First Person

How to stay in love when you’re broke (hint: don’t go to Ikea)

Allison and Matt Robicelli. Photo by Amber Marlow Photography.

When I was a little girl playing with dolls, dreaming about my wedding and thinking of what my future husband would be like, I did not take into account how different reality would be from fantasy. For one thing, we don’t have a hot pink dune buggy. I managed to fall in love about 10 years before I had “planned to,” so I didn’t already have a successful chain of restaurants under my belt by the time I got engaged at 24. (I still don’t.) Most of all, I didn’t plan that one day Brooklyn would get trendy and I’d be priced out of Bay Ridge, the neighborhood my family has lived in since the 1920s, that we’d be in a massive recession, and our American dream would be less about owning mansions on either coast and more about keeping our family together and heads above water in our hometown.

Barbie and Ken never had these kinds of problems. They never had to sell the dream house or the Corvette, never had to wear only one pair of shoes until they had holes in them, or skip meals to make sure there was at least some food to eat every day. Even when Ken went gay for a bit in the early 90s, they kept smiling.

If you are married, and you are broke–even just a teensy bit broke, you’re going to fight. In fact, you’re going to fight a whole fucking lot. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re headed on the road to divorce. It doesn’t mean you were never right for each other in the first place and you made a huge mistake. It means you’re married.

There are nights where I cry myself to sleep, days where I walk around where I feel like someone has put a knife in my heart, and more days than I can count where I look at Matt and wonder how I could have married a man whom I despise more than any person on earth at that precise moment. The fights that get that bad are never the ones about about who left dirty underwear all over the floor (hint: NOT ME). Four times out of five, the nasty ones are always about money. The other one is usually about work, so yeah, they’re actually all about money.

I often say I have the perfect marriage, and I honestly believe that you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who love each other as intensely and wholeheartedly as Matt and I do. But there have been times where I have gotten so scared about whether or not we’d be able to afford basic luxuries like rent and food that it seemed that my insides were dissolving, and rather than just let that fear and anger and hatred eventually kill me, it exploded out, and in the direction of my husband. Matt would do the same to me. And once all of that hell finally escapes you, you have a clean place where you can be rational, and work together to solve your problems instead of running in terror from them.

Fighting is essential, healthy, and totally, utterly normal. Where it gets dangerous is when you let the fighting take over the entire relationship, and don’t work to maintain the rest of it. Every relationship is different, but these are some of the things that have kept us from killing each other for the past seven years:

Establish fighting rules: Nothing physical. No low blows or cheap shots. Don’t bring up things in the past, or intentionally say things to hurt the other person. Venting frustration is one thing, emotionally abusing someone is something entirely different. And when the fight is over, the fight is over. Don’t keep bringing it up and opening up old wounds. That makes scars, and those don’t heal quickly.

Get good at making up: If you had money, you’d buy each other something frivolous, or eat an expensive dinner followed by passionate bedbug-free luxury hotel room sex. Matt and I? We’re the parents of two preschoolers with a small business in Brooklyn, meaning that we can’t make up like that. So we make out.

Don’t you remember long before you got comfortable and complacent in a relationship, where you’d be out and full of shots, and you’d think “God, if I don’t make out with someone like RIGHT FUCKING NOW I’m going to die”? Or long before that, long before you “did it,” and making out was just about the greatest thing in the world? When getting your boobs touched was a major deal? That was awesome, wasn’t it?

Now you roll over every night to the same face, day in, day out, and you start to forget how incredible it is to be kissed because you can have it whenever you want. Well next time the satellite is out because you didn’t pay the bill, try making out for an hour or so, then break for sandwiches, then get back to making out. Maybe throw in a little under-the-shirt action if the fight was really bad.

Play More: My cats can play with a paper bag for days. My kids can play with a paper bag for days. But Matt and I will sit here staring at each other like we have nothing to do, completely forgetting that when we were first dating and getting to know each other, we’d stay in every night and play board games in bed.

Here’s one of the plus sides to having kids–you get to play with toys again. You may have forgotten about this, but Legos are pretty much the most awesome thing on earth. Also awesome: Nerf guns, Play-Doh, and sidewalk chalk. And if you don’t have kids to steal from or the budget to buy those things, make shadow puppets. Mad Libs. Wastepaper basketball trick-shot contest. The one thing that fixes you up after feeling low faster than sex or booze? Laughing.

Don’t Ever Go To Ikea: Seriously, don’t ever fucking do it. I know your first instinct is to go out, and some people think this is a great cheap date where you can get dinner for 2 for less than ten bucks and a view of the skyline (and a sexy parking lot!).  Others think that it will inspire a nesting instinct where the two of you will find romance anew in picking out a side table to be a physical reminder of the tenacity of your love. In reality, within 20 minutes, things will turn viciously and horribly ugly. I guarantee that if you ever run into us at that store, we’re either fighting, or have just parked the car and are five short minutes away from fighting.

Do yourself a favor. Go with a buddy, or go alone. But don’t EVER go on a “date.” You really need a date? Go get some tacos — they’re cheap, and everyone loves tacos. Unless you hate America.

Build a Fort: Staying home and watching Netflix? Predictable. Building a fort in your living room, bringing in the laptop and eating pigs in a blanket in a little movie theater built for two? Super cool. Bonus: your sheets and couch cushions will smell like little baby hot dogs for days, keeping the romance alive.

Got any more ideas for creative ways to keep the magic alive with two pennies between you? Leave them in the comments. I promise we will test every single one of them out ourselves. Unless it’s gross, creepy, or involves costumes. We still haven’t recovered from that whole “Sexy Bea Arthur” incident we had a few years ago.

