Nirupama Pathak was a 22-year-old Indian graduate student when she was found dead in her bedroom this past April. A member of the highest Hindu caste, Pathak’s mother was arrested soon after, allegedly having killed her daughter for her secret engagement to a man in a lower caste.
And while the average family isn’t going around murdering their daughter for finding love outside her class, you get to college and are reminded that not everyone comes from where you do—that there are students from the nation’s poorest neighborhoods learning alongside graduates of Manhattan’s private schools where life can resemble Gossip Girl and tuition, at around $35k a year is competitive with many universities. But while college can put students who have never had to provide for themselves in the same dorms and dining halls as those who are paying their way through every loan, what is class in college, really? Disagreements over money are the number one problem facing American couples, according to a University of Denver study, but when it comes to college relationships, how much does it matter?
Hear it straight from several students whose relationships have taught them about dating and money firsthand. From a wealthy guy interning in finance who’d gladly trade his BMW for his ex, to a Cornell girl who felt like a brat around her self-supporting boyfriend, they’ll weigh in on their experiences with interclass dating. And while salary is more significant to some, they generally agree with the Beatles that you can have all the money in the world but love is one of those things that isn’t always for sale.
SAM: A 21-year-old from Dubai getting his masters degree in financial systems engineering, Sam gets a $2,000 monthly spending allowance, likes his bottle service and knows he will never be cut off. He also fell hard for a girl who has worked 47 jobs and earned every dime to her name.
I was born and raised in Al-Ain, about an hour from Dubai, the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates. I’m the only child and my parents are surgeons, and while we’re by no means Arab oil money—no Rolls Royce and private jets—my parents earned all their money and we’re extremely well off, with a bunch of homes and everything we could want. Money has never been an issue.
I went to a private international school, which is pretty common in Dubai. It was one of the more expensive ones, and most of my friends were usually pretty well off, but it didn’t really matter that much—everyone knew it but no one had friends based on it.
When I got to college freshman year, money didn’t really seem to play a role in my social life at all. Although implicitly, I guess it did, especially when we started going off campus, because some kids who didn’t come from the same backgrounds couldn’t afford to rage like I did. They couldn’t go out as much and get bottles at clubs and all, but I still make time for those friends.
My parents pay for absolutely everything. I considered applying for a scholarship, but when I went to fill out the application, I realized the committee would just laugh at me. What do your parents do? “Surgeons.” How many siblings? “None.” What are your parents’ tax returns? “We don’t have taxes in our country.” Yeah, no way.
I spend a lot of money. For someone working in finance, Jesus Christ, I don’t save at all. There’s definitely a budget, but it’s very generous. Freshman year ,it was $750 per month, but since about junior year, it has been about $2,000 per month with food, and housing is already paid for, so that’s really just all extra stuff—food, my cell phone bill, DirecTV.
With my parents, they’ll never cut me off. I’m supporting myself this summer—I’m making money and wanted to be my own man for the first time in my life. My dad was OK with it, but my mom felt really weird about having me pay.
Ninety, no, ninety-five percent of the things I do, I couldn’t do if my parents didn’t support me. The only thing that wouldn’t change is food. The going out, the bottle service, the trips, the villas in Mexico, the parties, I mean everything—all of that would come to an end. But the flipside is that I’m the kind of guy who would be OK with that, too. I’d find the cheapest way to do things—to get hammered for ten bucks.
This summer has been sort of ridiculous. After work almost every day, I meet up with a girl or a friend for dinner and drinks, and that’s easily $60-70, lunch is about $15 or so, so I’m probably at about $100 easy.
I always pay for the girl. That’s besides the question. If I didn’t, I feel like my mother would come out of nowhere and hit me on the top of the head with a rolling pin. Once a girl insisted on splitting, and I wasn’t happy, but I did it to respect her. Even with a friend, I still like to pay.
One weekend, I dropped $4,000 in Vegas on bottle service and craziness and gambling. When I was blackout drunk in Atlantic City, I won $12,000 playing blackjack.
I’ve never really exceeded my boundaries, though. I look at my credit card bill probably about once a week and keep track. My lifestyle is ridiculous enough so I don’t go back and ask my parents for extra cash.
In terms of whether the security of my parents’ money comforts me, no, it never comforts me. My parents are both surgeons with double PhDs. They are ridiculously smart people and I’m the only child, so the kind of expectations that exist are enormous.
