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Love and Money

Catherine Rampell comes across a new working paper by researchers at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern that suggests spendthrifts and tightwads have a tendency to marry one another. From the abstract:

“[T]ightwads,” who generally spend less than they would ideally like to spend, and “spendthrifts,” who generally spend more than they would ideally like to spend, tend to marry each other, consistent with the notion that people are attracted to mates who possess characteristics dissimilar to those they deplore in themselves. … In spite of this complementary attraction, spendthrift/tightwad differences within a marriage predict conflict over finances, which in turn predict diminished marital well-being.

I'm curious about those definitions. Someone who spends less than they would ideally like to spend does not sound like a tightwad so much as someone who does not have as much money as they'd ideally like to have. That said, the paper seems to base the definition on a more emotional measure: Whether people "feel a pain of paying," and whether they think the pain they feel is too much, or not enough.

The researchers make a point of noting that the observed behavior of coupling is very different from the expressed preferences of people who want to be in couples. We say we want people with similar emotional reactions to us. In fact, we are attracted to people with dissimilar emotions to us, at least when it comes to spending. Luckily, I'm immune from that accidental dissonance, because my unstoppable desire to spend more money than I should on restaurants gives me quick and reliable information on whether the people I date are tolerant and even enthusiastic about frivolousness.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 12, 2009; 1:02 PM ET
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I'm a tightwad who married a tightwad and I'm quite satisfied. Part of that might be self-awareness, though: I found out at a pretty young age that I'm cheap, and so ever since I first started dating it was one of the characteristics that I was looking for in any potential spouse. I heartily recommend my approach to others. If you're the sort of person who likes to map out a budget for the next, oh, thirty years before you make a major purchase, it's immensely comforting to know that your spouse is not only not going to think you're crazy, but is actually appreciative.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | August 12, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

In the past, I've criticized the Post for hiring columnists who generate pointless tripe. I'm glad to see that there no need to amend previous comments.

Posted by: halmin | August 12, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

There's thrift and then there's cheapness.

Thrifty people can be satisfied with the simpler things, like a good homecooked dinner instead of a mediocre restaurant meal for the same or higher cost.

Cheapness, on the other hand, is wanting the finer things, even feeling like you deserve them, but just not wanting to pay for them. A cheap friend will order from the high end of the menu; run the server ragged with demands for substitutions, extra sauces and drink refills; won't tip; and will try to weasel her way out of her share of the check at the end of the night. If you're paying, you will find out that her eyes are bigger than her stomach as she orders more dishes than she can actually eat. Don't ask me how I know this.

Posted by: csdiego | August 12, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I don't like the definitions of either the tightwad or the spendthrift, but I guess we have to go with them because that's how the researchers defined the terms.

As for the "tightwad" there are many famous instances of fabulously wealthy people being notoriously reluctant to part with a nickel. The guy who owns Ikea jumps to mind. So I don't think it's a matter of not having as much money as you would ideally like to have that makes a person a tightwad. It IS emotional, and rather disconnected from the reality of the person's financial situation.

Posted by: luko | August 12, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

This study is flawed. By the researchers' definitions, the tightwad and the spendthrift will always marry each other, because they are both defined as having emotional needs at odds with their behavior.

They're not looking at the marriage choices of those who are tight with money and those who are loose with it. They are looking at the marriage choices of those who have a certain behavior with money and wish it were different. *Obviously* the latter sort of person is going to marry someone different than they are because they *want* that.

Posted by: constans | August 12, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. A happy tummy trumps almost everything. [almost]

Posted by: rmgregory | August 12, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

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