Can't Buy Me Love: Dating, Money, and Gifts


Russell W. Belk and Gregory S. Coon (1991) ,"Can't Buy Me Love: Dating, Money, and Gifts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 521-527.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 521-527


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Gregory S. Coon, University of Utah

I had an overwhelming desire to shower the girl with gifts. I bought her all kinds of things such as stuffed animals, clothing, and jewelry. Unlike before when I viewed dates and gift giving an investment, I was now making decisions about buying from my heart instead of my head. I spent so much money on the girl that I had to quit school for a quarter and work full time. I guess that's what true love is [M 25].

In America, money seems to have taken a big role in dating. I don't think that it should. Like the Beatles song, I believe strongly that "money can't buy me love". True love is developed through true friendship and trust, and generosity is only one of those features....I don't think that money should be a big issue in dating, and I wanted to find someone who didn't car too much for money [M 24].

Money is a part of everything, even dating. It is impossible to date without money. I guess I find it difficult to separate love from money. Not that money can buy love, but rather money is an essential part of the dating process. I don't know if you can possibly have one without the other [F 24]. It seems sick to me. Like they try to buy each other or show how much they love each other in how much money they spend on the gift to the other person [F26].

American dating, mating, and courtship activities employ money and tangible gifts as key ritual elements and as focal symbolic vehicles. Gifts and dating expenditures "say" what cannot be said in words. However, perhaps due to the crass associations of exchanging money and gifts for the attentions and sexual favors of prostitutes, mistresses, gigolos, and gold-diggers, research on Western dating has largely ignored the monetary and material aspects of these relationships. A related explanation for this lack of attention is the inappropriate intrusion of the profane into the supposed realm of the sacred when cash and gifts become too prominent in our view of dating (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989, Belk and Wallendorf 1990). Treating dating as an exchange relationship may threaten to commoditize and destroy the illusions provided by the romantic model of love. The present study presents a brief historical perspective and qualitative data that illuminate the tabooed and neglected intersection of the material, the sexual, and the romantic in the dating practices of U.S. college students.


The role of material possessions in early middle class American courtship practices was not so much in impressive gift-giving as in displaying command of the resources for providing comfort and earning a living. Rothman (1984, p. 24) explains:

Before a man could marry, he had to possess the means to support a wife and children....His marriage "portion"--the land he would farm, the house in which he and his bride would live--came from a share of his father's property.

Furthermore, these standards escalated with time and economic progress:

Where the eighteenth-century man had looked to provide a simply furnished house for his family, men who married in the increasingly industrialized middle years of the nineteenth century set higher standards for themselves. They aspired to equip their households with cook stoves, pianos, Irish servant girls, indoor plumbing, or whatever they and their families needed to enjoy and demonstrate middle-class status (Rothman 1984, p. 151).

At the same time, it was the responsibility of the bride and her family to provide a trousseau of clothes, linens, and "fancy things" to set up the household. In addition, a woman's home and schooling might limit her exposure to certain men. Lystra (1989, p. 163) reports a 19th century woman's derision of a neighbor's daughter whose marriage to an Army officer "was because her mother and brother never took the trouble to have a suitable home for her, and bring into it, the class of young men, whom after all they would have liked her to marry." -The home of a woman's family was both the meeting and screening ground for her future marriage prospects. Upper middle class families also tried to provide their daughters with an education at a "proper" school where they could meet "appropriate" members of the other sex.

Middle class calling rituals, calling cards, flowers, and other small courtship gifts became increasingly elaborated, common, and expensive during the Victorian era (Ames 1978). The cost of courtship also increased due to more commercial entertainments such as "Taking a train or streetcar to a nearby town to see a show, ride a carousel, or dance in a cabaret" (Rothman 1984, p. 205). If men felt an increased economic burden in these rituals, women felt increasingly uneasy about the economic dependency that such gift-giving fostered (Lystra 1989, p. 9).