At school, I drive a 2006 Ford Mustang, red with black racing stripes, supercharged. I spent about $4,000 on the wheels, special 21-inch wheels, a special sound system. With everything on it, I probably spent around $33,000. It’s my college car. My car back home is $120,000, a BMW M5, but my parents wouldn’t let me bring that over here.
About once a month, I’ll spend a few hundred dollars on a bottle at a club—I try not to exceed $300 or $400 in a night. It’s just easier—makes meeting girls easier. Right now I’m pretty single.
I look for girls who can also be my best friend—who I’d hang out with like they’re my best guy friend. She has to be understanding and have a sense of humor and even if she’s not interested in the same things as me, she’ll still want to learn about them because they’re important to me. And I’m allergic to drama. My ex, Kate, and I dated for two years and seven months and we maybe had three fights.
With the first date, I don’t like to go too fancy but no movie and fast food, either. That’s too ghetto. Something sort of romantic where you can really talk. A tapas place, a bottle of wine somewhere.
Kate, she was born and raised outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. She’d never really left the tri-state area. She’s a total family girl who loves Philly and gets homesick when she leaves. She went to Ursinus College, and she earned every dime she has ever had since the age of 12. She has had about 47 jobs in her whole life. She graduated in 2009 and has had three legit jobs since then. Money means pretty much nothing to her. She makes it a point to pay off her loans every month, doesn’t like jewelry or extravagant things. She’s a social worker.
We met at a hookah bar in Philly the same night I’d broken up with my ex. I was totally blackout and don’t remember meeting her but apparently hit on her while she was on a date with another guy, and I gave her my number and asked her out to dinner.
She texted me a few days later and I pretended to remember but I didn’t know who the hell she was. I told her I’d take her to dinner, and I thought it was going to be this chunky, busted chick, but no, a six-foot tall gorgeous girl. Then I thought she was going to be a dumb blonde. No—one of the smartest girls I’ve ever met. We clicked instantaneously, though I picked her up in my Mustang, and she thought I was a douche for that.
We went to an Indian restaurant—the first Indian meal she’d ever had—and we walked around the park and kissed. We hung out every day after that. I was at summer school, and she was working at a café and walking dogs. She’d never heard of Dubai before so I told her about that. We learned all about each other’s families. She liked how close I was with my mother. My mom is the most important person in my life–or she was until I met Kate, and then they tied.
Her dad was an employee at a pharmaceutical company but lost his job and had health problems and no insurance. They basically went bankrupt and lost their house and started living in a rental, so money was really, really tight.
When she first came to my place on the third date and saw my 55-inch TV, this 18-year-old college junior, she was definitely a little taken aback. She was cool with it but definitely not at all wooed off her feet or impressed. I remember that when she first looked at it, it was the first bad day we ever had. She said, “Sam, you’re from a different world. You’re buying these things, and I don’t have $100 to my name. You go to this fancy school.” I reassured her that it didn’t matter at all, because it didn’t. We never did the fancy restaurant thing, but other than that, I didn’t ever really have to make an active effort to make her feel comfortable.
At first, she’d try to pay for things, but she quickly realized my personality and that I wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to let her pay. And I wasn’t going to let her pay with money she didn’t have. I bought her a car senior year—a cheap car, $2,000. She really needed it for work, and I had some money, but she insisted on paying me back for half of it eventually
I’d drive to see her at least once during the week and then every weekend—she’d either come to Philly or I’d go get her. It was the perfect relationship. Absolutely perfect. We dated May before our junior year to August of senior year.
She was definitely more in my world. She got along amazingly with all my friends, but she started getting alienated from some of her friends at school. I took them all out to dinner and drinks when they came to Philly and paid, and they thought I was weird but she reassured them I was genuine and not just some tool.
She was never very comfortable talking about money. She’d buy something, and in my part of the world, we say, “Where’d you get it from? How much was it?” all the time but I learned not to ask her, and it wasn’t really a big deal—no fights over it ever.
I paid for every meal we ever had, everything we ever did. I was going home to Dubai, and I really wanted her to meet my parents and she’d never been, so I bought her a plane ticket. My parents loved her. My mom still always asks about her every time we talk.
Kate definitely thought my life was a little over-the-top. My house, it’s kind of like a museum. My parents collect all sorts of stuff. She was overwhelmed and missed her family, but she enjoyed it. She stayed in Dubai for two weeks, and one night, she, my mom, my housekeeper and I went to the most expensive hotel in the world—a seven-star hotel. She had a lot of fun, but that was a little much for her.
