Vanessa Golenia | Longreads | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,692 words)
“Should we tell each other how much we make?” I asked Peter, trying to sound casual while in bed enjoying post-coital ice cream. In the late summer of 2016, after 15 months of shuttling back and forth between our apartments in Ubers and exposing our roommates to the nightly soundscape of our sex life, we decided it was time to move in together. We were having fun deciding what colors to paint the walls, and which pieces of furniture to combine, but had so far avoided any discussion of money.
Part of it was my fault. I had no interest in talking about incomes, believing that when you’re in love, you’re in love — fuck the money. Why talk about numbers when you can instead focus on finding out what he thinks about the afterlife, or learn the juicy details of his last breakup, or memorize how he takes his coffee (a shot of espresso with whole milk in a handmade ceramic cup)?
But the main reason we’d avoided talking about money for so long was that there was a significant income gap between us and neither of us felt comfortable finding out just how wide it was.
Peter is a visual artist and it’s common knowledge that unless you have a trust fund or a wildly successful career, artists don’t make a lot of money, especially in a place like New York City where a pastrami sandwich from Katz Deli costs $22 and a parking space in a dimly lit garage costs $600 dollars a month (enough to cover rent in other cities). Most artists are barely scraping by here — constantly making empty promises to each other about banding together and moving to Detroit.
Like most artists, Peter didn’t make enough money to live off sales of his paintings and photographs alone, regardless of how compelling I thought they were. He had a full-time job as a gallery director and took freelance jobs installing art and curating private collections. I had no idea how much that paid, but the more I got to know him, the more I sensed it wasn’t much.
When Peter first invited me over to his apartment in Bushwick in the summer of 2015, I noticed the springs in his couch were deflated and sad, making it uncomfortable to sit on it, as he offered me wine. When I woke up the next morning I laid in his bed staring up at the peeling wallpaper and the outdated popcorn ceiling. There was a small scratching sound coming from inside the wall. “That’s my little mouse friend,” Peter said as he handed me freshly squeezed orange juice and turned on his favorite morning jams: cumbia music.
From the outside, Peter’s apartment, with its gated windows and dilapidated facade, looked like a drug den, a sharp contrast to my condo rental on a tree-lined street in Greenpoint. When I finally invited him over, I did my best to downplay its features. We were becoming smitten with each other and I didn’t want to scare him away because of our apartments’ differences. I ushered him in the door and said, “Well, this is my couch. And my plant,” ignoring the recessed lighting, the jets in the bathtub, the massive double door refrigerator that offered filtered water at various temperatures, and the stacked washer and dryer in one of the hallway closets, considered a hallmark of luxury by New York standards. I also wasn’t forthcoming about Rosa, my cleaning lady, who came by every other week to clean because cleaning my own apartment was something that at the age of 31, I no longer had time for and preferred to give to someone who could use the work.
The main reason we’d avoided talking about money for so long was that there was a significant income gap between us and neither of us felt comfortable finding out just how wide it was.
The more we hung out with each other, the more I caught a glimpse of his financial situation. For one thing, he didn’t have credit and lived a “cash only” lifestyle. When we went grocery shopping I observed Peter opening the egg cartons and meticulously lifting each egg to make sure there were no cracked ones, a level of inspection I found intriguing. I wasn’t rich by any means, but I could afford a cracked egg. Watching him inspect the carton made me self-conscious of how lax I’d become with my money — guilty once again of those careless oversights my dad would reprimand me about, like my tendency to throw down my credit card without even glancing at the check to make sure I’m not being overcharged.
This level of negligence had taken me a long time to earn. In California, where I grew up, I worked dozens of shitty paying jobs in retail, accounting, and yoga. Even when it wasn’t much, money gave me a taste of independence. Independence from my parents. Independence from the suburbs of San Diego. And eventually, independence from men. Money became a priority early in my life because I craved self-reliance.
When I hit my 30s, after climbing up the ranks at various corporate jobs, I landed a cush job as a strategist at an advertising agency, that while at times deadening was in one of the few industries that allowed me to exert some level of creativity in return for a decent paycheck.
