Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman's life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we’re considering what it’s like to grow into adult responsibilities as single and married women. One single woman and one married woman have written essays, to be published on different days. On a third day, they respond to each other’s experience. The single woman’s essay can be found here.
The sun was glowing near the horizon.
Kevin, my husband of one month, sat opposite me at a tiny outdoor table, chips and salsa and margaritas splitting the distance between us. The summer humidity and the tequila supplied a slow, hazy contentment, and everything felt new in the best way: my last name, our wedding rings, the fact that we’d walk home together once we paid the bill.
The evening would have been perfect . . . if only I could have quieted the little voice in my brain that kept nagging:
“You’ve spent how much money eating out this week?”
I thought the first year of marriage would be an extension of our honeymoon.
Maybe it looked that way from the outside. With a little apartment in the city and all the time in the world, we made a lot of memories. We went to trendy bars; we traveled; we split a pastry at the same cute coffee shop on Saturday mornings.
But where Kevin saw opportunities for a fun date, a weekend trip, or a quick breakfast, I saw dollar signs.
I didn’t mention it at first. How could I complain about how often my husband wanted to take me on dates? Was it unreasonable to want to curtail our fun, especially when we didn’t have many other big expenses to be concerned about? Furthermore, our plans were usually spontaneous: I was still learning how to cook, and after a long day at work, it was much easier to walk to the nearest bar or fast casual restaurant than to figure out what to make of a poorly planned assortment of groceries. In the moment, going out often won.
As the months passed, however, my unease continued to grow. And while I did enjoy our quality time, part of my brain was stuck in a mental calculation. I’m having fun, I’d think. But is it worth $40?
I began to realize that the carefree lifestyle we’d adopted was the first part of our married life that challenged the way I was raised. Having grown up in a family that prioritized frugality—think cloth diapers, but not out of environmental concern—I had a hard time reconciling Kevin’s penchant for spontaneous happy hours with my guilt-ridden compulsion to pull a box of pasta out of the pantry.
As two twenty-somethings navigating our post-college independence, we were inclined to use our parents’ values as signposts along the way. The problem was that they didn’t always point in the same direction. And while we’d discussed our families of origin before we got married, there was more left unexplored than we’d expected—leaving room for more dialogue and, often, conflict.
None of this is to say I perfectly fit the “saver” mold, and Kevin the “spender.” While he knew prior to our wedding that I had a weakness for online shopping, for example, I don’t think he grasped the extent of it until packages began showing up on our doorstep alarmingly often. Without a united approach, I was left feeling uncertain about which purchases were okay and which were excessive, which were fine for me to make on my own and which required a joint decision. If I added a dress shirt for Kevin to my J.Crew order, did that make it okay? If I’d added a few more sale items to an order to hit free shipping, did the higher total warrant a conversation?
When we finally began discussing our finances in earnest, we found our difficulties to be much more historically rooted and emotionally fraught than either of us would have guessed. Clarifying our expectations helped, but it wasn’t an immediate fix: we both still had habits to overcome. Among the issues we had to navigate as newlyweds, our spending habits were one of the hardest.
Growing up together
Getting married young has plenty of advantages. Having met my husband in college, for example, I never experienced the ups and downs of the dating scene. Combining our two incomes—even entry-level ones, as they were then—put us on solid financial footing early on.
But for better and for worse, we did a lot of growing up together—especially that first year.
For better: when we got married, I was in a job that stressed me out but I had no idea what I wanted to do next. Kevin refined my résumé more times than I can count—always making me sound far more qualified than I was—and walked me through the dispiriting tedium of finding a new job.
For worse: while we’d enjoyed cooking dinner together when we were dating—bottle of wine open on the counter, music on in the background—we found it difficult, if not impossible, to translate to our married life. For one, our kitchen was so tiny that only one person could comfortably fit in it at a time; where I’d once welcomed Kevin’s presence next to me by the stove, I found myself shooing him out of the kitchen entirely. For another, Kevin’s appetite took me entirely by surprise. He needed to eat all the time. Even though I’d always looked forward to taking on most of the cooking, I was still a novice, and the pressure I felt to keep us both fed three (or four, or five) meals a day was a lot to keep up with. (Add to all of this the fact that Kevin is—to put it delicately—not quite his best self when he’s hungry.)
It wasn’t only cooking: when it came to navigating things like how much of our income to put in savings each month, which internet provider to go with, or how to find a primary care doctor, we were equally clueless. And at the same time that we were learning to be responsible and independent adults, we were finding out that even little decisions were potential sources of conflict. They didn’t usually escalate into heated arguments, but even compromise after compromise was exhausting.
It made for a first year of marriage that was far more difficult than either of us expected. The highs were high, but the lows were low, and it was a choppy—if exciting—ride.
Sharing the load
Of course, life’s chores are far easier when shared with another person.
Kevin took the lead on paying bills; I took over cooking. He filed taxes; I bought Christmas gifts. It took time, but our division of labor settled into a rhythm that felt natural and fair. And work itself aside, it’s just nice to have a buddy. Sometimes we’d even make ourselves a pot of coffee on a Saturday morning to plow through our shared to-do list, which turned unpleasant tasks into something resembling fun.
Furthermore, it’s a relief to have a partner in the big, scary decisions. I slept soundly the first night in our new house not because I wasn’t nervous about how soon we’d need to replace the roof (not yet) or whether those were carpenter ants we saw on the deck (they were), but because I had Kevin beside me in all of it.
But even as we made that decision together to buy a house—at that point five years into our marriage—we still weren’t immune to the conflict we’d struggled with so often in our first year. Daunted by the competitive housing market where we live, Kevin’s instinct was to check for new listings nearly as often as he checked his email. Quickly exhausted by his intensity, and not wanting it to take over so much of our daily conversations, I preferred a more leisurely, come-what-may attitude. We settled into a grumpy compromise, each of us still believing that our own approach was the better one. (Mercifully, it only took a month or two to find our home.)
Finding our own priorities
Eventually, daily life felt more like a duet than a game of tug-of-war. Life became smoother around the edges, even if our to-do lists didn’t get any shorter.
And the more responsible we became, the more we were able to chart our own path—to decide which of the values and priorities that we grew up with we wanted to keep, which we’d leave behind, and which of our own we wanted to cultivate. Little by little, our separate histories and identities shaped something that felt entirely new.
We wanted to be proactive in our finances, for example, so we reined in our spending to pay off student loans as quickly as we could. We wanted to show up for our out-of-town friends and family, so airfare for holidays and graduations and just-because visits became a regular expense. We wanted to practice hospitality regularly, so I’d cook while Kevin cleaned as we waited for friends to arrive.
These days, we still struggle to stay on top of things like laundry, grocery shopping, and budgeting—and with two kids now in the mix, it’s only getting more complicated. Sometimes it feels like we’re flat-out failing: just this past month, it took two failed delivery attempts, a visit from a plumber, and a pulled-up floorboard to get our new dishwasher installed.
But the good news is that we’ve grown, and we’re still growing. And we’re much less likely to fight over our going-out budget.
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