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Match Games

ae_coupleHow are couples navigating pinched bank accounts in a shaky economy?
After nine years as a marketing manager, Santa Cruz resident Jack Carr, 35, was laid off from his job. It was 2009, the height of the economic downturn. But that wasn’t the only thing taking a downturn. His relationship with his live-in girlfriend was also strained.

In August of 2010, the couple broke up, but moving was not a financial option. So they kept their Santa Cruz rental, claiming separate bedrooms. Carr finally secured a job one year later.

His ex-turned-housemate started to date again a few months after their split, but Carr had to postpone dating until he could recover financially.

“If I get back out there, I’ve got to find stuff to do that’s free,” Carr says. “It’s not like I could take someone out to a nice dinner.”

After paying back debts accumulated while on unemployment, Carr had to buy new work clothes and deal with delayed car repairs. Plus, his income has been reduced by more than $1,000 per month from what it was previously.

As a result, he says he’s “had to change the way I think about dating.”

Carr is not alone.

Rebecca Machado, 31, is a marriage and family therapist working in Soquel. She helps couples, singles and everyone in between deal with the issues most pressing in life and love. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Machado has noticed changes in the way relationships transpire now that unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies and a litany of other financial predicaments are so prominent. According to Machado, Going Dutch (splitting the cost of dates), cheap and free date nights and engagement procrastination have grown in popularity.

Three years ago, a couple came to her to hash out their disagreement over the purchase of a $25,000 rug. Now, she says the issues people are working through have more to do with a lack of money.

“The stress of not having enough, or not feeling like they’re valuable enough, or how it affects their self-esteem is one of the main reasons why couples come to see me,” says Machado. “Oftentimes, one person in a relationship wants something—to buy a house, or to change jobs, or to not be working as much—and it creates this huge rift in the relationship.”

As shifting financial realities act like earthquakes on the dating landscape, people are finding thriftier ways to date.

“People are exploring cheap and free dates and really enjoying them,” says Machado. “Walks on the beach, [or] going to the farmers’ market and buying everything to make dinner is becoming more popular than going to an expensive restaurant and spending a lot of money.”

Through his experience, Carr has also found “fun things that you can do that cost little or no money.”

“You can take a daytrip to Pescadero,” he says. “You can have hours of fun for dirt cheap—walking around Harley Farms, tasting cheese, petting goats. If you meet someone with similar interests, it’s easy to be entertained for less.”

Jocelyn Brown, a community development director for a Santa Cruz nonprofit, is doing well for herself considering the economic climate, but agrees that the economy has changed the dating terrain. Brown, 30, says she has been out with a few guys who make less money than her. She doesn’t mind being the wealthier part of a pair and enjoys coming up with creative solutions to keeping coupling within a budget.

“One of the things I like to do if money is tight is to cook dinner or make a snack and take it to the beach,” says Brown. “I also like hiking, so a picnic in the redwoods is another fun, cheap way to take financial pressure out of the equation.”

When to take certain dating steps has always caused couples to grip the relationship steering wheel a bit harder, but the debates have shifted, leaving lovers in search of a new navigation system. Intimacy may happen more quickly, whereas committing to marriage can take longer.

“People are getting to a place of intimacy a little bit quicker than the standard going out to dinner and drinks and going separate ways,” Machado says. “When you go into someone’s home, there are all kinds of conversations made possible.”

Brown recently had a date over for dinner with her housemates and agrees with Machado that it took things to the next level more rapidly.

“It’s more exposing, more intimate for a date to eat at your home,” Brown says. “My collection of Christopher Moore books prompted a long discussion that may not have transpired for months. It was refreshing to get past some of the awkward formality involved in dating.”

Another issue drudged up in the turbulent economy is the tendency to move in together faster.

“The stress and impact of moving in together sooner is a huge issue,” says Machado. “Clients are making the move more quickly because of finances. Economically, it’s more sensible to share rent.”

Once the first stretch of new love is past, however, Machado says that “daily life and the stress and impact of living together and having strained finances is going to have an effect, especially in Santa Cruz where the cost of living is so high.”

Four of Machado’s clients are currently putting off proposing to their significant other because of expenses.

“The cost of the wedding, the size of the ring they want to buy, the honeymoon, the dress they know she’ll want, are all factors. It’s really impacting. They know their partner wants to get married, and they want to as well. It seems that instead of scaling down the caliber, they prefer to wait out the recession and hope that the money will appear,” says Machado.

Dealing with pressures brought on by financial stress is best met with communication, Machado says. Because sex and money conflicts are highly charged with emotions, communicating about them facilitates intimacy and may improve the chances that a relationship goes the distance.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s actually difficult,” Machado says. “Communication can sometimes be so trying, and the thing that is left to the absolute wayside. It’s better to communicate before you get to that breaking point where it’s just a landslide of issues. The stress is usually there way before that. Communication is paramount in terms of dealing with the stress of finances.”

She adds that it’s important for people to feel that they can say “I don’t have the money for that. Or, I’m not happy in my job and I can’t do anything about it because I have to meet my rent or mortgage.”

Talking to a new or existing romantic partner about money issues can be intense, but living beyond means also creates anxiety and depression, says Machado.

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