Marriage Does Not Have to Wait for Money

When can a man afford to marry?

This was previously published on Student Loan CPA.

As a man, when I think about marriage I ask myself: When can I afford it? I understand that the formula for eligible bachelors weighs income and wealth very heavily. Recently, an article on The Atlantic entitled “All The Single Ladies” reinforced this notion, with its many implications that men who are not doing well financially are unworthy of marriage.

“All The Single Ladies” makes clear the idea that because women can now earn as much as men, the relative financial impact of a man’s income in a marriage is much smaller than it was 20 or more years ago. In addition, we all face the reality that many of us who have high earnings (men and women) have a lot of debt with it, and therefore much less cash for weddings, honeymoons, engagement rings, and even residential homes.

So when can a man afford marriage? I have come up with two scenarios that can help answer this question. In my view, there are two financial strategies for marriage, and both of them can work for just about anyone.

Earn first, then marry

This is the traditional method, where a man earns much more his wife. To follow this model these days, most men have to (a) wait at least till their mid-thirties to get married or (b) strategically select a spouse from a profession that pays much less than he earns. Likewise, a woman might have to marry someone 5-10 years older than she is, and/or only consider those who earn more than she does.

This model works because regardless of the actual income numbers, both parties will get a financial structure that most of us are used to. Very few of our generation grew up in households where the mother earned as much as (or more than) the father, and as such we are all more familiar with the dynamics that creates in a home. If a family built this way lives below its means, there will probably never be a time that the woman feels the pressure of “providing” for the family, nor a time that the man will lack the joy that comes with that responsibility.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

––from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

I personally prefer a woman who is intelligent and self-sufficient (blame my mother and sisters), so this model is extremely difficult for me. Most such women I meet earn about the same as I do; many actually have more money. For those of us with any combination of low income or high debt, “earning first” means waiting a long time to start a family, which has implications for our personal and financial life.

A man that chooses this model might be too old to “run around” with his children, or he might ask his future wife to wait a very long time in the “girlfriend” or “fiancé” zone. Additionally, he might have a hard time respecting women due to a belief that they are only interested in his money. Fortunately, there is another option.

Marry first, then earn

This method is only possible in the 21st Century because today’s women earn well.  It allows two adults to marry as soon as one of them is working. Some couples will marry while in college or graduate school; others will marry while the man is still under-earning, with the hope that his income will grow. In either case, the couple has to mentally overcome the American dream and live very cheaply. The couples’ parents too have to understand that money will come over time, and have faith that the couple can grow financially together. However, this model will allow for grandchildren to be born sooner and sent off to college by the time the couple is in their fifties.

The major risks in this model are created by the growing number of men who refuse to grow professionally in the way that will provide the best financial benefits to their families. Successful women often avoid these men by only considering those that have already “made it”—this makes it hard on the other types of men who haven’t “made it” yet.

… ”All The Single Ladies,” basically describes men who are in their 30s and still single, and those who have fallen on hard times, as unmarriageable leftovers. They are the men that she encourages women not to “settle” for.

Her idea of a “good man” or a “marriageable” man is one who’s worth is quantified almost exclusively in financial terms. For many women, Bolick suggests, character doesn’t seem to be on the same terms as money or class status when they are sizing up potential mates.

The above is a quote from an underemployed man in his 30s with about $75K in student loans.

When should you marry?

Marriage is incredibly complex, so I believe that two working adults should do it when they are ready.  Money should be made a secondary issue (or a non-issue) whenever more important life issues are at risk. Of course, one may decide to pick one of the above models first, and only consider marriage with someone whose status is consistent with it.

The first model appears to be acceptable to a larger number of women than the second, but the second seems to provide more male candidates these days than the first.

Which of the above financial models for marriage will you use/or are you using?  Which one would you recommend to your brothers & sisters?  Ladies, what do you think?

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 Image credit:  TheDarkThing/Flickr

About Albert Okagbue

Albert has devoted his life to understanding money and wealth, especially how they mix with culture. He writes and is the author of Stop Budgeting Start Living: How to Sync Your Money and Your Life. He is a licensed Certified Public Accountant and has a Tax & Financial Planning practice in Houston.


  1. When I started reading this post, my first reaction was “come on, let’s get out of the 50’s already”. Reading on, I increasingly wanted to ask Albert what colour the sky is on his planet.

    Really – none of this makes any sense in my life or in the world I inhabit. I married my wife near 25 years ago, back when we were both students. I didn’t for a minute care about how much money I should have, or who did or would be earning more. I cared that I knew in my heart that I had found my life partner, and that we were compatible in a number of important ways. I also cared that the couple of years we’d already been living together demonstrated that we could do that and make it work well.