Even if you don’t build a fort, make out like teenagers or any of that, at least promise one thing: that no matter how bad things get, you will always remember not to take your relationship for granted. After years of being with someone, it’s very easy to forget how lucky you really are. Before you were loved, it was something you would have given anything to have. Money, stuff, things–all replaceable. True love? The only thing that’s honestly worth fighting for.

Allison and Matt Robicelli are the proprietors of Robicelli’s cupcakes, which you can enjoy at fine establishments all over Brooklyn and beyond. 



  1. This was the perfect article to read on my first wedding anniversary. After a year of incredible highs (getting international press and attention for my blog and brand, as well as a promotion at work) and heart-wrenching lows (my husband losing his job of 4 years), and everything in between, one thing was for sure: we AIN’T rich. We’ve lived off peanut butter, not paid our cable bill so we could pay the rent, and made $10 bucks last 2 weeks between the two of us. Money fights suck, but if you can devise a plan to make it work, after all the nasty fights, by putting two heads and hearts together, you can do anything. Great article Allison! Keep em coming!

  2. I also think getting a babysitter is an awesome idea. Coming from someone who didn’t have a babysitter for the FIRST 7 YEARS OF MOTHERHOOD, trust me – you need to get out. I know, it can be expensive, so here’s what I did a few years ago: another mom and I became good friends through our kids being in the same swim class, so we swapped babysitting. She and her hubby went out to dinner while I watched her daughter. Unfortunately, she moved before I was able to get the favor returned, but TOTALLY NOT HER FAULT that it took me so long to make plans. But that’s a great way to get a babysitter without adding $$$ to your night out, and also making sure your kids are with someone you trust and is another mom. Then even if all you do is walk around the neighborhood talking, at least you’re alone and can actually complete a sentence without being interrupted. 

  3. Babysitting swap- AMAZING idea. Matt and I have seriously had dates in the hallway of our apartment while the kids were watching tv. Just 5 minutes away, keeping them in earshot, but being alone. It’s so important once you become parents to still make time for your relationship. God knows that first year after Atticus was born was HARD.

  4. NancyB

    I love the making out idea. You’re totally right. It’s a good way to also remind yourself to inject some sexual tension into an otherwise “sure thing” situation!

    Also, a major plot line of last week’s 30 Rock was how Ikea trips destroy relationships. If you have internet at home, it’s available streaming for free on Hulu and it’s hysterical. It’s called, “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?”

    • I don’t watch much tv but I will absolutely need to find that. The only explanation I have is that when you sit in all those model rooms, Ikea’s like “Look how easy it is to organize your house! The reason your house is covered in papers and Matchbox cars is because you suck as a parent and as a human being! Swedish people just have their shit together, and you never will!”.  

  5. Fun-dip

    Love this! Me deciding to stay home after having our baby and basically cutting our income in half has definitely caused some friction between me and my husband (and not the good kind!). I think we’ll just have to start making out more. Hope this is the first of many more articles from Allison!

  6. anonyfan

    I’m not married, don’t have kids, can’t eat cupcakes because I’m allergic to gluten, and almost never comment on Brokelyn.  But I absolutely loved your article.  Thanks for being so honest and open about how much of a struggle all relationships – even ‘perfect’ ones – can be.  Wishing you and your hubby a happy valentine’s day ;-)

  7. terrific piece! and all so…familiar.
    we are a family of four living on one teacher’s salary. rent and tuition first, food and clothing next. there’s no room for dinner out or a movie. sometimes we have enough cash for a few pints at the pub down the block.
    most nights when the kids are in bed, we are too.
    one of the best things we’ve done is let the cable run out and tell time Warner where to stick it. for half the price of one month of triple play service, we bought a blue ray player and digital bunny ears and a subscription to Netflix. an since the tv in our bedroom is ancient, that means no tv in the bedroom. not only are we watching hours less of mind numbing television–we’re reading, I’m crocheting and putting out blankets for family and friends (and soon: strangers!). I’m studying for a certification and looking forward to my next phase of motherhood. kris is playing in a band and playing guitar for himself. when the weather is nice, we take a walk. or a family walk.

    • I had to give up buying new clothing for about 3 years. Fortunately, I’m a jeans and t-shirts girl. I had about 10 plain t-shirts (mostly black), two pairs of jeans, a pair of basic black chef shoes I wore every day, one pear of heels, a dress and cardigan. Once you have your basics down, you can borrow accents from friends or trade old clothes for their old clothes. 

      Or you can do what I did and totally let yourself go once you have two kids (I have 2 boys 16 months apart). Not recommended, but sometimes you have the choice between doing your hair or getting a desperately needed additional 15 minutes of sleep.  Now they’re 3 and 4, so I’m finally getting back to looking like my old self again, but on a budget. I gave up MAC for ELF. I invested in an InStyler and gave up blowouts. I am SPLURGING on the gym, only because I feel so bad about spending the $ we barely have that I HAVE to go in order not to feel horrible about it (which, in turn, has made me look and feel better than I have in 5 years).  
      We gave up cable for a year in favor of Netflix on our Wii and with the exception of sports, we loved it. They have so many complete series from when we were young (Cosby, Cheers, Twin Peaks), that we actually preferred it to cable!

  8. Walk downtown, or in a park, and feed the ducks or pigeons, or whatever. Of course , one then worries about spending money on food for ducks when there isn’t food on the table for the humans… However, just being outside in a different environment makes you think you’ve had a vacation…although in this economy and being unemployed has convinced me I’ll never be able to go on another vacation.

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