However, it was not until the emergence of dating during the 1920s that the cost and scale of interactions among unmarried men and women, especially those in college, made a quantum leap. Whereas courtship involves socializing with the intention of marriage (Rothman 1984, p. 23), dating is recreational and involves no commitment beyond the occasion of the date (Winch 1968). Factors affecting the development of dating include growing affluence, more recreational venues, longer periods of primarily coeducational schooling, employment of parents at increasing distances from the home (making it difficult for them to supervise activities of adolescent children), widespread adoption of the automobile, and increasing emphasis on consumption (Whyte 1990). Others cite the declining influence of religion, increased emancipation of women, the transition from a rural to an urban population, broadened mass media, declining emphasis on home, family, and marriage, and increased individualism and anonymity as causes of the development of recreational dating (Burgess and Wallin 1953). Bailey (1988) summarizes the effect of these changes succinctly: "Money -- Men's money -- became the basis of the dating system" (p. 13). With increased expenditures on dating by men, they began to regard dating as an investment in sexual pleasure: "...boys planned and paid for 'a good time' and asked of their girls a bit of physical intimacy" (Modell 1983).

Another trend that started in the 1920s was detected by Waller (1937) a decade later and dubbed "the rating and dating complex." This involved a woman dating many desirable men for the prestige value of appearing popular:

In order to have Class A rating they must belong to one of the better fraternities, be prominent in activities, have a copious supply of spending money, be well-dressed, 'smooth' in manners and appearance, have a 'good line,' dance well, and have access to an automobile (Waller 1937, P. 730).

Coeds were seen to lose prestige if they dated less desirable men, dated too few men, or accepted last minute dates. For their part, women also needed to dress, dance, and talk well, plus be physically attractive. Dress became such a restrictive social barrier that women even quit going to school because of insufficiently fashionable wardrobes (Modell 1983). While Waller's analysis has been criticized (Lasch 1977, Gordon 1981), it is generally accepted as describing a dating system that persisted in colleges from the 1921 Is into the 1940s. Within this system Waller (1938/1970) saw a danger of exploitation by both parties. Men were potentially able to use money and presents to obtain sexual "favors" from women, while women were potentially able to use their sexuality to "gold-dig" money and gifts from men. According to his "principle of least interest," the party least interested in perpetuating the relationship was best able to exploit the other. The result, according to Waller's analysis was for both men and women to feign true love while attempting to secretly remain indifferent.

After the World War II disruption of domestic dating, the marriage boom helped precipitate the baby boom which lasted into the 1960s in the U.S.. Bailey (1988) notes that by 1950, going steady had completely replaced the rating and dating complex. Nevertheless, Bailey (1968) finds that spending money on dates continued to escalate and advice books advocated judging a man's seriousness by the amount of money he was willing to spend on a date. Material generosity by males and sexual generosity by females continued to be taken as signs of love (Katz 1976). Scott (1965) insightfully detected the role of college sororities in screening to assure matches that were endogamous (in this case within ethnic group) and hypergamous (with a man of a higher social class). Sorority women who attempted to date someone "beneath them" were quickly brought into line through the social sanctions of their sorority sisters.

Sexual' practices on dates during the 1940s continued to be conservative in comparison to the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s (Whyte 1990). Dating advice manuals continued to warn against excessive generosity in women's sexual giving:

Offering your body to him in a bout of excessive necking will also cause his love for you to cool eventually, if not immediately. This kind favor which, like the others, is too personal and too expensive will make him feel so obligated that soon he will start squirming to free himself from the obligation you have imposed (Jackson 1955, p. 69).

Even after the most recent sexual revolution, "Miss Manners" continues to advise: "Another thing that has not changed is what a lady who accepts an expensive present from a gentleman is expected to do in return" (Martin 1982, p. 526). Paradoxically, increased pre-AIDS sexual freedom may have encouraged men to be more demanding about sexual favors, resulting in what is now recognized as date-rape (Bailey 1988).

