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I got married young and boy am I glad
I experienced huge financial benefits, among other things, after getting married at 25
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I met my now-wife when I was 23. We were both in an English literature class together, and I noticed her because she walked in late almost every day. After a few weeks of this, I saw her walking through the student center and ran after her and struck up a conversation.
At the time, my wife was only 20. We ended up dating for about a year, and then we were engaged for another year after that. By the time we got married, I was 25 and she was 22. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was starting a graduate program, and she was still finishing her bachelor’s. The first time we lived together was after our wedding, in a little brick house south of our college campus.
I’ve occasionally mentioned parts of this story to people, but in general I have over the years tended to avoid broadcasting our ages when we got married. Though our situation was common at the religious university we attended, it is decidedly less so elsewhere. And the U.S. Census shows that the median age at which American men get married is now 30. Women get married on average when they are 28.
But here’s the thing: The more time that passes, the happier I am that my wife and I got married in our 20s. Doing so had major financial and professional benefits. Searching for marriage partners at that age also meant we had access to a uniquely huge dating pool. And it meant we came to the relationship with less baggage and, at least in my case, fewer weird quirks that might have derailed future relationships.
In retrospect, all of these outcomes surprise me because what we did cuts against the conventional wisdom of many of my fellow millennials. As Brad Wilcox pointed out earlier this year while writing about the benefits of younger marriage, a person’s twenties are widely viewed as a time to have fun, with marriage coming later as “a capstone to a successful life, signaling you have arrived professionally and personally as an individual, not a cornerstone designed to launch your common life together as a family.”
I do think one’s twenties are a great time to have fun, and I did have lots of fun. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m also glad I got married long before I turned 30.
The financial benefits
My parents helped me with my first year of college, but after that I paid for school via jobs, scholarships and Pell Grants. I finished college with $3,000 in student loan debt and no career prospects, then began pursuing jobs in journalism — an often low-paying industry, especially at the local level. I worked a variety of odd jobs for about a year while trying to land whatever full time journalism job I could get. I think my total income for that year was something like $6,000.
So how was I able to do this?
The short answer is that my wife and I pooled our resources. A year into our marriage, my wife graduated from school and was out-earning me. She was a school teacher, but made enough that I didn’t have to worry about paying my rent while writing mostly for free. I was able to enjoy the kind of subsidized life that's usually reserved for very wealthy people not because I had a trust fund, but because I had a spouse.
Eventually, my wife and I both had full time jobs in our chosen fields. I was making $27,000 a year, and she wasn’t making much more than that. Those were very low salaries even just over a decade ago, when this was all happening. But together, they added up to more than $50,000 a year — a passable middle class income for our location.
Of course the idea of a dual income household is not new. In fact, about half of married-couple families have two income earners.
But what may not be fully appreciated is the benefit of two incomes in one’s youth. Being married allowed my wife and I both to pursue jobs that fit our passions. It allowed us to take more risks because we acted as each other’s safety net. It allowed us to pay off student loans before they accrued any interest. It even allowed us to save up enough money to travel extensively outside the U.S. If I had gotten married at 35 rather than 25, I might have been more self assured and professionally settled. But I would have had to make all those financial moves on my own — meaning I probably wouldn’t have done some of them at all.
Getting married young also shaped our attitudes about money. When we got married, we basically didn’t have any, so it was easy and natural to combine our resources as we slowly prospered. Today all of our accounts are shared. I think if we got married a decade later, with our own separate incomes, it would have been much harder to dump all of our money into the same account and not worry about fairness.
The dating pool
Sometimes when I have a few minutes of downtime I scroll through TikTok, and for some reason the algorithm apparently thinks I love dating content. And maybe I do, in a sort of anthropological way; though single peers my age use dating apps, my wife and I got married right at the dawn of the smartphone era, before things like Tinder existed. So, today’s dating world is foreign to me.
But the impression I get from social media and my single friends is that dating today is a nightmare. Case in point: The “West Elm Caleb” saga in which a bunch of women in New York discovered they were all dating the same guy. Is the dating pool in New York really so small?
By comparison, when I met my wife we were both attending a university with 30,000 people, meaning we had thousands of potential mates. Being in school also forced us to regularly encounter new people as classes, clubs, and religious activities constantly changed. I probably met more new people in a single semester of college than I have in the entire decade-plus since leaving school. And that gave my wife and I many dating options, as well as the luxury of being choosey without much risk.
On the other hand, many people lose that luxury as they get older because more and more of their peers are in relationships already and, critically, because it gets harder and harder to find an endless stream of new people.
Growing up together
In the not distant past, there was a sense that couples would get married and “grow up together.” Which is to say, people weren’t expected to be fully realized adults with concrete views on every topic at the time they got married. Today, it’s more common to hear that you should “find yourself” before tying the knot.
To each their own. But I see two problems with this idea. First, it presumes that there’s some finite point at which you arrive as an adult. My experience suggests otherwise. My worldview has continued to evolve, radically on some issues, non-stop for my entire adulthood. Ergo, if I had waited to commit to marriage until I truly found myself, I would literally never have gotten married. Suggesting people embark on a journey of self discovery before settling down sells short the true process of finding oneself. And it risks giving folks the impression that they’ll never be ready for marriage.
The other problem is that some of us get set in our ways as time goes by. For instance, I prefer to only eat two meals a day. I am a staunch partisan when it comes to not wearing shoes in the house. I enjoy debating contentious topics. I have strong opinions about silly pop culture things. Everyone has little quirks and preferences, but I genuinely think these kinds of things would make it hard for me to date now if I were still single. Oh, you want to eat a normal three meals a day? Eliminated. Oh, you think Taylor Swift is better than Carly Rae Jepson? Eliminated.
Maybe this is unique to me, and maybe I’d be more flexible if I were actually single and looking for a partner. But the point is that by getting married young, whatever quirks my wife and I have acquired were developed in tandem. We didn’t come into our relationship with a decade or more of ossified eccentricities.
Boy am I glad
I am not here to tell everyone to get married young. Many people don’t have that option, and the specific circumstances of my life are of course not available to all or even most people. Some young marriages end in divorce.
But as Brad Wilcox pointed out in his piece, there are voices actively campaigning against the idea of getting married before 30. What I’m suggesting, then, is that such advice is too narrow. It implies more limited options than actually exist. It ignores anecdotal stories like my own, as well as the research Brad mentioned on topics such as cohabitation — which contra popular opinion doesn’t improve the odds of a successful relationship.
In other words, it’s worth keeping in mind that prevailing cultural attitudes notwithstanding, getting married in your 20s is not necessarily a recipe for disaster, professional failure, or misery. It is not, or at least shouldn’t be, thought of as problematic. The best age for marriage will vary from person to person. Truly, at the individual level I wish people the best and hope they do what makes them happy. But I know that the more time goes by, the happier I am that I found my wife when I did.
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In the journalism business, there has been a debate in recent years about how hard it is for people without money to break in. Many would-be reporters have to do unpaid internships, live in expensive cities, etc. And the result is that it’s much easier for people to become journalists if they come from wealthy families. That’s a systemic problem that needs to be fixed. But if you’re a young would-be journalist without family wealth (my situation) I would recommend A) walking across your college campus and changing your major to something in STEM because journalism is a constantly shrinking industry, and B) if you must go into journalism make sure you have a partner who is okay subsidizing your professional ambitions.