Welcome to Money Talks, a new series in which we interview people about their relationships with money, their relationships with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.
Vanessa and Peter are a married couple in their 30s who live in New York City. Vanessa is the director of strategy and copy at an ad agency, and her combined income from work and real estate investments is in the low six figures.
That’s more than three times what Peter earns. While both Vanessa and Peter are creative artists — Vanessa is a writer, storyteller, and podcast host, and Peter is a fifth-generation artist, independent curator, and the gallery director at Lesley Heller Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — it’s Vanessa’s income that covers the majority of their living expenses.
What’s it like to be in a relationship where the traditional gender roles are reversed, even if you never expected to adhere to those roles in the first place? And how does that affect everything from paying rent to conversations about future children?
The following conversation is lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Vanessa: One of the first things I learned about Peter was that he was an artist. He lived in Bushwick, and I lived in Greenpoint — which was a nicer neighborhood — so I kind of assumed he didn’t make as much money as the guys I’d been used to dating. I figured he probably doesn’t make as much money as I do.
But there was no explicit conversation about money. It showed itself in our interaction and the kinds of dates we went on. Peter would suggest dates that were like, “Let’s go get some ice cream and hang out at the park,” and I would be like, “Let’s go to this fancy restaurant! Let’s go get drinks at the Carlyle,” which is ridiculously expensive.
Those were the first signs that there was a significant gap between us.
Peter: For our first date, we just got drinks, and obviously, I paid. [After that] it sort of naturally happened that whoever suggested the date was the one who paid.
Vanessa: I was hyper-aware that Peter probably didn’t have that much money, so I wasn’t looking for a guy to take me out to fancy dinners. I just wanted him to be like, “Let me take care of this ice cream. Let me make this experience happen, I’ll take care of it.”
Peter: We had talked about moving in together, but not for a little while longer, and then a series of events kind of threw it in our face right away. There was this opportunity for Vanessa to move into my apartment and we would both pay almost nothing in rent, so we decided to move in together. That was when the real money conversations started.
Vanessa: We were, between the both of us, paying $1,000 in rent for a two-bedroom in Bushwick. We talked about, should I pay more since I’m bringing in more money, [but] we split it half-and-half. I tried to make it easier on him, so I would get groceries more often, I’d pay the Blue Apron bill, and let him have his disposable income.
It was still awkward, at least for me, because I’d come home to these boxes of shoes that I’d gotten online, and dresses that had been delivered, these things that could be considered luxuries.
Peter: I owed about $4,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
Vanessa: I don’t think that Peter was spending very extravagantly at that time.
Peter: No, but nor was money a focus for me at that time. There have been different points in my life when it has been, but at that point I was more focused on what experience I was getting out of a job rather than how much it was paying. Obviously I needed enough to survive, but I’ve always been pretty crafty in that way. It changes when you bring another person into the equation, though, because you’re no longer just thinking about yourself.
We were both still kind of hesitant to reveal how large the income disparity was between us. I didn’t want it to be part of the conversation at that point, because I was more interested in getting to know Vanessa as a person and getting to know our relationship.
Then we found out that our landlord had sold the building, and that the new landlord was planning to evict everyone and double the rent. We had to find a new apartment very, very quickly, and in New York finding an apartment is probably one of the most stressful things you can do.
Vanessa: We also had to pay a regular rent price, because we had definitely been paying under market. So all of a sudden, we were looking at apartments with rent of at least $2,000, if not higher. Peter set his max pretty early on, like, “I can’t pay more than $900 or $1,000,” and I was all, “Okay, that means we’re either living in a dump or I have to be the one to contribute more.” So that’s what prompted us to reveal our incomes to each other and decided that a proportional split was more appropriate.
We were having dinner one night, and we were talking about our respective days, and Peter had expressed some frustration with the art community, saying, you know, “All these kids have $100,000 MFAs, and for what? They’re going to be making $35,000 when they graduate, if that.” He said, “Look at me! How am I expected to live off $40,000?” and I said, “Wait, did you just tell me how much you make?”
