If a young man chooses to fall in love when he has next to nothing to live upon, trouble is sure to follow.
— Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate
Sometimes the obstacle to marriage is just plain money: The man cannot earn enough — or have an independent source of income — to support a family. A mostly Forgotten Trope nowadays, but one with a long history — mostly in settings where a woman leaves her parents' home for that of her husband, but also where single adults can live in dormitories and the like, but living in a residence of your own is expected for married couples.
This can be combined with Parental Marriage Veto: The parents ban the marriage until the man can find a position where he can earn enough. Or the plot may revolve about wheedling a settlement out of either set of parents sufficient to support a household. In other situations, it is the practicalities of money enough to get a place to live that rule.
How much money depends on situations. Usually the woman is expected to hold out for a life equal to her parents, but in some situations, escaping penury — and actual hunger — may be all that is required. It may also be urged that "two can live as cheaply as one", and that the woman, if a good housekeeper, can ensure that her husband's expenses go down; Feminine Women Can Cook, for instance, instead of his having to buy ready-made meals. If the heroine becomes a Fallen Princess, her parents may be much more open to a poor suitor, since he is no longer poorer. By contrast, an Impoverished Patrician may want his daughter's suitor to be richer than him, in order to give her the life her parents have failed to. Many a Self-Made Man has carried it off in order to marry a woman.
Defying this trope is often unwise. Perhaps they will manage — either he can become the Self-Made Man or they can live happily on less than her parents' opinion — but it can also lead to a marriage becoming unhappy due to constant conflicts over money, and sometimes to actual injury, illness, or even death owing to privation. Many a rich man's son, disinherited, has learned the hard way that he has no useful skills to support even himself.
If one of the couple is willing to settle for less money than the other, it may be a warning sign of Wrong Guy First — especially if the other insists on servile behavior toward relatives who can make a settlement. Screw the Money, I Have Rules! may chase off the wrong guy.
Unexpected Inheritance is a common Deus ex Machina, making him a Suddenly Suitable Suitor. Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder and Old Flame Fizzle are both possible if he leaves to make his fortune — and so is I Will Wait for You.
Compare Wedlock Block.
In Maison Ikkoku Godai could barely support himself for the longest time, so this very much came into play.
In Otoyomegatari, Ali mentions that he plans to get married once he has a stable income.
In Spice and Wolf, one of Lawrence's motivations for trading is to earn himself enough money to get married. In addition, one person he asks for money when he's in dire straits refuses him because he's running around with a woman, and so he can apparently afford more than he's letting on.
Several of Junji Ito's protagonists run into this problem. In one case the father was continuing to deny it even from the afterlife.
A staple of fairy tales has a poor man try to win the hand of a princess (or otherwise high-born or rich girl), only for her father to refuse to give permission unless the man can prove he has the means to keep the girl in the life of luxury she was used to living in. This usually comes by the father demanding the suitor build a house as fine as his own, which the suitor manages using some magic item or another.
In "The Wooden-Clog Maker and the King's Daughter", the clog maker and his beloved do not have enough to marry. He receives a peach pit that grows into a tree that will give peaches in the middle of winter to help him.
Wentworth had not saved anything from his naval career, which meant he was entirely relying on his position to enable him to marry.
Also Charles Hayter is trying to secure a position to enable him to marry Henrietta.
Also, the reason Captain Benwick and Fanny Harville were still only engaged at the time of her death was that his promotion did not come before then. (Gender-inverted in Real Life, with the lost fiancÚ of Jane Austen's sister Cassandra.)
In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon's generosity and reconciling with Edward's mother are needed for Edward and Elinor to marry.
famously inverted from the opening line: inability to support a wife is the only acceptable motive for not marrying.
Also played straight: Wickham's early attentions to Elizabeth are decried because they do not have money between them. Mrs. Gardiner warns Elizabeth not to get too close to Wickham because he won't be able to support a wife.
Colonel Fitzwilliam is also careful not to let his friendship with her develop into anything more, for the same reason.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny's mother foolishly did not heed this, and their family life suffered as a consequence.
In Poul Anderson's "Critique of Impure Reason", Janet tries to soothe Tunny with the suggestion that they could live in her salary; Tunny rejects the notion, Janet calls him medieval, and Tunny says he can be very medieval.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge initially didn't marry his girlfriend because he wasn't established yet in his career. After a few years, though, she became upset by his obsession with having enough money and left him.
Earlier in the story, Scrooge berates his nephew, Fred, for getting married even though he wasn't exactly rolling in money. Fred's response, when asked why he got married anyway, was "Because I fell in love!"
In the works of P. G. Wodehouse, this occurs very, very, very frequently. The plot often involves a Zany Scheme to gain the favour of some wealthy relative who can then give the protagonist an allowance to support his intended.
