Welcome to Joint Accounts, a weekly advice column about money and relationships of all kinds. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
Dear Joint Accounts,
I’m a mid-30s gay man and I’ve finally arrived in my career to the point where I’m making decent money. I like taking lots of trips, eating good food, and drinking nice cocktails. I also want to share that with a boyfriend or lover. But often, when I’m dating younger guys, they’re less far along in their career and don’t make as much money. I’ve dabbled in the sugar-daddy dynamic a bit, paying for everything we did together, and honestly, I kind of liked it. Sometimes, I want to do fancy things with a guy and I don’t want his financial situation to stop us. But with the #MeToo movement and my awareness of how power and money influence a relationship, how do I be an ethical sugar daddy? And how do I create the right boundaries so I also don’t get taken advantage of? How do I have these conversations with a partner?
—Ethical Sugar Daddy
First things first, let’s define what we’re talking about. The act of sugaring is simply offering a financial benefit — tuition repayment, fancy meals, expensive trips — to another person you’re dating.
That doesn’t sound too bad, right? But sugar-daddy dynamics rarely play out neatly. The term itself implies a parent-child relationship rather than an equal partnership between two adults. And when that equality is in question, problems arise. For example, as you mentioned, the person receiving the financial benefit might take advantage of the affluent person in the relationship. Or maybe money is being used as a form of emotional abuse.
It doesn’t sound like you enjoy this situation because of the power dynamics, though — you just enjoy doing fancy things and sharing those experiences. When my husband and I first started dating, I felt the same way: I wanted to go to nice restaurants, but he was broke. So when I craved a fancier meal, I suggested the spot and was happy to pay the bill. This isn’t exactly sugaring; it’s just what tends to happen when one person in the relationship outearns the other. Gifting experiences to someone you love isn’t the same as trying to financially dominate them.
And the fact that you’re sensitive to the situation means you’re already taking steps to make sure any potential partnership is a healthy one, notes Adam Kol, a financial relationship coach. “Recognizing the power dynamic is a key first step,” he says.
“Bringing that care, love, and openness to the conversation is going to do a lot of the work for him right there,” Kol adds. Money conversations are always a little awkward, but talking through your situation is key to easing any discomfort you’re feeling. “Be bold and honest,” Kol says. “Tell him you want to enjoy fancy things with him, even if that means treating him, and also make sure each of you feels cared for and respected. Then ask him when would be a good time to chat more about this.”
The goal is to set boundaries and get on the same page. I’d ask questions about the kind of expenses your boyfriend is comfortable with you paying for, and bring up how comfortable you are paying for those things, too. Try something like, “I earn a pretty good living and enjoy doing nicer things, and that can be expensive. How do you feel about me paying for stuff? Are you okay with how our financial dynamics are playing out?” Come up with a plan to decide who will pay for which expenses so there are no surprises.
If you’re worried about getting taken advantage of, the question to ask is: Would your boyfriend still want to be with you, if you didn’t pay for those things?
You can also brainstorm alternative ways to contribute to an experience that aren’t money. Once, I wanted to go on a weekend trip with a boyfriend who declined, for financial reasons. So I offered to pay, and yes, it felt good to be in a position where I could provide something to someone I loved. But my then-boyfriend also contributed in other ways, like researching hotels and planning travel logistics, which helped the whole thing feel like more of a joint venture.
If you’re worried about getting taken advantage of, ask yourself: Would your boyfriend still want to be with you if you didn’t pay for those things? If you suspect the answer is no, and you feel like your identity in the relationship is only defined in dollars, it might be time to find someone who likes you for more than your finances.
But if your boyfriend appreciates you beyond your bank account, and you respect each others’ emotions and well-being, then money can just be money. And if you want to use yours to share some fun experiences together, have the conversation and make sure there’s mutual respect and appreciation. Then, enjoy those fancy trips and nice cocktails together, knowing you’re on the same page.