“Really, Sam? Do you have to order food again?”
It was early 2018, and I was in the middle of placing a takeout order after an exhausting, hour-long commute home from work. My partner at the time, whom I’d been dating for three and a half years, couldn’t relate. They worked as a server at a café near our modest Hudson Valley apartment; meanwhile, I’d recently snagged my first digital media job at a New York City-based outlet.
For the first time in my life — our lives — I was earning a living wage. I also had disposable income, which felt downright miraculous to two DIY queers in their early 20s. Virtually overnight, I was able to afford the “little luxuries” we’d historically had to budget for. (Although we never combined our finances, my ex and I did split most expenses evenly.)
My ex initially celebrated this life-changing job with me — only to judge me, openly and often, when my spending habits shifted accordingly. Takeout was now on the table, so to speak. Naturally, I began to spend more of my hard-earned salary on pricier food, drinks, and clothes. These purchases were always in line with what I could afford, but to my ex, whose budget was much tighter, they seemed totally extravagant.
At first, I pushed back at my ex’s criticisms, but their persistent judgment and negativity quickly sapped my mental energy. “You’re right,” I’d reply, too drained to defend myself. “I shouldn’t get takeout again. It’s not a necessity.”
When my ex and I eventually parted ways, I moved on fairly quickly. What I struggled to overcome was the residual guilt I felt around how I wanted to spend my money. Today, I’m able to do so with joy, not shame, but it took years to get here.
For a while, I believed our income disparity was the biggest source of financial strife between me and my ex. I now realize it was actually our completely divergent money philosophies: I liked to spend in my daily life, while they preferred to save for the proverbial rainy day. Instead of directly addressing this fundamental difference, my ex relied on passive aggressive comments, which chipped away at my resolve. Worse, it caused me to question if the things I wanted were even valid.
Post-breakup, my ex’s scarcity mindset followed me into coffee shops, bars, and boutiques. Their voice echoed in my head whenever I considered buying concert tickets or planning a trip to visit friends out of town. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford these things; rather, I’d internalized the notion that every dollar I spent had to be neatly justifiable. A not-so-small part of me was still mentally bracing to defend any and all non-essential purchases. This left me feeling anxious and guilty whenever I opened my wallet.
My ex and I had made due on a tight budget for more than three years. Surely I could do the same on my own, right? The answer is “yes,” I could — but reader, I didn’t have to! Moreover, I didn’t want to. And it took me way too long to realize that my innate preferences were totally OK.
Nearly two years after my ex and I split up, I started dating my current partner. She and I also have an income gap — an even bigger one, in fact. However, we have one important thing in common: our personal spending habits.
My girlfriend and I love taking each other out on regular date nights — the cooler the cocktail list, the better. We splash out on a vacation together at least once a year. Neither of us think twice about grabbing a coffee from a café or making a pit stop at a local boutique while running errands.
Are we a perfect match money-wise? No, but she and I address our differences clearly, frequently, and respectfully. This means we talk openly about our financial concerns and aim to keep these conversations as judgment-free as possible.
Dating someone who shares my financial values has been a total game-changer for me in healing my anxiety around how I spend money. Frankly, I wish more people were talking about this as an element of compatibility in romantic relationships. This doesn’t mean you and your partner have to earn the same amount of money to be a good fit. Rather, you should have similar priorities when it comes to how and when you splash out — and at the very least, you should be able to respect each others’ preferences.
I’m currently in crunch mode for a production project. Last night, I ordered takeout for the second night in a row. My decision wasn’t met with criticism or contempt; instead, my girlfriend curled up on the couch next to me and politely asked for a bite of my spring roll. It was as simple as that.
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