    Since then we’d shared economy, managed our economy together, and each contributed what we could. In the early days there wasn’t much money to go around, and we’ve had times were either os us relied on the other to bring in money to pay the bills. What we never did was live beyond our means. We never spent money we didn’t have – being “financially responsible” is one of those crucial compatibilities I mentioned above.

    I never thought that I had to be able to support my wife financially, or that she had to support me. I always thought the objective was for both of us to be able do the things important to us, and that the contributions we both make to the economy are there to make sure it’s not the economy that prevent us from realizing our dreams.

    To me, neither of your alternatives make any sense. At all. The premise for both appears to be the notion that there *must* be a provider in a marriage. I see no reason this is so, and it does not match the lived life of myself or people around me.

    • Thanks for your detailed response Lars. I certainly respect your experiences – but don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh? 25 years ago did single women in most major cities out-earn men? Did they out-perform them in school? Were there more women in the workforce than men?

      It’s very likely that you thought of your spouse as an equal – but today many men date women who are not their equal in the ways that society cares about. My writing doesn’t promote that reality, it merely seeks to explore its nuances. I don’t attempt to say that is always the case. . .but I do want men to know that they can still do as you did. Notice how my article brought you out? Someone will read your story and have more hope.

      In many (if not most cases), there will be a provider. “Provider” is the person whose income is a major source of the family’s stability at a particular point in time. They can’t afford their home without this person’s income, and when he/she gets a 10% raise it changes their life. This could be the person whose employer insures the whole family. Today, we know that at some point in our lives this could be the man or the woman….and both men and women struggle with its implications for grading potential spouses.

      It seems your answer is to get married “before” to the right person – and I applaud you for it. But I’m quite surprised that you consider your perspective to be a relevant lens for such tough talk. You and I simply don’t live in the same world – so yes, the sky on my planet is blue!

  2. With marriage comes lot of expected and unexpected expenses which can cause lot of stress on the relationship. It is better to be prepared beforehand than to regret later. As for the economies of scale, when two self suppporting people marry, it might not be sufficient. Since these self supporting people can live together with other friends creating better economies of scale. We four single male friends all high earning live together in same house, despite each of us can very easily afford separate accomodations. I do not think that two couples can stay together in same accomodation. So economies of scale favors arrangment like ours rather than married couples. Plus, in this shaky economy who knows what future holds for us.

    • @Rapses – the argument can be made that you are never prepared. I know in my case if I wait until I am very well off, that will also be when my parents will need my help. I don’t think there will ever be “enough” money – rather a person has to decide that they will move on with life.

      For example, I know many multi-millionaires that started out living just like you described. I wouldn’t mind living in a nice two bedroom two bath place with another couple. Some would say that all these things that cause “stress” in a relationship are what strengthen it. You build the skills to survive. Look at KKZ for example: The more I read her struggles, the more I envy her marriage!!!!

      Maybe I’m crazy…

      • The crux of the matter is that the more financial resources you have the better it is, but earning and accumulating weath takes year and a person has to strike the balance between time and finances. Different people have different financial habits and resources. Therefore all the various combinations and permutations cannot be accomated in the given two models. It simply makes no sense.

        • Rapses – It’s simply not possible to accommodate “all the various combinations and permutations” in one article. The writing is a big-picture view of the issue – a binary representation of a continuum.

          You might believe that a person has to have XYZ before marriage….but there are always people who get married without it. The one question that always remains is whether you should marry that person AT THAT TIME.

          It’s either you feel that you are financially ready to get married, or not. But you can get married in either case and figure it out from there. The main idea here is that you CAN do it.

  3. The second financial strategy “Marry first, earn later” does not seem to be a strategy at all. It is just a wishful thinking that everything would be allright in the future. It just seems like a marketing slogan “Buy now, pay later.” How can anyone be sure that he/she would be able to accumulate wealth in the future in these turbulent times? With marriage and children comes big responsibilities and expenses, if you already do not have the resources to fulfill those obligations, then marriage seems to be a risky venture. Financial distress is one of the leading causes of divorce. Sorry 🙁 but am not impressed with you financial acumen.

    • Thanks for your input. Some might say that you are being pessimistic….
      I can see that your response has some assumptions about how fast money will come…but what else?
      Are you thinking of a couple who are BOTH working and supporting themselves? It would seem that they can save lots of money together (at least half of insurance, rent/mortgage, utility bills etc).

      Can you elaborate more on the scenario that your comment is based on.

