How Being Single Helped Me Become Rich

being single helped me become rich

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Being single seems like it would be an impediment to gaining wealth. Being a part of a couple means that you can share expenses with someone else (some people even share email addresses….for some reason). Also, if you date or marry someone who makes more than you do, you more than double your salary. A giant jump in salary and reduced expenses? Seems like a recipe for financial success!

For me though, if I had gotten married to any of my exes, I likely would not be in the field I am in now, have the career I do or have as much saved to my name. Here are the reasons being single helped my career and finances and ultimately led to wealth.

1. I Couldn’t Drop Out of the Workforce

I didn’t know any stay-at-home moms growing up. We grew up very middle-class and everyone’s parents seemed to work. I just assumed I would work as well. My adult life was very different – because of the move from middle- to upper-middle class.

I live in a very well-educated area, I’m a lawyer and well, I’m Asian. Most of my peers are lawyers, doctors and engineers. So I tended to date lawyers, doctors and engineers. And many of the women I know did the same. They did well in school, met their husbands, married and had kids, and many quit their jobs because they could. Their husbands made the equivalent of their parents combined salary and more than enough to support the family. The wives they didn’t love their jobs and they wanted to raise their kids. Why have the hassle of a full-time job when you don’t need the money?
My job can be demanding and stressful. The number of times I had thought of quitting – well it was basically every two weeks last year.

What made me keep going? Well, I would like to say that I was taught to Lean In, but futility was probably the most likely culprit. I’m single. You can’t be a housewife, without the wife part. And you still need to pay for that house! But if I had married and had a high-earning husband, it would have made a lot less sense for me to stay at a tough job.

I’m not an ambitious person. I never aspired to a high-paying or powerful job. If I knew I could stay at home and eat bonbons all day, I totally would (I’m not sure anyone would marry me knowing that, but hey, maybe I’d raise their kid as well). But as a single person, I have to earn my own bonbons! The point I’m making is that if I had gotten married, I likely would have married someone who made very good money and I would have had a choice – to continue working or stay at home. And I’m betting there’s a good chance I would have chosen to stay at home.

2. There Was No Reason to Drop to an Easier Job

I dated an attorney when I was 23. I remember him telling me that he worked a lot but he didn’t see any reason to reduce his hours, as a single person. He didn’t have to go home to a wife or kids. I feel the same way today. I work a lot, but I don’t feel guilty. There are no kids waiting for me at home.

The career I’m in is not great for work-life balance or for women with families. Women certainly can succeed in a demanding job while raising their children but those women always seem superhuman. I, however, am decidedly human. And lazy. As stated above, I would have looked for reasons to quit my job if I could have. Having a family at home that I was neglecting? That would have been a good reason. Being single? Well, that’s no reason at all. I could keep working. I could still meet up with friends – after work. Without a family, I felt like I couldn’t justify working fewer hours. And because I continued to work at a job that required a lot of hours, I continued to be paid very well.

3. I Had the Freedom to Follow My Career

My parents were oddballs – my dad always moved for my mom’s job even though he made more. But in “typical” hetero couples, the couple will typically move for the man’s job, not the woman’s. I think I also would have leaned more towards this latter group.

I tended to date men who were very ambitious and had a lot of job opportunities. They also had jobs that would require a fair amount of moving (i.e. doctor) or jobs that wouldn’t offer the best opportunities in the DC area (software engineer, where Silicon Valley would beckon, or corporate lawyer, where New York has the brightest opportunities). I’m fairly certain that I would have followed my hypothetical husband in his career and I don’t know if or when they would have followed mine. That’s how it usually goes.
I went to law school in a small town. Of the married students, the men’s wives followed them there, typically having portable jobs like teacher or nurse. The women’s husbands typically stayed where they were and the couple was long distance for at least 3 years.
I knew a couple – she had finished her first year in law school. He had been accepted to a great program in the same city, among other offers. I assumed he would pick the school in the same city so she could continue her studies. Instead he picked the best ranked school to which he had been accepted and she transferred to a school in that city. After his first year, he transferred to an even better school and she quit law school (people usually don’t transfer their last year of law school and there weren’t other law schools in the area of the final law school). After he graduated, he worked for a firm for one year, and then quit the law altogether.

This is all to say that all around me I saw contemporary examples of women’s careers being put on the backburner. And though everyone likes to think of themselves as the one person who would buck the trend, I don’t think that about myself. I’m very typical. I doubt that I would have kept the flame going for my own job. Again, I never cared that much for a high paying job or any job at all.

