"Financial Planning ... it's not always about money."

How I Learned to Spend Money on Love

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
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This essay is part of a Modern Love project on the intersection of money and relationships.

I didn’t grow up in a romantic household. My parents were more business partners than lovers, consumed with the day-to-day operation of our family bodega. They never touched affectionately, never said, “I love you.” Dad didn’t call Mom “honey.” Rather, he called her “Hani-umma,” or “Han’s mommy,” using my Korean name. Mom addressed him likewise with my older brother’s.

While my friends’ parents went out to fancy anniversary dinners, the only meals my parents shared were eaten standing up in front of a busy cash register. Any gifts they did find time or energy to buy were practical, like the buy-three-get-one-free men’s sweaters Mom got at Sears, or downright bizarre, like the bargain-bin vintage fox fur scarf (with attached head) that Dad, forever the clueless bumpkin, probably mistook as Gatsbian chic.

And yet, my parents had been romantic, once upon a time.

When I was very small, I would catch glimpses of proof. For instance, they used to shower together! And have tickle fights. These romantic shenanigans stopped as soon as the bodega business began in earnest. My parents embarked on years of herculean commutes and backbreaking labor, all for the goal of putting me and my brother through college.


Lucas Burtin

It’s no exaggeration to say they never took a single vacation day, much less what we’d today call a “date night.” On Christmas and my birthday, they would often hand me raw cash and tell me to go buy something, too exhausted to think of a gift on their own.

As a result, I grew up not really understanding what romantic gestures were. I didn’t appreciate the meaning of a nice dinner or a surprise gift. I wasn’t good at all the stuff that didn’t cost money, either, like the catharsis of expressing emotions (which I kept mostly bottled up, probiotically fermenting), or the simple validations of physical touch and compliments (both of which made me bristle).

Unsurprisingly, all of my early romantic relationships fizzled. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in romance. (I was, deeply, and basically nonstop.) It’s just that I was bad at it.

Then I met Nicki. We were in the M.F.A. fiction program at Emerson College and quickly became friends, then lovers. I was scrimping off savings, having just quit a job. She worked in finance for easily double my previous salary.

In those days, I thought it was ridiculous to spend extra money to eat at nice restaurants: Food was food. I didn’t understand why romantic getaways cost so much, or why we would want to “getaway” anyway: A room was a room.

But Nicki was relentless. Leading by example, she put me through a romantic boot camp. Not only did she have the time and will, she had the hard financial resources: money to pay for our nights out, money for our movies, money for our trips. As her starving artist boyfriend, I would feel guilty as she single-handedly invested in our relationship. But she never cared.

On one occasion, she bought me a $35 frog. It was a tiny silver-plated figurine the size of a gummy bear. It wore a tiny gold crown and came in a fancy little matchbox bearing the words, YOU ARE MY PRINCE. I had a well-paying job at this point, but part of me still reflexively boggled at the idea of paying so much for something so small and essentially useless. But I’ve kept it to this day precisely because it has no other purpose than to serve as a marker, a portable folly. It reminds me that for Nicki, love was well worth $35.

With Nicki’s prompting, I learned to say “I love you” every day. My bristling was replaced by outright P.D.A. I expressed my emotions, via my mouth and everything, and found myself doing things I never thought I’d do: going to candlelight dinners, agonizing over birthday presents, planning vacations, buying the right shoes to dance in. We ate and traveled and gave gifts. Follies multiplied on our shelves. It’s true that I had less money in the bank as a result, but I knew I never had more love. I also knew I wanted to get married. She knew, too.

On our one-year anniversary as a couple, Nicki was adamant that we go to a nice sushi restaurant to hold what she called our first “State of Our Union.” Humans across the lovestruck ages have worn their finest duds at their most splendid feasts, and this night was no different. We put on our nice clothes and ordered pricey sake and fish, as if to underscore the significance of the event. This was the night we said, out loud, that we wanted to be together for the rest of our lives. Then we paid the check and left a big tip.

Now, not all was rosy. My parents didn’t approve of us. They didn’t attend our wedding and closed me off for a decade, perhaps angry that their years of sacrifice only led to me marrying a non-Korean girl. Not what they’d bargained for.

Our love made so little sense to them that they could only explain it as a financial conspiracy. My parents were afraid that Nicki was only in our relationship to siphon my money away. It didn’t help when Nicki and I both quit our jobs to become, gasp, writers.

Skip cutscene to many years later. One day, everything turned around. Maybe it was because my parents were facing their impending mortality, but suddenly they began accepting us. I think our success (and the buzz it got in the Korean parental gossip circuit) had something to do with it. Nicki jokes that it only took her two No. 1 New York Times best sellers and film adaptations for them to finally take her off their romantic grifter watchlist. Things improved when my own novel debuted well, too. It’s as if by proving we could pay the bills, we proved our love.

I’m talking a lot about my parents because they eventually found romance again, late in life, and I sometimes wonder if my and Nicki’s relationship might have given them a little inspiration. After years of wearing holes into bodega linoleum, Mom and Dad retired, and guess what? They began spending the money they had locked away. They bought new clothes. Gambled in Vegas. Went on a cruise with an “incredible pasta bar.” Had a fancy dinner, alone, for the first time in decades. They didn’t worry about the cost. They knew they didn’t have a lot of time left, and it turned out they still liked each other.

Mom bought Dad a fancy newsboy hat to travel around in. A tweedy little number, totally unlike the hats Dad usually wore: whatever cheap plastic trucker hat they couldn’t sell at the bodega. She made him wear the newsboy and told everyone it made him look cute. This embarrassed him greatly. But you could tell he loved it. I recognized what Mom was doing. She was putting Dad through a romantic boot camp of her own.

I’m glad they splurged on their relationship because it turned out cancer would take Dad away only a year later. During his final weeks of hospice care, Mom bought him cute new T-shirts seemingly every other day. Nicki stepped things up as well, loudly barraging both my parents with I love yous, which they learned to lob right back. Mom took things further, ordering us to kiss Dad’s forehead. All new things, so late in life.

After Dad died, Mom sold their house and gave away everything in it in a matter of weeks. Isn’t that revealing? That without love, the material world ceases to have much meaning?

With her great romance over, Mom now spends her remaining savings on us, family. She insists on giving me gas money and buying me Korean groceries. When I argue that I’m a fully independent adult man, she says I’m still a baby and that I should shut up.

When Mom passes away, she’ll leave behind a zero balance: zero savings, zero debt. I like that. It means she spent every dime on love.

She often has dreams about Dad. In them, Dad’s not adrift amid boring clouds in some spartan white robe. He’s wearing a fancy suit, in a beautiful marble hall (Mom likes marble), where the food is incredible. He’s impatient: What’s your ETA, honey?

Soon, Mom says.

Dad’s hat hangs in my closet, Nicki’s frog prince watches me from the bookshelf. Lovely little reminders. Romance, I’ve come to learn, is not simply a thing to spend money on. It is the thing to spend money on because it’s what matters most above all. The rest, in the end, is just expense.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting