad result and there’s a kneejerk reaction – what did you do wrong?
You can be “mindset! mindset! mindset!” but other people are going to tune you out without empathy. I think it’s a huge problem not to have empathy anyway.
Balancing Responsibility with Empathy
Personally, I think the rule of thumb should be, that you use the responsibility mindset with yourself, and empathy with others. This is not to say you shouldn’t be empathetic to yourself or that you shouldn’t use tough love with others, but this seems like a good first approach. You know a lot about yourself, your decisions and your situation. You don’t know what happened to the other person. I’m pretty self-controlled and I know there are tons of people who could beat me when it comes to doing the right things. I don’t know that the person who had a bad outcome made worse decisions than me. I shouldn’t assume that.
If someone is reaching out to you for advice, they are often looking for empathy, even if they don’t know it yet. You don’t necessarily reach out to yourself for that reason. The problem with the guru from Sex and the City is that she had very little emotional intelligence. Charlotte clearly wanted someone to affirm her. And perhaps the cold-hearted among you (cough Asians cough) might say, well you just need to know the information and ignore your emotions. But sometimes people need support and understanding. It’s the common trope that women often communicate for the sense of community, not to be given advice. I think that’s really beautiful. Some people want to figure things out for themselves but they need support along the way. Hammering the same defective advice short circuits that communication. You’re creating problems where there weren’t any. You’re not solving anything.
When people are struggling, I hope I can be more like Carrie and less like the personal finance guru. I want to be the person who seeks to understand, not seeks to promote my own agenda.
There’s so much personal finance advice clutter out there – I think it’s time you all learned how to KonMari your personal finance advice. Wait, what does that even mean?
If you read my Twitter feed, it’s filled with tons of bad advice I’ve seen on other finance blogs. And if you’ve read the “At Age 35” memes that have been popping up all over the internet, you can see that many people were aggravated over the provocative Marketwatch tweet where “experts” stated that 35-year olds should have twice their salary saved.
Ok, let’s say you don’t have twice your salary saved by 35. That’s totally ok. I have twice my salary saved and I’m turning 35. But I didn’t meet the guidelines for 25 or 30 and I might not meet the guidelines for 40. Personal finance is personal. It doesn’t really make sense to be upset about what one person says is the “right way.” But sometimes you do get upset. What do you do with personal finance advice that upsets you?
Who is Marie Kondo and what is KonMari?
KonMari is a method of decluttering created by Marie Kondo that has as its central message: get rid of that which doesn’t spark joy. So how does this apply practically?
I used to have a Letterman jacket in high school. Huge waste of money. You can only wear it for four years tops and then it’s weird.
I never wore it. I kept it for years in my closet because of how much money my mother spent on it. Every time I opened my closet I would see it and feel guilty. It reminded me of my regrets from high school. I thought about how this would be a really weird thing to donate to the Salvation Army because it was embroidered with my name and year. I thought about my parents’ sacrifice and where I was in my life. I mean it was just a huge guilt explosion whenever I opened my closet.
So one day, I threw it away. Just tossed it in a bag and down the garbage chute.
And immediately, I felt immense relief. In fact, I felt elated.
Part of me thought I needed to keep the jacket into perpetuity as a reminder of my mistakes. But it didn’t make me better; it only made me feel worse. It was an anchor for me – keeping me rooted in the past and unable to feel free in the future.
I think about this jacket when I see criticisms of KonMari of the “Well I can’t just throw out my fridge because I’m indifferent to it” variety. I take the most commonsense approach to KonMari – if you hate it, get rid of it. And as simple and obvious as that advice sounds, it was a revelation for me.
KonMari-ing your Personal Finance
I love good financial voyeurism as much as the next person. But I recently read an article that made me feel pretty bad. It was from a couple that was younger than me but who had more money saved. I mean, it’s very likely that a couple would have more money than me because there are two of them. But even dividing by two, they had more. It made me feel inadequate. I didn’t know what to do with it.
So I tried to KonMari it. And I came up with the following mantra:
If advice or messages serve as an inspiration or a wake-up call, then take it and run with it. If they do nothing but make you feel ashamed or hopeless, then get rid of it.
