Marriage is fast becoming a status symbol. In 2018, fewer people in the U.S. are getting married, but those who do are more likely to be economically privileged. A 2017 research brief found that 56% of middle class and upper class adults are married, but among working class and lower class adults, that number is between 26% and 39%. In 1990, more middle class and upper class adults were married—about 65%—but more than 50% of other adults were married, too. As women earn more, marriages have also grown more equal in terms of pay—which in turn has reinforced social stratification. That’s also because people in the U.S. are increasingly unlikely to date and marry outside of their own social class.
But what happens when they do? I talked to three people* about what it’s like to be with someone from a different socioeconomic background—and how issues of race, nationality, money, and education permeate their relationship.
“With money comes a lot of expectations and baggage”
“What Crazy Rich Asians covered is very much some of the lifestyle that I saw growing up,” says journalist Ruchika, who grew up in Singapore. She had a cushy upbringing in “a very upper middle class, even wealthy family,” as she describes it. Her dad was a successful entrepreneur, and Ruchika attended an international school. “Money was never really talked about,” she says. “It was just there and not something to consider.” And unlike some other families of Indian origin (even the more affluent ones), hers wasn’t particularly frugal.
Ruchika’s husband, on the other hand, is from a middle class family in India. Many decisions were made with money “at the forefront,” and he could not have come to the U.S. for his education without the support of grants and scholarships.
The couple had an arranged marriage despite the difference in their backgrounds, which Ruchika says helped them air concerns about money early in the relationship. “From day one, we had very open communication,” she says. “We were able to talk about money, where we wanted to live, our long-term goals, how many children we wanted—things that in some Western relationships don’t come up for years.” Ruchika’s husband expressed, for example, that he didn’t feel comfortable taking money from her family.
That meant Ruchika had to set financial boundaries with her parents. “When we first got married, my parents really wanted to give us money for a down payment for a new home,” she says. “My husband was like, ‘There’s no way in hell.’ And in the long run, I’m really glad we were able to push back on things like that.” She compromised on some “non-negotiable” things—her mom still insists on buying her plane ticket when she visits Singapore—but says setting financial boundaries with her family was a crucial step in Ruchika and her husband’s relationship. “It really made me appreciate and respect my partner so much more, because with money comes a lot of expectations and baggage,” she says.
Their approaches to work are, in Ruchika’s mind, entirely a function of their respective backgrounds. A few years ago, she quit a high-paying job at a tech company to write a book—a decision she had the luxury to make. “I was like, no, job satisfaction is more important than the amount of money—which in itself is a hugely privileged statement, and I absolutely understand and own that,” she says. “But I can definitely say that my mind-set was 100% influenced by my background, and his was influenced by his. For him, no matter how difficult even a year in his job is, the job security and the financial security that it provides will always be paramount.”
“We almost broke up because of vacations”
A big sticking point in Victor’s relationship was travel. For him, it was a source of pleasure; for his partner, a source of frustration. “We almost broke up in the first year of our relationship because of vacations,” Victor says. “I tend to take pretty lavish vacations. That’s what I was accustomed to, and that’s just what I’ve always done . . . And being a loving partner, I just wanted to share those things with him.”
Victor, 45, a communications professor at Seattle University, grew up in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, in a town that was predominantly white. He considers his family middle class; his father was an accountant at Ernst & Young, and his mother was a special education teacher. “We never really discussed money,” he says. “We were quite comfortable—I think that’s the term people use.” (When I point out that his family may qualify as upper middle class, Victor adds, “If I told my parents that, they would say, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding me? We were so middle class.'”)
His partner’s family life was worlds apart. “His mother was a drug addict,” Victor says. “Many times, he didn’t know where his next meal was going to come from.” Vacations for his family consisted of camping trips, so he wasn’t prepared for the kind of travel that Victor considered normal.
