Market for Romance Goes From Bullish to Sheepish
Are Guys With Less to Spend Less of a Catch?

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

See the tall, gregarious young man in the Eighteenth Street Lounge, moving easily toward a group of receptive women as the floor vibrates with reggae music? He's dressed in a sharp Hugo Boss suit, and he knows that the minimum for a table is $240.

But he's not offering to buy the drinks. And the suit? He bought it a year ago, when he had a six-figure salary.

Dating in the time of the pink slip means feeling the squeeze of the drastically reduced paycheck, the sudden sting of the layoff. From investment bankers to real estate developers to construction workers, no job means no buying rounds of $15 martinis for a pretty woman and her girlfriends. No hosting parties in the bachelor loft. And often, no idea how to present one's new self on the dating market.

"It's been incredibly stressful for me," said Neil Welsh, 27, the guy in the suit, who until last year was marketing director for a booming real estate company. "I was so used to using my financial situation to leverage my dating."

For many affected by the recession, dating is the least of their worries. But the market crash has had a particular impact on young adults who developed their dating skills in fat times, the twentysomethings who spent lavishly to show that they could afford the finer things. Now, with national unemployment rates at 8.8 percent for people 25 to 34, they are looking for more creative ways to attract partners -- and reassessing what all that big spending really meant.

Formal studies on the matter are hard to find, and Washington area employment rates are still higher than those of many other metropolitan areas. But interviews with young singles in area nightclubs and cafes and at parties reveals that financial stress is affecting the romantic lives of those who have lost sizable disposable incomes.

Alexandria native Niko Papademetriou, 27, became an investment banker with a Cleveland firm soon after he graduated from college. The money was steady enough for him to fly regularly to Manhattan to see his girlfriend and take her to upscale restaurants such as Bond Street and Cafe Gray.

"A large aspect of my life -- three out of the first five conversations that we had -- I told her, 'You're not going to see much of me in the next 15 years if we start dating, because I'm going to be making a lot of money.' " He thinks that worked in his favor, "not so much for the money, but for the drive. It's one of those things in men that women find attractive."

Since being laid off in November, he has moved back to Alexandria to live with his mother. He now takes the Chinatown bus -- for as little as $5 each way -- to visit his girlfriend. Round-trip airfare between Cleveland and New York City averages more than $200.

"It's definitely putting stress on our relationship," he said recently, sitting in an Old Town cafe. "It comes back to this whole manhood thing. Like, can you be the provider, not just for yourself but for others?"

It's been tough on his girlfriend, he said. "She knows that she needs to be this understanding, positive influence in my life. At the same time, there is a lot of fear on her part, knowing that my industry and the one that we had kind of mentally projected ourselves and our way of life on could be over, or at least on pause for a while."

For Natalie Huddleston, 27, a marketer at a law firm, dating itself is on hold. Standing with her girlfriends on an outdoor deck of the Eighteenth Street Lounge, nursing a Manhattan, the Arlington resident said men ask her out much less since the market crash.

"They're spending more time at networking events, happy hours, with their guy friends -- trying to get leads on jobs, rather than spending it on women," she said. "I feel bad for the guys who don't have jobs."

Bad enough to date them? She smiled and shook her head. "I guess I'm kind of traditional. So if a guy can't really take you out or doesn't have the money or the state of mind to take girls out, then it's not going to go anywhere."

Even in this post-feminist age, the vast majority of those interviewed said men pick up the tab on dates. But some women said they have lowered their expectations. "I look for free things that we can do together, and I'm more conscious about the money that he is spending," said Laura Sambataro, 22, of Bethesda.

Jamie Fabrizio, 26, a Catholic school teacher from Arlington, said a man doesn't have to spend a lot, but he has to act like an Alpha male.

"Guys should be bold; whether or not they have money doesn't matter," she said. But if a guy asks her out, she added, she expects him to pay for dinner.

It's unlikely then that either she or Huddleston would date Paul Almeter, 25. Since business at the Annandale construction company he owns has fallen 50 percent, he has come up with innovative ways to cut down on the $600 to $700 he used to spend each month on dates.

He takes his dates hiking, which is free other than gas. He takes them on his motorcycle to visit wineries, or to a baseball game.

"I'm more inclined to tell my girlfriend to come over to my house and hang out with me than take her to D.C., definitely. "

In the end, he said, a loving relationship should be able to thrive without the rib-eye steak and Moet.

"How much you spend on a girl, I think that's superficial," he said. "If you call her at the end of the day, send a text message in the middle of the day and ask her how her day's going, that's more important than spending money."

Lindsey Schwalb, 22, of Arlington said the financial crunch has made men she knows more amenable to settling down. "People are looking for some form of stability. Instead of someone you have to impress monetarily, they want someone they can concentrate on spending quality time with."

Welsh said he is scaling back on dating costs while he builds a new business, an Internet marketing company.

"Now I'm more inclined to take a girl to a good ethnic restaurant," he said, whereas before, "I was constantly worried about being judged for how much money I was spending."

Not that there isn't judging. "One of the first questions is: 'What do you do? You own your own company? How many people work for you? Are you working at home or do you go to an office?' They are literally sizing you up." And, he said, he doesn't blame them -- especially if the girl is beautiful. "They can afford to be picky."

And although he used to go on several dates a week, he said, he's now pickier about whom he asks out. "It's shown me that it was silly to spend money on girls that I may or may not like."

Papademetriou has delayed plans to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. He is considering a career in government, which pays much less than investment banking but is less volatile. And his unexpected financial straits have led him to look harder at himself.

"Inadequacy," he said. "I can't harp on that word enough. I just feel inadequate. Why have I not found a job yet? And what if this happens eight years from now when I'm married and have a 2-year-old? Do I go through this again? Do I trust myself that I can pull it off? And I do, but in the midst of it, you definitely question yourself."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company