Does this Allow Me to Ignore Good Advice?
Wait a second, you say. This seems like I can just ignore the personal advice I need just because it makes me feel bad. That seems like an entitled millennial victim blah blah blah.
Sure, there’s the possibility of that. But I think, you have to be ready to take the advice. Even if advice is exactly right for you mathematically or practically, it still has to be right for your emotionally. If the form of the advice makes you more upset and angry than inspired or energized, then maybe it’s not the right advice at the right time for you. Sometimes you’re not at the right point in life to understand that advice. Sometimes what you need to do is work on what you can and get to the point when you’re ready to take that advice. The advice won’t go into the ether. There’s so much financial advice out there; it’ll come back to you in a form that’s ready for you to take it when you’re ready to accept it.
When Advice Doesn’t Incite Change
My brother, unfortunately, gets a lot of criticism in my family. He can be a little unrefined at times. For instance, when he’s excited he can speak so loudly that it sounds like yelling. He’s been doing this since he was a kid. And my family has chastised him since he was a kid. Nothing has changed. He is incredibly loud in settings where quietness is valued. The cycle continues. Loud. Chastise. Loud. Chastise.
A few years ago, I said, here’s the deal. You’re too loud sometimes. It bothers us. But we’ve told you this over and over again and it doesn’t seem to change. And the mark of an insane person is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So, if it’s something that we’ve already told you annoys us, I’m going to assume you’ve heard it. And I’m not going to say anything more about it. It hasn’t changed anything in the past and I would be an insane person to assume it would change something in the future. Further, I fear that it’s hurting our relationship. It seems we’re only chastising you to make ourselves feel better, not to effect change. So I’m putting an end to it. He said he appreciated it.
And you know what? It’s been years. He hasn’t changed. But I have.
Maybe one day, he’ll change. But I believe that it has to be the right message at the right time. Reading personal finance advice that makes you feel bad is guaranteed to make you feel bad, but it won’t guarantee change. It might even make it harder to change. Feeling bad is not the answer.
If you’re at the point where certain advice isn’t helping you to change, that’s ok. It can be the best advice in the world but if it’s not working for you, you have my permission as a totally unlicensed untrained personal finance blogger to leave it alone. For what that’s worth.
This doesn’t absolve you from improving yourself. Everyone should be improving themselves constantly! But you can pick and choose what works for you. The best anyone can do is to put one foot in front of the other and make whatever progress we can. You don’t have to beat yourself up just to beat yourself up. And you shouldn’t let others beat you up just for the sake of it either. Shame isn’t the answer to your financial woes. Pick what inspires you to put one foot in front of the other. Follow that. Get more of that.
If there is advice or messages that make you feel bad about yourself and don’t encourage you to be better, you don’t need to keep them around. KonMari it and let it go.
I’ve heard a number of personal finance bloggers state that people aren’t interested in money because they’re intimidated by math. That seems like a straw man argument because in my mind, being good with money has little to nothing to do with math. Money is not about math; it’s about emotions.
Being Good with Money is Not about Math
I was very good at calculus but quite terrible at any kind of useful math. I tend to make egregious errors in arithmetic.
How can I be (often) bad with math and good with money? Well, why do we even think money is about math? Because there are numbers involved? I don’t think most people have a problem understanding that they need to spend less than what they earn. I don’t think most people have a problem understanding the percentages and arithmetic needed to create a budget. You can copy a budget from online or use an Excel spreadsheet if you’re THAT bad with math.
Creating the budget is easy. The main problem is sticking to that budget and that involves self-control and emotions, not math.
Jason Kelly raised a good point for my last article – the differential between what I paid and what my boyfriend paid was probably inconsequential.
We could have spreadsheet-ed it out. I could have paid the next several meals out or frankly, just given him the difference in cash. But I think we all know that that would not have solved the problem. Like so many fights, what we were explicitly fighting about was not the real cause of our problems. You fight about chores with your spouse, but you’re really longing to feel appreciated. You fight about curfews with your kids, but you’re really projecting your own anxieties about your kid growing up.
Our fight wasn’t about money – it was about our expectations.