Peter met me when I was comfortably indulging in extravagances like $300 for a pair of red thigh-high boots, Sancerre for $18 a glass, $250 for French lingerie, and $1,000 for a scuba diving trip. Meanwhile, he owed back taxes to the IRS and still owed me for his share of our AirBnBs from a vacation we had taken several months before we made plans to move in together.
Peter grew up in a family of artists, musicians, and hippies — the kind of family that didn’t buy him a Halloween costume, instead fashioning it out of whatever fabrics and materials were lying around. He pursued art regardless, knowing first hand its low earning potential, and when he eventually landed in New York City, he was constantly making ends meet with whatever was available to him, like the time the gas in his apartment got cut off and he made a stove out of a soda can and rubbing alcohol.
I admired his hustle and integrity for his work, but I was concerned that affixing myself to Peter would eventually mean trading in my AMEX Gold for a prepaid Mastercard.
In bed, Peter licked his pistachio ice cream-covered spoon and answered, “I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it in a year.”
A year? He was putting off disclosing our incomes for an entire year? That’s not like saying let’s talk about it later or next week. That’s like saying let’s talk about it in 8,760 hours from now. Or the next time the Cherry Blossoms bloom. Or never.
I’ve read the stats. I’m fully aware one of the top reasons most marriages fail is money, second only to infidelity. It makes sense — money taps into our deepest needs and fears surrounding security. I pressed him. “Don’t you think we should talk about it if we’re going to be sharing rent?”
After a good deal of discussion, we had decided we were going to move into his apartment. The one with the peeling wallpaper and the popcorn ceiling and the mouse. His apartment, a two-bedroom in Bushwick at $1600 (which in 2016 was unheard of and still is) was less than half the rent of my $3400 apartment. His roommate had plans to move out and we could afford to live there without an extra person, which was the most enticing feature. We told each other spontaneous kitchen sex was an amenity we were both looking for in our first apartment together.
“Considering my income is probably higher than yours, maybe it’s more fair if we pro-rate the rent instead of splitting it,” I said, my head propped up on the pillow next to him.
“Babe, I’m pretty sure I can handle eight hundred dollars,” Peter responded.
A ritual organically arose between us where whoever was the one to suggest a date — whether dinner at Tatiana’s in Brighton Beach or a trip to the botanical gardens — was the one who paid. It was our way of splitting expenses. The summer we started dating, he suggested going to Bryant Park to listen to accordion players who were playing there as part of a free festival. Afterwards, he treated me to sea salt caramel gelato and we sat on a park bench in Madison Square Park and told each other our best jokes. I was delighted with the romantic simplicity of it. Later, I was the one to suggest more extravagant outings like drinks at the Carlyle Hotel bar which seemed like a quintessential New York experience to be had on a date. It was lovely except for the outrageous bar tab which made me think, well, never doing that again. At first, I was a little resentful that I was the only one suggesting expensive dates, but that soon faded as he possessed a talent for suggesting fun unexpected dates that didn’t require a lot of money — like riding the Cyclone at Coney Island, or attending art openings, or doing a day trip to upstate New York to jump off a waterfall. As fun as these dates were, however, I never felt comfortable ordering more than one glass of wine at dinner if he was treating.
As I was unpacking boxes and rearranging our belongings, I noticed Peter had a habit of putting his name on utilitarian household objects that belonged to him. Written in black sharpie was his first and last name on the underside of items like an office stapler, a pair of scissors, a dust pan, a cheese grater, and an alarm clock. I paused and wondered under what circumstances did he imagine that he would need to identify his alarm clock over the alarm clock of another man by the same name?
It made me nervous that I was moving in with someone who at best wasn’t much of a sharer, and at worst kept close tabs on ownership and who paid for what.
Living together turned out to be smoother than either of us could have imagined. The hardest adjustment was sharing a closet so small that we were forced to stack t-shirts on the computer printer. That and we both slept like starfish and had to learn how to make more room for one another. But starfish spreading and closet space aside, I hardly mourned my old apartment. When you’re in love, you’re in love — who needs money and a nice apartment?
The first piece of furniture we decided to buy together was a marble French bistro table off Craigslist for $260. As the higher earner, I was constantly offering to buy groceries more often, or handle bigger apartment purchases like the bistro table. But when I handed Peter the cash for the table, he refused it and said it was important we split this one. It was the first piece of furniture we were buying together and he wanted it to be a symbolic representation of the two of us coming together to create a new home. It was a sweet gesture that filled my heart with love for him but also made me think: Who gets the bistro table if we break up? And is he going to put his name on it?
