Bryan Caplan  

Your Money or Yourself

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Most people care a lot more about money than I do, but even so, almost no one wants to be married for their money. It's puzzling. You might say that since marriage is a long-term contract, people only want to be married for traits that they will keep for a long time. But that cuts against the obvious fact that people care a lot about the appearance of their spouse, even though looks generally fade long before money does.

Another possible explanation for the asymmetry is the discrete nature of the marriage contract. Right after someone marries you for your money, they no longer need you for your money, because (prenup aside) they can divorce you and grab a big chunk of your lifetime income. Maybe that's right, but even if you've got a Massey prenup, you still want to be married "for yourself," not your money.

When economics fails, I usually try to supplement it with psychology. Maybe the main reason people don't want to be married for their money is that we don't believe that people can love someone for their money. You can feel strong attraction to someone's personality, looks, intelligence, or success, but not money per se. The catch is that once you start loving someone for one or more of these traits, you often stay in love with them after they fade. You get addicted to the pusher, rather than the drug.

Perhaps this is too much of a man's perspective. It's hard not to feel disgusted at a man who marries for money, but we judge women who do so far less harshly. And the reason, I suspect, is that men almost never fall in love with a women for her money, but some women can fall in love for a man for his money. But that doesn't sound quite right to me. Like George Costanza, "I know less about women than anyone in the world." Still, aren't women much more attracted to success than money? An average guy who inherits millions isn't interesting to women in the same way that a self-made millionaire is.

Whatever the explanation, the fact that people don't want to be married for their money explains some puzzles about the marriage market. For one thing, it explains why people prefer to marry within their social class. If you're rich guy, you would rather marry a rich girl because you know she's not after your money. If disaster struck her family fortune the day after the wedding, you might not care at all about the financial loss, because at least you know that she married you for yourself.

An even bigger puzzle we can explain is why men don't exploit the INS marriage loophole far more than they do. By going to the world market, the typical American man could probably use the lure of citizenship and a First World standard of living to find a wife who is better-looking, younger, and less demanding than he could find in the States. Roll your eyes if you must!

But only an idiot wouldn't wonder "Maybe she's just marrying me for the green card and the green." And that's usually enough to overpower the palpable benefits of casting a wider net.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Mike Linksvayer writes:
It's hard not to feel disgusted at a man who marries for money, but we judge women who do so far less harshly.

Really? I feel nothing at all, must have missed out on that social disapprobation. So men who marry for money are worse than "gold diggers"?

Paul N writes:

Man Bryan, I don't know anyone who *doesn't* marry for money!

Nathan Whitehead writes:

I think the answer is that both women and men are indeed strongly attracted to money. Everyone has a dislike for the idea that someone else likes them for their money, because knowing this adds to the insecurity of the relationship should the money be lost. Therefore people are attracted to money but have strong incentives to deny this. Thus when we look for the attraction, it is hard to find.

Also, people are more strongly attracted to physical looks. While good looks do fade over time, the genetics that produced them don't fade, and will be passed on to the children. Money doesn't fade either, but wealth might not be as valuable as genetics.

Robert Schwartz writes:

"... aren't women much more attracted to success than money? An average guy who inherits millions isn't interesting to women in the same way that a self-made millionaire is."

Just keep telling your self that.

jaimito writes:

In fact, many European and American males marry "mailorder brides" from the third world. Phillipine brides are very popular because they speak English. But as outsourcing has shown, an Indian engineer is cheap, but his productivity is low. Eating Phillipine food every day and paying long distance phone calls may not be worth it.

El Presidente writes:

I would venture a guess that few men marry for money in this country (the way we think of it) because fewer women have an appreciable stash. Opportunity lacking for such marriages, it's hard to say what men would do if we had the same opportunities.

As for women, I think only a fool would would claim to understand them. "This is only a test of the male intellect. If this were a real conclusion" . . . you get the point. I think they are no less or more likely to develop love from a financial engagement than men. It probably happens for women with greater frequency because of the greater prevalence of women marrying for money, again because of their higher likelihood to be less well endowed financially and statistical tendency to earn less over their lifetime.

When two poor people marry we often assume it had nothing to do with money and they were just soooo in love. The reverse is quite often true. It's not easy living in poverty and having a partner in financial challenges can increase the odds of success. It is almost imperative for low-skilled poor individuals to couple in order better their lot. There are, of course, obvious psychological and physiological benefits that are assumed as part of the marriage arrangement which make it preferable to communal living for purely financial reasons. I think this is a good counter-example to the "two rich people" scenario. In this one each of them have nothing and yet each are marrying for money without apology or need of one.

Bob Knaus writes:

I would, personally, marry for money.

In fact, if any of you know of a financially independent woman who would want to marry a 43 year old smart handsome cheerful guy who lives on a sailboat in the Bahamas, send her my way! She can look at my web site to see what I look like, and the boat too for that matter.

I can't wait for results. This would make the difference between teaching Boy Scouts how to sail part-time, and exploring the world full-time.

robert leeper writes:

How plausible is this:

I married her for her looks, but don't - and
never did, never expected to - enjoy being
with her.

You seemed to be on the right track when you wrote of "the discrete nature of the marriage contract". As an economist, you might tend to think first of the contract and second if at all of the relationship, but I would expect you to see that what matters is the separability of the money from the person - to a degree of a different order than
that of looks or other personal, if superficial and fleeting, characteristics.

dsquared writes:

An average guy who inherits millions isn't interesting to women in the same way that a self-made millionaire is

Really? Prince William?

Peter Clark writes:

As my dad always said ...

"If you marry for money, you earn every cent of it!"

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