In Uneasy Money, Bill's poverty means he and Claire can't marry. Claire is quite unpleasantly explicit about his need to get some.
In Money in the Bank, Lionel insists on keeping their engagement secret so he can wheedle money out of this aunt.
One of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. A friend of Bertie Wooster's has two problems with his intended bride: firstly he can't support her, and second, he is an upper-class gentleman and she is a waitress, and his rich uncle (where the money has to come from) will never agree to the marriage. Jeeves arranges for the rich uncle to be read romance stories in which aristocrats marry commoners, to soften his heart. This works... and the uncle marries his own cook, meaning he now needs the money to support a wife and can't give an allowance to Bertie's friend. By an extraordinary coincidence, it turns out that the friend's intended bride was the same young person whom Jeeves himself was involved with.
In Jill the Reckless, Mrs. Barker is familiar with this trope from romance reading but notes that Derek has his own money, so she is not sure why his mother can interfere. Barker has to explain the My Beloved Smother and Momma's Boy dynamic involved.
In "Jeeves Takes Charge", the story where Bertie hires him, Bertie is faced with a dilemma: Florence won't marry him unless he steals his uncle's memoirs, to keep them from being published, and he's dependent on that uncle for his money.
It is central to the plot of Margaret Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate that he is in love and can't marry.
In Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, Pickwick, talking to his landlady, asks whether it's true that two can live as cheaply as one — because he's thinking of hiring a manservant. She takes it as considering whether this trope applies and so a marriage proposal.
In Robin McKinley's Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of Beauty's sisters is in love with a man who wants to leave the city and become a blacksmith, which would never let him get money enough for a merchant's daughter. When their family is ruined, he pays his suit and tells her father that they can all come and live at the house he can get.
Aubrey/Maturin series: In the second and third novels, Mrs. Williams does not permit her daughter Sophie to marry Jack Aubrey until he can prove that he is able to support her. Luckily for Jack, Sophie resists all attempts to marry her off to someone else until he earns a fortune from the East India Company.
In Stephen Hunt's Secrets of the Fire Sea, Jethro explains he had been engaged to Alice Gray but lost his living, making it impossible.
At the end of The Curse of Chalion, Cazaril, being landless and having just been replaced as Iselle's secretary, cites this among a number of other protests when he is betrothed to the new Royina's lady in waiting Beatriz. Iselle simply points out that she is making the post of Chancellor a salaried position... wherupon Cazaril starts suggesting useful candidates.
In Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles, McLean believes that Angel and Freckles's romance is doomed in part because she is of a wealthy family, and he has nothing.
In the Back Story, Freckles's father hit the problems caused by ignoring it.
It was slow business, because he never had been taught to do a useful thing, and he didn't even know how to hunt work, least of all to do it when he found it; so pretty soon things were going wrong. But if he couldn't find work, she could always sing, so she sang at night, and made little things in the daytime. He didn't like her to sing in public, and he wouldn't allow her when he could HELP himself; but winter came, it was very cold, and fire was expensive.
Clouds of Witness: Denver had been able to dismiss Goyles because he couldn't support Mary or any other wife, and while he would have been willing to live on Mary's money, she doesn't get it without her brother's approval of the match.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, George became a Shell-Shocked Veteran and this after he married. His father left him the bulk of the estate because his older brother wasn't married and had his commission. His brother later explained that he found the body when he was coming back to point out to his father, who expected another bequest to make him richer, that leaving more to George so that he could support his wife might help stabilize him.
Unnatural Death, when recounting the Dawson family history, the Old Retainer explains that when they lost their money, Mr. Stephen was thrown over by his rich fiancee.
In Gene Stratton Porter's Her Father's Daughter, Donald's mother urges him not to ask Linda to marry him for this reason.
"Oh good Lord," cried Donald, "'marry!' How could I marry anyone when I haven't even graduated from high school and with college and all that to come?" "That is what I have been trying to tell you," said his mother evenly. "I don't believe you have been thinking about marriage and I am absolutely certain that Linda has not, but she is going to be made to think about it long before you will be in such financial position that you dare.
In Patricia A. McKillip's "The Kelpie", inverted. Ned confesses to being rich, which is what makes Emma wonder that he's not married.
Briefly mentioned in The Belgariad. A talented journeyman glassblower gives Garion a beautiful glass sculpture to present to his Aunt Pol. He admits that the reason he's doing this is because if people in the court see the King's aunt in possession of one of his works, they might commission some work from him themselves, and he needs commissions if he wants to be able to open his own shop, which he has to do before he can seriously court his master's daughter. When he's next seen, he's succeeded in becoming a master with his own shop, though whether or not he got the girl isn't mentioned.