One night at our bistro table, over crispy catfish, Peter lamented that even artists with prestigious six-figure MFAs can’t break more than $40,000 a year in income. It was the first time I ever heard him throw out a number.
“Wait, are you number-dropping how much you make?” I asked, surprised since it hadn’t yet been a year since our last money conversation.
“Uh, maybe. It’s not that exact number but not far off,” he said.
I let the news sit for a minute. In an attempt to be encouraging I said. “I want you to know you’re smart and you deserve to make more money.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ve decided what I’m not making in money, I’m making up with professional equity at the gallery. But I know it’s not sustainable in the long-term.”
“You’re right.” I said. “It’s not sustainable, because if we have kids and I die by falling into the train tracks I don’t want them living off of $40,000 a year.”
He laughed and pointed out that maybe it’s a little early to be worried about unborn children.
This appeared to be a suitable time for me to also come forward with how much income I was bringing in. Just lay it all out on the table. But I didn’t. I was sticking to the one-year plan, scared of throwing the power dynamics between us off balance. For now I was keeping it to myself that I made three times more than him. I didn’t know how to reveal it in such a way that he wouldn’t feel emasculated. It’s a cliche and common misconception that women look for a man with money. Personally, I’d never had the expectation or the desire to be a rich man’s trophy wife. I shared Elizabeth Wurtzel’s view when she wrote “I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes.” Instead, what recent studies have shown is that what most men and women want is an equal partner. I had not until then, ever considered whether I would be willing to support a man. When I confided in girlfriends about my situation with Peter, they would press me and say things like but, are you okay with that? My initial thought was yes, I was. I thought part of the appeal of being an independent woman was making money a non-factor in choosing a partner. But when I thought about whether Peter would expect me to pay three times more than him for everything when he found out my income, I wasn’t so sure.
Shit got real fast.
Eight months after we moved in together, the landlord sold our building to a development company that intended to double the rent, and we got kicked out of our apartment. During the psychotic process of looking for a new place in New York I matter-of-factly told Peter how much I made to make it clear what we could afford.
“Jesus, I wouldn’t know what it feels like to make that kind of money,” he said. I would have thought the same at times when I was broke. “Mi amor, in New York, no matter how much you make, it appears larger than it actually is,” I replied.
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Miraculously, nothing changed between us after I revealed my income. I half expected Peter to refuse baking his delicious banana bread and stop helping me with laundry as a form of masculine resistance. Instead, anytime we talked about the future and the possibility of having kids, he suggested that if it happened, he be the one to pull out of work for several years and be a stay-at-home dad. It made the most practical sense, but to be honest, it was me who was hesitant — because for the first time, I called into question whether I was fine not playing that role.
It made me sad when a colleague returned from her three-month maternity leave, and she’d sneak into a bathroom stall to pump milk in between meetings. She confessed that she could only pump if she watched videos of her baby on her phone in order to hear his coos and see his face. The idea of watching baby porn in a corporate bathroom stall, even when your body was telling you you belonged somewhere else, next to him, to me felt senseless and unnatural.
We took a week off from looking at apartments and went on a hiking trip in the backwoods of Canada. For the cost of a New York beer, we acquired hiking permits and spent five days sleeping on remote beaches with names like “Mystic” and “Sombrio.” On the second day, grimy and barely able to stand from having marched through the spongy forest all day, we were on a rocky point watching a couple of sea otters at play when Peter said, “I love you.” I was too distracted by the otters to pay attention to what else he was saying. It wasn’t until I saw the ruby ring he had taken out his pocket that I realized what was happening. My hands flew to my chest. I flung my arms and legs around him and launched into an ecstatic dance, throwing my arms up in a “V” and bouncing with a high kick resembling a cheerleader. Too excited to think straight, I stopped mid-dance and asked, “Wait, I said yes, right?”
Miraculously, nothing changed between us after I revealed my income. I half expected Peter to refuse baking his delicious banana bread and stop helping me with laundry as a form of masculine resistance.