Things got tough in the spring of our senior year. While I was in Acapulco on spring break, she was going through some difficult stuff at home, and when I got back, we broke up for the first time. But she lived with me in Philly that summer because it would be stupid of her to spend money she didn’t have on an apartment. She got her own place and we broke up again, but she’s still my best friend.
At first I thought our worlds didn’t really play that much of a role in our relationship, though in some ways they did because my background influenced what I want to do. I’m a decently materialistic guy. I wanted this high-powered Wall Street career initially and, you know, to go out and make a lot of money and be powerful, whereas she’s very much a social worker and believes money isn’t that important, and if we did ever have kids, we’d have very different ideologies on how to raise them.
But she has definitely changed me. Money just isn’t as important to me anymore. It’s not the end of the world. If it mattered, I wouldn’t be planning on getting out of finance and going into renewable energy. I’m doing the whole financial thing to earn some street cred, but I don’t want to be in this industry. If I hadn’t dated Kate, I’d probably be the stereotypical prick working at Goldman Sachs the rest of my life–. Get married at 30, divorced at 32, remarry at 35, divorce at 37–typical f***ing finance guy. So yeah, I’ve changed—
I would say money is very subjective. It really can play a role in relationships. Like a woman being from a higher class than the guy, I’ve seen that blow up. A lot of guys can’t accept that. But if that’s your concern, it shouldn’t be. Things might not work out for a million other reasons, and dating someone from a different background, you really do find out things you’d never expect and learn places you’d never know. It can change your life. It can change you. Kate changed me.
KAREN: A 2010 graduate of Cornell University, Karen never considered herself “rich.” But when she dated a guy who used his income to buy groceries for his family back in high school—and hid him from her mom—she started realizing that not everyone lived like she did.
I met John in my junior year of high school through mutual friends. He lived a few towns over from me, about a fifteen-minute drive, and it was like a whole new world over there. John’s family lived in a fairly rundown neighborhood in a two-bedroom house. His family of five used a room off the family room and the basement as additional bedroom space, and they only had one bathroom. I never considered myself spoiled—I grew up in a nice town and went on nice vacations but never felt “rich.” But around him I felt like a spoiled brat sometimes.
John bought himself a car on his seventeenth birthday for $500. It was older than both of us, and I was too afraid to go in it. It wasn’t as if I had a brand new car—I drove my mom’s old Saab when she got a new car—but I felt like a brat when I drove to his house because all his family’s cars were old and all the boys bought their own cars.
I always had a job—babysitting or, starting at 17, working at a gym — and the money I made was for my dinners, food out and clothes shopping, plus extras. John’s money was for helping his family with groceries or bills, paying for his car and insurance and all of his personal “fun” expenses. I genuinely didn’t understand how John’s parents could let him go out and fill the house with groceries on his own dime. I tried to keep that opinion to myself but when I once said, “Oh my mom owes me money for groceries” he looked at me like a spoiled brat.
He didn’t have nice things but took good care of me. I never let my mom meet him or know he existed because I was afraid she might look down on him, even though I would never describe my mom as pretentious or snooty. John also didn’t go to college, which was another background difference and another reason the thought of my mom knowing he existed made me feel ill.
John never really complained about finances to me, but would occasionally make comments that weren’t mean, but still made me feel guilty for being raised in an upper-middle class family. Occasionally I would complain that I was really cold or really hot — because they didn’t have air conditioning and his room in the basement only really had a tiny space heater that he’d keep in there. In the beginning I have to confess I was a little bit “ashamed” of him because of his car, and the way he’d dress (really really dirty sneakers, sometimes jean shorts, wife beaters) because I was used to boys wearing Ralph Lauren and being all preppy. But I never really let it affect my feelings for him.
MAYA: Having grown up comfortable in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Maya got to University of Pennsylvania her freshman year and couldn’t believe what kids were spending—and that for the first time in her life, money was so apparent and important. With her guy friends paying for her drinks and girls talking about designer bags, she settled down with Adam, who came from less but gave her far more than any fancy meal.
I grew up in Westlake Village, which is a pretty affluent suburb of Los Angeles—lots of old retired golfers. I have two younger sisters, and we live with our parents in a family-oriented neighborhood, and yeah, everyone is pretty well off. Some areas have a lot of famous people and are obviously extremely wealthy, but my street was nice and quiet. People were super down to earth and not flashy at all about money, but it’s a nice area.
