This week, BuzzFeed News is partnering with the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money to publish Opportunity Costs, a series of stories about class, money, and the ways they impact our lives and relationships. Before reading this essay from Death, Sex & Money's host, Anna Sale, you can hear a preview of the podcast episodes that will be released this week.
“I could probably use some help managing money,” he said, and a shock of repulsion ran all the way through me.
It was fall 2011. I was sitting with my new boyfriend, Arthur, in a dark, romantic seafood restaurant during a weekend away in Maine, a few months into our long-distance courtship. We were in that giddy phase of getting to know each other, but these shocks were becoming more and more common for me. I had met Arthur six weeks after my first marriage had ended. I’d filed for divorce, but it wasn’t final yet. So while I felt pulled toward him, I also felt reckless for going on weekends away with a new man — especially one who “could probably use some help managing money.”
It wasn’t necessarily disgust that I felt; it was more like that feeling of pressing magnets together the wrong way around. I had a forcefield of self-preservation that switched on whenever I got too close to him.
I have always had some version of this forcefield, but it was at peak power at this particular moment in my life. After my divorce, I was gripped with fear I’d screw up again. Divorce is a bewildering emotional experience, when so much of what you’ve pictured for your future evaporates. What is right in front of you, though, are the logistics of separating your money. For a divorce like mine, in which there were no kids, it was pretty simple math: subtracting what we owed from what we saved together, and dividing by two. After a messy end, where fights about money became the way my ex and I litigated all the bigger fissures about what we wanted and where we were going, being back in total control of my money felt like a relief.
So as I relaunched into single womanhood, I was not about to loosen my grip. Keeping close (obsessive?) watch on my accounts was an essential part of my protective forcefield, and I developed an embarrassing habit to keep it charged. I would regularly log in to look at the balance in my retirement account. It was as if, by reminding myself I had followed the rules and squirreled away money going back to my first job in high school, I could insulate myself from other shocks of life. It made me feel responsible and calm.
A few details about my situation: I had a job when I was divorcing. I had a place to live that I could afford. I had a family who’d paid for my college, so I had no student debt — and a place to go for help in an emergency. So this is not a story about a woman who emerges from divorce with diminished financial prospects, which is what usually happens. Instead, this story is about how powerful my emotions around money were, even in the absence of a crisis.
After the end of my first marriage, I was on my own in so many new ways, but being alone felt most visceral when it came to money. And then I met Arthur. Here was a man in his early thirties who had spent his twenties traveling, working, and studying for a PhD in ecology in Wyoming. On my first visit to his place in Laramie, he cooked for me, including a tenderloin from a deer he’d killed himself. He taught me how to cast a fly rod. He had two dogs. He seemed like a man I would not have to take care of. This was very attractive.
But then, when we sipped fish broth in Maine a few weeks later and he mentioned a need for help with money management, I wondered if I’d gotten him all wrong. In hindsight, I was not really hearing what Arthur was saying. I had already let on I was an overzealous student of different retirement accounts and all their rules, so what he meant was that he didn’t know much about any of that. He was making less than $30,000 a year as a grad student, so he used what money he had, and didn’t think about it much. He kept his bills on autopay, and once in a while, if he really needed something he couldn’t quite afford, he tapped some funds he’d inherited from his grandmother. It was a small safety net he hoped would last him through his efforts to land a job in academia.
Arthur and I dated long distance at first, an arrangement that suited my independence and tentativeness. We kept our money separate and traded off covering the things we did together. We got United credit cards so we could earn miles flying back and forth between New York and Wyoming. He defended his dissertation, then moved closer to me when he got a fellowship at Yale.
After a year of commuting between New Haven and New York — and a breakup when the forcefield reared its head, I bailed, and then realized, This wasn’t a love I was willing to lose — Arthur moved into my place in Brooklyn. He fit all his belongings into corners of my one-bedroom bachelorette pad. It was not really an apartment to share. Looking back, I can’t remember where he found a drawer to put his underwear in. I think I ceded only about six inches of closet. We did start a joint account to cover our household expenses, but I kept close watch on it.
Arthur started working from home most days, instead of commuting to New Haven. The desk he had shoved behind our dining table in the living room wasn’t cutting it. We started looking at two-bedroom apartments so he could have a home office. Again, even though we had established a need and decided what was financially viable, I balked when we looked at the apartment we eventually rented. It rented for more than double what I paid for my first New York City studio. When I thought about writing that monthly check, my body tensed up and my breathing became shallow. Yes, I was making more money than ever before, and I’d be splitting the rent after covering it on my own for the three years Arthur and I were long distance, but my body didn’t care about any of that.
Arthur kept pulling up other listings to demonstrate why this one was worth what they were asking. We ran the numbers over and over, to show that we could handle the rent. Meanwhile, I kept telling myself, proudly, that my caution was the mark of responsibility. I was tapping the brakes to keep us safe from financial ruin, I told myself, conveniently ignoring that it also allowed me not to surrender any control.
