I made the biggest decision of my financial life two weeks before I left for college: I was going to retain my high-school boyfriend. Of course, that’s not exactly how my lovestruck, 18-year-old moron of a self would have framed it, but that’s what it ended up being. All the “tips for long distance relationships” Googling I did yielded plenty of interpersonal advice (Skype dates ahoy!), but none of them mentioned that love on long-distance life support requires bucks.
At the outset, I had about $400 in my brand-new savings account from working at a flower shop senior year and no conception of how money works. But now, after four and a half years of slavish dedication to both a boyfriend 851 miles away and to my Mint.com account, I have culled some hard data to crunch. So, as a case study and a public service, I will prove J.Lo and The Beatles wrong and calculate a price tag for love. Smitten high-schoolers of the world, take heed!
Transportation is the most apparent long-distance financial drain. The first year was easy, since my boyfriend was a year younger and still in our shared hometown of Philadelphia, but when he decided to matriculate at McGill, seeing him suddenly required a passport and a lot more money. Since my parents would graciously fly me back east from Chicago for free, provided I spent a few days at home, my preferred method became the Amtrak Adirondack up the backbone of New York. It’s a beast of a journey with very little legroom that begins with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call and doesn’t see you into Canada until 8 p.m. or later, but it’s reliable and it’s cheap. Records show that I made this trip seven times, amid fluctuating prices and discounts:
•Winter break, senior year: $83.70
• Summer before senior year: $113.40
• Spring break, junior year: $115.00
• Summer before junior year: $124.95
• Spring break, sophomore year: $124.95
• Summer before sophomore year: $181.90
Running Subtotal: $860.90
Of course, once I was there, I spent money too. Cramming six months’ worth of interaction into a spring-break-long period usually meant a binge of buying. Mint dutifully flagged each spike in spending as “unusual,” which feels unfair since all I was trying to do was simulate the “normal” dating experience of two physically proximate people. And since going dutch is my firm policy, all those loonies and weird-colored bills added up fast.
• Brunches, lunches, dinners, coffee, alcohol: $95.13
• Movies: $22.28
• Other cash withdrawals that I was too lazy to split and categorize: $700.33
Oh, and I had to pay for the privilege of having my bank compute the exchange rate and spit out bills in the frozen and backwards nation of Canada (va t’enculer, Citibank).
•Foreign fees: $71.98
Running Subtotal: $1750.62
The Internet recommends sending your significant other care packages to supplement your on-screen “date” time. Our four point five years together include four each of birth, Valentine’s, and Christmas days, plus a few other occasions that necessitated present-buying. It’s hard to say if the exact purchases I made for these occasions even had anything to do with our separation or if I would have made them anyway or what, but the fact is that we were still together, and so I was obligated to do something, and that something would also have to involve a shipping charge to Quebec.
• Groupon for fantasy Porsche driving experience: $99.00
• Flogging Molly tickets: $85.81
• Photo prints of QR code with link to encrypted message revealing surprise purchase of Flogging Molly tickets: $1.49
• Ingredients, packing materials, and shipping costs for twelve mini jar-pies to bring the Joy Of Thanksgiving to Canada: $58.72 (not including labor, which was considerable)
• Custom-made Star Wars cufflinks on Etsy: $43.00
• Ticket to Video Games Live in concert: $36.15
• Chasing Amy DVD, probably bootleg, that was unplayable but too expensive to replace leaving me to recreate it with stick puppets: $16.85
Running Subtotal: $2091.64
Summer was our chance to spend Actual Quality Time Together. After my freshman year, we took a roadtrip from home in Philadelphia to Kentucky to camp, visit the evangelical grotesquity that is the Creation Museum, and like, see each other up close. The driving was long but the scenery was beautiful, and we pooled our money for things like a box of 100 shitty supermarket tea bags for a dollar, roadside blueberry jam from the Amish, and gas for his parents’ 12-seater van that doubled as a rain shelter. A security guard at the took a liking to us and gave us his employee discount on tickets at the museum, and I felt horrible guilt for accepting his Christian charity but used it as justification to buy a velociraptor t-shirt.
• Road trip cash: $180.00
• Creation Museum admission: $24.36
• Souvenirs: $18.46
Running Subtotal: $2314.46
The summer after my junior year, being together got harder. He had gotten an excellent job working for a tech startup (with free housing, no less) in New York City, so I talked my way into a gig reading the slush pile at a literary agency for no pay. I drained my savings account for rent in a postage-stamp walkup in Manhattan and ponied up every four weeks for an unlimited Metrocard. Then, to occupy the time, most of the time, of our scant eight weeks of overlap when he was too busy with work to come see me and I was too scared and lonely to know what to do with myself, I threw money away on stupid big-city pity treats like takeout mac-n-cheese, used books, solo movies and two-for-one well drinks.
• Room and board: $2,753.50
• Transportation: $208.00
• All the other shit I bought: $860.50
Grand total: $6,135.96
Monthly, this relationship cost me an average of $117.28. If we’re going per diem for each of the 1,592 days of our relationship, it comes out to about $3.85 a day—about the same as the proverbial Starbucks latte (for this amount of money, you can keep a dying relationship aflame! Call today!) Hourly, that comes out to about 16 cents.
The calculations are admittedly fuzzy, and there are other considerations, too. Should I try and price things out, each experience price-tagged like I could buy things like intimacy and private jokes à la carte? For that matter, should I subtract the estimated value of everything he’s given me, the mini-cupcake tin ($9.89 on Amazon) and the garish statuette of a flaming angel on a motorcycle ($17.89 on eBay) and the ticket to see I Am Legend ($10) he bought for me the first time we really hung out or even really knew each other when I forgot my Hello Kitty wallet at home? What about the obscene $550 dollar co-pay on the antidepressants he convinced me I really did need? Does that go on the bill, too?
There’s a weird shared vocabulary for matters of the heart and wallet. People love to say “spending” time apart would be “worth it” if we ended up together, like breaking up at any point after being apart means we just didn’t sink enough effort and cash into it, didn’t keep plunking in quarter after quarter so that we could eventually see our initials on some high-score screen. But even if you acknowledge that a relationship has a bottom line, it’s hard to know where to draw it. And even with the firm-ish figure I’ve tallied up, it’s hard to know what that whole six-plus-grand means. It’s more money than I’ve ever had at one time in my life. It’s certainly more money than I would have thought of that late, teary night in September 2008. And if you’d asked me if I would stick $124.74 in an interpersonal parking meter every first of the month to keep going for the next four and a half years, I don’t know if I would have said yes.
Had I found a cautionary tale like this one in the vast and misspelled sea of optimism that is Internet dating tips, I probably would have balked. There’s a point past you become too informed to make a genuine leap of faith, and all that change in my mental pockets would have weighed me down. I would never get the chance to find out I liked ska concerts or eating venison steak. I would never come to love the cramped containment of the day-long haul up to French Canada. I would have missed out on Skype dates and long stretches of heartache, but also stupidly happy reunions with a friend who is literally both tried and true. Money would have stopped me from charging forward with all the nebulous, blithe confidence of a Vanessa Carlton song to make the best worst decision of my life. Not once, but twice.
• Montreal apartment, sublet for fall 2012: $2,700
If it’s a mistake, I want to learn it the hard way.
Blair Thornburgh is not thrilled about the strength of the Canadian dollar.