In the movies, the ideal partner is often the impulsive, uncontrollable romantic who makes grand gestures to show his love, no matter the cost. Research shows that in real life, however, sex appeal comes in the form of having the self-control to save your money.
Being tightfisted with money is not usually thought of as a desirable characteristic in a date. Sites like eHarmony and Match.com publish posts listing ways to detect a cheapskate date — who ostensibly should not be worthy of a second get-together.
And yet in the economically uncertain postrecession era, many surveys and studies have shown that being responsible with money — perhaps even to the point that you might be considered cheap — bodes well for your love life. The results of one survey from last fall indicated that more than one-quarter of adult daters have used a coupon (most likely a Groupon-type daily deal) on a first date, and 73% of those surveyed said they would continue dating someone who whipped out a coupon to save money on their outing. Other studies show that it’s common for the seemingly unromantic topic of credit scores to now play a role in romance, with a decent score increasingly being considered a prerequisite to be deemed a worthy date.
More recently, a working paper from University of Michigan Ross School of Business researchers indicates that savers are viewed as more attractive dating material than spenders. The study, cutely titled A Penny Saved Is a Partner Earned: The Romantic Appeal of Savers, explores the theory that “saving behavior may be diagnostic of broad self-control.” The thinking goes that someone who is disciplined and has a high degree of self-control with money will also have the self-control to commit to something (like a relationship) and to not impulsively say hurtful things or cheat on a romantic partner. People with good self-control may also be more physically attractive because they’re capable of sticking to diets and fitness regimens.
After reviewing existing research and conducting a series of experiments asking volunteers to do things like rate the desirability of different characteristics for potential dates, the researchers concluded that so long as the urge to save isn’t extreme (no hoarding or dumpster diving, please), “savers are naturally viewed as possessing greater general self-control, which increases their romantic and physical attractiveness.”
In the hopes of attracting mates, it’s common to resort to flashy, peacock-like displays and to demonstrate a willingness to splurge at the drop of a hat. But Jenny Olson, a Ross School Ph.D. candidate and co-author of the study, told Reuters that these tactics can backfire. “You would think that spending would be more attractive, because things like flashy watches or purses are so visible,” she said. “Those things can also be perceived as wasteful and lacking in self-control.”
Granted, the trying economic times we’ve been living through may have something to do with this perception, the researchers acknowledge in the study:
It is notable that we observed this pattern in the shadow of the Great Recession, a time in which people who chronically spend may be viewed as especially irresponsible. Whether savers continue to be preferred in times of economic abundance (when active saving is less necessary for financial survival) is an important open question.
What’s more, in the same way that people can touch up photos in online profiles, exaggerate their height and list how much they weighed in eighth grade, they can also lie about how good they are with money. “Much like people can use credit to buy goods they cannot afford (to falsely signal financial viability), they may also falsely report their own spending habits to capitalize on the preference for savers,” the study notes.