The Economics of Gold-Digging

The following story is currently making the rounds on the Internet. The events probably didn’t happen exactly as described, but for my purposes it doesn’t really matter.

Supposedly, a woman posted the following personal ad on Craigslist:

What am I doing wrong?

Okay, I’m tired of beating around the bush. I’m a beautiful (spectacularly beautiful) 25-year-old girl. I’m articulate and classy. I’m not from New York. I’m looking to get married to a guy who makes at least [a] half a million a year. I know how that sounds, but keep in mind that a million a year is middle class in New York City, so I don’t think I’m overreaching at all.

Are there any guys who make 500K or more on this board? Any wives? Could you send me some tips? I dated a businessman who makes average around 200 – 250K. But that’s where I seem to hit a roadblock. 250,000K won’t get me to Central Park West. I know a woman in my yoga class who was married to an investment banker and lives in Tribeca, and she’s not as pretty as I am, nor is she a great genius. So what is she doing right? How do I get to her level?

Here are my questions specifically:

– Where do you single rich men hang out? Give me specifics- bars, restaurants, gyms.

– What are you looking for in a mate? Be honest guys, you won’t hurt my feelings.

– Is there an age range I should be targeting (I’m 25)?

– Why are some of the women living lavish lifestyles on the Upper East Side so plain? I’ve seen really “plain Jane” boring types who have nothing to offer married to incredibly wealthy guys. I’ve seen drop dead gorgeous girls in singles bars in the East Village. What’s the story there?

– Jobs I should look out for? Everyone knows — lawyer, investment banker, doctor. How much do those guys really make? And where do they hang out? Where do the hedge fund guys hang out?

– How you decide marriage vs. just a girlfriend? I am looking for MARRIAGE ONLY.

Please hold your insults — I’m putting myself out there in an honest way. Most beautiful women are superficial; at least I’m being up front about it. I wouldn’t be searching for these kind of guys if I wasn’t able to match them — in looks, culture, sophistication, and keeping a nice home and hearth.

The response she got was as follows:

Dear Pers-431649184:

I read your posting with great interest and have thought meaningfully about your dilemma. I offer the following analysis of your predicament. Firstly, I’m not wasting your time, I qualify as a guy who fits your bill; that is I make more than $500K per year. That said, here’s how I see it:

Your offer, from the prospective of a guy like me, is plain and simple a crappy business deal. Here’s why. Cutting through all the B.S., what you suggest is a simple trade: you bring your looks to the party, and I bring my money. Fine, simple. But here’s the rub — your looks will fade and my money will likely continue into perpetuity … in fact, it is very likely that my income increases but it is an absolute certainty that you won’t be getting any more beautiful!

So, in economic terms, you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning asset. Not only are you a depreciating asset, your depreciation accelerates! Let me explain: you’re 25 now and will likely stay pretty hot for the next 5 years, but less so each year. Then the fade begins in earnest. By 35, stick a fork in you!

So in Wall Street terms, we would call you a trading position, not a buy and hold … hence the rub … marriage. It doesn’t make good business sense to “buy you” (which is what you’re asking) so I’d rather lease. In case you think I’m being cruel, I would say the following: if my money were to go away, so would you, so when your beauty fades I need an out. It’s as simple as that. So a deal that makes sense is dating, not marriage.

Separately, I was taught early in my career about efficient markets. So, I wonder why a girl as “articulate, classy and spectacularly beautiful” as you has been unable to find your sugar daddy. I find it hard to believe, if you are as gorgeous as you say you are, that the $500K hasn’t found you, if not only for a tryout. By the way, you could always find a way to make your own money and then we wouldn’t need to have this difficult conversation.

With all that said, I must say you’re going about it the right way. Classic “pump and dump.” I hope this is helpful, and if you want to enter into some sort of lease, let me know.

I have to say that the respondent has some pretty sensible economics in his answer. My guess, however, is that with that mindset he probably doesn’t have any more success with ladies than the gold-digging woman does with men. Just as politics often trumps economics when it comes to public policy, rational arguments rarely win the day in dating, love, and marriage.

I wouldn’t expect male economists to marry very well. Firstly, they tend to think like the guy who wrote this letter. Secondly, they tend to be nerds. Thirdly, they make very little money when they are young because they get so much education, even though their lifetime income is quite high. Yet I think it is fair to say that the economists I know have married stunningly well (myself included). We’ve all been puzzling over this fact for the fifteen years I have been in the profession. As of yet, no one has come up with a good explanation. I doubt it could be perfect foresight on the part of the women we marry.