“It actually became a chore [for my partner], and it created a lot of resentment,” Victor says of their trips together. “It wasn’t something that he was comfortable with—or something that he even needed.” Part of that sentiment has to do with the instability of his childhood. “Having a home, being in that home, and having that stability is really important to him—way more than any trip I could give him,” Victor says. “And he reiterates that a lot.” Eventually, the two of them came to a middle ground: They could take no more than two “major” or international trips a year.
When it comes to how they spend their money, Victor says his partner tends to be more minimalist with shopping and clothing purchases. But one noticeable exception is food. “He’s super focused on brands and the quality of food,” Victor says. “He won’t even buy certain foods, [like green beans], because he says that’s the food he got when he was at the food bank.”
Talking about the idea of privilege is especially difficult for the two of them because Victor is black and his partner is white. “I agree that I had certain privileges that he didn’t,” Victor says. “But there’s still a white privilege that he has that I don’t.”
“Money is something that we just kind of dance around”
“I work as a consultant for nonprofits, so it’s not like I get paid a lot,” says Jessica. “I live in a one-bedroom apartment. I have student loans. I don’t split bills with anyone. No parents are helping me pay back my education. It’s all on me. And so I live on a line-item budget in a Google sheet that I adjust every month.”
Her mom was a teacher, and her dad worked in food services at a college; Jessica says her family had to use financial assistance from various government resources. When she was 14, her mom died, and the following year, her dad got sick, which meant the burden of running his restaurant and managing finances fell to Jessica and her siblings.
Her partner, however, had a physician and a corporate executive as parents, along with family money. “There are so many different variations of privilege,” Jessica says. “[My partner] has it all. He’s a cisgender straight white man who comes from a place of socioeconomic privilege.” He also makes about four times what Jessica does. “I’m not scraping by, but I have to be really conscious of my financial decisions,” she says. “And he doesn’t at all. It doesn’t even faze him.”
On their first date, her partner lost his wallet and didn’t realize it until the check came at the end of dinner. “I had been financially prepared to split it with him,” Jessica says. “But he was ordering expensive whiskey. The check comes after drinks, and it was like $80. It’s not that much—but for me, as somebody who lives by a line-item budget, it was literally double what I had set aside.” When she had to pay for dinner, her partner was “mortified,” Jessica says. “He’s actually still embarrassed about it,” she continues. “But he was mortified from the prospect of: He felt like he was a man, and he should pay for the first date. What he didn’t understand was the financial implications that had for me. That meant I had to sacrifice other things that week.”
She also references when her partner suggested putting down a higher payment on her student loans, to mitigate mounting interest. “I think it was Bernie Sanders who said it’s expensive to be poor,” she continues. “I face that so frequently, and [my partner] has no clue. I can’t get my student loans paid off in one payment. I’m going to be paying those until I die, and the interest just piles up.” Their wildly different backgrounds even influence their approaches to, say, food waste or how they order at restaurants. When they go out for meals, for example, her partner likes to order a wide array of appetizers. “He wants me to have an experience that is indulgent and delightful,” Jessica says. “It’s so romantic and so thoughtful. But I look at it and think those appetizers alone [could be] a family’s food budget for the week.”
Her partner isn’t blind to his financial circumstances. “We’ve had these conversations where I’ve been like, ‘You have to understand that what you just said is coming from a place of privilege.'” Jessica says. “I say that a lot, and he’s open to and hungry to hear that because nobody has ever checked him.” She describes him as generous with his money—and, conversely, claims he has “humbled her,” making her less self-righteous and judgmental of people with privilege. But that doesn’t mean he has a full picture of her financial reality. “We do talk about anything and everything—but money is something that we just kind of dance around,” she says. “He knows I’m struggling, and he knows I’m not happy with how much I make. But [he] doesn’t register what the expenses are each month, and that in a worst-case scenario, if the rug was pulled out from under me, I don’t have a place to land.”
*To maintain anonymity, we used only first names or a pseudonym.