The $30 Pizza That Almost Destroyed My Relationship

Photo by Anna Alexia Basile.
Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you sashimi at Nobu. And when you first start seeing someone, the sushi is pretty important. For whatever reason, humans have decided that the very primal event of shoving food in our mouths to survive is an occasion for romantic connection. And since I don’t cook, (like really don’t cook — like all that’s in my fridge right now is half a case of Pamplemousse LaCroix), my love affairs, both long and short, have been built on the backs of Michelin-starred chefs. It’s a habit that I developed while I was making six figures, and one that was hard to kick when I lost my job and entered a whole new income bracket. I made the decision to reboot my career, and it also meant pressing the "restart" button on my salary. In a matter of months, I went from bougie to broke. When I was single, this was fine. But dating is fucking expensive. And when I started seeing someone who made significantly more money than me, I was forced to confront an awkward dilemma: How do you deal when your date is rolling in dough and all you’re rolling in is depressing bank statements? No one likes to talk about it, but money plays a huge role in romance. Who has it, who doesn’t, and who’s paying? It’s a hard subject to broach, especially when you first begin seeing someone. It’s not exactly sexy to say: “Hey baby, my rent is a week late, and I haven’t paid my internet bill in two months, so maybe we just order in Domino’s and save the leftovers for breakfast?” Which is why, when I suddenly found myself in possession of a shiny new boyfriend (who was equipped with a much bigger bank account than I was), I did everything I could to stay in the broke closet. This was a difficult charade to sustain, especially when it came to dining out. So I developed the habit of eating a slice of $5 pizza before going out for the evening, and then just ordering the cheapest glass of wine once I got to the restaurant. That secret trick allowed me to avoid the inevitable post-event dinner and its rent-ruining price tag. But the longer I kept my secret, the more my shame and anxiety grew. Which is why, one evening in July, my relationship nearly imploded over something as stupid as a $30 personal pizza.

I did everything I could to stay in the broke closet.

It all started with a rather lackluster comedy show I attended with my boyfriend, Ryan (lackluster comedy shows are as prevalent as chlamydia in L.A., yet far more painful to endure). The show was early, and I had no time for my usual secret pre-pizza. I was already starving when I met up with Ryan and our mutual friend. The show was interminable, and I suffered through each set, growing increasingly hangry with every forced laugh. When we finally escaped American Horror Story: Sad Stand-Up Edition, we launched into the dreaded “where-are-we-eating” debate. I was still fairly new to L.A. and not super-familiar with the restaurant scene, so I desperately pitched pizza, praying I could subtly steer the evening toward a cheap location. My campaigning worked, and pizza was decided upon. We’d go to Mozza, at my boyfriend’s suggestion. As we loaded into our Uber, I breathed a sigh of victorious relief. Cheap food was just minutes away. Or so I thought. When we arrived at the restaurant and opened our menus, my heart sunk immediately. I had underestimated Ryan’s taste in wildly expensive dinners. As it turns out, Mozza was a Mario Batali joint, where the wood-fired pizzas started at $30. It became immediately clear that I could either eat dinner tonight, or pay my gas and electric bill. Not both. “How are you doing this evening?” our waiter asked innocently. I considered screaming: “Oh, I'm absolutely miserable! This dinner brings up all my issues around being broke! I'm starving but can't afford a fucking thing here, and I'm too ashamed to admit that to my boyfriend! But if I can't admit it to him, then who the hell can I admit it to? I guess I'm just worthless and pathetic! Fuck you, Mario Batali! You aren't fooling anyone with that ponytail!" Instead, I simply replied: “We’re great.”
Photo by Bek Anderson.
The waiter went around our table, taking orders. I requested the cheapest wine on the menu — a $12 glass of Cabernet. “Oh, I’m so sorry," he said. "We’re all out of that one.” I wanted to punch him in his gorgeous model/actor/waiter face, but instead I ordered the $16 Barolo. In my broke reality, $16 was equivalent to about three six-inch Subway sandwiches, a.k.a. half my dinners for the week. I could feel tears welling in the corners of my eyes as I watched those three sandwiches get poured into one stemless wine glass. “Hon, you’re not getting any food?” My boyfriend asked. “Oh, no I already ate,” I lied. I hated being poor, and Ryan was just rubbing my nose in it by bringing us to the most expensive pizza parlor in the entire Western Hemisphere. This meal was my worst nightmare, and how could he not know that? But here’s the twist: People don’t know things unless you tell them. When the check came, it was the size of about three cell phone bills. The notion of a three-way split was quickly dismissed, as I had gotten only one glass of wine. “Why don’t we just split it between the two of us?” My boyfriend suggested to our friend. “No, I can pay for a glass of wine,” I said with a little too much venom. There was an awkward beat following my vehement protestation, and then all three credit cards were loaded onto the bill. I would pay for my one glass of wine; my pride depended on it. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, so I could have a panic attack and cry silently in the stall.

