Growing Up Means More Money But Less Fun

by Adrienne So

Our first stab at Grown-Up conversation took place in the summer of 2008, after my boyfriend graduated with his Ph.D from Berkeley. We picked out his first real suit — a terrible, baggy, navy blue thing — and I sent him off to his first job interview, which is a funny thing to do and say about someone who has had facial hair for over a decade.

The unofficial offer came back with flattering speed. Before the call with the official offer came, we spent a few minutes trying to decide what salary he should take — oddly enough, without consulting Google. Because that is the kind of naïve idiots we were. “$80,000?” I asked.

“I’ll ask for $90,000, but settle for $85,” he decided. This was the absolute biggest number we could think of. The kind of people who did the kind of things we did for a living — research and write — toiled in cluttered labs and crowded apartments all over Berkeley and San Francisco for a pittance, waiting to hit it big with a VC or the Nobel Prize. Only old people earned this kind of money! Or, like, Mark Zuckerberg.

So it’s understandable that when the initial offer came back, it blew our tiny little minds. This was the kind of number that applied to the population of Caribbean islands, or the square footage of Angelina Jolie’s French chateau. Not a number that would be on a real check, deposited in a real bank account, that either of us could access at any time.

Within two months, we gleefully packed our U-Haul and trekked to Portland, Oregon, a serene, soggy little city where we set about acquiring all those trappings of maturity — two dogs, a little red house, and a marriage certificate, in that order.

Before I got married, I had this belief (garnered mainly from old country songs and the opening montage of the movie Up) that being married isn’t really that expensive.

After all, you’re operating as a single efficient machine. No paying separate rent (and our mortgage is only $600 a month, anyway). Neither of us watches TV, so we don’t have cable, or even a Hulu Plus account. It’s easier and more efficient to shop and cook for two people when one of them (me) lives mainly off Food for Rabbits (just cook Food for Rabbits and bake a chicken on the side).

Another thing that’s saved us some money is that we’ve found every time one of us wants to buy something from a joint account, there’s someone holding you accountable. The knowledge that someone else would see the line item “galaxy print silk-screened screaming gorilla face T-shirt dress” on our PayPal account was enough to hold me in check. At least, until he came back in from the garage and enthusiastically seconded it.

Making the kind of money we make now, in a two-income household, I would expect that a certain amount of lifestyle creep would become inevitable. Not the Kardashian, Louboutin, half-drunk bottle of warm Cristal kind of creep, but maybe I’d start buying a better brand of facial moisturizer. Or even clothes that weren’t from Goodwill! Instead, I found that while we ourselves didn’t change when we get married, the world and its expectations did.
For example:

1. You’re a different person to the government. My husband deferred his student loans while he was in grad school. When he graduated, they came back with a vengeance, of the extreme, tuchus-chomping variety.

2. No one expects a single 23-year-old, making survival wages in an expensive city, to buy Christmas presents for all thirty of her cousins between the ages of zero and twenty. But a married matron of 27, with a husband who makes a decent salary? Hella payback for all those years and all those $10 Barnes & Noble gift cards. My mom presented me with my Christmas shopping list, practically the day after the wedding. Which was in August. That was thoughtful of her, because it gave me time to make cookies to send to all my grand-uncles and grand-aunts, as well.

3. We looked at real estate listings for over a year, until we settled on a miniscule (1,000 square feet) fixer-upper in a not-so-fashionable part of Portland. It seemed like the jackpot. But in a revelation that is so tired that it is a cliché, I had no idea that even small repairs — putting up a fence; replacing peeling shingles — add up. The inspector didn’t tell us the roof needed to be replaced. Are those carpenter ants, or termites?

4. Travel was the kicker. No one expects a grad student and a freelance writer to travel to exotic locations. But a married couple with a large income? The +1s to destination weddings started rolling in. Where before we organized and paid for our travel separately, now we have to buy two plane tickets instead of one wherever we go.

We’re lucky to both have large, loving families and a network of close, long-time friends, as well as the means to see them. But beyond our social obligations, we are subject to other pressures. Last week, a friend tried repeatedly to persuade us to buy last-minute flights to Colorado to go to a weeklong music festival with him. He seemed puzzled when I said we didn’t have the cash, and might even have to work. How could we not have the cash? Look, I’m pretty sure that even Beyoncé uses occasionally.

Being married is awesome and we should really let gay people just do it already. My new puppy still makes little nursing sounds when she sleeps, which is the cutest. And I have someone to help me do my taxes, instead of bringing out a shoebox of receipts every March and weeping. There are a lot of great things about growing up.

But the truth is that we live just as frugally as we did when we were making a quarter of what we are now. All that money — that once seemingly limitless number — goes towards home renovations paying off loans, putting away towards retirement heartworm medicine for the dogs, and new contact lenses. I still bike to the grocery store, through a neighborhood that has the occasional drive-by shooting. As I approach 30, I puzzle constantly over how anyone our age could conceivably (pun intended) afford a kid.

There is a certain cachet to being young and dirt poor — maybe a certain kind of young and poor, in a specific place. In San Francisco, I skateboarded to work and defied death by riding on my boyfriend’s bike handlebars on our way to meet people in scuzzy bars in the Mission. We drank beer in cans while playing Halo until 2 a.m. and woke up at 5 a.m. to surf before going to work at nine. It was crazy and it was heaven, mainly because at the time it seemed so fleeting.

Someday we’d be grown up, and this would be gone, and we lived our nostalgia as it was happening. Relative poverty was…awesome. Living off beans and rice for a week ruled. It didn’t matter that so much of life was fraught with anxiety and we ran around the tollbooths to cross the Bay Bridge hunting for dropped quarters so we could pay the fare. The day would come where we wouldn’t have to worry about stupid shit like this, and it was coming way too soon.

And then it happened, and nothing changed but the important part: It stopped being so much fun. That’s the illusion that making a lot of money gives you. It’s a spell — if it buys you nothing else, money will buy you peace of mind. But it is as that revered North American poet Biggie Smalls said: “Mo money, mo problems.” Or maybe the same amount of problems, only they look different once you realize they’re never going away.

Adrienne So lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about beer and gear for money. When not watching YouTube videos of dancing baby pygmy goats, she can usually be found mountain biking or combating slug armies in her garden.