Marrying Up But Not Giving Up

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

A month into my relationship with the man that would become my husband, the stock market was crashing. As a writer who rarely had two pennies to rub together, I can’t say that I really cared — I had debt, not investments. It wasn’t until Alex woke up in a bad mood one morning that I realized that he did care. “Do you want to know something depressing?” he said as he got dressed for work. “I just checked my portfolio. I’ve lost 20 percent of my net worth.”

I smiled forlornly and said what I’d heard on the news about things bouncing back. Then I shooed him out the door, got in the shower, and cried for 20 minutes. I had to break up with him. I couldn’t keep up with someone who had a portfolio. I didn’t use phrases like “net worth.” I used phrases like “bill collector,” “Sallie Mae,” and “late fee.” It could never work.

But Alex never saw it that way. We talked about my debt and his nest egg. The outcome of every conversation was that Alex didn’t think it mattered. He wasn’t scared to take on my student loans. He was only eager to share what he felt lucky to have. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the particulars, how the finances would shake down exactly, but I knew I loved him. And that eclipsed any figures on our bank statements. So I married him.

Once you’re married, it’s not easy to keep things separate. Boundaries between “yours” and “mine” begin to blur. Doesn’t it just make more sense to pay off the car now and save on the years of interest? Technically, yes. And doesn’t it make more sense to pay more than you owe on your student loans so you can chip away at the capital? Sure. But as Alex and I stayed up nights talking about these things, with Alex thinking strategically about what made sense and me thinking emotionally about what kind of person I wanted to be, it became more and more clear that marrying someone in a different tax bracket can be…complicated.

I was raised by a family of strong women that fought for what they had. My grandmother owned her own company when I was a kid. My mother worked 60 hour weeks as a single mom to put food on the table. I always took it for granted that I’d pay my own way. So what was I supposed to do? Save money by paying off my debts with what Alex referred to as “our” money? Or fight against practicality, dig in my heels, and insist I do it myself?

Ultimately, I chose common sense over pride. I chose saving thousands in interest on my car loan with Alex’s help instead of paying it myself. And to be perfectly honest, once I made the decision to see Alex’s money as “our” money, I was surprised how little my self-esteem was really affected. I felt fine. He had money. I didn’t. Now his money was our money. I worked hard and brought home a paycheck. He worked hard and brought home a similar paycheck. But we had a savings account because of him, debt because of me. Big deal.

That is, until I was driving home one day and heard Destiny’s Child on the radio. It was a song I used to listen to with my best friends in high school. “Independent Women Part 1.” The minute it started I was singing along as if I was 16 again. But my fervor started to dissipate as the song went on.

The shoes on my feet, I bought ’em. The clothes I’m wearing, I bought ’em. The rock I’m rocking, I bought it. Cause I depend on me

“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s fine. I make a decent living. I did buy the shoes on my feet, I suppose.”

The watch you’re wearing, I’ll buy it. The house I live in, I bought it

Again, I figured, I still fit in the club because I don’t own a watch or a house. So… not applicable. But then Beyonce and Company stabbed me in the chest.

The car I’m driving, I bought it. Cause I depend on me

There it was. I wasn’t an Independent Woman Part 1. And before I could even let it sink in, they started singing again.

All the women who independent, throw your hands up at me

For the first time, I couldn’t throw my hands up at them. I had to sit there, at the red light, with my hands by my sides. Driving the car my husband bought.

Even if I did feel like a part of me had let down Beyonce — and myself — life went on. I got a few hard-earned raises. Alex and I moved into an eccentric house to save money. It became less and less clear whose money was whose, whose money was paying for what. And also, to some degree, I just got over it. I mean, that’s the true ending to most stories. You just get over it.

And then this year after countless late nights and God knows how many trips to Coffee Bean, I finally sold my first novel. I signed a two book deal, and then other countries picked up the book, too. And suddenly, now I am the one with the money. I am the one talking about tax incentives and exchange rates. I’m the breadwinner. It might not last, I know that. I know I have to take each step as it comes. I have to see how well my novels do. I have to see what kind of career I can make for myself. But for right now, I’m the one with pennies to rub together.

When the deal was official, I told Alex he should buy that bike he’s always wanted. It wasn’t hugely expensive, but it’s also not money he would have ever spent otherwise. But I told him I wanted him to have it. I wanted to be able to give it to him. And as he came home from the bike store and paraded it around the living room with a huge smile on his face, I felt like a million dollars. And that’s when I got it. That’s why he was always so eager to share his money with me. It’s not about dollar amounts and comparisons. When you love someone, the money doesn’t matter. It’s the smile on their face. It’s about giving them whatever you have to give.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that when I watch Beyonce’s “Countdown” video and she says:

Yep, I buy my own. If he deserve it, buy his shit too

I can tell her, “You’re goddamn right I did.”

Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist. She’s never received a piece of fan mail, but don’t let that stop you from considering it.

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