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.)


mattt

What if dating were an efficient, but simple, market wherein the only asset of importance were money for men and beauty for women? Bear with me on this, because I think the logical results here are fairly offensive.

Suppose that the rational richest man would turn in their trophy wife each year for a younger prettier model. If this were the case, the man maximizes his attainment of beauty, but the woman only gets 1 year of access to the richer man, and subsequently accepting a slighly less rich man each year until she is an old hag only capable of marrying the homeless. It may be that in the aggregate this woman accumulates a lifetime average of access to richness equal to what a woman of ordinary but constant beauty would attain. But if the high were very high, surely the low would be unacceptable low.

Now, consider that there are barriers to entry and exit to the different beauty/richness markets. Both marriage and divorce carry transaction costs. And with richness, surely comes pre-nups that limit the costs of divorce. Surely, in this case, the better strategy for the woman would be to identify earning potential rather than current income. The beautiful woman who marries the poor nerd (i.e. the economist) will see his assets (richness) appreciate, while her assets (beauty) depreciates. But once his appreciating assets become significant, the transaction costs associated with divorce become too high. No pre-nup, she gets a chunk of his assets.

Of course, there's considerable risk here (perhaps he doesn't become rich; perhaps he anticipates his richness and demands the pre-nup; etc.), and I don't know anything about game theory. But it is a fun question to think about.

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Amit

Amartya Sen is on to his third wife (though I believe his second wife passed away).

Ron

Hormones. Forget anything else. I've often asked the same questions about the wives of my fellow investors. Although these guys generally manage to find young, attractive mistresses and rotate them on a regular basis, their wives are often "bow-wows". I've seen good-looking high-earners quail under the whiplash questioning of obese, strident wives. "Why?" I ask. They don't have a good answer. The few guys who marry smart, beautiful women don't seem to be very happy either. They also keep mistresses. Perhaps the decision to marry is based more on hormonal attraction than to cerebral considerations. At least that is the opinion of a client who happens to be an endocrinologist. He thinks the vomeronasal organ is the culprit. Strangely, the guys who marry Asian women seem to be the happiest and don't have anything on the side. Why? I have no idea.

Dr. Freud

note to Gold Digger:

The guy you are looking for can get all the good-looking booty he wants.
To snag him for good it helps if you remind him of his mother.

Chabah

I thought the funniest part was that she noted that she is NOT from New York as a point in her favor.

Gisele Bundchen was mentioned above, and she is a good example of removing money from the equation. With her massive yearly earnings over $30 million, that freed her to find her love among the many millions of men in the world without worrying about their income. It's just pure coincidence that that man happens to be Tom Brady, who makes a measley $17 million or so.

Lastly, it's a little disappointing to see marriage offered without love. A business arrangement makes sense for the men who merely want a trophy, but a marriage should be more than fancy dining and glamorous parties. Try looking for love - even Madonna got that right in her Material Girl video. Oh, that was before little miss looking for a millionaire was born!

Chabah

Jon

I think, though, that our free market friend forgets that humans, by nature, are absolutely terrible discounters, especially when it comes to reproduction. She may be a depreciating asset in terms of looks, but her ability to put out some good looking children now is at its peak. We aren't put on this earth to be happy. We are put on this earth to put others on earth that share our DNA.

Robert

Take a look at Hamermesh's studies on the Economics of Beauty, I guess there is some value to beauty. However, I think she is putting entirely to much value on her looks in this case.

Metroplexual

Howard Stern discussed this yesterday. BTW, this looks like an arranged marriage, only arranged by those getting married instead of the parents.

Michael Richman

And here I always thought that it was as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.

For the record: Yes, my name really is Richman, and yes it is a joke. A very creul one.

Bob

The wealthiest man and most beautiful woman are an extreme example. As a middle-class guy, I'm more interested in a more practical question: What is my potential to marry a woman of superior looks? And how superior should I try to get?

I'm using the looks/ income trade-off estimated by Table 5.4 of the study listed at:
http://fmwww.bc.edu/ec-j/semf2006/Hort.pdf

This analysis suggests that that girl would settle for any ugly guy making just $248,500. [not adjusted to New York cost of living], so her asking price may be accurate, but only settling for the most unsatisfactory guy.

The looks / income trade-off suggests contrasting looks between men and woman changes the closing price.

I'm a ‘6' according to hotornot.com. I'd need to make $190,500 to get to marry a ‘10' and that's currently out of my income range.
If I'm a ‘7', I'd only need to make $148,500. It suggests that my best achievable asset is my own looks. Cosmetic surgery (a one-time cost of a few thousand) would appear to be a more efficient answer than working to perpetually earn 10's of thousands more each year to score a better looking girl. My other attributes are not manageable: age, race, height, weight.

Also, if the analysis is accurate and all that, it would appear there is a big income jump needed for me to score an ‘8', ‘9' or ‘10'.

If there are societies of men dedicated to picking-up women of beauty (for marriage in this case), I would suggest a society of gold-digging women might also exist to promote those efficiencies.

