Relationship Strategies in an Economic Downturn

Some highlights from our columnist's visit to CBS TV's Early Show


This morning, I appeared live on “The Early Show” on CBS to discuss dating and relationship strategies during an economic downturn. Watch the show here and read below for more advice.

When is the appropriate time to bring up finances in a relationship — and is it something you should really be asking about early on?

Money is one of those subjects that’s off limits on the first date — but if you’ve just been laid off from your job there’s no avoiding the discussion. Get to know someone for who they are, not what they can buy for you: Is she proactive about finding a new job? Is he brainstorming about other career paths? Ambition and perseverance are what’s going to pay off in the long term.

Of course, as the relationship gets more serious — especially if it’s heading toward marriage — then it’s time to put your cards on the table. When you get married, their debt becomes your debt.

There are websites like that match people based on their credit scores — suggesting that people are being very cautious about their financial relationships. Is something like this a good option?

People generally look for someone who is like them — shared values, shared faith, similar educational background — and your credit score speaks volumes about the financial choices you’ve made in your life: Someone who is careless about money tends to think about short-term benefits, not long-term future planning.

But dating isn’t about comparing résumés or credit scores. It’s about getting to know who someone is in real life, not just on paper.

Still, 20 million Americans are using online dating — and most sites report increased traffic in the last six months. This is consistent with what we saw during the downturn in 2001, as well. Online dating can be cheaper than the bar scene, and at a time when money is scarce and job prospects are uncertain, most of us don’t want to go through these tough times alone.

What type of man or woman is considered a good “catch” these days?

These tough economic times are just compounding some of the changes that have been underway for decades. Men are increasingly interested in an educated woman who is a good financial prospect — and women are increasingly interested in a man who takes a nurturing role in the family.

These tough economic times are just compounding some of the changes that have been underway for decades. Men are increasingly interested in an educated woman who is a good financial prospect — and women are increasingly interested in a man who takes a nurturing role in the family.

Since the 1930s, researchers have been asking college men and women what they want in a mate, and recently, along with Christie Boxer at the University of Iowa, I conducted a follow-up study of more than 1,100 undergrads nationwide at four universities to see how times had changed.

Turns out that guys look for love, brains and beauty — and a sizable salary certainly sweetens the deal. An increasing number of men were saying that a woman’s ability to earn money is a desirable quality they’re prioritizing.

As for women, they’re looking for a man who will prioritize family and children. While they rank his financial prospects in the top 10, mutual attraction, dependability, intelligence, ambition and maturity all trump those dollar signs.

Can we afford, in these times, to fall in love with people who are broke?

Our grandmothers would quip, It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man… so fish in rich ponds. Obviously, money helps make life easier — but there are plenty of miserable rich people out there. When couples say that they are fighting about finances, there’s usually a general breakdown in communication in the relationship.

But can you afford to fall in love with someone with no ambition or industriousness? Probably not. Times are tough right now, but the folks with the go-get-’em attitude are going to succeed in the long run. That’s the smart investment for the future.

What do you do when your significant other has fallen on hard times? Do you call off the wedding?

If you’re less interested in marrying your significant other after he or she has been laid off, then it wasn’t the right match anyway. But for a couple who’s otherwise happy and in love, we’ve got to remember that it’s not about the wedding — it’s about the marriage and building a life together. “For richer or for poorer.”

A smaller ceremony can be beautiful, and then if you’re in the money in the future, throw an over-the-top anniversary bash.

But you’ve also got to consider what’s going on for your friends and family. A close friend of mine actually postponed her wedding because so many of her relatives were in dire financial straits and weren’t going to be able to travel for the big day.

How do you date someone with no money?

You get creative — and spend more time talking with each other than being distracted by fancy restaurant food. Think walks in the park, free museums, Netflix, picnics and camping trips. One of the best date ideas in New York City, for example, is a sunset sail on the Staten Island Ferry — you’re on a boat, wind blowing through your hair, gazing at the lights of the city… and it’s absolutely free.

How has the recession changed relationships? Have our priorities shifted?

Even in 2009, many women have a Cinderella Complex — this idea that they need a rich man to rescue them. Well, it’s time to let that idea go. Marriage can and should be about equal partnership — and it’s increasingly common for the woman to out-earn her husband. And most men, especially younger men, are relieved that they won’t have to carry the financial burden alone.

But we can’t ignore the gender implications here: Men are socialized to judge their self-worth based on their role as a provider. When that gets taken away, it can be a blow to the ego.

I’d like to look on the bright side: This downturn could end up being a turning point in work-life gender equality: As more women earn higher degrees and income, and as more men say yes, I want a smart, successful spouse, we could create a whole new dynamic of money and power in relationships.

Have any experiences you’d like to share about dating in the downturn? Post them here or email me at and let’s get a discussion going.