How Expectations Can Ruin Our Relationship with Money (and with Others)
Bob and I talked about this recently. (Bob reads my blog – I mean, I guess it makes sense because who wouldn’t want to read the inner thoughts of their ex?). I came from a background where my father paid for everything. Now, my parents made similar salaries and they had a joint account. So when I say my father paid, it wasn’t as if my mother was getting a free meal. The only sacrifice was that my dad carried his wallet around and my mom didn’t have to.
My parents hate the idea of splitting the check, but their way of paying wasn’t meaningfully different than going dutch. My dad could have paid for some of the meals and my mom the rest. My mom could have paid for all the meals. It’s all exactly the same math-wise. Their payment arrangement had nothing to do with the math and everything to do with emotions. My mom liked feeling taken care of even if she was paying for half. I knew the whole thing was a ruse but it was a cute ruse. The money part worked because everyone’s feelings were attended to.
When Math Won’t Solve Your Money Problems
It was pretty stupid for me to want my parents’ situation in my relationship with my boyfriend. We weren’t married. I made more than him and we didn’t have a joint account. When he was treating me, there was less money for him. I wanted the same emotions but it wasn’t the same math.
Of course, if we had made it perfectly equal, I still wouldn’t have been happy. I needed to adjust my expectations. This was no place to think that, because I was a woman, I should have been treated to his money. I made more than enough to pay an equal share. I made more than enough to pay for everything. But I was equating money with affection, and that’s a dangerous misconception.
I dated a guy recently and on our first few dates, we went dutch. This has rarely happened on my dates, but in terms of the math it made sense. He was a graduate student and I made 6x what he did. Still, I took the action as a sign that he wasn’t interested. But he kept asking me out on dates. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So you know what I did?
I asked him if he liked me.
*Mind blown* What? Honesty has no place in dating, I can hear you all say. But I asked him, and he answered that he did. And that was the basis for our relationship. He liked me, I liked him and we communicated it via words instead of implied it with actions involving money. I’m not sure if this is how adults have relationships, but I’m going to try it more often.
We might say that we “need” the guy to pay for dates to show that he cares. The other way he can show he cares? By using his words. Money can’t solve these problems because money isn’t about math.
I’m in my 30s, single and I have a high-paying job.
I didn’t mean for this to happen.
I never cared about marriage or starting a family. By default, I chose to focus on my life and career in my 20s. I think if I were going to do it again, it may have been easier to do family first and then career. Though it would seem that having a career and a high income would be an attractive asset in the dating world, I have found it to be more often a liability.
What I Mean When I Say I’m Rich
For some background, I live in DC, home to tens of thousands of interns, students, and federal government workers. In DC, lawyers make some of the highest salaries in the city (whereas in SF or NYC, say, tech founders, bankers and people in many different industries can make much more). What this means is that when I date, 9 times out of 10, I’m dating a man who makes less, often a lot less. As of late, I generally make 2-3x more than my date, but I’ve dated men with bigger income differentials (students).
Does my career/salary hurt the kinds of men that respond to me online? I have no idea. People don’t fill out questionnaires. I do know that the income differential has caused rifts in my relationships though. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the issue of who pays. If I were a man dating a woman who made a quarter of my salary, I would pay for at least half, but more likely I would pay for most things. But as a woman, it’s less clear what my role is.
Entering Unchartered Pay Disparity Dating Territory
I remember I had a fight about money with my ex, who we shall call Bob. He brought up that I was contributing less than half toward our food budget. We never discussed our salaries but it was understood that I made considerably more than him. We were both earning good money though and neither of had debt or high expenses. Combined we were likely in the top 2% of incomes. We went to nice but not extravagant places.
A few weeks before the fight, I had actually thought about whether I was contributing my fair share. When Bob and I went out to eat, one person would pick up the tab. My family is Asian so splitting the bill is a bit foreign to me. I detested the idea of a couple keeping spreadsheets to ensure each side was paying exactly 50%. I was hoping for something easy-breezy and motivated by love (*in the future, maybe spreadsheets are the answer).
