I Don’t Want to Fight About Money With My Boyfriend, So I Don’t Have a Boyfriend

I have much more experience with being poor than I do with having a boyfriend. I grew up with parents who struggled financially and fought about it constantly, and I vowed to myself that I would never endure a relationship characterized by fights about (lack of) money. At 15, my planned maneuver was to go to medical school, become a surgeon, and buy myself a Porsche at age 30, removing financial stressors from the equation altogether. Instead, I wound up giving up pre-med in my junior year of college, serving two terms as an AmeriCorps member and approaching my thirtieth birthday as a freelance writer.

It’s a very different financial picture than what I’d envisioned as a teenager, and in order to never endure a relationship stressed by financial concerns, well, I’ve had to never endure a relationship.

There are those who find this particular condition of mine to be pitiable, but I don’t; not because it’s not pitiable, but because pity is, truly, just one more thing I can’t afford. Self-pity is the enemy of the impoverished (alongside collection agencies, the American health care system, rising food costs, and about a zillion other things), because when you’re poor—really poor—just facing the world takes so much damn energy that there’s no room left over for honest self-evaluation. “Success is moving from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill, and by that measure I have succeeded, but only because enthusiasm is pretty much the only thing that keeps me going. Take away my battle-weary optimism and I’m just another dumb schmuck hacking away at the Next Great American Novel, too stupid to recognize the futility of my efforts.

But you know what I’m not too stupid to recognize? How incredibly unsexy my life—in all of its futile optimism—looks to an outsider; to, say, a romantical prospect. “Let’s stay in tonight and eat peanut butter and tuna fish” has never gotten anybody laid, ever. “I can’t afford that” is the opposite of a turn-on.

My senior year of high school, my father got a new job and my parents found themselves, at long last, on sound fiscal footing; the transformation it has wrought in their relationship is nothing short of miraculous. It’s sweet to believe that being in love is enough to hold two people together through absolutely anything, but it’s also grindingly naive.

And I get it, because attraction is a two-way street. My tastes are eclectic and my standards are not terrifically high—intelligent eyes, a kind smile and self-assuredness about one’s own inherent doofiness pretty much covers it—but you know what I definitely do not want to involve myself with? Someone who is poor as shit. Being poor means that every day involves sorting out a new catastrophe: late buses and food stamps reporting and overdraft fees and fixing everything yourself, because who the hell can afford a replacement? It’s a strange combination of dependence and insular self-reliance, this condition known as poverty, and for those of us inside of it, sometimes putting one foot in front of the other is all we can muster.

Intimacy is never easy. It’s even harder when someone is distracted, or ashamed, or depressed, or scared—and living in poverty means living in a constant state of all of these emotions. There are, of course, those who surmount their surroundings, who find loving relationships in spite of their nonexistent bank balances. I do not know how these people do it. Although I may lack firsthand experience in serious relationships, I have observed many of them, and what I encounter again and again is the simple fact that relationships are a choice: that long-term commitment, cohabitation and marriage, is a decision to share responsibility for one another’s lives, an agreement to open bank accounts together and raise children in a unified front and co-sign for property, to merge not only furniture and households but credit histories and outstanding debts. Poverty is not merely a turn-off; it is, in the calculation of mutual responsibility, a real liability, not only for the superficial and materialistic but for anyone who aspires to do things like “own a home” or “raise a family” or “not live in a constant struggle to feed oneself”.

So I can’t blame the dudes for staying away. And I can’t blame my own hesitance to become seriously involved with someone. I want to raise kids someday, too, but bringing a dependent human being into the disaster area of my finances is the height of irresponsibility—and the same thing is true within the romantic sphere. A loving, committed, mature relationship with another person might be one of the most fundamental human needs, and it might seem unduly harsh to suggest that the chances of realizing that ambition are limited by poverty—but it’s also true. Barring the entrance of a secret multimillionaire whose largesse renders my own fiscal inadequacies entirely moot, the consequences of my less-than-stellar financial decision-making will continue to follow me throughout my life, and in avenues I never anticipated when I made the decisions that have led to my poverty.

I don’t mean to suggest that poverty—whatever its causes—renders one fundamentally unlovable. I’m sure there’s some kind-eyed, goofy-smiled guy out there somewhere in the world willing to look past the shitshow of my financial history (whether we will ever meet is, of course, another question altogether). But it’s also true that lack of money and lack of resources narrows one’s playing field; I have many great friends from all socioeconomic classes but I also have others who’ve been driven off by the stink of my poor, and friendship entangles assets much less than relationships do.

What’s really frustrating, though, is that nobody talks about it. Growing up, I absorbed a common dichotomy: one could be “poor and happy” or rich and, presumably, miserable—as though wealth must always be accompanied by its own inherent malaise. In pursuing my dreams, I was prepared to live frugally, to shop at second-hand stores and live in non-hip neighborhoods, to endure the more obvious material lack; the first time I stood in line at the county social services office to apply for food stamps, I began to accept the myriad other indignities that come with being poor in contemporary America. After all, I told myself, I have a large, awesome family with whom I am close; amazing friends; meaningful work—the things that I lacked were minor things.