Also, completely contrary to what an economic model might predict, I can’t think of any economist who left his wife in middle age for a younger “trophy” wife. There must be cases, but none that spring to mind.

So maybe economists aren’t such heartless, conniving people after all. Or maybe economists just care so little about human relationships that it’s not worth the trouble to try to acquire a trophy wife.

(Hat tip: Meng Li.)


Ryan

Perhaps the earnings prospects for a married man are better than for a single man (ie. if you're single maybe you might quit the rat race and go live on a tropical island instead, but if you're married it signals to your employer that you've got too many responsibilities in life to do something that frivolous)

So, to the extent that being married rather than single improves one's potential career prospects, the economic analysis in the article may have underestimated the benefits of the tradeoff.

living in queens

*sigh* where to start.
In response to the young woman:

Its unfortunate that so many years after the feminist movement women still see their looks as their best asset, even when they are 'geniuses'. This, it seems, is because it is STILL the asset that is best rewarded monetarily. Perhaps thats a theme for another day?

I am also a 25 yr old woman, well educated, decently attractive and living in NYC. What I can say, from what Ive seen around me and experienced is the following:
If a wealthy man is something you really want, you have 1 of serveral options. Either marry young, before he becomes successful and when you might actually be in love, or marry an older, divorced man. Why, you ask? Because An older man who is already divorced will continue to see you as young and attractive (hence, you will not depreciate quickly), since youll always be younger than him. Its not like hes going to do much better. The man you marry when hes young and unsuccessful...theres a chance he might decide he wants a 'younger version of you' in 20 yrs.
Of course, theres also the option of marrying a 'trust fund' baby, but that comes with its own risks and challenges. Finally, the option of marrying one of the Hedge Fund millionaires. Too bad they are all coked out.

Having said all of this, I once had the option of money over love and chose love. Does that mean I never think about the porsche and the live in cook i could have had? No, but I know Im much happier living in my little apartment with my amore!

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popeye

this is really funny. There might be some economists who might have trophy girl-friends on the side. It is more convenient to have an affair I guess than to just dump one's wife after a certain age because switching costs are high.

Victoria

Economists are not heartless, they're careful. Which may be partly why they make good life decisions.

Manzell B

Am I the only one who finds the economist's "Fermi Paradox of Dating" vaguely disconcerting?

Ondine

Fascinating. I followed the link and there seem to be any number of ads with economic interest. Like the [paraphrasing] foreign student seeking marriage for resident status and health insurance who doesn't want to be a domestic servant. Or young women in their early 20s looking for "Sugerdaddies". One of them is looking for a "nice gentleman who can show her the world and make her feel like a princess".

There seems to be a market for those things.

danny

well i guess writers and economists are different, seeing as how Salman Rushdie just lost his trophy wife.

Roger

What is amazing time and again, the amount of people who over value their looks. Its amazing how many people say they are better than average looking or better looking than so and so. Well, you are likely overrating yourself, figure out whoever is the pinnacle of women and then look at the other end of some of the most hideous. There is a big bell curve of just average, and thats where the majority are. So unless your name is Gisele, Jessica Alba, or Rebecca Romijn, you are not as beautiful as you think you are.

I'd rather have someone who is interesting and brings to the table something unexpected, than jsut the beauty quality. Who wants to wake up to a barbie doll who will need lipo, collagen injections, and face lifts when she realizes her looks are fading?

Silvanus

Hm, I too am a little perplexed by the average economist marrying gorgeous spouses. Most of the interpersonal research in terms of initial mate selection is based on comparative value; if people were rated 1-10, the 5s tend to group up with 4s and 6s, since the 9s and 10s are "out of their league."

Likewise, our values of beauty tend to be based on familial connections; people tend to be attracted to others who look like their cousins.

Here's my question for Prof. Levitt: Do you look like your wife's cousin? That may be one possible answer- dumb luck that you bear a physical resemblance to your wife's blood family.

wb

An economist would probably choose a lower-maintenance wife. The potential gold digger obviously places a premium on her appearance and wonders how plainer women managed to attract wealthy men. She may spend a lot of time each day in primping, shopping for stunning clothes, exercising zealously, and eating like a bird. Those are habits annoying in a mate, and an eventual bone of contention.