But I also thought about fairness. By my calculations, I paid for about 1/3 of the meals out and he paid 2/3. I also cooked often and would plan and shop for the meals. I would cook somewhat expensive or elaborate meals – slow-roasted pork belly, chicken pot pie, paella, baked salmon, pork loin banh mi, katsudon donburi. By my rough estimates, I figured I was paying for half our total meals (eating in and eating out) though I was spending less because cooking is cheaper than eating out.
He was resentful. And I was resentful that he was resentful. I felt like he didn’t recognize my efforts. Also, I was resentful because if I made less, this wouldn’t have been an issue. My cooking would have counted as my contribution towards our “couple-y” expenses. But because I made more, I should pay for more. It didn’t seem fair.
What is Fair in Love and War
Of course, I’m sure it was fair. If I were a man, I’d pay more. When I was younger and making an entry-level salary, I dated a lawyer. He paid for most of our dates and he would cook as well. The tables had turned. But I wasn’t ready to pay for more than my half.
Now in my 30s, I’m learning to acclimate myself to paying more. I feel that this is the right outcome. If I had married when I was younger, I wouldn’t be in the career I am now. Many of my ex-boyfriends made good money. I doubt I would have had the ambition to make more if I already had a good source of income (from my hypothetical hubby) to support me. I went to law school in a small town, and I’m not sure that many men would have followed me there. If I had had children, I would have taken a break from work and I’m not sure I would have returned.
Because I didn’t focus on family, I have a career. Because I have a career, I have a high-paying job. With that high-paying job comes certain responsibilities like paying for more. This is the price of change. I’m working on my resentment.
Why I’m Still Worried
A woman outearning her husband increases the couple’s likelihood of divorce. Being nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (a sign of a woman’s success over her male significant other) increases her risk of divorce. When a woman earns more, she might resent her husband for earning less. The pay differential may change their dynamic. Her husband might be jealous at her success. These are not great things, but they are natural things. You can be a part of a team and still be jealous of your overperforming teammate or resentful of your underperforming one. I’m sure the rest of the Cavaliers all envy LeBron and LeBron may get tired of carrying his teammates. We would like to think that this jealousy or resentment will stir in us ambition to greater self-improvement or empathy but for many, it’ll be corrosive.
I don’t feel ashamed that I will likely date and marry a man who earns significantly less than me. I would be lying, however, if I said that I don’t worry at all about ill effects due to outearning my spouse. I’m learning to get comfortable paying for more. He will have to get comfortable with me earning more. It’s a whole lot of uncomfortable. I guess that’s what happens when you buck societal expectations. It’s for the best, but it doesn’t feel that great when you’re learning to change. I think they’re called growing pains.
Some will say, oh it’s ok because the men who are uncomfortable with your success aren’t right for you. I think a lot of men are or would be uncomfortable with the success of their female significant other. Many men don’t have to deal with this scenario – as the typical case is still that the man earns more. But we live in a society where it’s expected that the man earns more. Men can brag about how happy they are to be kept husbands – but the fact that they can brag about that shows that that’s not the norm. It’s generally uncouth to brag. If a woman were to brag about being a trophy wife, she’d be derided if she wasn’t being sarcastic. Trophy husbands get the best of every world – they get to work less, brag about that fact, and get lauded for being supportive. Meanwhile the bread-winning wives are warned that their husbands will likely have an affair.
Most of the women I know are dating or are married to men who make more than them, often significantly so. It seems really stupid and backwards to want to feel like a princess who is funded by her prince. I will admit that I had had a little hope in the back of my mind that that would be the case for me. Maybe I could be Meghan Markle.
If this is a big problem? HELL, NO. If it were, I could just quit my job and become a receptionist. There are easy options to go from higher-earning to lower-earning. I realize that this is a great problem to have in some ways. I don’t have to rely on some rich man to pick me. I can support myself. I can be single if I want.
Turns out, in my own fairytale, I’m the prince. And I’m learning to be ok with that.
When I was a kid, my Sunday School teacher asked if I had any questions about prayer. I asked him the most pressing question I could think of – can I pray for the Knicks? My teacher reassured me that God cared very much for the Knicks. But even if I prayed for the Knicks, there would be other children (and possibly adults) praying for the other team. So God probably couldn’t intervene in basketball games (which explains why the Knicks are so bad).
