I was all of 14 years old when I first felt the immediate, glowing rush of delivering a gift to someone I was endlessly infatuated with. I’d spent weeks grinding extra chores around the house and taking shifts in the prep kitchen of my parents’ restaurant after school, chopping cucumbers from a stack of 10-pound boxes for five bucks an hour. Now, in my hand, was the fruit of that labor: a small ankle bracelet, plated in gold.
It was a gift for my then-girlfriend, whom I also considered my closest confidant and shoulder to lean on. I loved seeing her light up at the sight of the cheap velvet jewelry box, complete with a petite green-and-red Christmas bow. I loved hearing her exclaim, “Why’d you get this for me?!?!,” with a hint of mock surprise. And I loved seeing our friends ask about it.
The jewelry cost a modest $60, but the sensation of giving it felt worth a lot more than that. It was the first time I absorbed the quick, effective high of doting on a partner through a purchase, with many more to come in my romantic life. Surprise flowers, dinners at high-end restaurants, tickets to shows, overnight weekend trips to wine country, jewelry, clothes, sporting events — a patchwork of all these material goods trace the ups and downs of my relationships. If I have a compulsive spending habit, it almost entirely expresses itself in the way I spend on my partner.
And as it turns out, it’s a common urge that a lot of men feel, even in an era where the conversation around gender equality makes the notion of men “taking care” of women by buying them stuff seem decidedly old-fashioned, if not offensive. It’s got nothing to do with wanting to be a “sugar daddy,” paying for an unfamiliar young woman to get to know you. The motivations as to why men still get satisfaction from throwing their money around are as diverse as their personalities, from rich fuckbois to hopeless romantics to men who feel bigger for being seen as a provider of some kind of wealth.
The craving to support and spoil a partner has a lot to do with the way men view their role in modern culture, and the way they compete for love. “A lot of men still subscribe to that goal of wanting to nurture a woman, to protect and provide, but modern society is redefining what that means. What women are looking for in a relationship is far beyond just financial security now,” says Amie Leadingham, a master-certified relationship coach based in L.A. “But some men either have trouble with that idea, or still feel the desire to show their worth in material ways. It’s not even about actually being rich or not.”
So it is with Jared, a 30-year-old in Seattle who has been in a four-year relationship with his girlfriend. He’s made it a habit to buy things for her on a regular basis — earrings here, a concert there and nights out where he pays for dinner and drinks. While he makes a comfortable living working for a major national bank, Jared’s run into a problem: His girlfriend wants him to cut back on the random purchases he makes with her in mind.
When they first started dating, Jared was the one with a stable career, while she was attending graduate school and working a part-time job. “It was easy to justify that I would be paying for dates and dinners and trips,” he says. But she’s now well into her budding law career, and the duo are considering buying a house together, which means it’s time to get serious about saving. The hard part is Jared doesn’t want “to stop spoiling her,” which he says is something that makes him feel like a better, more generous lover. “For me, growing up, I was always craving a new product or an experience that I couldn’t have. So it feels good for me to spend, not on myself just selfishly, but spending and experiencing the joy through someone else,” he says. “I don’t know why I have this bug of wanting to be a provider. But it makes me feel proud to be able to be that. Now I just have to cut things back because I don’t want to annoy her or think I’m doing it for my own ego.”
One common thread through online discussions about spending in relationships is the issue of unequal incomes — many men do choose to support their partners when they’re going through a period of little or no pay, whether because of school, injury or family issues. Other times it’s in order to support someone who is pursuing a dream job in a competitive industry. But for men who genuinely feel a compulsion to spend on their partners, the reaction that they get for helping is closer to an irrationally satisfying, sweet high.
“I like to pay for things in general. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid I only had a few friends. Or because I like to make others happy, so I figure saving them money makes them happy. With my girlfriend, even though it sounds bad, I pay for as much as she’ll let me because she doesn’t have a full-time job like I do,” one Reddit user wrote on a thread about men who insist on paying for women. “She also has a drug-addicted brother who borrows money from her constantly, so I try to pay so that she can put away enough to compensate. She worries about money a lot, more so now that we’re getting a place together.”
There are obviously hazards to making material goods and big spending a normal part of a romance. As a relationship coach, Leadingham has worked with men who show a penchant for spending lavishly, but needlessly, on their partners. Many of these guys make a lot of money and work in high-powered industries where “wining and dining a client to impress them is normal,” she says, and the mentality trickles into their love lives, expressed in the form of first dates to NBA games, five-star restaurants and beach resort hotels. She’s instructed a number of rich guys to pull back from this type of compulsion, which Leadingham notes can become a point of resentment in a relationship no matter which tax bracket you belong to.