I don't hang out with the wealthy crowd, but I think most busy men like a mate who is unstressed and available, is low maintenance, and who isn't spending all of their hard-earned money on things of little lasting value.

It all goes back to the song, "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. To be happy in the things you do, get an ugly girl to marry you."

Jonathan

I wouldn't worry about the uxorial future of male economists. Young economists on university faculties have good, steady jobs with benefits, including lots of unstructured time to go on vacations or just spend with their girlfriends. Plus, they are always traveling to do research or to attend conferences, so they have the opportunity to meet and befriend beautiful, exotic women.

And you forgot the most obvious part: economists on university faculties are able to impress their female students with their intelligence and teaching style, and the more clever economists can figure out how to date them without getting in trouble.

As far as the young lady's dilemma, it boils down to the old canard, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"

Someone

I think Mike Spence (nobel prize winner) left his wife for a younger woman. I might be wrong

ZBicyclist

Remember this song (lyrics by Jimmy Soul):

If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life
Never make a pretty woman your wife
So for my personal point of view
Get an ugly girl to marry you

A pretty woman makes her husband look small
And very often causes his downfall
As soon as he married her and then she starts
To do the things that will break his heart

But if you make an ugly woman your wife
A-you'll be happy for the rest of your life
An ug-a-ly woman cooks meals on time
And she'll always give you peace of mind

(more at http://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/jimmy_soul/if_you_wanna_be_happy.html )

Women might consider whether being married to charming man like Bill Clinton would be all that much fun.

Panem et Circanses

Crystal clear economic thinking! The woman is direct and honest about her motivations (!); the man continues the business model and suggests an alternative arrangement.

He refers, though, to "efficient markets," of which the mating game is certainly not. Is any market less efficient, except possibly for employment?

There's a great article in the new (October) Harvard Business Review, on designing markets. See the p. 123 sidebar, "Efficient Matching in Markets," which describes a system which is logically perfect (if brutally frank) for matching pairs, in romance, jobs, or almost anything else. Would that such a thing be available for everyone on both sides, from her down to li'l old $80K me.

Lexi

She actually doesn't convey any value beyond looks. If she's going the "trade" route, she may do well to talk about pedigree as well, including family history of illness and IQ etc . . .. However, all of that seems kinds of blech to me, because it seems like she is looking to abdicate responsibility for herself.

It is nice when a guy has money, but I can make my own-- I feel it gives both the man who is with me and myself a greater ability to determine whether or not we are really a match, rather than a business deal. I fear a deal like hers would cost me my sanity.

Dan

Does anyone know where she got the idea that “a million a year is middle class in New York City?” First, I assume she means Manhattan, not NYC. I did a quick internet search and found the average income $73,000. If that's per adult, then it's still only $146,000. Maybe those $250,000s weren't as bad as she thought.

On a different note, she asks “what are you looking for in a mate.” One of the top things on my list is someone who isn't there for the money. When a girl asks how much I make, she downgrades herself from girlfriend to casual relationship. If I had to venture a guess when she was tirelessly beating around the bush she was beating far enough around.

Sean

I think the main issue is that this girl is likely way overestimating herself. Even gorgeous geniuses don't go around calling themselves gorgeous geniuses. She's arrogant and self centered.

While the economic response from the wealthy man may sound harsh, he's only calling out her own faults to make a point. I don't doubt there's a culture of gold-diggers and the wealthy men who welcome them, I can't help but assume it's overblown in our popular culture.

sugarbeet

As the low maintenance and reasonably attractive wife of an economist, I find your comments to be quite accurate.

What you neglected to include is the economist's influence on pre-marriage issues such things as engagement rings (waste of money), weddings (why can't we elope?) and gift registries (just give us cash).

Although if one can bear the lectures on the economic implications of every dollar, the economist may demonstrate the existence of a heart and give in when it really matters!

Drwg

I suspect her unrealistic expectations come from the fact that, like the response implicitly said, relationships are investments. The 'plain' girls may not have married rich guys, they married guys with good prospects.

I also find that spouses are often a team; they both bring together complimentary skills. Thus a plain housewife with a rich husband may be assisting the husband in other ways besides being a trophy.

An anecdote: A couple i know, one studied linguistics and one works in advertising, they would often help each other out by bringing together their expertise and each is more successful because of the other.

Mikey

I am always disturbed that when women consider economic value in a "match", we have a term for that, used in the title of this post.

Yet there is no corresponding term for men that I know of. Could that be a cultural belief that men can be economically-minded, but not women?