But if prayer isn’t about getting what you want, then what in the world are you talking to God for? Later in life I figured it out.
In college, I was very stressed planning a group trip to a Christian concert. (Yes, my life is quite embarrassing). And my friend said he would pray for me. Rather than pray that the details of the concert would go off without a hitch, he prayed that I would be released from worry.
It was from this prayer that I understood that prayer isn’t about getting stuff from God. Rather, prayer is about changing one’s mind. Prayer was about teaching yourself to focus on the things that mattered.
How Prayer is Like Charity
I think charity is as misunderstood a concept as prayer. People think prayer is about getting stuff for yourself. If it were about getting stuff, then you would easily get discouraged that you didn’t get what you want. Logically, prayer can’t be about the results. There are people praying “against” you – praying for their team to win, praying for the job that you want, for the winning lottery ticket. If prayer meant you could get everything you wanted, then everyone would win the lottery every day. The reason to pray can’t be about getting stuff. Instead the meaning of prayer is to learn to change your mind to want the stuff that you get.
Likewise, charity isn’t about giving stuff to others and getting the results you want. But there are people donating to causes against yours, unfortunately. You give money to support the homeless but there is tons of money going towards other factors that are perpetuating homelessness. You can give money and then find that the charity you support isn’t using it judiciously. These can all seem like reasons to quit giving to charity. It can all seem a little hopeless but I don’t think that means you shouldn’t give to charity. Like prayer, I think charity is more about its effect on yourself, not its effect on others. That way you can’t blame external forces for why not to give to charity.
Why budget for charity?
MsZiyou raised an interesting point in my last post – reasons why not to give to charity.
I completely agree that there are a lot of charities that are not worth supporting. There are a lot of charities that overpay their staff for very cushy jobs. Some charities seem like their missions are to support Big Charity and to make rich people feel better about themselves rather than improving heir world. I don’t give to big institutionalized charitable organizations. I refuse even to give to my alma mater state school, which pays its dean $400k.
Just because something is called a charity, doesn’t mean it’s doing any good. Charities might not be solving problems at all, might not be solving problems in an efficient or competent way and some may actually be creating more and worse problems. Still, despite these caveats, I think charity is an integral part of one’s budget. That’s because it’s not about supporting an organization, but about devoting a portion of your budget to help people other than your self.
Where to give your money?
I don’t think limiting charity just to those organizations for which you get a tax-deduction makes sense in a budgeting standpoint or even an ethical standpoint. Charity is money spent to help others.It’s whatever is spent to direct your focus away from yourself.
So the lack of trustworthy organizations is not an excuse not to give to charity. (Sorry, so many negatives). Charity is about regularly thinking about others rather than yourself. It’s about putting our money toward changing our minds.
To me, of course the purpose of the charity matters. One should use one’s money judiciously to do the most good. There’s no point in supporting charities that do a bad job or that support a mission that doesn’t align with your values. I research all my charities and generally only support ones where I’ve volunteered and know the management.
But even if you despise all organized charity, that doesn’t mean you get to forget others in your budget. Your charity budget can include helping people you meet in need. It can be gifts to show your support for those that have helped you. You can give tips to those who are doing great in low-paying jobs.
The important part, in my opinion, is that you realize that you have more than enough in your budget than just for you. You have a responsibility to help where you can. Further, you will only learn to be happy when you learn to give. A life lived just for yourself will ultimately prove meaningless. That’s why you need a charity budget.
To be honest, as a self-described rich person, I can be a bit of a rich person apologist. But I have always been puzzled as to why the rich give less as a percentage of their wealth to charity. Some people surmise it’s because the wealthy are insulated from socioeconomic suffering or because the rich are unethical.
I had previously surmised the reason was that giving is a skill. If you don’t develop the skill when you have less, it doesn’t come naturally when you have more. So my solution was – build the habit.
How the Rich Can Justify Giving Less
A new idea popped into my head after discussing the differences between absolute and relative frugality. The rich may treat charity in terms of absolute and relative generosity.
