Money Can’t Buy You Love, But It Can Break You Up

picture of a person holding an empty wallet in their hands
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Money has nothing to do with true love. At least that’s what I was raised to believe, that if you really loved someone it wouldn’t matter how much (or how little) money they had.

Nothing would matter but your love for one another.

You fell in love with the person, not the pocketbook.

Because otherwise, a relationship would be transactional and empty.

And so I grew up looking at would-be gold-diggers with disdain. Knowing all the while that my own love was more pure, more noble.

I’ve Been Budgeting Since I Was a Teenager

In my early days, I did mostly date people who made less money than I did. This was predictable though. Due to some unrest at home, I started budgeting at 13, paying for my food and anything else I needed outside of rent and utilities (which I paid for by doing chores for my host) with pocket money I earned from part-time jobs. Sometimes this involved playing gigs as a jazz musician. Other times, this was babysitting money.

Occasionally I’d work more traditional part-time jobs within walking distance of where I was staying at the time. When they were on the books, I’d put my older sister’s Social Security Number on the forms so I could be old enough to work the job, a trick relatives had taught me. I was tall for my age and mature looking. If anyone I ever worked for knew I wasn’t legally old enough to work, they never said anything.

But for the most part, I worked off the books.

I bought my first (used) car at 16 with gig money.

I fell in love with thrift stores because they afforded me an opportunity to look artistic, even chic, and my money went a long way.

I grew up knowing exactly what things cost. And having to plan around it.

Most of my same age friends didn’t operate this way. And when I started dating, I was often the one paying for gas money, lunch, or whatever thing came up. Because my life was different. It had required money earlier than theirs. And I was just so happy to have someone to spend time with, I didn’t care that I was the one paying.

I just budgeted for it.

Dating Someone Who Had Nothing But Fun Money

When I met Seth, he had just turned 20, and I was about to, our birthdays being only a few weeks apart. Seth was actually considered the most responsible of that friends group, as he had a full-time job at an IT call center (and at the time, the rest of us were full-time college students; the few of us who did work only worked part time).

And it was honestly pretty great for me when we started dating and Seth would pick up a frozen pizza. Or take me to dinner. Or to the movies.

This was novel to me. Fun and/or food I didn’t have to plan or pay for.

Seth was living with his parents at the time, who clearly loved him in a way that meant indulging him. He worked full time, and all of his money was fun money. This was also a novel concept to me.

I’d later go on to find out that Seth’s parents had been upwardly mobile. When he’d been a child, they were dirt poor and shared a tiny dilapidated trailer with way too many family members. Seth couldn’t remember those days. Couldn’t remember not having enough to eat or any toys, but his parents did and still felt guilty about it.

When he was very young, they took turns going back to college and started a very successful small business. One that really took off.

Now that they were doing well financially, they felt guilty about Seth’s childhood and so seemed to be eager to make up for it, even if that meant being soft on him.

Not Off to a Good Start

The call center Seth worked at shut down, and he lost his job. The next year was a blur. I went to school full time and worked a part-time gig at a dollar store and another as a small-town newspaper reporter. Seth worked at a bunch of minimum wage gigs, but none of them were working out or lasting more than a few shifts.

When we decided to move in together, we paid our first month’s rent and deposit with money I’d won from a campus writing contest. I cut back to part-time school hours and started to work full time at a call center.

That first apartment was Section 8 with our monthly rent adjusted down based on income. I tried to research the square footage on the place as I wrote this piece, but it’s not listed online. It was tiny though. Probably about 400 square feet in total. Our full size bed took up the entire bedroom (seriously, you couldn’t walk in there, the room was all bed).

Our budget was tight, even so. Basically every dollar was spoken for. Any discretionary purchases had to be discussed between the two of us, I stressed. Seth agreed.

Which was why I was stunned when I came home from my first day of work at the new call center job to find Seth and a female friend of his sitting on the couch eating a giant ice cream sundae in the living room.

Seth told me he’d gotten the sundae ingredients to enjoy with her. Because it seemed like a fun idea.

And I remember being stunned at the time, because he’d spent about $10 on ice cream and all the fixings and hadn’t asked first.

“We thought it’d be nice to surprise you with it, after your shift,” Seth told me.

“But I don’t like ice cream,” I said.

“Oh that’s right,” he said. He admitted he’d forgot.

I slunk off to our microscopic bedroom because I didn’t want to start an argument with him in front of his friend. We weren’t off to the best start.

Things Didn’t Improve Even as My Career Began to Take Off

We’d eventually get to a financial place several years later after I finished school and got a better job in which spending $10 spontaneously wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But Seth of course didn’t stop there. As our finances grew, he spent more and more. Quit his job and then didn’t get another — and then after a while, didn’t even pretend to look.

Mostly just took classes part time and failed half of them (because his attendance was spotty).

I found myself having to divert money from my paycheck to make sure I had enough to pay the bills. Because if Seth had access to it, he was tempted to spend it.

