I Spent $20K In A Month: Confessions Of A Reluctant Trophy Wife

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I Spent $20K In A Month: Confessions Of A Reluctant Trophy Wife

I live in a famous building on Fifth Avenue owned by a certain publicity loving billionaire with a bad pompadour. One year ago, I had no health insurance and lived with my parents in Brooklyn. What happened?

It's simple, really: I fell in love with a man who is out of my age — and tax — bracket. Some people would call me a trophy wife. At times, I, too, have wondered if that's what I've become; a reluctant trophy wife.

When I met David at a party of a mutual friend, I was a 21-year-old Jewish girl with a freshly-minted Ivy League degree in philosophy, accustomed to being unimpressed by the guys who approached me. So when David sauntered over and offered to buy me a drink, I was indifferent. My friends quickly sidled up to whisper that he was quite the catch, a notorious heartbreaker. Unmoved, I blathered on pretentiously about a trip I'd taken backpacking through Italy. David called me on my affected spewing — in Italian no less.

It worked. I was charmed. Offering to drive me home, he walked me up to a glistening silver Porsche. "This is your car?" I asked. I'd been on dates before with boys who drove Porsches — but Porsches purchased by their daddies and driven by guys who moved way too fast. David, in contrast, drove me home, then sat with me in my parents' driveway, just talking for hours.

From that night on, we were inseparable. It scarcely seemed to matter that I was a short, slightly depressed aspiring novelist working as a secretary while he was a tall, trim, 30-year-old owner of a well-established fashion house, high on the ease with which things came to him. And our other differences: the nine-year age gap, the fact that I made less money than his maid were, at best, laughable to us. Within two weeks, we met each other's families. 

"She's the first girl I don't have to dumb down for," he told his mother. For me, being with David was a relief. My previous boyfriends had left all of the planning and decision-making to me. Every time I saw David, he had a surprise in store: reservations at a new restaurant, wind-blown rides on his Ducati motorcycle, a room full of candles and our song — U2's "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" — on repeat. We compared the books we'd read, discussed philosophy, religion, and life; and marveled at the fact that we’d found each other.

We spent those first weeks happily ensconced in our bubble so it wasn't until we began to socialize again that I realized just how ill-equipped I was to be his girlfriend.

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In my old life, I had gone to rock concerts, crowd-surfed, and carefully cultivated my grungy anti-style. Now, as soon as I stepped into his building's posh elevator I morphed into a dowdy nerd next to the army of models and actresses with their Chanel bags and expertly-coiffed hair. I felt self-conscious; David's friends' wives all shopped at Barney's. My "designer" pieces came from Nine West and H&M.

"You're so granola," David would tease. I'd shrug it off as good-natured but when he met my mother and they both began ribbing me about my appearance, I felt it was time I reassessed my style. I started to blow out my curly hair, once my defining feature. I began to actually pay attention to what I wore each morning and even smeared on some makeup once in a while just so I could stop feeling like a ratty pair of Hanes adrfit in a sea of La Perla. 

Needless to say, my mom was thrilled that I had met a handsome, well-to-do Jewish man with serious intentions. All my life, my mother had worried that I was too smart, too fat, too rebellious to meet and marry a guy she would approve of and like. When I brought David home, she swooned. "This is a man," she proclaimed. "This is a man to marry."

Though I hated to admit it, I had to agree with her. Don't get me wrong: David and I still had our issues. And sometimes the lifestyle divide between us felt as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. After all, while I stressed about paying off $30,000 in college loans for the next 15 years, David spent that much on a monthly vacation.

I was hyper-conscious of the spending gap between me and David and I never wanted to give off the impression that I was taking advantage of his wealth.

In fact, when he offered to buy me a new Mac during our first month together, I politely but firmly declined. But never was the difference between our worlds so vivid as the day we went shopping for ski pants. The saleslady ignored me but spotted the red Prada tag on David's ski jacket in a nanosecond and promptly brought him the matching pants. They cost $600.

"They match my jacket," said David. "It's a no-brainer." I referred him to the $80 variety, but he was already waving his black AmEx around. "Do you really need those?" I asked. "What's need?" he answered. I was hurt and infuriated by his callous comments. If only he knew how much I could have used $600. Though my family lived in an affluent community, my parents were struggling and my dad had recently been diagnosed with cancer. 

"Don't be stupid," my mother told me, when I relayed the story. "If he is generous with himself, he will be generous with you." And he was. Still, I couldn't help seething over the fact that David didn't know what it was like to pay for a bagel and soda with a credit card — and be declined. That he didn't know what it was like to have creditors call him all day or to have his cell phone cut off because the bill hadn't been paid. When I would hint at my financial problems, David would dismiss them. My family appeared well-off. I had graduated from Columbia.