For instance, the rich give on average 1% of their income as opposed to 3% by the poor (I don’t know if this is pre- or post-tax). So 3% at a $33,000 post-tax salary might be $1,000. 1% at a $600,000 salary would be $6,000.
The poor don’t give a lot in absolute terms to charity. They do give a percentage that is significant for them. While the rich can give a lower percentage, they can give themselves kudos because of the amount. $6,000 seems like/is a lot of money and the rich might stop at that amount because it’s such a large amount. Both sides can pat themselves on the back by choosing to view their donations in the way that is most beneficial to them.
In a way it makes sense. The poor can’t give much in terms of absolute amounts without doing serious damage to their finances. The rich don’t have to give a large percentage in order to make an impressive gift.
And the absolute amount certainly matters. The media have chastised Jeff Bezos for his lack of philanthropy but he, his parents and Amazon have given away hundreds of millions. Further, to be fair, if you have a lot of money to give, it would be wise to take your time and research before making any moves.
Are the rich terrible?
I’m not trying to shame anyone regarding their charitable giving. I applaud anyone who gives to charity in any amount (so long as it isn’t to the church of scientology etc). Decide on a charitable budget that makes you comfortable and then view your choice in whatever way that makes you feel good about it. It’s a great deed – it doesn’t have to be the greatest deed to be commendable.
Does viewing your charitable donations in terms of relative or absolute generosity help you feel better about your donations?
Before we talk about the right track for your finances, have I ever told you about the time that my appendix ruptured and I missed it? For over a year? Well, I told this story to my doctor friends and they all shrugged their shoulders and said, well, people’s bodies are so wonderfully different. That’s it. No wisdom. No explanation. Just that people are different.
I was reminded of this because every Friday at Mark’s Daily Apple, they run a success story. A few weeks ago, the success was a little controversial. The featured lady had plenty of smiling pictures, described her diet, and says she feels great. The problem – some people thought she wasn’t eating enough based on their own caloric estimates of her diet. You can’t have fewer than 1200 calories, they say.
Do others know your life better than you do?
This is an interesting criticism. Here’s this woman who has found this diet that works for her. She has tried it out and found that her energy and weight have greatly improved. She looks healthy. She doesn’t look underweight. And yet, internet strangers, who have probably never taken a nutrition course and have never met this woman, feel the need to question her lifestyle because they read somewhere on the Internet that 1200 calories is the minimum that any woman should eat.
Could it be that this woman doesn’t know how to take care of herself and is missing some huge impending problems? Sure, it’s possible. But should we give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe her body is different and that she knows what’s best for herself?
Probably. I mean, I certainly follow a strange diet that works for me. I told my doctor, like a good little patient and she said the same groundbreaking wisdom about nutrition I had heard on a podcast:
If it works for you, then it works.
People are different. What works for you might not work for me. And if it works for you, why should you stop doing it just because it doesn’t work for others? Why should you stop just because they’ve done some studies to say that it didn’t work for other people? If it works for you, maybe it just works, full stop. Maybe you don’t need to conduct a double blind study to prove its validity. It works in the only place it matters – in your life.
The same applies to personal finance.
How to get on the right track with your finances
Our budgets have different categories, different percentages. Savings rates differ. Our incomes are different. It’s easy to look at others and wonder how you’re doing comparatively. How do you know you’re on the right financial track?
Are you making acceptable progress toward your financial goals?
Does your plan make you feel calm about your finances?
Is your lifestyle sustainable and does it make you happy?
I think we sometimes fall into the trap from our school days – assuming that there is just one right answer. For our lives, the right answers are less clear cut.
Every person is unique and what works for you won’t necessarily work for anyone else. It can be easy to be swayed by experts that pressure you to do things their way or even family or friends who don’t understand your way. You don’t have to convince anyone that your way works for them. The question to ask yourself is whether your financial plan makes sense for you. Let’s never forget that personal finance is not about math, it’s about fitting the money plan to the person. Whatever plan works for you – in that it’s something that advances you to your goals while letting you live your life – is the right track for your finances.