There wasn’t a videographer on site or champagne waiting on ice. We didn’t have cell service and couldn’t share the news with our friends and family for days. Instead, we built a campfire, poured each other some scotch, and ate freeze-dried curry heated over the fire.
When we got back from the trip, I descended down the rabbit hole of bridal Pinterest boards, but quickly sobered up when anything with the word “wedding” attached came out to be five times its normal cost. I have a tendency to jump ahead of myself, and went from wondering how we were going to pay for this wedding, to wondering how we were going to pay for our life together once we were married.
Like most people, I had no clue how and when couples surrendered their financial autonomy and decided to merge their money. Should we merge some of it? All of it? Before the wedding? After the wedding? I knew my parents had a joint bank account, but I had no idea what people my age were doing. Were joint bank accounts even a thing these days? They sounded archaic — like the equivalent of having a joint Facebook account — endearing but something only your tech-challenged parents did. I needed a guide book.
I began asking our married friends and was surprised at how different the arrangements were from couple to couple. They tended to fall into one of four scenarios:
1. Couple with no kids. Separate accounts. Strictly split everything down the middle.
2. Couple with no kids. Separate accounts. Split large recurring expenses based on pro-rated incomes. Everything else was improvised.
3. Couple (artists or freelancers) with no kids. Separate accounts but fully support the other when money is tight, essentially allowing for desperation clauses in their contract.
4. Couple with kids. Started out with separate accounts, but several years in threw up their hands and said fuck it — can you make sure we have enough to pay the babysitter? Also, can you help me wipe the toddler vomit off my dress?
What seemed to make Peter and me unique among our friends was that I was earning so much more than he was, and the gender roles were reversed, an uncomfortable scenario for some. One friend told us about a couple they knew who had a similar dynamic — the woman made significantly more than her partner. In their arrangement, they kept all their money separate. When he couldn’t afford to go on vacation, she took a tough love approach and went alone. That approach wasn’t for me, but it illustrated the point that these financial arrangements are not only a question of money management, but one of emotional management..
What gave me the most anxiety about merging our money was that it had implications for my indulgent habits. I worried I would resent Peter if my disposable income was suddenly reduced to make up for what he wasn’t pulling in. Not to mention kids would likely annihilate what was left of it. A friend once said the cost of a baby is the equivalent of two designer handbags every month. It seemed unfair that I shouldn’t be allowed the occasional expensive glass of Cab Franc that I felt I’d rightly earned. After all, it was Peter who’d decided to go to art school, not me. But at the same time, the whole premise of a marriage is to be a partnership, a team, and I couldn’t see how, well, divorcing money from that equation made any sense.
When we moved into our second apartment together we agreed to try a pro-rated approach — a 70/30 split on rent and shared bills, until we figured out what worked for us. I felt a new self-imposed pressure now that our rent was $2,200 in Queens. I suppose once you self-identify as the breadwinner, it’s hard to stop being that person, fearing that you’ll let your family down — if you do, forcing them to downsize your home and no longer being able to afford organic food. I wondered if men in heterosexual relationships that hew to established gender norms feel that pressure all the time. I daydreamed of quitting my corporate day job and becoming a full-time writer. Now, though, that seemed impossible. The rent needed to be paid. I could have resented Peter and pressured him to pull in more money. But when I really thought about it, if I were still alone and single, I wouldn’t be able to afford to quit my day job, either.
It wasn’t lost on me that even after rent and bills were paid, I still had significantly more cash left over for discretionary expenses like massages from Foot Heaven and Chantilly Cream puffs from the pastry counter at Eataly. It created a situation not unlike eating a whole gourmet pizza in front of your friend who is on the Master Cleanse.
During the summers, our Sunday ritual was to make homemade crepes and bike to the Rockaways to spend the day swimming at Jacob Riis beach. One Sunday, Peter’s bike had a flat tire so we stopped at the bike shop to get it repaired. The damage to the tire required the entire wheel to be replaced, which the shop guy told us would be about $100. Peter turned to me and apologized, “I don’t think I can go to the beach today. I don’t have the money to pay for this right now.”
