Like most Americans, I learned that it’s crass to talk about money from my parents, and indeed they never did so — in polite company. But within the family, money was all they ever seemed to talk about: worrying that there wasn’t enough, envying others for how much they had, trying to save some for the future. When the adults in the room embarked on a Money Conversation, I zoned out, not because I suspected a breach in etiquette but because I was bored. I didn’t yet understand what a rare privilege it was to listen in on other people’s explicit financial worries.
My parents were “allowed” to talk to each other about money because they were family. In polite (Western) society, money is unmentionable among acquaintances because it’s supposedly irrelevant. Within the secretive confines of a nuclear family, where budgetary concerns are meant to be confined, money is paramount. In other words, you have no reason to ask your friend at lunch how much her shoes cost, but it’s permissible to ask the same of a person with whom you share a bank account. But what about unmarried relationships, where the financial stakes are less immediately justifiable but still relevant? When does money come up for newly partnered lovebirds? The first special occasion dinner? The first gift-giving occasion? The first shared lease?
First and foremost, a note on my own prejudices: I think it’s bullshit to proscribe money talk. Explicating income disparity makes rich people uncomfortable and everybody else furious, which should tell us all why there’s an unspoken rule forbidding it. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to embroider the particulars of one’s salary-and-benefits package onto one’s clothing Scarlet Letter style. Still, romantic relationships surely warrant some transparency about salary. It seems silly that two people who have agreed to fuck raw for the foreseeable future would be squeamish about discussing their finances.
Nate, a 38-year-old pseudonymous real estate agent, disagrees — but in a way that frankly makes it sound like he agrees. “To be honest, I make more money than most of the women I’ve dated,” he says. “I like treating my girlfriends to nice dinners. I like buying presents. But it really breaks the spell when they start asking for cash. I don’t like telling them how much I make because then they think they can hit me up for money.”
That, to me, perfectly represents both sides of the “is it rude to talk about money?” conversation: “the spell.” The person who has more money believes that their dates are under the spell of their money. Putting numbers to it would mean showing off the strings that make the magic act possible. Nate feels good about presenting himself as a boundlessly generous Santa Claus figure when wooing women. Telling them his salary draws boundaries around the potential of that generosity, making him feel exposed. It’s one thing to present a girlfriend with dinner at Per Se, flamboyantly refusing to let her see the bill when it arrives — but giving her $800 in cash feels neither as magical nor as safe for the giver. He has no longer given her a beautiful experience that she couldn’t afford on her own, in his eyes, but rather a glimpse into the secret vault.
On the other end of the spectrum is Devin (another pseudonym), a 36-year-old who works in media and whose girlfriend is in finance. “I probably hide how little I earn out of embarrassment. I’m certainly the least wealthy of her extended friendship group, and just about the only one who doesn’t have a well-paid job in finance,” he tells me. “The insecurity is about my income in relation to that of her ex-boyfriends and her friends’ boyfriends more than [it is about] her. They’re all high-earners, most are privately educated, and then there’s me — low to middling income, poor single-parent upbringing, etc.”
Having been in Devin’s position myself, I’m sympathetic to it. And Devin addresses this painful disparity the same way I’ve done in the past: by systematically ruining his own finances to hide it. “The main (and most damaging) way I suggest I earn more than I do is by casually insisting on paying the bill when we go for dinners with her friends,” says Devin relatably. “That’s causing me some money problems so it isn’t going to be sustainable for much longer.”
Have they ever talked numbers at all? “We did have one brief conversation about my tax installment, during which I panicked and implied it was about half of what I needed to pay overall, when in reality it was almost the entire tax bill. So I guess if she were to work out my approximate income from my tax payments she’d imagine I earn twice as much as I really do.”
Nate didn’t want to talk numbers either — neither how much he makes nor how much more he makes than his current girlfriend. He did say he’s loosened up on the never-discuss-your-finances rule with her: “Because she’s never hit me up for cash. She doesn’t know my exact salary — I mean, it’s tricky, it kind of varies year to year, so I’m not exactly hiding it from her. She’s seen the check after I’ve paid for dinner. One time a hotel put a receipt under our door before we checked out and she saw the number. We’re talking about opening a shared bank account. I’ve never done that with any woman before, even the ones I dated for longer.”
To that end, for the person with more money in the relationship, maybe the secret to unlocking the finances conversation isn’t time, but character. It’s easy to become paranoid about other people’s motivations when you have a lot of money — you assume (justifiably enough) that they want some of it. Interestingly, Nate is willing to commit to serious, long-term romantic relationships without also committing financially. Doesn’t he ever feel like he’s hiding something? Wouldn’t it be nice to unburden himself?
“Yes,” he responds emphatically. “I can only really talk about money with my brother. He works with me, and we earn about the same most quarters. The thing is, we aren’t even close; I’m closer with my girlfriend. I was closer with the last girlfriend, too. It just doesn’t feel safe with women.”
What would it take for people like Nate — the wealthy halves of mixed-income relationships — to “feel safe” being frank about their finances? It seems that their desire to keep their finances hidden is less a function of distrusting their significant others than it is of distrusting the poor in general. Rich people know that they’re rich, and they know that most other people aren’t. Loving, close romantic relationships are just as much about keeping the pain of the rest of the world out as they are about keeping the love in. What do the Nates of the world envision when they tilt their phone screens away from their girlfriends to check their bank balances? Guillotines? Struggle sessions? The trust required to form romantic relationships is apparently a different beast than the trust required to say one’s salary out loud.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite here — I don’t enjoy talking about my income. (Like Nate’s, it varies year to year, although I think my range is several tax brackets beneath his.) I just can’t imagine feeling like I’m in a real partnership without doing so. As the usually-richer partner, Nate feels that a spell is broken when his girlfriends learn how much money he makes. As the usually-less-rich partner, I would prefer not to be placed under a spell without my knowledge, particularly one that requires my partner to hide his class status from me for years at a time.
And yet, I have to admit I’ve cast the inverse of that spell countless times, particularly in a sex work context. When you’re selling sex, it behooves you to pretend (and look and dress) like you already have plenty of money. The most effective way to do that is by blowing the money you do have on all the external trappings of womanly wealth: constant hair and nail upkeep, perfectly tailored clothes, La Perla lingerie.
Even though both men are lying to their partners about their income, I am more sympathetic toward Devin’s lie than Nate’s. Devin may be guilty of the sin of pride, but Nate is guilty of being a sneaky little class enemy, which may not be a Deadly Sin but is still dastardly as fuck in my book. Love is all about trust. I would never be able to trust a boyfriend who thought I was going to guillotine him upon hearing his salary. I mean, is it really love if you treat your partner like an FBI agent who’s just begun asking too many questions about your offshore accounts?
And remember, if you feel guilty because you think you earn too much money, you can always give it away!