I started out the year with a sense of inferiority. Paul was already better at earning and managing money than I. I already worried more about earning and spending than he did. I was worried that now I'd be worse at not spending too.
In spite of his selective consumer fetishes, including a devotion to fine spirits that led to the startling (and, to me, comforting) admission that he was willing to spend sixty dollars on a bottle of good Scotch, Paul did sail pretty effortlessly through the year. Besides wine and beer (which he started brewing at home), he missed not much more than Q-tips. I missed a few things—movies and ice cream, for instance—but to my surprise, I missed participation in the whole consumer culture. My identity was staked on being in the know—seeing the new movies, reading the new books. My social life was conducted, more than I'd realized, in cafés and bars. And though I had never in my life gone shopping for entertainment, I found I missed the act of buying things. Even the small amount of shopping that I do provides a goal for a walk in the neighborhood; it supplies a little thrill in hunting down the perfect thing, a pleasant social connection as money and chat are exchanged with the merchant, and a happy satisfaction in bringing the thing home, admiring it, and putting it away.
So, eight months into the year, I lapsed. In town on a hot afternoon with a half hour on my hands, I strolled into a clothing store. What seduced me was not just an elegant yet comfortable pair of green pants, but a skilled and sexy saleswoman. We flirted, she, I, and the beckoning item of clothing. Then I abandoned hope of restraint and bought the pants.
Meeting up with Paul afterward, I confessed. "It was an impulse buy," I said. (This was a lie; I committed the crime with malice aforethought.)
He did not scold, he did not gloat. Rather, he paused and thought. "You know, I've been in therapy ten years trying to be more impulsive," he said. Again, I'd had him wrong. He had no interest in judging me. Indeed, he judged himself: for him, constant holding back was a problem, not a source of pride.
We emerged from the year feeling more secure about the future, realizing how happily we could live on very little. I did not worry about money all year. Neither of us was shocked or repelled by the other's needs or desires. And though the project was largely about the use (or not) of money, we did not once fight about or even discuss it.
On January 1, 2005, I rented six movies and binge-watched them (Paul fell asleep during half of them). He rushed out for a box of Q-tips. When we returned to the city from Vermont, we went directly to Zaytoon's, our favorite neighborhood restaurant, where we shared a falafel plate with baba ghanoush, salad, and hot, freshly made pita.
Adding to the satisfaction, we washed it down with Paul's home-brewed amber ale—and ran into a couple of friends we hadn't seen in months. The tab came to seven dollars plus tax and tip. Delectable, healthy food at great value, beautiful waitresses, a welcome-back atmosphere even for first-time patrons: Zaytoon's offers sensual pleasures and a sense of community and lets us support the local economy, to boot. Was the meal a necessity or a luxury? Neither. It came to our table, redolent and tempting, at the meeting place of the two. It was also where Paul's and my desires and values meet.
The year did not resolve every issue of love and money. Indeed, just before we embarked on scaling down, we had launched a project of scaling up—an addition and major renovation to our Vermont house. Nonconsumption had temporarily wiped money off the agenda. The project put it back on, big-time.
The renovation would finally transform a one-man house to a home and workplace for two or more. No longer would Paul's office dominate the corner of our bedroom, its boxes and papers threatening to devour the entire space. No longer would I work at a desk in the downstairs hallway, impeding passage between kitchen and living room and subjecting my concentration to disturbances by any visitor or conversation in the rest of the house. Our guests would have a room of their own, and no more nights on a lumpy foldout couch. And the cellar would cease to flood.
But eating Sheetrock dust for months or (in our case) years, watching the bills mount, arguing over whether the cabinet doors should be made of pine or plywood, or a million other details—in the best of circumstances, home improvement is a notorious home wrecker. Marriages founder when homes are under renovation, as partners recognize that their desires and needs (or their tolerance for mess and inconvenience) don't mesh. The same is true for unmarriages like Paul's and mine. What's more, for people who live together but do not share a bank account, big expensive projects also bring up questions that casual financial arrangements can't address.
The house was Paul's—his investment, his equity; its small mortgage was nearly paid off. So he priced the hired-out parts of the job and estimated material costs, time, and other labor, most of which he planned to do himself. He figured it would take one year, two at most. Then he calculated the size of a refinanced mortgage.
But the demands of Paul's paying job got in the way of the unpaid labor of the renovation. As the second summer ended with less than half the work finished, I started feeling like a prisoner in a construction site surrounded by a moat of mud. I felt misled. I took to having temper tantrums, alternately declaring my regrets that we'd ever started and nagging Paul to get someone in to finish it. But it was Paul's money. Without consulting me, he had decided how much to spend on hired labor.
I offered to pay a carpenter. Paul resisted. Without his oversight, he felt, the job would be shoddy. I was at his mercy. But he was also at mine, he pointed out, because just as the craftsmanship had to meet his Olympian standards, the aesthetics had to live up to mine; that meant extensive consideration, reconsideration, and debate.
By the third year, I was frantic. "We'll have a gorgeous house, and then we'll break up," I predicted during one teary fight. He agreed that the tension was getting to be too much.
He hired Joe the carpenter, and I contributed to his pay. Often, Paul and Joe worked together; sometimes Joe worked alone. Some of the work was not perfect, but most of it was fine and some of it excellent. By the end of the fourth summer, everything but the back porch and the bathrooms was finished.
That fourth year, too, the "feminine" part of the job—my part—began. I shopped for paint and fabric and picture frames; I put the charges on my credit card. The loan was exhausted anyway, and Paul was drawing on savings. So we split more of the costs. For years, as I spent more and more time in Vermont, I had been putting my stamp on the house and land. When I wanted a perennial garden, Paul and a friend dug a long bed around a rock ledge. From then on, the flower garden was mine to tend, and to finance. I drove Paul's old Chevy pickup to auctions and lugged home a funky table here, a jelly cabinet or antique vase there, on my dime. Now we jointly bought a bed, a sofa, and a rug, at a total of more than five thousand dollars.
After much arguing and compromising, we both adore the house. And, though it is still in Paul's name, it is our home. Emotionally and financially we are in deep—together.
A good friend of mine—I'll call him Mike—just broke up with his girlfriend, "Jenny." At the start of their relationship, Mike had moved into Jenny's New York co-op, which she'd bought ten years earlier. They lived together for ten years, during which time he paid half the mortgage and did work on the place, sharing the cost of materials and new appliances. The apartment's value increased enormously, in part because of the improvements Mike made, in part because of the astronomical rises in New York real estate. Although it was never formalized legally, Mike and Jenny planned to retire together by selling the apartment and moving to a cheaper place out of the city.
But then things soured between Mike and Jenny. She felt their problems could be repaired; he did not and ended up leaving her.