In our series Not A Trophy Wife, we ask women how they feel when they earn less than their significant other. We've chatted with a marketing analyst dating an investment banker, a woman who moved to Rio for her husband, and a server marrying a man who makes twice her annual income.
In our sixth installment, we talk to Shirley, a 28-year-old nonprofit worker making $45,000 and flipping houses with her pharmacist husband.
Tell me about yourself.
"We live in Los Angeles. I’m 28, and I work for a nonprofit. I’ve been there about three years, and I make $45,000 right now. My husband is a pharmacist, and he is 29. He took home about $170,000 last year, but a lot of that was overtime so it was unexpected. We’ve known each other three years, and we’ve been married one year. Our first baby is due this month. "
What were your situations like when you first met each other?
"They were pretty much what they are now. I was making about $40,000 to $45,000, and he was making $140,000. But he had only been making $140,000 for six weeks. "
What do you mean?
"When I met him, he had just finished school. He was just getting his first paycheck as a pharmacist, so he was going from living the student life to living the six-figure life in six weeks. He had also just moved back to L.A. so he was living with his parents. It was really funny because he was like, Oh my gosh, I’m not paying rent because I’m still living at home, I’m eating half my meals at home, I’m saving $5,000 every month! He didn’t really know what to do with the money, so he just put it all into savings and then used it for a down payment. He told me, I’m so glad I’m working now because my first goal is to buy my parents a house.
"Financial transparency has always been really, really big in our relationship. After we met, I saw he posted on Facebook about getting pre-approved for a loan. When I congratulated him, he told me he had over a quarter-million dollars of student debt, so even with his really high income, it was hard for him to get a loan. Luckily, my mom does loans, and I told him my mom could help with that. So before we even started dating, my mom and I had already seen all of his bank statements and pay stubs."
What did you think of his decision to buy a house for his parents?
"We’re both Chinese-American and taking care of your parents is a very traditional, cultural notion that isn’t always accepted. I know people who have broken up because one party paid for their parents’ rent and the other party didn’t agree with that. So when he said that he wanted to buy his parents a house, that showed me that he was family-oriented and responsible. You know, his parents have had a really hard life. His mom worked in sweatshops her whole life in America, with no benefits and no holidays. So he really respects his parents for their sacrifice. Sharing that with me, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is really different.’"
What about your financial background?
"My dad is a doctor but he didn’t become a doctor until the year before I started college. So we were very middle class; my dad was making $40,000, maybe $50,000 a year. We had enough but we weren’t baller. He started making his six figure salary right when I went to college, and all the excess went to my tuition. So I’ve never lived with financial pressure, but I’ve also never been a big spender.”
What happened when you started working?
"I was living on my own when I met my husband. My parents gave me the down payment for a condo. After I started working, I spent all my money on travel or eating out, and I was living paycheck to paycheck with a small emergency fund, not really saving for the future and just enjoying being a young person in Los Angeles. That is until I met my husband."
"This whole thing started when I thought, If I spend less on food maybe I can go on more weekend trips. I was spending over $1,000 on food just for me. So really early on, we put both our credit cards on a shared Mint account so we could both track our money — at that point, three or four months in, he was spending five nights a week with me. We set up a food budget for two people for $1,400 a month, and once we hit it, we lowered it to $1,100. Once I started budgeting, I realized, wow maybe if I don’t buy this purse, or this new car and lease something instead, we’ll have a bigger down payment for a house. It was really shallow thinking that led us to realize what we could do if we were responsible. During one of our early conversations, he said something like, 'I think it’s so romantic that you want to sit down and budget with me.'"
It’s so funny that finances became a part of your dating life so early on.
"Money and family are such a source of tension. When I met him, I was getting over a long-distance boyfriend, and I was totally pissed and jaded. I was like, I’m 26. I don’t want to waste any more of my youth with people who suck. I told him, I’m going to give you six to nine months and after that, we will either break up or get engaged. I don’t know why he went along with it — I think I was a little crazy. But from the beginning I was clear: I want to know everything about you. I want to meet your family. Why wait until you absolutely love someone before you go down that path of discovery?"
How have your spending habits together changed over time?
"In the beginning, we were splitting pretty evenly, and we weren’t doing too many crazy expensive things. If we went on a road trip, he would pay for it, but we wouldn’t eat out at fancy places very much. So I wasn’t living a lifestyle I couldn’t afford myself. Of course, he would take me out to eat for my birthday or something, whereas if I was giving him a present it wouldn’t be something monetary."
So now you’re married...
"Now that we’re married, we have our mortgage, his parents mortgage, and his student loans, but I signed up for it. That first house he bought for his parents? We sold that, doubled our down payment, and bought a bigger place for his parents, with an extra two bedrooms we can rent out. So that lowered our expense by $1,000 — and I’ve already lined up tenants for the next six months. You definitely get a higher return [with renting], but it’s more work. Both of us see me as financially just as important to our household, even though I’m not bringing in the paycheck. He’s the one who brings in the steady paycheck, that allows me to make our money work for us. Our financial goal is to buy or upgrade a house every two years, which is really ambitious, but so far we’re on track.”
Now you’re expecting a baby! That’s a new expense. How has that been going?
"I’ve started stockpiling baby things, like when things go on sale. I’ve been stockpiling since I was about four or five months pregnant. But we’ve had disagreements. I want everything to be organic cotton, the best of the best, and he’s just like, Why does it have to be organic cotton? But if I can get it on sale at a comparable price point, it’s okay. And honestly, my husband probably hates researching and making decisions more than actually spending money that he doesn’t want to spend. Our disagreements are like, 'You’re not helping me decide which Best Carseat of 2016 we should get,' and he’s like, 'I really don’t care. Just buy one! Why is this so complicated?' But I just want our baby to be safe."
Can you talk a little bit more about situations where you disagreed?
"This stupid baby monitor called 'Owlet.' It's a sock that the infant wears which monitors blood oxygen level. If the baby stops breathing in his sleep, it sends an alarm through a wireless connected base station. Positive reviews from many parents online, with scenarios where the baby choked on his own vomit and the parents were alerted in time. It costs $250. My husband argued that we probably wouldn't need it. My argument was, 'BUT THE ONE TIME WE NEED IT WE WILL REGRET IT!'
"We ended up making a list of 'Baby Wants' and 'Baby Needs.' We are not getting a changing table. We are not getting a baby bath tub. Instead of swaddles and blankets and burp clothes and wash clothes, we just bought a bunch of large muslin cloths (organic cotton) that are multi-functional. The baby monitor was a high priority item to me, and I made room for it by considering things that I don't really need."
What about schooling? Have you two discussed that?
"I live in Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, and we don’t have very good middle and high school options at all. But I got a perfect score on my SATs and I’m very confident that I’m going to 'tiger mom' my kid into shape. At the same time, however, I want my kid to have a really competitive school and encouraging environment. I think a lot of the high schools in LA are competitive, but too competitive. So we wrestle with how we want our kids to go to school. We want to give them a challenging environment but not a cutthroat environment, and we don’t see that in a lot of public schools in Los Angeles. So I want my kids to go to a public magnet, but that’s not just about ability, that’s also a lot of luck. So the backup is a private school. We’re like, 'How many houses do we need to buy before the passive income will feed our private school tuition?'"
And what about college? Are you setting up a fund for that?
"Yeah, but honestly I do expect my kids to get scholarships."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. A previous version of this article didn't clarify the interviewee's food budget on a per month basis.