Thirty, Dating, and Broke

Whenever they come up in my Facebook feed, I always click on those articles that offer tips on how to go on a date without breaking the bank. You know  —things like “10 Dates for Under $10!” and “The Perfect Date … on a Budget!” Somehow those articles always seem to end in exclamation points. But they never seem to apply to my situation.

In general, I’m pretty happy with my life. I own my own business and my own (hobbit) house in a city I love. I’m doing exactly what I want to do professionally, and I’m my own boss. But there’s a drawback. Namely: I’m broke. I know it comes as a shock, but owning an independent bookstore is not exactly a path to riches. Most of the time I’m cool with that—and, fortunately, my store is slowly but surely becoming profitable. I’ll never compete with the Online-Retailer-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but my financial situation is gradually improving.

In the meantime, how do you tell someone that you’ve just started dating that your financial situation is…underwhelming?

In your twenties, it’s pretty much expected that you have no money. Neither party is usually up for expensive dinners or weekend getaways. But I’m in my midthirties now, so it’s a little different. Many people my age are pretty solidly established in their careers. They’ve progressed past the ramen noodle and boxed wine stage. (I don’t go for ramen noodles much anymore either, but you can pry my boxed wine from my cold, dead hands.)

I’m also finally secure enough in my business that I can take the time and energy to start dating more, which means I’ve had to decide what to tell potential matches about my situation. On one hand, it’s really none of their business. But on the other hand, I need to be up front about activities that are out of my price range.

I’m pretty sure Joe Fox is not going to duck into the shop around the corner and sweep me off my feet, so I’ve had to resort to Tinder. It actually hasn’t been a bad experience, and I’ve been on quite a few first and second dates over the last year or so. But my financially iffy status leads to two problems.

First, dating is expensive! I never assume that my date is going to pick up the tab, and prefer to split the bill unless the guy insists on paying. So, in order to keep my budget happy and avoid those angry red lines on Mint, I have to be pretty careful about what to do on these early dates. (I’m inherently an introvert, so I pretty much max out on one date a week, which helps.) Right now I’m managing this problem by keeping a lineup of good, date-friendly yet reasonably-priced bars and coffee shops in my area. That way I can suggest a place I know, which has the added benefit of a little extra security when meeting someone for the first time.

The second problem is a little stickier. How do you tell someone you’ve just met that you’re not exactly able to jet off to Paris with them? What I’ve come up with so far is pretty straightforward. On a first date, I’ve (hopefully) controlled the situation by picking a place in my price range. If there is no second date, there is no problem. (I’ve met my share of stinkers both online and in person, so this is a common scenario.) But assuming neither of us run screaming and there’s more than one date, I’m going to need to start the money conversation.

I’m not exactly known for my subtlety, so my general method is to make a joke. “Yep, I own my own business. It’s great — living the dream! Someday I’ll even get a real paycheck.” Once I’ve kind of tossed it out there that I’m pretty financially strapped, I usually feel better. I don’t feel as awkward planning future dates; it’s easier to say “That’s a little out of my price range — remember, I’m a girl on a budget!” In my experience, it’s about 50-50 whether the guy will offer to cover the cost of [insert pricey activity here] himself, or just say it’s cool and suggest something else.

It’s hard to be yourself on a date if you spend all your time wondering how you’re going to pay for it. I feel like once you’re in a relationship and are honest with each other about money and what you can afford, some of this awkwardness goes away, even if the pay disparity doesn’t. I don’t know many established couples who discuss who’s paying for what every time they go out. It’s these early, getting-to-know-you dates that I find most awkward from a financial perspective. So far, I think it’s been more of an issue in my head than it’s been in reality, so that’s something I should work on. I need to learn how to keep my budget in mind without stressing over the details. And until Mr. Right (or Mr. Fox) comes along, I guess I’ll just need to come up with some more bad jokes.

Erin Matthews owns an independent bookstore in Howard County, Maryland. Following your dreams isn’t always that lucrative, so to pay the bills, she is a freelance writer, editor, and social media coordinator. She doesn’t tweet, but you can follow the bookstore on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @bookswithapast.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Money and Relationships series.

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