Money, Power Dynamics and Finding Balance in a Relationship
During the first heady days of my moving to London, I texted this American guy I didn’t know very well and excitedly told him about how my rent was going to be reduced by £50 a month because I had chosen the smallest room in a rental apartment, and he said, “You’re way too excited about that. Let me buy you dinner.” I knew he was one of the good ones.
At the time, J. had just moved to London too. While I was embarking on a master’s degree and trying to live on a tight budget, my soon-to-be-partner was interning at a small consulting firm that eventually turned into a reasonably well-paid job.
Hopefully I am not annoying anyone too much when I say that London sucked. True, the fantastic museums are free, but not much else is. People in their 30s are leaving the city in droves since there’s no way they would be able to afford home ownership in a city where housing prices are being artificially driven up by absent oligarchs. I was a student who was spending two-thirds of my monthly allowance on rent and bitterly resenting it more and more. Tube and bus fares, despite my best attempts at cycling to uni from my Zone 2 (nearly 3) location, also accumulated to startling sums each month.
“I can’t afford to eat out,” I would say each week when J. and I were making weekend plans. “Shall I cook?” Luckily, I am a very good cook, but there are only so many ways to make dried beans interesting.
“Let me take you out,” he would offer, and after a while it seemed like a fair exchange for the meals I prepared for us. There is a sensible ratio of restaurant meals you don’t pay for to meals you cook for your partner to restaurant meals you can afford to go Dutch on. We found it fairly early on in our relationship, and it helped that J. would sometimes fork out for groceries, and always do the dishes after we ate at home.
Sometimes, in his official role as the sweetest boy on earth, J. would buy me treats. I would send him out to the supermarket for the ingredients of the elaborate Sunday fry-ups we would have, and he would come back toting a few extras besides the baked beans, hash browns, and mushrooms.
“I brought you cheese,” he would say, flourishing a super-value block of £2 Morrisons Extra-Mature Cheddar.
When he got laid off in June, as I was sitting my final exams, he didn’t seem to mind that much. “I’ve got a lot of savings anyhow,” he said. Apparently, when he’d told one of his more highly-paid friends how much money he had saved, his friend had said, “Even I don’t have that much!”
“Do you know why?” I said with some satisfaction. “It’s because you hang out with me all the time, and I never spend any money.”
However, London being what it is, those savings were being run through at a startling rate. One of the very few times he got angry with me came about when he made a remark to that effect, and I sneered and said, “Well, yeah, but at least you have savings.”
“I didn’t like that,” he said later. “I actually am worried about finding a new job here, and if it weren’t for you I’d have moved back to the U.S. already—”
This was the first indication I had that money issues required a particular sensitivity from me, too, even if he was still technically better off than I was. Perhaps the worst fight we’ve ever had started when we booked tickets to Paris after I submitted my dissertation and stupidly missed the outward-bound flight.
“The next flight to Paris is in three hours and will be £320,” the lady at the counter informed us, and I glared at him. “J.,” I said, “I really can’t afford this.” In preparation of his impending move back to the States, he’d emptied out his U.K. bank account and transferred it to the U.S., so it fell to my bank account to take the hit. “I’ll pay you back,” he promised, and I grudgingly stumped up the cash.
The fight came months after the fact, when I went to visit him in the U.S. and he paid me back by paying for most of the meals we had out together. Towards the end of the trip, he said, “I think that’s more than I owe you for Paris—but it’s okay, I guess.”
Later, I said, “That made me upset because I don’t think it was more than you owed me, but I just let it go at the time.” Eventually it turned into a huge, petty fight about exactly what he was paying me back for and whose fault had it been that we’d missed the first flight, anyway.
I don’t think we would have fought so much if we hadn’t both been stressed about money for different reasons; at the time he’d been unemployed for six months, and for my part you can chalk it up to the absolute trauma of that year in London, stressful not just for financial reasons.
Nineteen months into this relationship, we’ve been long-distance for eight months now. J. is in the Bay Area, living at home and working a contract position for Google. I’m based in Singapore, also living at home and working at an NGO. In many ways, although my current living situation is the exact opposite of what I’d have wanted when I was 18, it’s also ideal: When your parents are your landlords, at least plumbing problems get fixed quickly before leaks spread across entire ceilings, threatening the structural integrity of the house. Landlord-parents also don’t try to swindle you out of six weeks’ rental deposit.
We’ve seen each other twice since: Once during that aforementioned visit to the U.S., and once when he came to see me in Singapore. When he came to Singapore he was still unemployed and I declared grandly, “I’m going to buy us a holiday in Penang.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. Flush from my year-end bonus, I assured him that I was. That was another role reversal: I was for once, albeit in an extremely limited way, playing the provider. It was nice to be able to assure your partner that it’s ok, you’ve got it, and you can pay for most everything.
We’re seeing each other again in May. I used the last of my savings that were in excess of my saving goals (essentially, I’m saving for more grad school) for plane tickets to the U.S. J. has said that he’ll pay for everything when I’m there; he’s now earning about thrice what I do and saving more than 85% of his salary (it really just makes more sense to live at home if there is an opportunity to do so). I’m glad about that, but more importantly, I’m comforted with the knowledge that financially and otherwise, we’ve got each other’s backs.
This story is part of our relationships month series.
Li Sian lives in Singapore, which is officially the world’s most expensive city. Her occupation is “professional feminist.” There is no social media account she doesn’t feel embarrassed linking to.