One of the most interesting and simultaneously frustrating things about your 20s (and shit, some of your 30s) is dating while you're broke. Whether you're in school, fallen on hard times, or just haven't gotten your big break, maneuvering around the dating scene is ten times more difficult when you're short on cash. Most people in my age bracket are sifting through tuition or student loans, rent, and/or credit card bills while either making considerably less than our parents did.
Having been at various stages of broke for most of my life, money and its problems have always been at the forefront of my reality, and it's affected how I view dating. We might not realize it, but beyond the struggle of funding date nights, money and serious relationships are much more closely linked than we think. It's not as simple as saying "no" to dating until you have your shit together, but those who earn less aren't exactly jumping into long-term relationships.
Casual dating while perpetually broke is, if nothing else, an exercise in creativity. Doing fun shit is usually expensive and the pressure of wanting to impress the other person is always looming whether we want it to or not. Skipping pricey steakhouses or fine dining in favor of more cost-friendly options is one thing, but asking your date for gas money is quite another, so it becomes about striking that perfect balance between being thrifty with money without actually appearing to be. Museums with free admission nights, low-cost but interesting eats, and Groupons can get you through the first few dates, but moving past that "get-to-know-you" stage is much trickier.
I think about my own broker-than-usual times, working overnight shifts for a few cents more than minimum wage. As a woman, I tend to be on the better end of the dating scenario: more likely to be taken out than taking on the costs of courting myself. I still hated the idea of not leaving the house with what my Jamaican mother calls "vex money"—cash on hand just in case the shit goes south. I tried my hand at being open to dating in general, and I was held up by not just the money but the emotional instability that can come along with being in a shitty spot in your life.
During my lowest times, I recall going on a slew of first dates but never going much beyond that. While they gave me a pretty good distraction from the shitshow that was my life, it started to dawn on me how repetitive it was. A combination of things contributed to it never getting anywhere, mainly insecurities about myself, shitty choices I made in past relationships, and a growing list of deal breakers. But I could never shake the feeling of not being settled, comfortable, or contented with my life as it was. And not making enough money was a huge part of that.
It's hard to have the type of openness you need for real companionship when you're constantly thinking about how you're going to make rent this month. Or the next. Bouncing between jobs that were as unfulfilling as they were low-paying also puts you in the type of permanent misery that can only be tolerated by other people for so long. A while back, I bumped into a former co-worker with whom I'd worked in a particularly hellish job for a few years. She left the company shortly after I did for a higher paying one in her actual field. "Ever since I quit that place, my boyfriend says I'm way nicer to him," she told me. "Like, being there makes you miserable to everybody."
For as much as having a partner can make all kinds of terrible situations better, I couldn't get past the idea that I should be doing something more "useful" with my time than entertaining the thought of a relationship. In school and up to my neck in long-term and revolving short-term debt (Satan created payday loans himself), I believed I was ill-equipped for the type of stability and candidness that I felt relationships required. How could I talk about building a foreseeable future with another person when so much of my own hinged on making just a little bit more an hour? How soon would I have to get into the specifics of what led me to my current situation?
Feeling financially stagnant makes it difficult to feel comfortable enough to take relationships to a more serious level—worrying about two people's emotional well-being when you're barely covering one is bad enough. And considering money problems are the most common reason people get divorced, it ends up being the root of way more relationship fights than we care to admit. In a previous relationship, the biggest rift came from lending out money for emergency dental work to my then-boyfriend. Clearly, if screaming matches can ensue over a few hundred dollars, it would only get worse when much bigger expenses like property, cars, and childcare costs came into play.
I also wasn't just taking my own financial position into account, I started to think about the positions of the people I dated. I find that idealists like to pretend as if the income of a potential partner has no bearing on whether or not you would date them, but that's not always realistic. There was no bigger disaster I could think of than two financially irresponsible people floundering around while buried under shitty credit scores and eviction notices at the exact same time, incapable of providing themselves with support, never mind one another. Inching closer to my mid-twenties, a.k.a. when-are-you-buying-a-house age (something most millennials will never get to do), combining my own shaky financial history with someone else's seemed unfair, especially if this person's was better than mine.
Getting older also made me realize something new: Uncertainty in my life triggered my anxiety. And badly. Dealing with anxiety is already its own beast when it comes to forging meaningful relationships with other people, but being in a constant state of worry combined with the very real outside pressures of calls from bill collectors and student loan offices make it hard to focus on anything but that.
This isn't to say it's impossible to build meaningful relationships despite these drawbacks; people do it all the time. Sometimes, hardships can be the defining moments that bring a couple closer together, but for others, it can feel like love is far outside the realm of what we deserve or can handle when we're broke. And there's no cheap date listicle or coupon for that.
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