It will be noted that traditional dating guidelines, including the man's obligation to pay for the date and the woman's obligation to withhold sex and "bestow" it only as a special "favor" to the man she loves, were born in an era when women were less likely to work and were economically disadvantaged compared to men (Harayda 1989). But while women are increasingly sharing the expenses of dating (Korman 1983), feminism does not appear to have been successful thus far in reducing sexual aggression by men (Korman and Leslie 1982). Nor, on the other hand, do contemporary ideological changes seem to have reduced the tendency for some women to be mercenary in extracting money and expensive gifts in exchange for sexual favors (Bushnell 1989, McRay 1990). The less extreme forms of contemporary giving of sex, money, and gifts in the context of dating have not been studied however. The present research is an effort to begin to understand such giving.


Following preliminary depth interviews with five young adults, conducted by the second author and two other graduate students, 30 University of Utah undergraduates and 25 graduate students wrote essays on their dating histories and the role of gifts and money in their dating experiences. Fewer than 10 percent of those sampled had dated members of the same sex. Approximately one-third were married. Each student was assigned a random identification number in order to provide confidentiality. Students were given the option, after final grades were given, of having their data removed from the data base; none chose to this option. After these self-report journals were completed, the data were reviewed and a brief topical outline (like one given to guide the journals) was prepared. Based on this outline, the graduate students then conducted fifty in-depth interviews, which were recorded and transcribed along with the interviewer's reflective journals for each interview. Data from the 110 informants (58 M, 52 F) produced over 700 pages of text.

While the age distribution (18-38) of informants is wider than most college based samples, ethnicity is predominantly white with few blacks and Hispanics. Ten informants who were not raised in the United States were eliminated from the present analysis. The remaining informants roughly parallel the Salt Lake City community, which has only a 3% minority population and is nominally 48% Mormon. Notably, the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) religion encourages early dating and early marriage (Smith 1988). Such factors may limit the generalizability of these results since ethnic differences in dating practices seem evident (Porter 1979).


The Role of Money in Dating

As the opening quotations in this paper suggest, money is often a problematic issue in dating. While the current set of informants sense some change in who pays for a date and often make it a point to both pay some dating costs, the majority of dating expenses are still paid for by the man, and some women never pay. These findings parallel those of Rose and Frieze (1989). A common rule is that the one who asks for the date pays, but this was overwhelmingly the man. For others, all of whom are relatively impoverished women, there is some justification that the one with the most income should pay. There is also awareness of changes over the course of a dating relationship. For most, the man paid for earlier and more expensive dates, with later dates involving more sharing of expenses and less expensive activities (e.g., preparing a meal rather than dining out). A smaller group, composed entirely of men, believed in keeping dating expenses at a minimum until it could be determined whether the relationship seemed promising.

A number of women saw the issue of who pays in dating in terms of power and control.

That's how I felt with Jed and I liked it. I liked having the control. You know when he's paying and asks where I want to go to eat I have to choose a place with the price in mind. But when I was the one paying it was great because I could go where I wanted and order anything I wanted. That's what I did with Jed. It was like I was leading him around by his nose [F 18]. I felt like I was being bought but I also felt mean because he really wanted to show how he cared by buying me things. He was well settled in a career and doing well financially and I was a broke student. I somehow perceive money and control as one in the same [F 251.

Other women said that they had known men who felt threatened if they paid.

Umm, when I got out of school I went straight to work as an office manager for an apartment complex and I was making pretty good money and he was going to school. So, I ended up paying for our dates and driving him around because he didn't have a car and I think he had a problem with that -an ego problem. So, umm, we just kind of grew apart [F 29].

Men were not alone in feeling tension from the issue of who pays. Women often expressed feeling guilty or indebted from having money spent on them.

I was never into expensive dates because I felt guilty because the guy would be paying and I also enjoyed going out to places where I could be more relaxed [F 32].

Others felt that having large amounts of money spent on them was tantamount to being purchased, although this was not always an unwelcome feeling.

Traveling with someone I enjoy, who is romantic and obliging, and who is paying for all the fun, is a lethal combination for me. I definitely am not trying to say I can be bought -- but I am definitely saying one can score big points with me with the lure of travel [F 36].

A few women used the traditional man-pays dating system to their advantage.

My friend...put it this way, "If you're going to go out, you might as well have someone else pay for it" [F 35].

