It's The Most Awkward Conversation A Couple Will Ever Have

Courtesy of Jennifer Weiner.
The setup: Bill and I are both writers, and we both have books coming out this month. When we met, we were both at our very first post-college (in my case) and post-grad-school (in his) jobs, working at a small newspaper in central Pennsylvania, making basically so little money that if they’d paid us a few hundred dollars less, we would have qualified for food stamps.

We dated in the 1990s, then broke up, got back together, then broke up again, and spent 10 years apart. I married a wonderful man, had two amazing daughters, wrote a bunch of best-selling books and went through a very sad divorce. Bill wrote and edited for Sports Illustrated and pined for me constantly (in my telling of it, at least).

More than 15 years after we first met, I emailed him at his old AOL account, which, of course, he was still using. “Is this still you?” I wrote in the memo line. It was still him...and we had dinner…and found that we still liked each other as much as we always had…and that I still loved to buy stuff, and he was still thrifty/penurious/frugal/insert-your-favorite-synonym-for-cheap.

True story: When he came over to my house at the start of Round Three, I showed him a picture that I’d kept from Round Two. He was wearing the exact same shirt in 2009 that he was wearing in the circa-1999 picture. I think he actually still has the shirt today. (Bill: I still have the shirt. It continues to button and everything, so why not?)

For years, I’ve been trying to understand how a man who grew up comfortably middle class and makes a nice living can be so abstemious that he will keep shirts for 15 years, take the $15 bus instead of the infinitely more comfortable, if significantly more expensive, train, and re-use dental floss (no joke) rather than invest in a fresh roll.

I know Bill probably better than I know anyone else in my life, with the exception of my daughters, who are crap at keeping secrets. Still, I’m struggling to make sense of his inner financial life. Is this a man/woman thing? A result of different upbringings? Different temperaments? Different zodiac signs?

So, I decided to ask.
Courtesy of Minotaur Books.
Him: The story I tell myself is that I shop out of necessity, only to fill a need, such as: "My running shoes are worn out, so I will buy new ones." Whereas you will sometimes shop simply for amusement or pleasure. Fair or unfair?

Me: Yes, I will shop for reasons other than necessity — but you and I define necessity differently. We also have different needs.

You might think, I've got a few empty walls here, I sure wish I had some nice art, and if you saw a picture you liked, that you could afford, you’d admire it, and think about it, and go back and visit it, and think some more, and fret, and keep thinking, until someone else bought the picture or the gallery changed shows. Then you’d tell yourself that it didn’t matter, except you keep talking about the picture, which leads me to believe that, in some way, it did. Whereas I, and most people, I think, would just buy it.

But before diving deep into the question of why you deny yourself, let's get back to necessity, and the way it's gendered. What do we really need? The answer depends on whether you're a man or a woman. You and I have, essentially, the same job, and we can both do it dressed fairly casually when we're talking about the writing portion of our lives. But what about the public parts: the meetings with editors, the interviews, readings, and public appearances? You can get by with a few nice button-down shirts, a few pairs non-denim pants, and a single pair of non-sneaker shoes. I need clothes. I need dresses. I need dresses that are not the dresses I wore on my last book tour, because everyone already took pictures of those dresses and put the pictures on Facebook. I also need shoes that match the dresses. I need purses that match the shoes. The more you're doing, the more you need to do it (if you’re a woman). And I don't think I buy things that I don't need or enjoy, that don't somehow enhance my life. You’re okay with a few empty walls. I like to fill mine with beautiful art that I appreciate every time I see it…and I’ve never regretted buying a painting or a print.

What do you think?

Him: Rugs. You have rugs in thick plastic wrapping rolled up standing in corners of rooms because they have no place to lay down. And you have great taste in rugs. I imagine they'd be lovely if they were ever unrolled. But they weren't meant to live that way.

Me: I had a rug-deprived childhood. This is why I am a rug hoarder.

Also, the rugs will find homes, after Moochie, our adorable but not entirely housebroken rescue terrier, ruins the existing ones.

But, seriously — you and I had very different young adulthoods, money-wise. More accurately, we both had comfortably upper-middle-class childhoods, and then your dad retired, and my dad left. And declined to pay alimony, or child support, or for college. I went through a period of real insecurity that you never did.

Do you think that accounts for my need to surround myself with things that I find pretty or comforting or life-enhancing, and you're essentially making do with two spoons and a Built to Spill T-shirt?

