When Going Broke Made My Marriage Stronger
Like millions of marginally financially secure young people, my husband and I decided to move to New York City for the endless opportunity, good food, and tony reputation. I was 24, and he was 25, and we had $6,000 in the bank.
We knew, ostensibly, that New York would be expensive. Everyone knows that. But what we didn’t know were the precise ways in which these expenses would manifest themselves. We found an apartment, but we didn’t know, for example, that there could be something called a broker fee, leaving us essentially penniless by the time we moved in. Luckily, my husband is a web developer, so his income was good. It was enough to get us through until I found a job. But then his income suddenly vanished and we were stuck in Brooklyn in the middle of winter with no money.
By this point, we’d been married for nearly two years. People like to say that finances can have the biggest strain on a relationship. Bringing together two different sets of values into shared money usually equals trouble. But for us, before we moved to NYC, we didn’t really have a value system for our money. We knew we needed it, and we knew we liked living a certain kind of lifestyle. But we never spent much time discussing money until, suddenly, we didn’t have any.
It’s crazy to think that before his work dried up (an ever-present threat to freelancers) we didn’t really have a budget. I’d been unlucky in the job market. I spent all day every day applying to jobs and writing and rewriting cover letters. I went to dozens of interviews. Nothing. Looking back, I was probably trying too hard to fit into the world of book publishing, a field I had no experience in. Alas, hindsight is 20/20 and my husband and I spent the next 45 days shopping in a bodega around the corner with a calculator in hand, just to make sure that we didn’t overdraft our bank account.
I remember this time, now about six years ago, as a series of images: eating beans, rice, and for some reason, a lot of butternut squash (probably because it was cheap), and feeling heavy with fear. Watching all the seasons of Lost in a darkened bedroom because we couldn’t afford to go outside. (I’m convinced that every minute you spend outside in New York City costs you around $2.) Walking through the sludge of Brooklyn sidewalks in late winter wishing I could buy a new pair of socks for a buffer against the unexpected, soul-crushing cold.
But we never fought. As people, we don’t really have it in us. Instead, we would pore over spreadsheets, designing ways to spend money that we didn’t have: $1,600 for rent and $300 for groceries. No health insurance. No eating out. No frills. We promised ourselves that once we did have money again, we would save and save and save.
We strategized. We compartmentalized. We both, eventually, found work. We eventually had a steady income. But I wouldn’t say that we came out unscathed. I still have traumatic flashbacks any time I see a butternut squash, but we somehow came out of it feeling closer to one another. While we’ve had other challenges as a couple, the first time we were broke in one of the most expensive cities in the world was probably our most intense. What we learned about ourselves is that, when it comes to money, we are both planners. Even though there was no money coming in, it somehow brought us comfort to organize the money that we hoped we would someday have again. And when that day came, we were ready for it.