I would pay for my one glass of wine; my pride depended on it.

The Uber ride home was filled with the unmistakable silence of a boyfriend who has absolutely no idea what he’s done wrong. “Babe, what is going on?” he asked when we finally arrived home. I snapped. “I didn’t eat dinner because I couldn’t afford it, and now I’m fucking starving, and I feel like shit.” I stared at him accusingly, like this was somehow all his fault. “Babe, that’s insane. You didn’t eat dinner?” “I’m broke.” “Well honey, you never told me that. I’ll buy you dinner next time. It’s not a big deal.” “But it is to me. I fucking hate being broke, and I don’t want this to be an issue in our relationship.” “Well, it clearly is an issue. So let’s talk about it.” He was, of course, right. We prided ourselves in a relationship founded on honesty and transparency. And yet, money was the one subject I was afraid to touch. Being broke when he wasn’t made me feel shitty and sad. So I hid it. My shame grew and mutated and was now causing a giant meltdown over something as small as a goddamn personal pizza. “I guess I was hoping I could hide it from you, until things got better,” I admitted. “We’ve been dating for five months; sooner or later it was going to come out.” “I know, I just don’t want you paying for shit! It makes me feel...lesser, I guess. Weak.” “What’s weak about telling someone what you need? Honey, I hate to say it, but sometimes you need to grow some balls and speak up.” And it was here, with my stomach growling in agreement, that I had to admit the truth. “You’re right.”
Photo by Maria Del Rio.
Throughout our entire relationship thus far, I had been afraid of exposing any vulnerability. I clung to a front of self-sufficiency (financial and otherwise) in an effort to prove that I wasn’t dependent upon Ryan in any way. But the irony was this: To express need can actually be an incredible act of independence. It requires a lot of courage to step out of the dreamy shared reality of a romantic relationship and say, “this is my need, and it’s not being met.” In order to be together, sometimes you need to stand apart. “But just to be clear, I refuse to let this turn into a sugar daddy situation. I’m a grown man, not a pool boy," I added. “I know that.” “I guess I’m saying it’s a compromise. It’s not you paying all the time. When we do stuff together, let’s talk about how we want to pay for it beforehand.” Once I expressed this need, I didn’t feel weak; I felt stronger in our relationship. I now had a voice in an ongoing dialogue about money. The relief was overwhelming; I no longer needed to put up a ridiculous act to pretend I wasn’t broke. By allowing vulnerability into our relationship, I also allowed us to become closer than ever before. After a few more months of financial inequity, things eventually evened out. I found a job that paid decently, and I was finally able to keep up with the costs of our relationship. I wasn’t Richard Branson, but I could afford to pick up the tab on an occasional dinner. But dinner isn’t really the point here. For the longest time, I hid my broke-ness because I was worried that money would ruin my relationship. But money doesn’t ruin relationships; lack of communication does. Despite Puff Daddy’s insistence otherwise, it’s not actually all about the Benjamins, baby. It’s all about the conversations about the Benjamins — and all the other important things in life. Once Ryan and I stopped fighting over the check, we started talking about what really matters: love.

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