  4. Finances have been a roller coaster for me and my husband, and no small source of stress. For several years now he has been an IT contractor and has moved from one short-term contract to another, with a few supposedly “permanent” seats in between – and in the same span of time, I’ve held a total of 3 long-term jobs at 2 companies. And the trouble is, in his realm of IT and in our geographical region, it’s been easier and safer for him to get a contract than to hold out for a long-term job. (Most positions are contract-to-hire, and you’d be surprised how often the “to-hire” part doesn’t come through.) Many of the contracts are lucrative, especially the ones he’s been doing lately in relation to electronic medical records, but the lag time between contracts is unpredictable and can be excruciating.

    I have occasionally felt frustrated by the burden of being the one to hold the steady job with healthcare benefits (which few contracts come with), and frustrated too when we can’t take a vacation or even, at times, enjoy a holiday together because he gets no PTO as a contractor. And he was likewise frustrated this past spring when we were apartment-hunting and I had to remind him that no matter how much he was raking in on this last contract, we had to settle on a place that we’d be able to afford on my income alone, should there be another long lag between gigs for him.

    I admit that when I married him in 2009, right before he got outsourced out of his full-time job, I wasn’t prepared to marry a career contractor. Still, we do what we can to make it work, and I find myself frequently counting our blessings because there are so many others who are much worse off. He just finished a contract that paid well enough that we thankfully have plenty of padding, for once, to get us through until the next one comes in, and this time he’s looking at local full-time jobs as well as the well-paying but stressful traveling contracts. Fingers crossed… and thank god we aren’t having kids to add to the pressure!

    • The other frustrating part I should mention is that he’s in IT, a high-earning field, and my job is closer to the arts. He has no degree – he is not really a good fit for traditional education and left his associate’s degree program to take a very lucrative gig as a Department of Defense contractor in 2006 – and I have a Bachelor’s in English with a creative writing emphasis. I work full-time as a marketing copywriter for a new business development firm, and I teach creative writing classes on my off time. I’m proud of my work in both areas and happy at my job, but I feel … awkward? dissatisfied? unbalanced? that my contribution to our household income is so much less than his, and likely will be for as long as we’re both still working. I knew when I chose my major that I wasn’t setting myself up to make a fortune, but I don’t think I was prepared for the effect that earning potential (or lack thereof) could have on my personal self-worth.

      • Thanks so much for your candor KKZ. You two seem to be doing very well though….rolling with the punches. Trust me – you’re learning important lessons about money right now that many people never learn and it’ll likely put you in a great position long-term. If your husband is really good at what he does (seems like it) and you two are managing on your income a lot of the time (your overhead), he might consider going into business on his own. What region are you in? I know healthcare IT is booming right now. People who are skilled but don’t have formal education are typically best served as business owners. Employers want to see diplomas – but customers only care about results.

        I’m a bit floored by your comment about self-worth. I have been there. Please be assured that money only affects your self-worth as much as you let it. You can make a conscious effort to disengage your self-worth from your bank account (see — and it will serve you well!

        Your husband is lucky though. You two seem to be doing well on the marriage front and I bet that matters more to you than everything else!

        • Thanks for responding, Albert. I’ve definitely had to learn to roll with the punches, as you put it, while that’s something that seems to come to him more naturally. He also takes very well to the constant change that comes with contract-hopping, while I prefer stability and would probably go nuts having to switch jobs every 6 months. So while it’s not what I would call ideal, he’s well suited to this career.

          He is very good at what he does. His long history of experience – he’s been doing networking since he was 15 years old, and is 25 now – in a wide variety of fields and roles has helped him secure many jobs that had a degree ‘requirement.’ We do intend to go into business one day, but not IT; his hobby is homebrewing, and he and his brew buddy are building towards being able to open a brewery, but that’s a long-term goal and will take some time.

          And you’re right, too, he’s been very lucky. I’m frequently amazed at the things that tend to land in his lap at just the right moment. We’ve had some scrapes, too, of course – it seems anytime we’re doing “too well” we do tend to get knocked down a notch by some stroke of bad luck or another – that’s karma for you. Luckily none of the bad luck has been completely debilitating, just setbacks to our long-term goals. I’m even grateful for the setbacks because it forces him to slow down a little – he’s a full-speed-ahead kind of guy when it comes to pursuing his goals, which I admire in him, but everyone needs to apply the brakes sometimes.

          We’re in the Cincinnati region, and healthcare is a pretty big employer around here, although most of the healthcare contracts he’s been working have taken him out of state to implement electronic medical records systems at hospital networks around the country. He’s gotten pretty good at playing the game when it comes to recruiters, interviews and contract negotiation.