The flat tire was a joykill. I’d had my heart set on the beach and didn’t want to spend the afternoon sweltering in the city heat. I also didn’t want be that couple my friend had told me about — the one where one goes on vacation alone because the other one can’t afford to — so I insisted on paying for the tire, which ended in an awkward exchange of “I’ll pay you back,” and “don’t worry about it.” It was obvious that $100 had a entirely different value to each of us.
I called a friend who I knew would have a strong opinion about merging incomes — both because he’d been married for 10 years and had kids, and because he was my only friend who actually loved talking about money. He suggested a pooled money approach whereby both parties co-mingle all their money into one account and pay all their expenses out of that one pot, thus reducing the need for discussing who should pay for what expenses and why. “Trust me, you’ll be much happier in your marriage the less you can talk about money,” he said.
If there was one clear goal I had in all of this, it was to make money the least talked about subject in our relationship. I wanted to eliminate as much potential as possible for keeping a tally around who paid for what. It was the kind of daily life minutiae that threatened romance.
Over pizza and an aperol spritz, I mentioned the pooled money approach to Peter and told him I thought we should do it. Peter, following the rule of whoever has the money calls the shots, said he deferred to me with whatever I was comfortable with. The only question left was when. Now? Or after we were married?
A friend once told me that it wasn’t until her honeymoon that her husband confessed it bothered him that she was managing their money and navigating the directions on the map. It made me think that if money was one of the biggest sticking point in relationships, I wanted to dig at it now and uncover whatever issues might arise before we tied the knot.
We set a date. We planned to open a joint bank account and merge all our money at the start of the new year. For weeks leading up to it, we called the anticipated event “The Great Merger of 2018.” The plan was to combine all our money into one joint account going forward. In order to retain some level of autonomy, we’d keep separate accounts for a small $300 monthly allowance each. The deal was we could buy anything we wanted with that money without the other person judging or getting mad about it.
My anxieties about the impending arrangement were amplified when we created some semblance of a budget, not only because I wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed my glasses of Sancerre and red leather boots, but also because I wondered if I was even capable of sticking to a budget. Historical attempts pointed to: No.
I suppose once you self-identify as the breadwinner, it’s hard to stop being that person, fearing that you’ll let your family down. I wondered if men in heterosexual relationships that hew to established gender norms feel that pressure all the time.
I also wondered how Peter would behave now that his bank account was going to more than double in size. I kept having mental images of him coming home and saying “Honey, I bought a pony.” When I asked Peter if he had any anxieties about merging our incomes, he said he was worried he would feel as if he wasn’t contributing enough. But he was already contributing in ways that didn’t have a dollar sign attached to them. He was providing all sorts of unpaid labor (some of it traditionally considered “women’s work,” even though women were rarely compensated for it either) — like making us banana bread, crepes, and handmade pesto that would make any Italian grandmother jealous, disassembling and fixing my old dryer, filling our apartment with art, and taking us on wilderness expeditions, that were I to go on alone, I would inevitably die of starvation or from a bear mauling.
A couple weeks before The Great Merger of 2018, Peter and I took a trip to the Yucatan. We each took out $400 and exchanged them for pesos before getting on our flight. When we arrived in Mexico we put all our pesos in a white folded envelope, and for the next 10 days, that white crumpled envelope was our bank. Out of it we paid for hotels, fish tacos, banana hammocks, entrances to cenotes, paletas from street vendors, and our first ocean dive together. It didn’t occur to us until the end of the trip that we were doing exactly what we were so apprehensive about: pooling all our money together to pay for our lives.
Looking back on that trip, it was a precursor to how we manage our money today: Peter being the more calculated spender, who alleviates me from having to glance at the bill and figure out the tip; me, the more laissez-faire one restrained only by personal discernments. It made the process of actually co-signing our names under a fluorescent lit cubicle at Bank of America feel a bit more natural.
That said, I know people change, and money changes people. That was confirmed when I recently came across an article in Psychology Today pointing out that the longer a couple has been together, the higher their chances of financial incompatibility. Peter and I plan to get married next year (in the Yucatan no less), and I’m sure at some point in the future we’ll have disagreements about our financial priorities — especially if we decide to have kids. But for now at least, we got through The Great Merger of 2018, and I was still able to come back from Mexico with a $98 bottle of artisanal mezcal.
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Vanessa Golenia is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY.
Editor: Sari Botton