This is the first in the series “Who Picks Up The Check?” about dating and money. Rachel of Dousing the Fire is a neuropsychologist who recently quit her job, is pursuing her own definition of financial independence and is just generally a badass. I spoke with Rachel about dating with large income disparities, the effect of the FIRE movement on in-demand jobs, and bad dates.
If you want to be interviewed, use the contact form or send me a DM on Twitter @thegiveandget. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Editorial comments are in brackets.
Let’s start with some background. What kind of beliefs about money did you have when you were growing up?
My parents were not by any means high-income. My mom worked as a teller at the gas company (in the 80s, people paid their bills in person). My dad worked in materials management. We were barely middle class.
My grandparents had a business that they started in the ‘70s. There was a recession but in the end it did very well. Day to day, I was lower middle class but when I was around my grandparents, I was upper middle class.
My family believed that they could always make more money. I was taught not to worry about it so much.
Where did you learn about FIRE and what has been your experience with it?
It may have been Millennial Revolution that was the first blog that I came across. They are very anti-homeownership and I just bought a house and I am now of the same opinion as well.
In the field I work in, you have to really want it. The year I had my internship, there was a 26% non-match rate. And if you didn’t match, you would just have six figures of debt [and no job].
On FI, they emphasize becoming an electrician or an air traffic controllers [high paying jobs without high student debt loads]. But if everyone did this, we wouldn’t have geriatricians. We wouldn’t have people deep in debt doing jobs that are very much in demand and if we lost that, we’d all be up a creek without a paddle.
Maybe there’s a middle path where you can go and take student loans but not that much. But no one’s talking about that yet and no one’s talking about changing the system.
If you had a definition of FIRE, what would it look like for you?
I am pursuing FIRE. It’s ironic because the last thing I want to do is travel. I just want to live out in the country and do my consulting work and forensic work. I’ve done some statistical consulting and do some disability insurance review and some report underwriting.
I’m a public expert on criminal forensic neuropsychology. As a neuropsychologist, to get your foot in the door, you have to do a lot of criminal competency evals. And sometimes it’s a big pain because the patient is on the ground covered in feces. [Editorial note: Rachel is a badass.] But as lawyers get to know your expertise in sex offender analyses, you get more work. As a neuropsychologist, not just a psychologist, I’m more likely to be used in cases involving the death penalty.
I worked for 19 months in the federal prison system. Now, even my real estate tenants don’t scare me.
You recently quit your job – does that mean you’re FI?
It just means I’m fearless and have a low tolerance for BS.
Have you read about Kiyosaki The Cash Flow Quadrant? Most people are employees but the other class of people who trade time for money. So I’ve only traded in being an employee for being a self employed professional. The other side of the quadrant is investment and entrepreneurial, which is the real estate part. I want to continue to invest and build a business with passive sources of money because the goal is to quit trading time for money.
You have an interesting perspective because you have dated both as a high-income person (doctor) and as a lower income person (grad student). Tell us about that.
When I was on post doc in Toronto, my salary was $40k CAD/year but in Toronto you are considered low-income if you make less than $45k. The most interesting thing was the barriers the low income imposed. If someone wants to invite you to go to do something, you have the uncertainty of knowing who will end up paying.
If you’re lower income you’re at the mercy of your finances and of the other person. Once, I was dating someone and we were going to the fashion district in Toronto and something happened on the transit. Trolleys were full. I called him to say that I would be 30-45 minutes late. He said just get a taxi and I’ll pay for it. In my head that wasn’t even an option. I was so upset. It just ruined the evening.
How did you handle that uncertainty of not knowing who was going to pay?
I typically got things paid for. My best friend and I dated the same guy but when i dated him, he paid for everything. It wasn’t even a question. When she dated him, they split everything fifty-fifty. Maybe it was feminine wiles. Same guy, same apartment, same job, same city – just different women.
But I also thought, it’s just money, I can always make more. I wanted to enjoy the city at least a little bit.
I probably would have told my younger self to lighten up a little bit. Get the damn taxi and do not let it ruin your life. Spending an extra $50/month would not have broken me if it’s a means to an end. If you’re voluntarily impoverished because you are pursuing some high end profession, lighten up a little.