"She couldn't possibly have any real worries," he seemed to surmise. For that, I resented him, but at the same time I admired him. I wanted to live like David. He was happy. He enjoyed his success, but he didn’t rely on it to build his self-esteem like so many other people I knew. We had only been together for eight months when he spoke with my parents about marrying me. The thought of spending forever with someone I had been dating for such a short time made me nervous but I also knew that I loved him. I figured that was enough. I had fake gel-nails put on in anticipation of the ring.

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A few weeks later, David came over to my parents’ house, presumably to ask for my hand in marriage.

For the first time since I met him, he seemed scared and insecure. "I don't know what it is," he said. "I'm just not ready." I was enraged and embarrassed. That night, in a teary fit, I ripped those nails off with my teeth. My mother cried for a month. My friends decided he was gay. I became severely depressed. David and I still talked but it felt like we would never be able to work out our problems.

One year later, on a trip to South Beach with friends, I bumped into him by the pool at The Shore Club. My heart sank every time we passed each other that weekend. Back in New York, he called me. We began seeing each other again, secretly this time. Before we could tell our friends or families, we decided we needed to repair the damage between us.

This time around, I didn't care about our differences — or what clothes either one of us wore. I just wanted to be with David. Over the next 10 months, the distance between us lessened and we became a better, closer, less volatile couple.

One day, he whisked me away from work and drove me to a beach on the Ducati. Once there, he handed me a blanket, and when I shook it out and laid it down, I saw that it read: "I love you, will you marry me?"

Six weeks later, we tied the knot at a tiny ceremony. Everyone was thrilled. "Your life is like a fairytale," my friends said. Sometimes it truly felt like one. As part of their family tradition, David's mother presented me with a Chanel bag, crystal Lalique doves, and countless other presents. Every time we went over for dinner, his mother would serve up another gift along with dessert. It felt like a parade of finery: sterling trays, Baccarat candlesticks, hatboxes filled with perfume, scarves, and Roger & Gallet soaps. For years, she had been collecting these things to lavish on David’s bride of choice.

After a month-long honeymoon touring Asia, I returned to an apartment on Fifth Avenue and a budget that blew my mind.

David and I had discussed how much money I would need each week to run the house (groceries, laundry, maid), what it would take to redecorate his bachelor pad (black walls, white rugs, mirrored everything) — then determined how much I would spend on clothes per season.

I didn't need all that money for my wardrobe, I told him playfully. Who in their right mind spends $700 on shoes? Apparently, now I did. I bought my first pair of red-soled Louboutins half-off with my savings. Even though David had given me a budget, I felt uncomfortable about buying things with his money.

The next week, we went to a party, and David's friends' wives raved about those shoes. "Stunning!" they exclaimed; I was hooked. The next pair came more easily. Why not use my new platinum card? Chanel flats, Louboutin peep-toe pumps, and Tod's boots followed. I bought Herve Leger dresses and ate the Madison salad at Fred's daily with my married friends. My guilt had vanished. Shopping was not as shallow as I thought; I had never owned things that I actually cared about before and it felt good.

A few weeks later David held up the AmEx bill with disbelief. "Do you even know how much money you spent this month?" he asked. I didn't. The bill was close to $20,000 and I was mortified. When and how had I become so superficial?

I had bought the new clothes in anticipation of spending Passover with David's family in Florida, worried that all the girls would be more dressed up, that I wouldn't fit in. But seeing that bill and realizing I had blown through a budget I once deemed outrageous brought me crashing back to earth: I promptly returned everything that still had tags. That day, I joked to David that I had "made" $1,000. It was the only money I was bringing in; I had quit my job six months into my marriage to pursue my writing.

In the meantime, I realized I had gone hogwild with my newfound spending power.

I felt guilty that my family was still struggling while I was living the high life so carelessly. I canceled my blowout appointments, reclaiming my curly hair. It was a first tentative step. I was trying desperately to find a middle ground between the scruffy student I had been and the shopaholic trophy wife I had become.

My friends are still shocked by how much I've changed: my more polished appearance, the fact that I know Bergdorf salespeople by name, my love of domestic life. I think they miss the crowd-surfing, dreadlocked Nicole. But then I remember I'm happier this way. Somewhere along the line, I grew comfortable with my new life.

From the beginning, I’d loved the whiff of stability being with David seemed to promise.

Before him, my life was as messy as I was. Dating and marrying an older, more established man was just what I needed to grow into myself — though that doesn't mean I always recognize her. 

Last week he took me to a Prada sale, where I spotted a raincoat I liked. "Do you need it?" he asked.

"What's need?" I replied with a smirk.

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Nicole Cohen is an editor on NPR's Education Team. She has appeared on both television and radio on these channels  NPR, WILL-TV (Urbana, IL), KPCC-FM (Pasadena, CA), WNYC (New York, NY), WBEZ-FM (Chicago, IL) and many more.