I doubt I would have moved to a law school away from my husband or that he would have followed me there. And it just makes sense to put your eggs in the overachiever basket. So I would have stayed working whatever jobs I could find wherever my husband decided was best for his career.

4. I Couldn’t Stick My Head in the Sand About Finances

My mother always warned me not to be dependent on anyone. Well guess what? You can’t be dependent on someone else if there isn’t anyone else.

That link above is to the typical horror story of a wife who got divorced from her highly paid husband. That honestly could have been me. And though my dad is an accountant and I’m clearly interested in personal finances, I know that incentives have a huge role in creating who we become. Most people are content with the easy route. You’re more likely to become a better cook when you have to cook for yourself. You run faster when you’re being chased. You’re forced to put in the reps and when you put in the reps, it’s hard not to get better.

That’s how it was for my finances. If I had married someone who was really good with money (and most of my exes were), it could have been very easy for me to slip into complacency. I could have focused on saving money while running household chores but not investing or earning it. I could have huge gaps in my personal finance knowledge.

I’ve written a little about how I had hoped for being saved by a student loan act of God. But eventually I had to learn to become my own savior. I had to take control of my debt, of my finances and my career. Being single meant that I needed to support myself. There simply wasn’t anyone else to take the reins from me. So I took them for myself.

5. I Could Live a Simpler Lifestyle

The benefit of having a partner is that you would likely save money on rent. But there are a lot of other costs that can come with being a couple. For instance, when I’m in a couple, I eat much fancier meals. I put some extra effort into how I look on a daily basis. I would have to have nicer furniture, probably a nicer apartment and I definitely would have to have a TV and a premium sports package.

There are also some ways to save from being single. For instance, I can crash on my friend’s couch when I visit a city, instead of splitting a hotel room. I don’t have to visit his family or go to his friend’s weddings. My mom, when she was single, would only eat rice and soy sauce. Not falling too far from the tree, left to my own devices, I eat eggs and rice with soy sauce on the regular. This wouldn’t fly with someone else in the picture.

This is not to say that these costs would translate to the savings of shared housing. But there’s often a bit of a disconnect between what people expect in their relationships and what could actually happen. I have a very simple lifestyle because I live by myself and I have very simple desires. It would be difficult to find someone else who would want to live this simply. Being single helped me save money because I didn’t have to impress anyone with my lifestyle. I didn’t have to deal with all the hidden costs of coupledom.

How Being Single Helped Me Become Rich

My life would have been really different had I gotten married to one of my exes. I can’t tell if I’d have a greater net worth based on our theoretical combined net worth, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be as big a contributor to our net worth. My hypothetical net worth would have been primarily his financial contributions divided by two. And in the event of divorce, I’m not sure how I would have fared.

It’s not a better or worse outcome – it’s just a different one. I probably also wouldn’t have started a personal finance blog because many of the stories that I wanted to tell – paying off my law school debt, dating as a rich woman – wouldn’t have made any sense in this alternate reality. Too many things would change given this one change in circumstance.

I should mention that I’m not advocating marriage or singleness. Neither path is a guaranteed path to …. anything. You can be rich or poor in either path. In my blog, I really want to champion singles. It’s easy to find articles about saving money if you’re a couple and it often seems like this is the only path to financial greatness.

But I don’t believe singledom is a worse position from which to achieve financial stability. Too often we see the positives of a relationship, without seeing all the other tradeoffs. We assume we would have a partner who would contribute equally, who won’t impair our own careers or won’t change us. None of those things are guaranteed.

For me, I could see all these societal expectations of being a stay-at-home mom, of supporting my husband’s career, of being content in a passion hobby while my husband earned the big bucks – and I would have given into these expectations. I’m not saying being wealthy is a better goal than any of these other goals – I’m just saying that my singleness affected the choices I had available to me and when I acted on those choices, I came up where I am now – in a very stable financial position.

If I had been married, I would have had more choices and I cannot guarantee that I would be in the same place that I am now. It’s not better or worse; it just is.

Getting married isn’t a sure pathway to wealth and being single doesn’t mean you’re going to end up poor. You can become rich as a single person – for some of us, it might be the only way.

 

How to Be Bad at Math, But Good at Money

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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.

The Aftermath

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.