Arthur pushed, I finally relented, we moved in, and we were fine. We could afford the place, and it was much more comfortable, so much so that by a month or so in, my protests felt like a distant memory.
That didn’t stop me from repeating this dynamic over and over again, even after I thought I’d worked through my commitment issues. I knew I wanted to be with him. I knew I wanted to build a life with him. But spending my money to do that kept feeling uncomfortable. My savings kept me safe, especially — I whispered to myself — if I was ever on my own again.
This anxiety really ratcheted up in the months after we got married in 2015. Arthur got a job offer in California that we couldn’t turn down. I had to see if I could transfer out to California or face the prospect of losing my show and my job. We’d also need to buy a car if we left New York and find a new place to live. And I was pregnant.
As is my custom when change comes fast, I focused my worry on the concrete, clear data of the dollars and cents in our bank accounts. When there were so many unknown variables in the mathematical formulas I was trying to game out, what we had did not feel like nearly enough.
From Arthur’s point of view, my white-knuckled grip on our spending was taking the joy out of all the blessings coming at once, which were incredibly, amazingly good. I interpreted this as evidence that he could not be trusted to be prudent.
This impasse led us to Patricia Kummel, a couples counselor and former attorney, who told us she focused on pragmatic problem-solving, which is what we wanted. We needed help agreeing on a budget for our move and early parenthood.
Patricia’s office was near a stretch of restaurants on the Upper West Side, so we scheduled an evening session and made a date night out of it. Arthur and I listed the number of life transitions we were in the midst of. She was impressed. She observed that outside of death or divorce, we had most of the big ones covered simultaneously: new marriage, new pregnancy, new job, new house. Patricia asked questions that prompted us to describe our different money personalities. Arthur described spending money on what he needs and on a few things he really loves. He doesn’t like being cheap if he doesn’t have to be. To me, spending money rarely feels good, especially when I feel uncertain. More broadly, Arthur trusts his ability to improvise and solve problems if things turn bad. I believe in reducing whatever risk I can.
After a few sessions, Patricia gave us homework. We were assigned to make individual budget spreadsheets, and then we could compare the different values we were bringing to the decision-making. I very much liked this idea, because I was sure I would win.
The next Sunday afternoon, on parallel laptops as we sat in bed, we started building dueling budget spreadsheets. Arthur is a scientist who regularly crunches numbers, so he knew how to make his spreadsheet organized and have the little cells talk to one another as he made changes. Mine was a Spartan list of numbers that would’ve worked as well if I were scribbling with a pen in a notebook.
I made quick work at first. I was the one with all the bank and bill-pay logins at the ready, so as we set up the first rows of our budget, I called out relevant numbers like take-home pay and our average utility bills over the last 12 months.
Then, we set about estimating the costs of living in a place we’d never lived and with a child we’d never had before. This took a lot of mundane research. Arthur googled things like parking rates on campus at his new job. I searched things like “how many diapers does a baby use in a day?”
When we got to the child care portion of our budgets, we paused the data entry to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of different child care arrangements. We started envisioning how our new life as two working parents might look. We pulled up college savings calculators and talked about how much of our kid’s college costs we would try to cover. Arthur calculated a monthly babysitting line item for date nights.
Slowly, our discussion became less about money and more about how we wanted to use the money we had for this entirely new stage in our lives as a couple, as parents, as Californians. I also noticed that Arthur was not entering spending estimates that were wildly higher than what I would have. They were about the same, based on our current behavior and based on how we said we wanted our family to work. They were based in reality, not in fear, and his focus on spending we’d need to do now, not just saving I wanted to do for later, was another way of taking care of our family.
By the time we turned in our homework to Patricia, our separate spreadsheets had become one. It had become easier to consolidate than to trade laptops back and forth as we dug up separate numbers and talked about the right estimates. Plus, Arthur’s spreadsheet looked so much better!
We had our baby, we moved, we have begun the long process of building a home for our family. We still regularly bicker about money. My body still tenses and my breath gets short if I feel like we’re overspending. He still feels like my cheapness hems us in. And we still regularly pull up that spreadsheet before we take on a new major expense, whether it’s a dining room rug (Arthur’s lobbying) or a bigger retirement contribution (mine).
The Excel columns project out over several years. I know there’s a lot it doesn’t account for — unforeseen changes in the economy, in our careers, in our priorities as a family — but I’m beginning to feel more relaxed about that now. I can see that my financial instincts had become all about preparing for the worst-case scenario. Together, with Arthur, I’ve learned that leaves out so much of what’s possible. ●
Anna Sale is the host and creator of Death, Sex & Money, the podcast from WNYC Studios "about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more." She's the author of the forthcoming book Go There: The Art of Talking About Hard Things and lives in Berkeley with her husband and daughter.
Follow along with the Opportunity Costs series here.