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Jon

In response to the comment about reproduction,
What are the prospects of children that look good, but are extremely materialistic? They will be in the same rut as their mother is now. Also finding someone who you can live with, not just reproduce with is important to stay sane.
In response to the lady,
Increase your value, the market is flooded with attractive women, find another way to compete.

Jon

My observation was not advice for a happy life. I was just pointing out that many people will opt for that gorgeous 25 year old because those instincts pertaining to proliferating their A,T,C's and G, which have worked for eons, will take over.

Charity

My husband's an economist. 1) While he is an excellent logician, he doesn't take it to the cynical extremes that the respondent did. Probably because he still has a soul. 2) Yep, big nerd. 3) Money? He could make more working on Wall Street, but he works for a firm that evaluates public policy programs, and we do great. We just celebrated our 2nd anniversary last week. XOXOXO, honey!

g p burdell

is 1,000,000 a year really "middle class" in NYC? give me a break. i figured all the statisticians that lurk around here would eat that one up.

J

"I'm not from New York"

That much is apparent. Two things:

1. No, you're not classy.

2. "Sex in the City" was not a documentary. Perhaps they changed the channel lineup on your cable system and put TBS where the Discovery or National Geographic channel had been.

Jim Miles

"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."

This is a supremely unfair appraisal. The economist has answered the woman on her own terms by making appearance the primary criterion for a man's interest in a woman. I think it highly likely he has a lot of success with women - but with ones who can bring something more to the table than just depreciating looks.

JPWinnon

Perceived values/status are all important for relationships.

How much value/status do you perceive yourself as having?
How much value/status does the other person perceive you as having?
How much value/status does the other person perceive themself as having?

Those questions, ultimately, are what lead to marriage and divorce -- even dating.

The answers are subjective and not objective. The further the status/value are separated, the more likely dating will never go anywhere and even more likely that marriage will never happen. As the status/value change over time, so does the relationship -- and that is one reason divorce happens.

Someone making 500k/year will be seeking someone that has a value/status that is at least near their own. The only person that assigns that value/status is the person making 500k/year.

The real question she should be asking is how she can demonstrate that she has value/status equal to the dollar amount she seeks -- and the answer is she can't. The only way she can raise her status/value would be to have a college degree, have at least a decent job, and a wide social circle. The social status/value may be an attractor, the degree shows some intellectual status/value and the job shows a form of economic status/value.

Until she can match (or get near) the social, intellectual, economic (and possibly spiritual) status/value of someone making that kind of money, she will never get one.

There is sometimes the exception. An old man will marry her and leave her all of his money. The old man perceives her status/value as "arm candy" and equal to his fortune.

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XX, MD

I am probably overstating things to call myself average attractiveness, but I have discovered that there is a world of male gold diggers out there.
As a female doctor, I have experienced everything from the guy who told me on the second date that he would stop working and stay home with our kids to the guy who wanted to date me UNTIL he found out that I was a doctor and not the temp that I claimed to be (It was a social experiment gone horribly wrong- don't judge me too much).
The solution? I married a doctor. He would call himself below average attractiveness, but I think he's stunning. We have extremely attractive offspring- I can't comment on her materialism since she can't talk yet.
Oh, and another thing- no engagement ring and we eloped.

Doug Sunshine

Both the "Gold-Digger" and her Respondent are forgetting about key aspects of the way humans pick mates.

1) Good genes don't go bad over time, but ovaries do

Though GD's beauty might fade over time, if there is a reasonable about of time to have children with her (she is only 25), those genes can be passed on and his genes' "economic" impulses will be satisfied.
If fading beauty is the only criterion for mate selection, marriage would never occur (I've not yet met a woman whose beauty would never fade).

2) A man can be tricked into raising another man's children

The key aspect that the GD is forgetting is that men do not use good genes as the sole determinate of mate fitness. Because the female reproductive psychology/biology is geared toward the POTENTIAL for a woman to have her long-term partner raise her extramarital lover's baby, he must first figure out if she just wants his support, or his support AND his genes.

In short, he must figure out if she will cheat on him.

GD's mindset is just screaming "extramarital affair." Once she is in possession of a rich man's support, there is nothing to deter her from seeking the genes of another man and having her husband raise another man's child. It would best help her offspring to have the financial support of the rich man and the best genes that the woman can find (presumably not her husband's).

A great book on this subject is "Sperm Wars" by Robin Baker

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Matt

Perhaps your definition of "classy" differs from mine, but a woman who insists that I make seven times the median income for the area so that she can live in a certain part of town isn't classy. Nor is her explicit admission to superficiality in the last paragraph, much less the implicit admission through the entire letter.

Her claim to articulateness takes something of a hit when she says that "250,000K" is not enough to live on Central Park West.

If she's overestimating these qualities, why wouldn't she overestimate her looks? Either way, she's apparently looking for a mate in a class of people who don't consider her worth it; even if she snags one of them, he'd be overwhelmingly likely to trade her in for a newer model in a few years.

To quote an old friend of mine, "Eye candy is nice, but in twenty years I'd rather wake up next to someone interesting than someone who used to be cute."

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