In hindsight I’m amazed that I said yes when he asked me to marry him, but I did.

Opening Up Our Marriage and Suddenly Paying for Everyone’s Dates

Things got even stranger after we opened up our marriage about 8 years into our relationship, and I was paying for him to go out on dates with other people while I often sat at home cooking myself meals from discount groceries (I shopped sales and clipped coupons, just like I had back in the day).

About a year later, I finally started dating Rob, who was my first steady boyfriend since we’d opened our marriage. A few weeks after we started dating, however, Rob was fired from his job. Since Rob was married to another woman and had a baby on the way, whenever I went out to visit him (as he was long distance), I paid for my flights and all the expenses therein.

And once I lived with Rob and Seth both, I was always paying for dates. Both of my girlfriends interestingly enough were both well-paid professionals and had their own money (sometimes they paid for me when we went out).

When a close friendship with my dear friend Justin turned into a more-than-friendship, and we started to date, it was the biggest relief to not have to pay for everything. I was pretty strapped from totally supporting Seth (and paying for all his dates with not only me but with other people) and paying for all dates with Rob.

Still, I didn’t want him to feel used or like he was subsidizing my other relationships, so I insisted on paying for some of our dinners on dates. Since I was broke from everything else I had going on (as well as some changes to the way work paid us that went in the employer’s favor), this involved my picking up groceries and cooking him stir-fries at his place.

As I lived with Rob, I got to see that even after losing his job and in spite of needing to support his new kid, he seemed to spend the money his wife earned recklessly on frivolous things he didn’t need. A lot of it mirrored what I hadn’t liked about the way Seth viewed and treated money.

I also began to see as Justin and I spent more and more time together that our views on money were quite similar. We’d both been working and budgeting since we were young. In fact, Justin had managed to found a non-profit and to buy a house well before any of our peers.

Watching Justin, it made me wonder what I would have been capable of had I not had to deal with Seth’s constant spending so early on in my life. If I’d had a partner like Justin who had been committed towards building something together rather than spending like the world were ending.

Being Accused of Being a Gold-Digger

Over time, things deteriorated even more with Seth. He refused to go to therapy with me to talk through our issues when the time came to actually make an appointment, even after initially agreeing to go.

One morning, even as he lived with me and I paid for his rent and food (and I’d had every indication up until this point that we were still together), I went to hug him and Seth told me not to touch him. That we were separated. And that he didn’t think we had a romantic relationship anymore.

Wow. Okay.

That interaction was one of the biggest shocks of my life. I said “okay” and walked away, everything inside me going instantly numb, not knowing quite how to process it.

Even so, it wasn’t until I opened a separate bank account a week later and moved my direct deposits into it that he finally left, swearing at me. He told mutual friends that I’d given up on our marriage, that I couldn’t be bothered to make it work.

From my perspective, it seemed like he didn’t really care that our marriage was ending until he couldn’t spend my money anymore.

And as Seth left, he basically kept accusing me of being a gold-digger. Kept saying that the only reason I was with Justin was because he made more money than Seth.

Less About Income and More About Spending and Views on Money

Now, what he said wasn’t true for a bunch of reasons. Justin and I have always been compatible in a number of ways (sexually, emotionally, shared interests, etc.). We were really good friends for a reason, and when we became physical, the sexual chemistry was great.

But when I set that aside, I didn’t quite know what to say. Because I’d be lying if I said that money didn’t factor into why Justin was a good domestic partner for me and Seth was a crummy one.

But it was less about what either of them made and more about how they spent and viewed money. Justin had a work ethic and a sense of duty that meant that he couldn’t laze about expecting other people to pay his way while he didn’t work, do chores, or look for a job. And he certainly wouldn’t feel entitled to spend large sums of money and live like a prince while doing so.

Justin was the kind of person who would work a crummy job or two if he had to while he looked for another good one. The kind of person who knew how to cut back when times were tough.

Where one time Seth literally spent our rent money on video games.

It was like night and day.

And Justin was always looking to save and plan ahead. Where if Seth saw we had money, he saw no problem spending it. Couldn’t seem to stop himself.

And I can say, now 10 years into the future, that life with Justin has been so much better. Together we’ve been able to work towards big financial goals. To actually get ahead rather than shredding up our money and throwing it in the air like confetti.

Money Can’t Buy You Love, But It Can Sure Break You Up

I’ve come to realize all these years later that it’s not that simple of a dichotomy: Gold-digger or noble lover. Heartless money-grubbing harpy or virtuous saint who loves regardless of finances.

I’ve learned that money is like anything else, values-wise. Especially if you’re going to manage a household together, you want a romantic partner who views money similarly to you. Who has a compatible vision of your future together. Who doesn’t necessarily want identical things — but who wants to head in roughly the same financial direction.

Financial incompatibility in a relationship isn’t just an abstract threat; it can have incredible far-reaching, everyday consequences.

And I’ve learned that money can’t buy you love, but it can sure break you up.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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