I had a rug-deprived childhood.

Jennifer Weiner
Him: It could be. I think when it comes to spending, we are each in our way governed by emotions. Although my emotion is a sense of impending doom, which has no clear source.

Me: Let's talk about that!

Do you think that if you let yourself have nice things that the bottom would fall out of the flimsy paper bag that is life?

Where does the doom come from? And if we get rid of it, will you lavish me with gifts?

Him: I do occasionally break loose of my psychology to buy nice things — and more often for you than for myself. I bought you that small painting in your office, and it wasn't even for a special occasion. I just saw it and liked it. And I think/hope I do okay on gifts that enrich your life in some small way, like the pointlessly expensive foot cream that promised to help you sleep better and actually worked, sometimes.

I think this attitude surfaces more aggressively when I am buying for myself. I will never get the fish in black bean sauce for $12.99 if there's a noodles with ginger and scallion for $4.99, even though I really want the fish and black bean sauce and am blessed enough to be able to afford it.

Message: I’m the real victim here.
Courtesy of Atria Books.
Me: First thing: Pointlessly Expensive Foot Cream is now the name of my band.

Second: If the fish in black bean sauce is what you really want, and you can totally afford it, why not get the lunch you want?

Him: Because I can save $8 and still have something good. The noodles with ginger and scallion are always a decent meal. It's not like I'm force-feeding myself garbage in the name of fiscal responsibility.

And the other day at Victor’s, I did splurge on that tuna sashimi. Some of it’s a matter of being in a mode of enjoyment versus times when I’m just managing myself. Do you have those modes?

Me: But are you saving $8 thinking you will get something nice someday? And, does some day ever come?

There are definitely things I am reasonable about. Everyday clothes. Cars. Electronics. I don't need the fanciest/newest/biggest/best phone or stereo or TV or car. And as indulgent as you think I am, I bet if you could look in other women's closets, you'd be impressed with my thrift.

What I like, and where I don't skimp: travel, hotels, bed linens, things that go into making a nice house, food. It doesn’t always need to be the fanciest place, or the most expensive thing on the menu…but if I were having lunch in Chinatown, I'd always get the dish I wanted. And I refuse to be lunch-shamed!

Him: I am not saving for something nice. It's a bulwark against doom.

I am not saving for something nice. It's a bulwark against doom.

Bill Syken
Me: But there is no doom! There was never any doom. It was earth, all along. Soylent Green is people. Or, something like that.

Him: I wonder if this will change when my book blows up and then becomes a TV show.

Me: I can only hope we find out.

More from Work & Money

If the new phrase for the office BFF is the "work wife," then is a good boss or mentor your "work mom" or "work dad"? Part authority figure, part dispenser...
The morning at my insurance firm was hectic. My first appointment after lunch was a balding man in his mid-50s. I smiled at him warmly and attempted ...
9:30 p.m. — HANGRY. Get home and eat canned soup and watch Netflix before bed
Refinery29 joined the Clinton Foundation for a tour of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to get a firsthand look at the experiences of the women and girls who live ...
Any recent grads freaking out about their job prospects need not fear: Apparently the demand for exorcists has never been higher. The Telegraph reports ...
9:45 a.m. — Starbucks reward, bitches! OBV I get the most expensive thing that I can concoct. A Venti 5 shot soy latte. Yum
Four years ago, my life was exactly where I wanted it: I was working as a senior editor at a major glossy magazine. My first young adult novel had just ...
You know what's easy? Spending money. It's the best way to get what you want right now. Except...this is not sustainable. Those little luxuries add up ...
After months of waiting and countless discussions about what the future holds for our favorite television characters, Shondaland shows are finally back. ...
Just after my son’s first birthday, I was on the phone with my mom, grappling over a gut-wrenching decision. I was scheduled to go on a business trip but...
I get so nervous before job interviews — sweaty palms, dry mouth, butterflies in my stomach. It’s really not fun. But once I’m sitting down with the ...
Fifty percent off your purchase here. 1,000 free miles there. When it comes to credit cards, the benefits are easy to see — while the downsides are often ...
As the host of RIOT's Woke Bae, we already know comedian Phoebe Robinson is funny AF while getting serious about major issues like feminism and ...
12:45 p.m. — I have a dryer, rare in Shanghai, so my friend runs home to get his laundry and then does a load at my place