But relationships are not minor things. Raising one’s own family is not a minor thing. Poor folk share the same aches and pangs and longings as the rich; at bottom, all of us—regardless of class—just want to love and be loved. In theory, it doesn’t sound much like economics, but in practice… well, you try putting “I’ve pawned jewelry to make rent” on your OKCupid profile and see how many messages it earns you.

But it’s cool. I don’t judge ‘em for it. I wouldn’t want to hit that, either.

 

Isa Hopkins is a writer and comedian in Oakland, CA.  She blogstweetscreates feminist sketch comedy, co-edits the humor rag Hobo Pancakes, and studiously avoids gluten in any form.

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12 Comments / Post A Comment

spex (#1,159)

This breaks my heart.

Yeah, I was all ready to come down here and say something funny about Blue Valentine but now I’m just really depressed.

“Now what’s all this about poverty not being romantic?”

@stuffisthings (That’s supposed to be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, by the way.)

Love this! I grew up with similar circumstances, and have also chosen to remain single. Sometimes I wish I had a partner because I know living expenses would go down, but then I remember how a friend had to argue with her husband to buy expensive software so she could do work from home, and I realize this is how I need it to be. Spending my own money and not having to ever get permission from anyone for anything.

becktar (#984)

I don’t really agree with the having to be alone based on financial reasons. I view being in a long term relationship as an agreement to accept the other person’s faults – money matters included. You agree to play on the same team and being on that team may mean making sacrifices that aren’t always ideal, but you make them anyway for the greater good of your team. As long as both you and your partner are transparent about all aspects of your life (including debts) then I see no reason why it can’t work. I knew getting married to my partner would ultimately hurt my credit score and finances, but did it anyway because being with them is way better than being without. Life is about finding a happy balance and it never works the way you always thought it would.

This piece really touched me. I am a financial therapist and coach, and felt compelled to jot a quick response post. Hope you don’t feel it’s an imposition or in any way insensitive. My heart really goes out to you. http://bit.ly/TaPyyC

honey cowl (#1,510)

Oh no author! Please find someone you can be happy with.

I think one of the greatest things that has strengthened my relationship is when we had to go through a period of unemployment together. Savings accounts drained, weekly unemployment earnings of $100, eating from food stamps, living together when we didn’t want to and weren’t ready — they caused a lot of arguments, sure, but those things brought us much closer.

Now that we both have low-paying jobs and separate rents, we are still scrimping and saving, but we do have more financial freedom than before. Even if that is still much less freedom than some of our friends. But I look at that period, and this period, as something we went through together, that makes our relationship that much more valuable.

Everyone is worthy of love! Regardless of credit score or savings account or paycheck!

I can say hands down the roughest part of my seven year relationship with now-fiance was my last year of university while he was unemployed. It nearly broke us.

Love is not everything. It is not that simple. I can sympathise with your situation and your parents’, because no matter how in love you are, you need money to pay the bills, feed you, house you. Love alone cannot sustain you. Being young and broke is NOT fun.

Jeni Vidi Vici (#1,121)

I can’t say I really understand this post. I have been with my partner for a couple of years. I am crazy broke with tens of thousands in credit card debt. He just bought an Aston Martin. We have totally separate finances and never have conflicts over money, because I’ve made it clear that my brokeness is explicitly not his problem.

I also don’t understand why the author seems sure that she’s going to be in serious poverty forever, given that she went to college and isn’t even 30 yet. I just don’t get this whole piece.

null (#1,101)

Yeah, it’s like she’s creating an unnecessary obstacle for herself. A really sad one! Ideally we all want to be the best person we can be when looking for love, but in my experience, that’s just not how it works.

I also grew up with parents who struggled financially, I didn’t graduate high school or go to college, had a kid by the time I was 18, and for extra icing on the cake I also happen to be a minority. (Where’s my BINGO prize?!) I’ve lucked into jobs where I made a decent wage, more than many of my peers who went to college, yet I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like my lack of income was turning away potential suitors or friends. And if it did, I don’t know… I guess I feel pretty indignant about it, like, YOUR LOSS. On the other hand, whether or not a guy has to take the bus or use food stamps has never been a deal breaker to me. I’m more interested in what’s going on in their head and how they make me feel when I’m around them and hope for the same in return. Maybe that makes me incredibly naive? If it does, reading this made me grateful that I am.

ephem (#5,696)

I grew up in similar circumstances. “Marry for love, not for money” is what I absorbed along with the nobility of poverty, and yadda, yadda, yadda. You know what? You don’t have to be poor! Flip through a community college catalog, and you will find health and vocational programs that will give you a middle class life within 2 or 3 years. AND you can still be a free lance writer, just not a poverty-stricken one. Go ahead, be an RN! You’ll be 35 someday no matter what, whether you go to nursing school (or programming school, or auto mechanics school) or not.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE POOR! There is no nobility in it. Get out of your rut. You’re plenty smart enough to get out of it, and it will only take a few years. You do not want to be OLD and poor, trust me on that.

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