How was dating different when you were high-income?
I got into a longer-term relationship when I started making money. I felt a sense of responsibility to provide because I was dating this guy who had a son. It was interesting to me how quickly that kicked in – how much responsibility I felt as the higher income person to take care of my partner.
In my Italian family, they’re adamant that the man takes care of the woman. So when he met my family, I told him that he better bring a roll of hundreds because if they saw me take out my wallet at any point they were not going to like him.
Were you ever resentful of having to pay for everything?
I was not resentful at all. He busted his ass and he was doing HVAC on roofs in Florida in July. He’s working harder physically 110% and he doesn’t have as much to show for it. He knew I was a doctor and I knew he was in HVAC. When I would ask him to dinner, I would pay because I asked him. If we went out for dinner last week, he would bring a pizza next week. Or if I had a rough day he would ask if he could bring by some wings.
Every Friday, I would typically buy steaks, and he would grill them or I would take us all out to dinner. A nice dinner is nothing for me. He has worries about overdrafts and it’s a very different world.
I was happy to do that for him and his son. When we went to a steakhouse for the first time his son had never been to a restaurant with cloth napkins.
We never said it out loud but we understood and did what felt equal for us. It’s like Thanksgiving – everyone brings something to the table.
Does being a high-income woman limit your dating prospects?
Being a high-income female professional very much limits your dating options. You occasionally get a unicorn with a very secure man who doesn’t care if you make more.
You are limited in the lower income or lower education men you can date because they have to be secure and open to it. Some of the higher income men are hypercompetitive and can also get threatened by a high income. It can be difficult to align personality and income to get a good fit. In college any kind of guy would date me. If you’re a median earner you’re less of a threat to men.
Still, I very much preferred higher income dating. Having a higher income in general is less stressful for the world.
If you could pick the ideal spouse in terms of financial habits and beliefs, what would that person be like?
It’s hard to quantify – it would depend on where they are in their journey. But there are real estate people and not real estate people. My ideal person might have to be a real estate person in order for me not to seem like I’m totally insane.
It would have to be someone who understands leverage but isn’t too crazy. Someone who is intensely focused on whatever they’re trying to do. which is probably going to involve real estate.
I like a good adventure. I’m very judgmental when people are operating from a place of fear. I dated a super cautious engineer type in Florida and he seemed afraid of losing a penny. I do think I need somebody who’s ready to be bold in his financial charges.
Any terrible dating stories that you want to share?
I dated a guy in Missouri who I knew was a psychopath but he was nice to look at and I kept dating him just to see what he would try. He forgot his wallet on our first date. That’s a classic move there. Because i knew what was going on I never lent him any money. He put my name as a reference for a payday loan later. Sometime I do things just for the adventure. I love a good adventure.
Another date that comes to mind: I saw this profile, a little bit hipster, big glasses but he states in his profile that his dad committed suicide and he was traveling around the country getting to know his dad’s friends to write a memoir. I meet up with him and he was the most boring person I’ve ever met. He looked so sickly I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to stand up at the end of the date. At the end, we were walking to my car and he for a hug. I offered him a handshake.
Do people go on dates with you to get free therapy?
People ask me questions that they want to ask a psychologist. What do you think about chronic traumatic encephalopathy? I get some stupid questions from time to time. In person, everyone says “you’re analyzing me right now!” No, I’m not , other than that now I know your IQ.
What do you wish you knew way back when?
If you know what you want, prescreen it. As a psychologist, I know that the #1 thing couples fight about is money. It’s so personal and intimate to people that it’ll be so integral to relationship if not aligned.
I actually wish there was a way to know more bout people’s financial philosophy without society considering most of these things rude. If you find out later that someone has $57k in credit card debt that’s a big damper in a relationship. I don’t know that I’ve figured out how to solve that problem. Maybe you should just be rude and know that you have a lot of credit card debt than drag the relationship along for 6 months and be like “whoops.”
When I told someone I was going to FI, he said I wouldn’t want to retire. I wouldn’t want to either. The important thing is to tell people about your relationship with money first.