That’s Seth Gitter, his wife Marie and his 1-year-old daughter Sylvia. Seth is an assistant professor of economics at Towson University where his research focuses on child development in Central America. He also dabbles in the economics of minor league baseball and The Simpsons. In his free time, he runs the Blog of Diminishing Returns, tackling such topics as Hannukah, Festivus and conditional cash transfers in Honduras.
1. What signals did you send your wife when you were courting to let her know you were serious about her?
Signals are actions that convey information about your inherent qualities and are very importing in courting. My favorite courting signal I sent my wife was after our first date. On our first date we drank Guinness on the roof outside my dorm room, and the next day I brought her handpicked black-eyed susans in one of the empty beer bottles. The signal I sent showed her I was able to intuit what she would find charming. Perhaps the best is that Marie felt the signal showed that I understood who she was at her core, i.e. the type of person who would pick wild flowers then find it amusing to put them in a beer bottle. Further, showing it was an optimal signal, a person with her sense of humor is the type of person I wanted to attract.
[Alert readers will also note that the “vase” in the above picture behind the card on the mantle may bare a strong resemblance to a beer bottle]
As an important aside, our first date was a ruse. I told Marie I was inviting several people over for drinks in my dorm room. Once she said yes, I failed to invite other people (oops!). Luckily, Marie took my ruse as a signal I liked her and not that I was a liar. A signal’s value has a lot to do with how the people are feeling about each other. If Marie didn’t like me she wouldn’t have thought my flowers the next day were as nice.
2. Do you ever think about your marriage at the margin?
If you took your econ classes literally you would think economists compare the marginal utility of tacos vs burgers using a Cobb-Douglas utility function just to figure out what to cook for dinner. We can think of marriage as two people sharing resources to maximize happiness. I don’t really think about doing something to improve our marriage, but I do think about doing things to make my wife Marie happy (like cook delicious tacos). A Cobb-Douglas like function would help in this analysis if we think of the goal of a marriage to maximize happiness:
Marriage Happiness =Sethhappiness*Mariehappiness
Making tacos makes us both happy, but we do things that don’t directly make us happy (like fully removing that plastic film that comes on the sour cream container instead of leaving it dangling) because it makes our partner happy. The good news is that removing the plastic film does send a signal you are listening, which further improves both your happiness and, as my wife claims, your ability to actually get the sour cream out of the container.
3. Who balances the checkbook in your marriage?
As a 30 year old, what’s a checkbook? But let’s talk personal finance. I think it is good to task one person in the couple with the day-to-day finances (I do that), but make most of the important things automated after both parties understand the goals and agree on the financial strategy. Our “Eureka!” personal finance moment was in graduate school, when we realized if we saved $25 a month, we wouldn’t be scrambling to find $300 for our school fees every September. Now we automate savings for retirement, a house down payment, our daughter’s college tuition, charitable giving, and vacations; whatever is left after that we can spend. I’m a big fan of setting your budget constraint then optimizing.
4. Does your wife think it’s fun to be married to an economist?
Marie says a resounding yes. I know Marie likes the stories I find amusing. Her favorite story about my research is the response by Mexican men about the benefit of the government of giving cash to their wives to help their children’s development. The men said, “I wouldn’t waste the money, but other men, not me, would waste the money so it is good to give it to women.”
5. What advice would you give someone who is thinking about getting married?
At my brother’s wedding, my best-man toast started by saying that economists think almost everything has diminishing returns. Diminishing returns means that as you get more of something, a little bit extra improves your happiness by smaller amounts. The secret to a happy marriage is to find someone whose returns aren’t diminishing but increasing. As Marie and I have spent more years together we have an increasing number of inside jokes and stories. It is more enjoyable to spend an afternoon, week, or year with someone who likes you and knows you well than someone you just met. We have been lucky that both our sets of parents share this trait, as do my brother and his wife. So if you are getting married find someone who you think will be even more fun as the years go on.