Other problems created by money in dating occur when that one partner is relatively free-spending while the other is parsimonious or when the two have very different ideas about appropriate spending. One function of dating appears to be to screen out such mismatches and bring together pairs who have similar values regarding money. does "talk" in a dating situation. At least it communicates whether a person is willing to share or put some monetary investment into the relationship. It also shows what kind of value the person puts on people and relationships as opposed to him or herself and/or material things [F31].

Some men saw money as a key element in their ability to compete for dates.

For those who can afford it, they may have an edge on those who can't in the case that a woman needs a man to support her. I think if you give gifts on regular first or second dates then you make it conspicuous that you have excess money to spend on her [M 25].

More males than females also believed that some women exploited men for their money. giving on a first date implies that the giver will spend money. This is not ideal for someone that doesn't want to be hurt later when he or she learns that the other was using him/her for money [M 25].

The source of many of the problems discussed is the polyvocal nature of money (Belk and Wallendorf 1990). The more cynical interpretations of being bought, investing in a dale, and being used by a date are a subtext and involve the profane or utilitarian meanings of money. On the other hand the more sacred meanings of money allow a surface text that, genuinely or not, maintains that money expenditures are an index of caring in contemporary American dating.

I felt unloved when my ex-fiance said he would not spend over $1500 for my wedding set. I felt he had put a low budget limit on his love for me. On the other hand, he bought me a car when I needed one, and that made me feel very important and loved [F 35].

Others recognize but reject the model that money equals caring.

Money, money, money, what effect does money have on dating? In the ideal sense it shouldn't have much effect at all, but in reality it seems to have an effect. I think there are some people who think that how much is spent is a direct reflection of how much is felt [M 25].

The Role of Gifts in Dating

Gifts given to dates by this group of informants are quite varied, but traditional gifts are common, including flowers, candy, clothes (especially sweaters), clothing accessories, stuffed animals, and jewelry. Occasionally, recreational drugs, trips, dinners, and dating entertainments were considered to be gifts. There was general agreement among informants that the nature of gift-giving changed over the course of a relationship. As with dating expenses, a few men tried to minimize (or eliminate) gift-giving during the early part of a dating relationship.

I never spent very much money on a girl in the early stages of dating. I didn't want to drain my savings account on a girl and have her dump me the next day. That happened to a friend of mine. He bought his girlfriend a television set. When he gave it to her she said, "I don't want to see you anymore, by the way thanks for the T.V."....Men have to be careful about spending money on women, you may spend hundreds of dollars on a girl in a couple of weeks and then BAM she decides she doesn't like you anymore. I view money and dating as an investment. You want to get marginal return on the dollar [M 251.

For most people, however, early gifts were intended to impress dates, to say "thank you" for going out with me, and to suggest the sincerity of the gift-giver's interests. It is men who are most apt to give a gift during a first date, but several women reported giving gifts soon after a first date -- both to reciprocate and to initiate gift-giving. As a relationship progresses, informants report that giving becomes more costly and gifts become more intimate. Eventually, in continuing relationships, the extravagance of material gift-giving tends to decline at the same time that non-material gifts of time, compliments, attention, and talents become more common. One woman [F 24] explained these changes as occurring in three stages: a couple begins to date...mainly money is exchanged. Not that actual cash exchanges hands, but the gifts are basically little more than gifts of cash. For example, if a gift of flowers is given it is usually done at this stage in the dating in the context of I need to give you something. (Usually very little thought is put into the content of the gift). As the dating relationship develops I have noticed that the exchange resembles more of what I consider gift giving By this I mean the gift giver puts more thought into the gift, the gifts are more personal, have more meaning etc.. The third stage of gift giving (over the course of dating) develops as the couple gets to know one another better. This is when the gifts are non-material in nature. These gifts include helping the other person when one is stressed for time, lending a good ear, etc.. I also believe that as the length of time a couple is married increases this pattern is further magnified. For example, I have noticed that my parents and in-laws rarely give each other Christmas or birthday presents. My husband and I are at the stage when we rarely give each other gifts that are total surprises. The gifts are usually needed or well expressed items [F30].

