Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Money woes

Sheri likes to talk about how when we met I was sleeping on a futon pad and cooking off a hot plate, entertained by a radio because I didn’t own a TV: the unformed boy bachelor in need of refinement.

Also, I was poor.

Not Oliver Twist poor. I had cash flow and a job. But a year or so before I met Sheri, a live-in girlfriend had moved out and taken most of the furniture. I blew savings on a couple months of rent I couldn’t afford. A new roommate didn’t last, so I told the landlord I needed a cheaper space and asked for my thousand-dollar security deposit. Without an inspection, the mousse-haired BMW-driving SOB said no and blamed my 30-pound dog for shedding.

So yeah. I was 26, trying to furnish an apartment with no savings and a job that paid about two-thirds of what Sheri earned. I bought a rocking chair, a futon couch, and a halogen lamp. The apartment had neither oven nor fridge, but I could afford only one and chose the icebox. For romance, I bought two gigantic candles that were half price.

Then I met this older woman. She owned a condo in a trendy building. Drank Jameson instead of Miller Lite. Enjoyed weekend jaunts. Said I should go, too. A weekend in Michigan’s dunes and woods. A longer weekend in Amsterdam.

I swallowed hard. Paid the fare. Love. What can you do?

Refinement costs money. Money has always scared me; its power is too damn great. I’m no good at earning the stuff, but I fear its absence, so my default is to hold it tight and worry whenever I buy. But my older woman wanted me to spend. Anticipating a visit from my out-of-state parents, she insisted I replace the hodgepodge of tag sale plates and dishes I’d collected with a set of new kitchenware. When I told her I was going to wear a leather coat and a bolo tie to a relative’s wedding, she made me visit a men’s store to buy a sport coat and silk tie. I needed refinement, yes, but neither my head nor my bank account was ready to live in Sheri’s tax bracket. Every time she told me what I needed, I felt a bit like a kid being shamed into growing up.

She could have made it worse by condescending. She could have bought me dinners at expensive restaurants and cashmere sweaters at Nordstrom’s. Thank God she didn’t. Her money was hers; mine was mine.

When we moved in together and even a few years into marriage, we kept separate checking accounts. We paid for bills and groceries out of a third joint account. When Sheri suggested we pool our money, I knew we’d reached a different level of commitment.

Still, her contribution was usually the greater portion. When we bought a house we used money she’d inherited. For most of our lives together, she’s earned more in annual salary. When I was in grad school, she worked full time. She has never played the sugar mama, counting out my allowance. But she has helped pay for a life I couldn’t have had without her.

I suppose that’s a common story for the younger man involved with an older woman: she pays most of the freight while he struggles to keep up. From time to time, our tale shifts from that narrative. Twice Sheri quit jobs and left us dependent on savings and my salary. For a short time as a grad student, I actually earned more than she did. And at times of greatest financial strain, we avoided arguing about money by agreeing to let Visa pay the bill.

In the next phase, our regular roles will reverse. It’s years off, but Sheri will retire one day. Given the Great Recession, it's likely I’ll bring home more in salary than her savings will provide. I hope I’ll be as graceful a primary breadwinner as she has been and that I'll know when it's time for a new set of plates.


  1. I know a few of these stories, and many of them are happy. I'm glad yours is, too. I can't say I've ever been attracted to any younger men, but my husband, six years my senior, has been in my life for 27 years, so I really haven't given it much thought.

    OK, I lied.

  2. Yes, it's hard to be married for 27 years when you're 12. Or thereabouts. Thanks for reading, though.