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[Grace Kao, Meera Choi] Has money displaced romance on dates?

By Korea Herald

Published : May 7, 2024 - 05:25

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According to a March 29, 2023 article in The Korea Herald, 83 percent of couples have argued over how to split dating expenses. Increasingly, it seems that young people are measuring love and romance in won.

Meera Choi, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Yale University, has interviewed 130 women aged 20 to 40 in Korea for her dissertation research. These women all believed in women’s rights, and some had strong opinions about how dating expenses (for heterosexual couples) ought to be split between men and women.

They agreed that the costs of romantic outings should offset the unequal treatment of women in Korea. However, opinions vary about what that entails. Some argued that because men earn more than women, and women are pressured to spend more time and money on their physical appearance (i.e. their “beauty labor”), men should bear most of the cost of a date.

A 2019 study found that in Korea, women spent more than $50 per month on cosmetics. Elise Hu, in her book “Flawless,” discovered that her respondents spent $500 to $700 per month on skin care, presumably including spa visits. Clothing, hair and makeup not only cost women money, but time.

Views range regarding the precise division of dating costs, with some advocating a 50:50 split -- “Dutch pay” for Koreans or “going Dutch” for Americans. Others believe men should pay 70 percent while women pay 30 percent due to gender pay inequities. Some argue that men should cover all expenses. Social science research dictates that respondents’ identities are protected, so we have changed all names in the quotes below.

Seung-hye no longer dates, but argues that “the man should pay more. Of course, not fifty-fifty. That doesn't seem quite right, and (women) not paying at all should be criticized too. Not paying anything makes me feel like I am a lesser person … men tend to earn more, and women have costs related to beauty labor, so a 7 to 3 ratio feels about right.”

For individuals like Bo-kyung, who do not prioritize or desire romantic relationships, the preference for a 9 to 1 ratio in sharing dating expenses signals her limited willingness to invest financially in dates. “For me, I'm fine whether I date or not, if we have to split the date expenses fifty-fifty, I'd rather not be on one. I'd just do things on my own; that's kind of my principle.”

Still, romance is not completely dead in Korea. Some women believe that how much a man is willing to pay signals his interest level. Na-rae states: “People have (different) circumstances, so we should adjust and share the burden accordingly. But it's true that when I see them spending less money, I can't help but doubt their affection.”

Hye-rin also wrestles with what equality means in a romantic relationship in light of economic uncertainty. She reflects: “Right now, both women and men are crying out about inequality. But their positions are so different, and it's hard to tell which is right. Setting aside dating for a moment, there's a clear structural difference between genders, and solving that would be key to achieving balance in relationships. But if we can't align on that, striving for equality in dating might be like pretending not to see the bigger issue. Is it really 'equality' if my boyfriend pays for all the dating expenses? Is it equality if I'm treated like a princess? If we communicate equally, have equal rights and share expenses equally, is that equality? I'm not sure, honestly.”

Meera Choi also interviewed men for her study. Some men are also unwilling to foot the total bill on dates. They argue that if women want equality, shouldn’t they “Dutch pay” for the expenses on a date? They feel it’s unfair for men to pay for dates when men and women should be seen as equals. Traditional norms, however, dictate that men bear the brunt of the costs, especially on the first date.

One solution to this conundrum is joint couple bank accounts, which are quite common in South Korea. These accounts allow for partners to each contribute money regularly to an account, specifically for dating expenses. Of course, this is not a viable solution for splitting the costs of a first date. While these are commonplace in Korea, we have not seen them in the US. Moreover, the subject of “who pays” does not seem to generate as much heated debate in the US.

These accounts also introduce other complications – couples still have to decide how much each person should contribute. Should the costs be based on their individual earnings, general gender wage inequities and/or the cost of her beauty labor? What if one person forgets to add their share one month? Moreover, as these accounts usually only have one account holder, the account holder can simply keep the funds when the relationship ends. This is what happened to an individual in a story that recently appeared in The Korea Herald.

Money seems to be displacing romance for couples dating in Korea. The Beatles famously sang, “Money can’t buy me love.” If they lived in Seoul, they might revise their lyrics to say, “Money can’t buy me love, but it can buy me dinner (and dessert if you really like me).”

Grace Kao, Meera Choi

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. Meera Choi is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writers' own. -- Ed.