My dad was raised very poor and put himself through school. My parents don’t talk about money, don’t spoil us and give a lot of money to charity. We all get uncomfortable talking about how much clothing costs, and UPenn was such a shock for me.
My impression of money growing up, like it still is, was that discussing it was pretty classless. We’ve grown up with allowances and were always well-dressed, well fed, well educated, and well traveled but never anything too extreme—no $500 dresses from Saks or anything. I’ve never felt entitled and save a lot, and my parents taught me to be pretty frugal. I’ve worked before, but my dad made it very clear that since his mom was not able to pay for his college, my education and all the finances that go with it are his gift to me.
Although I came from a nice neighborhood, I had never seen “money” before I came to Penn. Kids were given limitless credit cards, and some of my new friends had jackets or shoes that probably cost half of my wardrobe. I didn’t know kids could lead such decadent lives—buying incredibly expensive clothing and going out to eat every night of the week. I think above and beyond what surprised me the most was the amount of money kids spent on nice alcohol or on clubbing for the sake of keeping up appearances. Although my family is definitely not poor, we pale in comparison to the wealth of some Penn families. I had never felt self-conscious or aware of any true class differences until I came to Penn and saw how outrageous some lifestyles were. If I felt that way, being from a place that had its share of wealth, I can’t imagine what other kids, the majority of Penn, feel like seeing all of this.
I would say most of my closest friends come from similar economic backgrounds. But we don’t talk about money, and I don’t even usually know who has what. But money definitely matters at Penn. Within the Greek scene, especially for guys, a lot of the “good” frats actively recruit the wealthier kids. It really is all about keeping up a good image. I try not to think about it. After all, it isn’t my money anyways—it’s my parents.
I met Adam during New Student Orientation freshman year, and we reconnected at a party a few months later. After that, we were pretty much inseparable and probably didn’t spend a night apart. Adam was raised in a really frugal household. His parents put a lot of pressure on him to not only succeed academically but also financially.
He told me he had trouble adjusting to Penn and didn’t make that many friends at the beginning because he couldn’t relate to their extravagant lifestyles. His parents told him he needed to take five courses every semester because they wanted him to finish early to save money. He was always worrying about something, often money.
When we were together, it was the most open, comfortable, intimate relationship you could imagine. Instead of asking what types of things we did together, you should ask what we didn’t do together. Everything, whether brunching with my friends or playing videogames and watching Entourage with his friends, was always done together.
We both tried to avoid the subject of money, but it slowly became apparent how different our upbringings were. Even on our first date, he didn’t pay for dinner. He would get grumpy and upset if we didn’t split a taxi ride. Sometimes when I would order food on my online account, he would order as well and not even offer to chip in or pay for the next one.
Valentine’s Day stands out in my mind. I didn’t know if he planned anything, and he got really freaked out by the prospect of taking me out to a nice dinner because he wasn’t sure if he could afford it. Besides Valentine’s Day, he never paid for me or offered.
He met my family for the first time in their hotel room when they came to visit. He didn’t know that my mom is a travel agent and can find great hotel rooms for cheap. He walked into the amazing suite they’d managed to get, and I knew instantly how uncomfortable he felt. After we left, he made a comment about how he didn’t realize how wealthy my family was, which was something I never thought about. It was a really sad moment because I realized then that he thought there was some sort of barrier between us that couldn’t be bridged.
We broke up after six months, and I was single all of sophomore year. I dated around a little, and on one really nice date in particular, the guy took me to really upscale restaurant downtown. But it wasn’t about being flashy. It was just a nice way of saying, “I am so interested in getting to know you that I’m going to take you to this nice place.” It doesn’t impress me when guys take me somewhere fancy unless they’re doing it in a humble and meaningful way, like he did.
As far as I’m concerned, money really doesn’t matter at all when it comes to relationships. I think marriage and future stability is another question, but for right now, it shouldn’t be an issue. Being in college is about getting to know people from places and background different than your own. I loved Adam more than I’ve ever loved anyone in my life, and when we were dating, it never bugged me that he wasn’t making all of these romantic gestures simply because he couldn’t afford it.
*Names have been changed to protect contributors’ anonymity
Writer’s note: Can you relate to any of this? There are endless scenarios and experiences relationship to money, college and dating, and this series only captures a few. Have a different perspective to represent? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.