The timing of the early escalation in gift-giving is often seen as critical. A gift can be too expensive for the degree of commitment desired by the gift-recipient or too personal for the recipient's desired level of intimacy. As one informant put it, "He's got to understand where you are coming from. He can't be giving you rings when you are only interested in popcorn" [F 21]. Unless the escalation implied by an expensive gift is desired, it can lead to rejection:

If someone gave me a gift on the first, second or third date I would not feel obligated to continue dating. It would make me consider this guy more closely. I would examine his potential and attributes more closely because he had impressed me and I would be more interested in him because of his concern with making a good impression. Although, if 1 was already nervous about a guy and didn't think that I liked him, a gift would make me even more nervous and make me really back off. I think I would give him the cold shoulder [F 22].

It is clear that gifts are a form of communication (Belk 1979), and the messages they convey are multiple. As one woman [F 24] noted, "Gifts are used as an expression for they carry meaning. It is easier for me to express love through gifts than it is to do it verbally." One message conveyed by dating gifts is that the giver has confidence in the relationship and is committed to the partner receiving the gift. Gifts are sometimes seen as tests of the giver's sincerity:

I pointed out a necklace and said something like, 'This is the kind of thing I would like to have someone give me." 1 was testing was almost as if I felt I had to identify something as a test of his commitment and ability to provide [F 38]. We went up to Snowbird Ski Lodge and he presented mc with the first piece of jewelry he ever bought mc: a gold bracelet. That bracelet meant the world to me for two reasons: 1-) It showed that he was just as serious about mc as I was about him and 2-) It was a personal triumph over the loser he dated before me because he told me he had never given another girl jewelry in his life (so maybe I was a little insecure about the little tramp) [F 25].

One 34-year-old woman broke off a relationship with a "workaholic" who gave her expensive gifts (e.g., $600 in cash, matching snowmobiles, matching jet-skis), but was unwilling to give her his time. He had his secretary buy gifts for her and didn't take time to use the motorized toys he bought for them. In this case, buying expensive gifts was not enough without a commitment of time as well.

Sometimes gifts act as a thank-you or an apology:

I remember getting roses from a friend of my big brother's that I had was madly in love with as a 14 year old. He had been trying to get in my pants for years (I was now about 21). I finally succumbed and then flowers were arriving left and right when I got back to college [F 25]. A couple weeks before Valentine's Day we got in a really bad fight. He hit me several times on my shoulder. I wouldn't have anything to do with him and I was very confused. I was on the verge of ending the whole damn thing when he cooked this dinner. He wasn't dumb, he knew he was loosing me. So he cooked this wonderful dinner and I was so amazed that I figured he must care a lot [F 25].

Another woman [F 35] noted that she has received the most flowers after arguments and when she has tried to end a relationship.

Many informants mentioned that they looked at gifts as giving part of self. Because gifts are seen as a part of the giver's extended self (BeLk 1988), they are found by some informants to involve high vulnerability and risk in self presentation:

It has sometimes been difficult to give gifts because I see it as giving something of me to the other person. If I don't know the person well, or am not-yet comfortable with them, then I have a particularly difficult time giving a gift....I am just a little insecure in myself and it shows in my relationships [F 24]. ...buying a gift and then having to give it to someone is scary. Giving something as serious as a sweater shows that you are ready to make a commitment [F 24].

One man explained how this fear of failure in self presentation, coupled with the mnemonic functions of gifts affect his gift-giving strategies:

I'm not a big gift giver because giving gifts is too dangerous I don't like giving serious gifts. The last thing that you want to do is to give a gift that ties you up. There are two things to keep in mind before you give a gift -- what happens when you break up? You don't want to give a present that your old girlfriend is going to want to throw away because it reminds her of you. And you definitely don't want to give her something that you are going to want back if things don't work out. Food is the best gift that you can give or get. After all how threatening can a cake be? [M 22].

