Ask Alex Friday: We’re both poor… Can we make it work?

Last week I addressed a question concerning the unclear fate of an unlikely pairing, and said query inspired in another reader an entirely different question. This blogging business could not get any more meta even if I tried to make it so.

Here goes:

I read your Ask Alex last week and it triggered a follow up question based on the writer’s mention of their incomes, as I can relate. I am a musician and maintain several jobs in order to make ends meet. In the past I have dated guys that also don’t make much money and its unclear if they ever would. This has made me nervous for our prospective futures. Do you think that you have to have similar incomes to have a successful relationship? I don’t mean to sound like money is everything, but as someone who actively dating, should I should be looking for someone with a higher income potential to avoid future financial hardship?

In answering this, I would start by offering advice similar to the that which I put forward last week. Looking at any conundrum is made easier after making clear to yourself your priorities and goals. In doing so, what trends do you see? Are you someone who favors fun and frivolity over comfort and stability? Do you prefer humor over seriousness? How important is order and security? If you are someone who is made satisfied by material comforts more than you are those of the heart and soul, your answer is likely evident. I acknowledge, though, that this exercise isn’t always this cut and dry. You are someone who prefers good humor over seriousness now, sure, but will you be that way in ten years? Will the material hardships that accompany too much of the former become overwhelming? You fancy yourself someone who prefers comforts of the heart and soul, yes, but living in a society that seems to reward material wealth more than it does moral aptitude. This makes you think that making a list of priorities and goals is all well and good, but perhaps your priorities are wrong and everyone else has been right all along.

What do you do?

One of the roots of this question, I imagine, comes from the observation (or experience) that living on limited means can be frustrating and demoralizing by way of the instabilities created by these circumstances. Without a doubt, however, some of the happiest couples I know are getting by without a good deal of means to live on. I know one pair, for instance, who cater during the summers, trim weed out in California here and there, and then spend the rest of the time and money on exotic islands reading books, taking it easy, and enjoying the company of each other. Their attitudes toward life and their priorities make this decision easy for them. It might be unstated in their day-to-day, but they clearly have a mission driven lives where their values are X, Y, Z, and the sum of them make it possible for the two to make due with whatever good or bad that comes into their lives.

To make things complicated, though, I grew up in a working poor household, and our financial circumstances undoubtedly led to frustrations for my parents. Growing up poor put a real chip on my shoulder too, and shaped much of my identity. This led to issues between significant others who came from different financial backgrounds and me, and it made me anxious about my own worth. As I grew into my twenties and realized that I wanted to be both a writer and an activist, I started to think that in order for me to make it, my ideal pairing would be with someone who had realized—or would eventually realize—some degree of financial stability as a means of offsetting the my own inevitable instability. In retrospect, it is hard to tell if my perception of said inevitable instability had more to do with my actual earning potential, my poor upbringing, or the otherwise unfair emphasis society seems to place on the value of one set of contributions of labor over another, but the nonetheless, that anxiety was very real.

In the end, I married a professional who has substantially more earning power than I do, though what ended up bringing us together in a serious way was our otherwise irreverent (though principled) outlooks on life. The benefits of said financial stability are clear, as I am afforded the ability to pursue otherwise low-earning ventures with little fear of resultant instability, and her health insurance coverage is extended to me. These two bonuses are undeniable. What I have realized, though, is that what I imagined I would need in my partner by way of financial stability, I actually needed in the form of other sorts of strengths that happened to be what made possible my wife’s success. What I needed in a partner was someone who was confident, driven, principled, relatively well organized, and passionate. Those tendencies applied to her particular profession ultimately led to higher financial returns; they have made some elements of our lives easier. It is the appreciation for traits that led her to those returns, not the returns themselves, that make our partnership a fulfilling one.

It is equally important to remind that if we should have learned anything from the financial crisis, it is that most wealth accumulation is likely impermanent. Due to any number of circumstances, money can just go away, and so if entering a relationship with someone of means, make sure it is clear that if all of that cash goes away, said significant other will still have the character, integrity, and backbone to make it as a good partner. Resources are always nice, but what makes getting through the tough times easier is realizing that you both are coming from similar places of solidity, and that you have a bond that will be able to get through tough times.

While I mentioned some of the perils of growing up poor, I should also underscore that my upbringing led to a number of positive things, including an appreciation for thrift, a cultivation of resourcefulness, and the ability to weather almost any storm logistical, emotional, or otherwise. In this way, I am thankful for the way I grew up, especially when I meet some folks who, as the result of growing up with means, are overly precious and fragile. In doing some research for this response, I came across a wonderful story on this blog. The blogger married poor much to her father’s disappointment. She explains that the experience led her to understand her father’s perspective, as the stresses and worries of that life were very challenging for her new family. In retrospect, though, she sees and highlights the upsides of this experience:

Today, we look back and see at the remarkable values gained by going through those lean years. My children are not materialistic. They never thought they were poor growing up because we always managed to give a little bit of food, money or clothes to the “poor.” They are not brand conscious nor are they greedy. They were content with the simple things in life that come free: A beach day, a horsey back ride from daddy, a story and a back scratching from mommy, pillow-and-blanket tents in the living room.

We had our worries, but we still treasured our very favorite part of the day when we’d snuggle under the covers and talk about our future, the kids and how much we loved each other… no matter what. Sure our financial troubles caused a lot of fights, but we held onto each other and were thankful that our kisses were free.

She goes on to indicate that it was her and her husband’s character and commitment to each other that made their partnership successful, not their means.

Finally—this is tangential to your question but remains important—regardless of your respective financial standings when you enter your relationship, be sure you are clear with each other regarding your individual financial realities, priorities, and other matters relating to finances, especially as you build your life together. There are volumes of literature that address the importance of doing so. The blog Make Love, Not Debt is a great place to start.

So take stock of your priorities, be sure that—regardless of your means—your partner has the character to make it through the good times and the bad, and be honest with each other about your financial realities. Good luck!

Please submit your queries by emailing me at alexsteed [at] gmail [dot] com. In case you are cautiously interested, I will be keeping the identities of those in search of answers quiet in the column.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.