          Ironically enough, it was my own career that put the most stress on our marriage. By the time I quit my last job, I’d been working nights, weekends and holidays for four years. And by the time I realized there was no hope of getting a better shift or moving to a different position at that company, I was already pretty deeply depressed and lashed out at him a lot during the worst of it. Happy to report that I got help and we’re much better off for it. 🙂

          My income and earning potential alone doesn’t really affect my self-worth, it’s only when I log in to our online banking and see his paycheck deposited right next to mine that I feel a little sting, like I’m not really pulling my own weight. But then I remember that I earn enough to carry us through the lapses in his employment, and I support him emotionally when the job application process gets discouraging, and I stayed home and took care of the dog and our apartment on my own while he spent this past summer contracting in San Francisco. So even if my paycheck is less than his and likely always will be, I can and do contribute in other ways that make up for it.

          I also make myself feel better by maintaining my own account and saving up for certain large expenses on my own – for instance, I’m putting aside some of my own earnings for a cosmetic surgery procedure I want to have next year. Even though I’d be able to afford to get it sooner with his help, I get personal satisfaction when I’m able to pay for something I want for myself without creating an added expense for our family. (Likewise, he pays for his brewing stuff out of his own personal funds.)

  5. There are no easy answers…I would just say that it helps that you have a network of family and friends nearby (or at least a good nanny) once you decide to marry and start a family….Juggling a baby and a FT career and an over-worked husband can make you want to scream….We were blessed with a lot of family members who helped out with baby-sitting and financial concerns….we were able to save up for a house in a good school district once the baby became 3 yo….

    • True. No easy answers….and family helps. But more and more of us live far from family — in pursuit of careers etc. So the questions continue….

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I want that for myself…I hope I can afford to stay close to family. Many cannot.

  6. I’d just like to have the equal right to marry; after that, I’ll worry about picking a model to go by. I think an equal balance sounds better, income wise. But my situation is more involved than most, and wouldn’t easily conform to conventional models anyhow. Question: Why is a higher income man/lower income woman considered acceptable without the woman being called a “gold digger”? Is it only the lower income man who gets labeled “gold digger”? Doesn’t seem quite fair….

    • “Why is a higher income man/lower income woman considered acceptable without the woman being called a “gold digger”? Is it only the lower income man who gets labeled “gold digger”?”

      My use of the term might differ from convention because we haven’t really begun labeling men that. A gold-digger man is one that has far less to offer than the woman. In olden times a woman who couldn’t earn money cooked, cleaned, and took 100% of the childcare. I think women are yet to look favorably (as a group) on men that have such to offer….and men are yet to (as a group) provide a majority such types voluntarily. Many men today stay home out of circumstances – whereas women can present their ability to manage a home as enough “value” for a busy, high-earning man, who doesn’t want his wife answering to someone else.

      I have a question for you. Why do you think income should be balanced in a couple? Will everything else be balanced as well?

      • Your definition of gold digger is not the socially or grammatically normal definition. A gold digger is a user who seeks a partner with more money with an eye toward exploiting that partner. A person who just makes less income than a partner (regardless of gender either way) is not a gold digger just because they make less money. Yes I think all aspects are better if they are balanced; reality doesn’t always allow for that, of course. But it is an unfair double standard that a stay at home woman can often be a desirable partner, while a stay at home man, who can care for home and kids, is often looked down on. Marriage and relationships are vastly varied, and models will never be “one or two sizes fit all”. Also many women are quite comfortable being the main provider with a stay at home dad caring for the kids.

        • Well, as far as models go I think it’s clear that mem can either get married first, or get rich first. This is assuming that people eventually get rich — and most 20 or 30 year olds will be “richer” 20 years later. Much of this “richness” comes from accumulation of wealth saved steadily over time.

          I don’t disagree with your comment about the term “gold-digger”….but I am referring to overall value as well as external perception. If you read KKZ’s comments below, you’ll see a very supportive wife. But if that was the initial value proposition she can be perceived as a gold-digger. Frankly, I think many women who are considered gold-diggers are just what the men want – someone who serves her family (and husband) ONLY. I don’t feel confident that today a man can date a woman with the idea that she will support him financially and he will take care of the home. Maybe I’m behind on the times…but I’ve never heard it valued explicitly. I think when a woman loves a man and he loses his job, she won’t leave him. BUT I think in the status quo women can more confidently sell the value of stay-at-home-spouse.

          (There is data that marriages do better when one person stays home, or is primarily responsible for the home/family. I want BOTH men and women to be able to seek this role, but I feel that women have more access to it while men can only get it if bad things happen.)