But besides giving "neutral" gifts that don't act as part of extended self, many people try to do just the opposite. To many people, non-material gifts best demonstrate that a part of self is being given:

Non-material gifts are much more powerful as true expressions of love than that of material gifts. Non-material gifts are a part of you and not just a part of a department store [F 241.

Because gifts are seen as expressing the giver's personality, gifts that the recipient judges as showing poor taste may signal incompatibility:

I remember a man giving me a blouse as a gift. He was an appropriate person for me to be dating, in fact he was really a very good catch, but I suspected I would likely not fall in love with him. The blouse, as he saw it, was very much "my style." It was the right color (red), but the fabric was polyester, which was a big "no no." I wore it on a date with him, received compliments on it from others, but felt uncomfortable all night. I kept it for a few months, maybe even a year, but never really liked it. Actually, because the gift was not really "right," it helped confirm my notion that this was not a guy for me [F 38].

Another woman [F 28] received an electric frying pan for Christmas from a man she was dating. "I got the feeling he had visions of me barefoot and pregnant." She quit dating him shortly after this gift.

Gifts also produce feelings of obligation that are sometimes unwelcome.

I had been dating a man for a couple of months, and for Valentines Day he had a messenger deliver a black negligee from Victoria's Secret. I could see why he didn't have the nerve to bring it over himself! I knew it had cost a lot of money, and I had been planning to break off with him, so I felt like I had to wait a couple of weeks to do that after having received that gift [F35]. There was a girl who I had met once on a blind date; a couple days after the dale she brought me cookies, balloons, and a stuffed animal. I thought that it was a kind gesture, but I hardly knew the girl and felt very uncomfortable accepting the gift. I felt obligated to reciprocate the deed [M25]. In the past, I have accepted gifts which I wish I had not. I always feel as though l owe that person at least another date or a few more weeks of my time. Gifts can put you in that awkward position of "now I owe you something in return" [F 28]

Besides feelings of obligation, there are also feelings of guilt sometimes stimulated by gifts.

I remember feeling so guilty from receiving those roses from that guy after I broke up with him. I didn't want our relationship to have meaning, and I certainly didn't want to return the favor. Those next few days, while the flowers were alive, they were a constant reminder of the times we spent together, and I actually resented those flowers because of it [F 25].

For similar reasons, many gift recipients were reluctant to keep gifts-from relationships that had ended However, in other cases people, particularly women, kept gifts from prior suitors in order to remember them.

I still have the all the gifts that I have received and the cards that go with them, including the corsages, which my mother made me save. I am a sentimental person and save everything that has meant something to me [F 24].

Belk (forthcoming) notes that keeping gifts from prior romances is a way of providing a sense of past. Such gifts remind us that people have professed to love us.


On the basis of this preliminary analysis of our data on college student dating in Salt Lake City, both expenditures of money and gift-giving appear to be key symbolic communication media. In pre-courtship and non-courtship dating, there is a careful attempt to invoke gifts and expenditures to express interest, gratitude, and sincerity, to exercise or attempt to exercise power, to apologize, and to please a date. Gift recipients react with discounting, resentment, guilt, disappointment, joy, and feelings of self-affirmation, depending upon the giver and the nature of the gift. Men and women often hold different opinions and reservations in these exchanges. The process of gift-giving and paying for dates is generally seen to become easier and less expensive as a relationship becomes more longstanding.

Dating is a key context for further research on gift-giving and consumption expenditures. Emotions and stakes in dating, mating, and courtship are high. Those involved in dating attempt to assess their own feelings as well as those of dating partners through a material system of ritual gifts. All of this is played out against the backdrop of cultural models of dating, love, sex, and images -albeit sometimes conflicting -- of the role of gifts and money in these intense personal interactions. Even more than gift-giving in general, dating gift-giving seems a highly emotionally charged as well as significant area for further consumer research.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Gregory S. Coon, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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“But, will you think it's important to use mouthwash?” How Visual Communication of a Set Impacts Perceived Set Completeness and Item Importance

Miaolei (Liam) Jia, University of Warwick, United Kingdom
Xiuping Li, National University of Singapore, Singapore
aradhna krishna, University of Michigan, USA

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