He said, “It’s in that ballpark,” and I said, “Damn, that’s a lot lower than I imagined it. Fuck.” I didn’t reciprocate. I didn’t tell him how much I made, because I wanted to sit on that for a little bit and decide how I felt about it.
We had been talking about the future, like what if we get married or what if we had kids, and a couple days after that I sat him down and said something like, “You know, I want you to know that what you’re doing in your career right now is great. You’re building professional equity as opposed to money. But there’s going to be a day where you’re going to be worth more, and I want you to understand that. Because if we have kids one day, I don’t want them to have to live off $40,000 if I die.”
He laughed and just kind of rolled his eyes, but in my mind, I was — you know, as a woman you just kind of project all of your emotions forward, and I was like, fuck, that’s a lot of responsibility on me if we ever have a family, and I’ll need to make sure he’s taken care of if something happens to me.
Peter: Obviously I benefit directly from Vanessa making a lot of money. I was hesitant in the early parts of our relationship to make that a thing, because I didn’t want to change the way we were getting to know each other. Our relationship is very much about equality and respect, and mutual love for each other, and I didn’t want this dependency. It was her choice to go into a field that makes a lot of money, and it was her choice to decide what to do with that money. So when it came down to splitting the costs of things, a lot of the time it was Vanessa saying, “Let me pay more.” I wasn’t about to say, “You make more money, so you have to pay more.”
Vanessa: Once we got engaged, there was a moment when I was like, “Okay, we’re going to be married in a year, so how’s that going to work? Are we going to continue having this proportional income split, for things like rent and bills and groceries, or is his money my money and my money his money?” I had had a conversation with a friend of mine who’s a guy and he — I used to work in finance, so I met him while I was part of that world, and he loves talking about money and investing and all of these things — so he’d been married for about 10 years, and I asked about his financial arrangement with his wife, how they split their money and so on.
He said, “You know, the less you can talk about money with your partner, the better.” It becomes such a drag on the relationship if money’s always being discussed. I liked the idea of taking money out of the equation and helping preserve the romance in the relationship, so maybe the easiest way was what he suggested, which was to pool all your money together so everything comes out of one pot. When you’re going to dinner, you’re not splitting it 80/20 or whatever. Then each person gets an allowance, and they can do whatever they want with that money, and the other person can’t get mad if they spend their entire allowance on a $500 pair of shoes. This method allows for some autonomy, but you’re also in this together.
Peter: [Now that we’re married] we both have the same viewpoint on what we want to spend money on, and most of the time it’s not stuff, it’s experiences.
Vanessa: I haven’t made the comparison of how much disposable income or purchasing power I have now to buy things like shoes and bags vs. what I did when I was single. I want to say that it’s actually increased, at least that’s how it feels, because there’s just a financial benefit to being married. You’re spending as much money, or maybe more, if you’re cooking for one person than if you’re cooking for two. That’s where the savings really is. His additional $40,000 contributes to our pooled income, but we only need to buy one bedspread. That’s where it feels like both of our purchasing power has increased by combining our incomes.
I grew up in a Hispanic household, where I saw my cousins and most of the women in my family either marry men who supported them or, in the case of my mom, she was a working mother and she did contribute equally to my dad, [but] I guess I got mixed messages. One was “go to school, be your own independent woman,” and the other one was “look at that guy over there who makes a lot of money, oh my god you wouldn’t have to work.” So my goal for so long as a woman was to make my own money and be my own person and have a career so I would never get stuck in a relationship like that, where I’d have to depend on somebody.
I had always assumed that it would be equal, that it would be me having my own money and the guy having his own money. What I never considered was the reverse, which is whether I’d be willing to take on the role of the provider.
Peter does contribute, of course, but there is that inequality there, and if we have kids, I’ve told him many times, you might be the one having to stay home while I work because it just makes financial sense. So I have to grapple with that, because I sort of had this idea that I wanted it all, right? I wanted to make my own money and be independent but also keep the potential of being a mother and staying home. But some things turn out to be unrealistic, depending on the choices you make. It was almost coming to grips not about the financial equality, but that the gender roles were reversed.
Peter: To me, it makes total, logical sense that if we were to start a family, that I would be the one to pull out of my career and stay at home and look after them. That sounds pretty amazing to me.
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