          I understand that there are no obvious answers to these questions – so thanks for sharing your views.

          • I don’t agree that men (or women) are left with only one choice: marriage. For starters, a lot of us cannot legally marry in many places. Yet, anyhow; someday that will change. For now, I am a bit unsettled by this somewhat socially outdated models of marriage notion you are discussing. It all sounds very 1950s to me. A woman can do more with her life these days than be a domestic automaton who “serves her family and husband ONLY”. To me, our choices as men and women have grown so far beyond that, and I don’t know many women or men who want to go backward to 1950, with or without being rich first. However, it is so far a moot point for me; at least until my right to marry is recognized by my state.

            • Albert Okagbue says:

              Please, let me be clear. I am NOT promoting cultural practices. My writing is based on observations; I am not a preacher advocating that you or anyone else live a certain way. I am as unsettled as you are, but even women I know that work expect the same things that men were only able to provide in the 1950’s….so you’re unsettled, and I’m confused.

              One of the interesting things about society is that when people have a lot of money, their deepest desires come out. In my other article “Are Men Lazy” the comments revealed that women work because they [and their husbands] desire a lifestyle that cannot be sustained without both parents working. Is this right for society? I don’t know…but it certainly has implications for marriages and families beyond money.

              I’m sorry to hear about the right to marry in your state….I won’t pretend that I can imagine what that’s like. I wish you the best in that regard.

  7. “Marry first, then earn
    However, this model will allow for grandchildren to be born sooner”

    ahhhh…. the marriage itself is, to my mind, mostly irrelevant. What is relevant is having kids – which changes the financial structure of the household – either income drops, or costs increase. I really doubt that it will facilitate the grandchildren earlier….

    and this ….
    ” . . .the growing number of men who refuse to grow professionally in the way that will provide the best financial benefits to their families.”
    is really obnoxious. The men who “reportedly” are refusing to grow professionally, are also reported to not be in marriages or having children. Nor are they indentured providers of financial benefits to a supposed future family.

    • I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Still, that portion of the male population grows proportionately to the earning power of women. They are male “gold-diggers”. If you’re in that group – I didn’t mean to judge or call you out – and if you’re not, then what’s the real problem?

      • Your skills as an armchair psychotherapist could use a bit of polishing. You might also consider some remedial reading.
        The men who are “the growing number of men who refuse to grow professionally” are frequently described as video gamers living in their parents basement and are failing to step up to the plate to form families. Hence, they are not IN marriages, and do not have children. You describe them as “risks”. Risks to whom?
        How on earth can they possibly be “gold-diggers”? From whom are they digging gold ??
        Since they have been judged to be ineligible to be in a couple, they are not risks to either partner or children, and they are gold-digging from no one.
        It would seem that promotion is the fundamental purpose of such ideas. Is this really a viable venue for your objective?

        • You ask: Risks to whom? — to women they marry. Just because they live at home doesn’t mean some of them don’t want to get married or that they never will. If 99% of them will never get married then clearly that’s not who I’m writing about…

          How on earth can they possibly be “gold-diggers”? From whom are they digging gold? — women, of course. Research shows that women still do most of the housework in families (I have no citation –sorry). That means that if a man earns less, he could be called a gold-digger.

          “It would seem that promotion is the fundamental purpose of such ideas. Is this really a viable venue for your objective?”
          This is an interesting question considering how much you misunderstand my article (you haven’t really answered the question or disagreed with the main points of there being “two models”). Let’s just say that my purpose is achieved through all of my articles.

          • “You ask: Risks to whom? — to women they marry”
            but you also say …
            “Successful women often avoid these men by only considering those that have already “made it””

            So, according to you, these men won;t be marrying anyway, hence, they are not risks.
            And your gold-digger slur fails for the same reason.

            Your two model analysis I find, simply facile and superficial.

            Whenever someone posts with links to a site that is clearly promotional – for donations and solicitation of clients – , it certainly invites consideration that a part of the purpose is marketing. If this is not the case, what might your purpose be ?

            In any event, this discussion is going nowhere, so ….

        • On a more serious note though…you can get my contact info from my blog and email me anytime, if you want to discuss more than what’s directly related to this article. If you do, then I’ll tell you the real purpose of my writing here…;)

          Thanks for commenting, and please understand that I appreciate people who disagree with me – or think I’m full of hot air – more than the other types. I already think I’m right…it’s more beneficial for me to be corrected than for me to be confirmed…

          And if you have a particular request for an article – maybe a perspective you have – let me know here.

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