"Should we go for it?"
This was all my fault. I suggested oysters for our first date because we'd chatted about how much he loves the ocean, how much I love oysters, and how his family trips to the Oregon coast had never included these slippery little shellfish. But this delicately lit restaurant isn't cheap. And of course he loves the oysters and wants to order more.
Based on my dating experiences in Portland, there's a 50-50 chance we'll split the check. And if we do, my credit card might be declined. Then he'll know I'm a mess of an adult who can barely pay her bills lately - but wow, these oysters are good. My first-date outfit says I know the difference between kumamotos and shigokus, and can afford to splurge on them both. I'm determined to maintain this veneer of class.
"Sure!" I answer. "Let's have another dozen."
As a freelance writer, I've accepted that I will never make a ton of money. My life is an endless loop of hustle, hope and fear. My paychecks arrive sporadically, and sometimes, they just aren't enough. For those who have never navigated the "gig economy," it can be difficult to understand.
The incessant fear of running out of money is exhausting. So is dating, these days. Everything feels like a gamble. Will my next paycheck arrive in time to pay the mortgage? Will this person I just met online prove to be a waste of my limited spending budget?
For the most part, I'm okay with not having a ton of money. I buy my clothes at thrift stores and my drinks at dive bars. Experiences are more important than things; blah, blah, blah. But as I head into the heart of my 30s, I sometimes wonder what potential partners will think of my tumultuous financial situation. I also wonder if I can really afford to find someone special. After all, dating isn't cheap.
Even when I'm treated on the first date, I believe that dinner and drinks should eventually be a shared expense. Most of the men I meet agree. But if someone I'm dating has more expensive taste than my own, that can prove tricky.
Luckily, my date picked up the check that night after a halfhearted protest on my part. As I walked back to my car following our first kiss, feeling the flutter of an enjoyable evening with someone new, it struck me that maybe dating with barely any money in my checking account wasn't a good idea. I hoped he was interested in a second date, but could I even afford it? Is it irresponsible to look for love when I have student loans and credit card debt, waiting to be paid off?
When I met this new guy, I wasn't so sure. Would he meet the best version of me when money was constantly weighing on my mind? Stress isn't sexy. It makes me irritable and distracted. It can also make me overly critical and resentful of others.
But conversation flowed effortlessly on our first date, and I was able to stop thinking about work. As we wandered into the usual first-date territory, I crawled out of my anxious hole and turned my attention to lighter topics: favorite movies, funny stories and those delectable oysters.
He made me laugh, which I hadn't done enough of lately. And he told me that he liked my smile.
If I had to give him my checking account balance, maybe he'd hurry out and never call. But in forgetting my finances in favor of a casual conversation, I showed him a more carefree side of me - one that people hadn't been seeing enough of lately.
As I drove away from our first date, I thought about how we'd almost definitely see each other again. But then what? Could I afford the additional cost of drinks and dinners out each week? That's what dating is, isn't it?
Turns out, a tight budget can do wonders for creativity. We've since gone on bike rides around the city, hiked through a torrential downpour and woken up at 4 a.m. to see a sunrise over wildflower fields. All of these experiences were cheap. They were also a lot of fun.
It didn't take long for me to open up to the new guy about my tumultuous financial situation, which prompted him to open up about his own money stresses. Despite those challenges being drastically different, our ability to talk about them made me realize we were on similar pages.
I'm a firm believer that self-improvement should come before relationships. I want to be the best version of myself when I meet someone new. But I've come to accept that we're all works-in-progress. And if you find the right person, maybe you can keep working on being better . . . together.
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Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.