Can you be friends with rich people?

I wanted to title this post, “Can you be friends with people in decidedly different financial situations than you?” but that wasn’t very catchy. (And I know: some of you ARE rich!)

But I was reading the acclaimed recent novel, “The Interestings,” with my writer’s craft book group (we discuss books based on writing analytics rather than whether characters and stories are likable). The book’s main character is just ordinary, with an ordinary job and ordinary talents. But Jules has some extraordinary (“interesting”) friends, friends that she met long ago at a summer camp for the arts.

Because Jules hasn’t pursued her art as a career, and she probably wouldn’t have made a ton of money at it in any case, she often finds herself terribly envious of her friends that have; notably, her friends whose talents have made them a huge financial success. (The male half of the couple seems to be loosely modeled off Matt Groening; his animated series quickly becomes huge and he’s rich within months of winning a network deal.)

In one particularly ugly scene, the main character bemoans their recent transformation from regular struggling artists to fabulously wealthy, comparing her own pleasure at the great deal at the kebab place (“it comes with free salad AND flat bread!”) to their never, ever again needing to worry about such things. To how easy it is for them to pick up the check and how ridiculous it is for her to do so. How she can’t see them the same way any more and surely! Her friends will look down from their Tower of Rich and shake their heads at their poor friend, still walking up stairs in her apartment, still picking up her own dry cleaning. Her husband sympathizes for a while, but loses his temper at one point, saying something along the lines of, “we’re not boring people just because we’re not rich! Do you hate being married to ordinary me? Get a grip!”

Jules may be more extreme in her statements than most of us, but we probably all feel like that sometimes.

I have a few friends who, in the course of our relationship, have gone from ordinary middle-income to bona-fide rich. One of my dearest friends’ husbands sold his little company to a huge corporation. My brother, who has worked for Intel most of his adulthood, has been doing very well. He bought a new house a few months ago and when I visited, I was shocked to find it was kind of mansion-y. Another friend I met at a writing conference, I discovered after I’d been chatting for hours, had enough money to be an angel investor in independent films. The sort of conversations that start out, “I’ve been working on this novel,” (happens all the time in my life) and end, “I’ve been thinking of buying the movie rights to this famous author’s novel.” (Never happens.)

I found myself, like Jules, sometimes re-evaluating ordinary money conversations after I’d had them.

My friend who’d gone from middle-income to rich was used to hearing about my money woes. Not that I’d complain all the time, but I’d remark on how my husband and I were arguing over money, or say I couldn’t afford to go out to coffee, or worry about a freelance check that was overdue and oh my goodness I was broke until then. Now I’d start into those conversations and at some point remember that she could sympathize but not relate, any more.

My friend is a good enough friend that I know she still does sympathize, and luckily things have been better for me, finance-wise, in the past year so I rarely have the situation where I have to say “no” due to finances. She’s not the sort given to social extravagances, anyway; when we go out, it is to plays, coffee shops or small cafes where we order small meals. We’re absolutely OK.

But what about rich people in your family? Can you still relate to them?

I found my brother’s case a good lens through which to look at this rich/middling dichotomy. His young adulthood was challenging and, when he was a new dad, I know he did struggle with money a lot. I know there were arguments in his first marriage over money and, well, that marriage ended. So when I realized that things had definitely turned the corner for him, as evidenced by his new home and his toys (he’s a computer-chip engineer; most of his toys are computers he’s built himself), I was more thrilled for his success than feeling a yen for comparison. I don’t know if his friends felt the same.

He’s had the same group of friends since he was in middle school, and none of them have become highly-paid engineers at Intel. I’m fairly sure most of them are still living in apartments; they certainly don’t live in mansion-y homes. Having just finished reading this book, I wondered how they’d take it. Would they go home and, like Jules, complain that they couldn’t hang out with their friend any more? That every discussion now was tinged with differences?

I don’t know them well enough to ask, but my guess is they’ve known my brother so long his differences have grown slowly, had time to grow on them.

It’s hard, though, to think about sometimes; one of my siblings lives in a mansion while another lives in a house share with two other families. It’s all the choices we’ve made, and can we visit each other and truly be happy for one another’s successes (babies, artistic accomplishment, happy relationships) without comparing incomes?

Being friends with rich people is really all about you, not them.

My friend the angel investor was in town and invited me out to a play. I let him pay for the cab to the play but took him back to his hotel on the bus (I paid the $5!) — through the sketchy part of town — thinking to myself, “he could afford better. But he’s an adult enough to protest if he doesn’t like it.” I had to realize that any concern I have about how my lifestyle must look to my friends is all my problem and none of theirs.

Being friends with people whose financial situation is far better than yours should be an exercise for you — in not comparing. So what if they could go to dinner anywhere; if you get to pick, pick the place you can afford in case they say “Sure. Thanks,” when you offer to pick up the check. Be honest, but not assuming; it’s OK to protest, “I can’t afford Le Cirque, how about the kebab place?” and give your friend the benefit of your gratitude if they respond, “Oh, I was going to pick up the check.” Remember how gracious and awesome your friend is if they just say, “OK.”

If you stop yourself in the middle of a discussion about a really great deal you’ve found on organic yogurt or the best way to buy recycled toilet paper, thinking, “Oh my god, they don’t care,” well, let them decide that. Maybe they do care. Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they can’t be frugal (and don’t we all tune out friends sometimes when they talk about things we can’t relate to?). Be yourself, still, because that’s the person your friend was attracted to in the first place. Even if you’re a broke person.

It’s OK to fall out of touch if it’s too much.

Sometimes it just can’t work. Your friend invites you to a week away in Europe, which is great, but you can barely find the cash to travel to a French restaurant. Your friend wants to go shopping with you at boutiques where you couldn’t afford even so much as a hair accessory. Your friend offers to meet at the spa/country club/billiard room. Your friend doesn’t protest when you offer to pick up the check at an expensive lunch and then you’ve blown your food budget for two weeks. Your friend gets you a very expensive gift for your birthday and then complains to you about how a third friend gave her something handmade — which was your best idea for a suitable gift in return.

Sometimes friendships can’t work out with such out-sized differences. But it’s likely those friendships were too shaky anyway; maybe even based on the wrong things. If friendships are based on your personal relationship and not your relationship to things, places, and entertainment, you can weather the wealth of a friend.

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