In John C. Wright's Titans of Chaos, at the climax, Victor reveals his love for Amelia; he had wanted to wait until he had more to offer than himself, but the danger is too great.
In Anthony Trollope's Ayala's Angel, this is the main problem for Ayala's sister Lucy and her suitor Isadore Hamel, a sculptor who refuses to compromise his principles to make money, despite the attempts of Lucy's uncle to convince him to do so. He's ready to marry her despite his lack of money; though Lucy's sensible uncle prevents this until Ayala's suitor gives him some money and he achieves some more success.
In Patricia C. Wrede's Frontier Magic novel The Far West, Roger explains he can not ask Eff to marry him because the expedition will be years, but he will be able to support a wife at the end of it.
In the first Ring of Fire short story collection from the 1632 series, the short story "To Dye For" by Mercedes Lackey opens with Tom "Stoner" Stone in a deep funk because his lack of income means the father of the woman he has fallen in love with refuses to allow their marriage.
Prominent in Gone with the Wind after the war. Alex Fontaine wants to marry Dimity Munroe but honor prevents him from asking her until he can support her. Frank Kennedy holds off on marrying Suellen for the same reasons. Scarlett at one point bemoans that there will be a lot of old maids in the South because of this trope.
In Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, when Mr. Norrell arrives at his first party in London, he overhears a man telling a woman how he persuaded one young woman to give up her true love for a wealthy man: first he introduced her to the charms of fine (and expensive) jewelry, then he got her penniless love to gamble, so he was deeply in debt — and pointed out to him that a man with no money was one thing, but one in debt was another.
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow speculates that this is why Kurtz went to seek his fortune in Africa:
"I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something."
In Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott, Daisy's mother Meg opposes to Daisy marrying Nat because she fears he plays this trope straight, what with him being a poor orphan turned into struggling musician. Once Nat makes a name for himself in music, Meg relents.
Live Action TV
On one episode of Bonanza, a local businesswoman asks Little Joe for help. She wants to marry a nebbishy but sweet-natured man who loves her, but he feels that it wouldn't be right to propose to a woman who has more money than he. She gives Little Joe a large sum of money and tells him he should use it to buy a supposedly worthless plot of land from her beloved. After a pair of unsavory fellows get involved, silver is discovered and hilarity ensues.
Occurs in The Wire season 2 with Nick Sobotka and his girlfriend Ashley; the two can't afford to get a place together.
Myths and Legends
The legend of the Lovers of Teruel is kicked off when Diego leaves his beloved Isabel to gfather the fortune he needed to be able to marry her...
The XTC songs "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" and "Earn Enough for Us" are about couples trying to defy this. They might as well be the trope's theme songs.
In Rudyard Kipling's "The Post That Fitted", Sleary, while engaged to Carrie, proposes to another woman whose family can get him a post, and then persuades her to call it off by feigning epilepsy.
Certainly an impecunious Subaltern was not a catch, But the Boffkins knew that Minnie mightn't make another match.
So they recognised the business and, to feed and clothe the bride, Got him made a Something Something somewhere on the Bombay side. Anyhow, the billet carried pay enough for him to marry — As the artless Sleary put it: — "Just the thing for me and Carrie."
In Oklahoma!, Will gains some money and bids on Annie's lunch to prove he has it; her father points he just spent it and so is a too poor suitor again; Ali Hakim desperately outbids him to escape marrying her himself.
A sad and — unusually — gender-flipped occurrence can be found in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with a bit of looking: there's a man called Ranmir drinking by himself in Winterhold after his fiancee disappeared, seemingly having run off with another man. The innkeeper, worried about the man, asks the player to try and find out what happened to Ranmir's fiancee. It turns out that she left to try and find a valuable artefact to make enough money to support both of them, but was killed before she found it.
Since the early 21st Century, a new social/economic class of people has emerged, known as the 'precariat'. This class is commonly prone to 'involuntary celibacy' and other difficulties in maintaining relationships, due to the precarious employment situation of those who are a part of it.
In Japan such people are known as 'freeters'.
When General Junot told his friend Napoleon Bonaparte (who was then First Consul of the French Republic) of his desire to marry a charming but impoverished young lady, Bonaparte answered :
"How right you were to say that you're madly in love ! And I who recommended you to marry a rich woman ! After all, you're not rich."
However, Junot subverted this by answering :
"Excuse me, General, but I am ! Aren't you my protector ?"
Bonaparte proved him right by giving them both large sums of money. Incidentally, that matter of money had also been an obstacle to an earlier marriage project involving the same Junot and Napoleon's sister, Pauline (suggested at a time where both men were unemployed officers, and Bonaparte was even poorer than Junot).