“Guys can unwittingly end up setting a bad standard. You’re setting expectations and precedents and showing your value mostly in a monetary fashion. And it’s not just that a woman can get used to it, or might be attracted to it for the wrong reasons,” she says. “The guy might get insecure about what he’s doing, and start doubting why she’s sticking around. It can get ugly in a lot of ways.”
So why do so many men view spending on their partners as a worthwhile challenge? The history of empires around the globe suggest that wealthy kings have long flaunted their power by providing fine lives for wives and girlfriends, which has become a “standard of masculine culture” and something ingrained in the stories we tell about men, says Andrew Smiler, a therapist and expert on masculinity. “Especially in America, men have long been measured by the size of their paycheck. This is the traditional way that men took care of others in the 20th century. They pay for things and make sure their loved ones have a roof over their heads and can enjoy themselves from time to time,” Smiler says. “In some ways, this is the epitome of the traditional 1950s gender roles.”
Some of these roles remain normalized despite major momentum for gender equality in the U.S. In 1980, just 13 percent of married women earned the same or more money than their husbands. In 2018, nearly a third of women who are married or living with a man report they contribute at least half their combined earnings, per a Pew Research Center survey. Yet in the same survey, 70 percent of adults responded that it was “very important” for a man to be able to financially support his family in order to be a “good husband or partner.” Only 30 percent said the same about women.
“I don’t really make more than my wife anymore. We’re definitely shouldering the financial burden side-by-side. This is totally fine by me, but it almost seems like, in order for me to satisfy this traditional role as a quote-unquote provider, it means using my money to get her extras,” says Will, a 30-year-old business consultant in L.A. “It feels like a way I can show that I’m capable. I wouldn’t be buying nearly as many gifts and little things if I was the breadwinner.”
Some also point to the persistence of men paying for dates as a sign of how tightly woven spending, masculinity and romance are. One cheeky take on the phenomenon is that men paying for dates is a way to address the gender wage gap, but whatever the case, even millennial men and women seem to agree the man should reach for his wallet first. Paying to take a girl out is something I’ve abided by in my dating life, but I never really considered whether my habit of overspending on longer-term girlfriends was related to the way I embraced my “role.”
In reality, of course, women don’t swoon for a guy just because he tries to shower them in goods and leisure. In fact, I’ve found out that this kind of attention can be negative. I often joke about spontaneously buying things for my girlfriend, usually when we’re walking around a mall, and complain about her unwillingness to accept big gifts for the holidays, our anniversary or Valentine’s Day. It took me too long to realize that this sort of talk made her uncomfortable — and that my persistence in trying to spend on her said more about my ego than her tastes.
“I don’t exactly have the funds to reciprocate these offers, since I’m in grad school and not working full-time. So when you try and make these grand gestures, it just reminds me of what I can’t do for you,” she tells me. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s kind of a guilt and power dynamic issue. I don’t like the way it makes me feel when I’m supposed to be independent.”
Knowing this, why do guys feel an urge at all? Someone who overspends in a romantic context might have lingering insecurities about their ability as a partner, Smiler says. This can be compounded by shopping addictions, which (despite stereotypes) impact men and women at similar rates. Laura Arnold, a marriage and family therapist, agrees that insecurity might be a motivator. “People disagree about the act of spending money, but that money represents something different to everyone. The argument isn’t actually about the spending itself, but what’s driving the action,” she says. “Ironically, a lot of couples are complete opposites with their appetites for spending.”
There are also intriguing physiological trends in the way men are triggered to spend. One study found that thinking optimistically about romance motivated men to want to spend more on luxury goods. Another found the sensation of having and spending money can raise male testosterone levels, which leads to riskier money choices. A 2015 report suggested that jealousy and competitiveness can also compel men to make more reckless financial decisions, with researchers concluding that men who see attractive males in their presence take greater financial risks than those who don’t, as a subconscious way to increase their own “desirability” to potential partners. And the sting of heartbreak seems to inspire this behavior, too, as men are more willing to splurge-buy after a romantic rejection than women are. On the flip side, multiple studies have shown that women’s spending is less affected by romance or sexual goals.
There’s an additional, simpler aspect to consider as well: We live in a hyper-consumerist society, and men are suckers. “Over the last decade we’ve seen a lot more advertising and things packaged for the wealthy and aspirational. There are so many ways that American culture in particular promotes excessive spending,” Smiler says. “You have to imagine it extends to the ways men court partners. It’d be naive not to.”
What’s important to keep in mind is that generally, women seem more interested in financial stability than the big bucks: A Marketwatch survey found that men are more likely than women to say that material wealth and an enviable job are top measures for financial success, whereas women valued a lack of debt and a regular paycheck more than men did. “If you feel you’re overspending on someone, you probably are. And you don’t want it to seem like you’re investing into them to show your value,” Leadingham notes. “You don’t have to buy anyone’s love.”
But that won’t stop men from trying. So much so, that they’re expected to boost the economy this holiday season.
Naturally, I’ll be among them.