Friendships and financial inequality

A few years ago, I started spending time with a coworker outside of work. She was cool, fun to hang out with, and we had a lot in common. Except income.

She worked in a separate department and made significantly more money than I did. Hanging out with her and her friends usually involved dining at fancy restaurants, drinking at fancy bars, and talking about whether we'd go to Greece or St. Bart's — I hadn't been to either.

Today, we're no longer friends. It's not because we had some falling out or personality clash — we just came from two totally different worlds. After turning down a slew of invites, not being able to vacation with her, and generally saying ‘no' to friendly financial pressure, we grew apart.

Frankly, I just couldn't afford the friendship.

Financial inequality often becomes an issue in friendships. It's probably much harder to deal with in relationships, but it can still take a toll on friendships. It has for me, and lately, I've been wondering — how do you deal with making significantly more or less than your friends?

Problem #1: Guilt and Jealousy

When our friends begin to reach their financial goals, it can make us sensitive. It can remind us of our own goals that we're struggling to reach. GRS writer April Dykman once wrote about this topic, pointing out that one person's success can often signal a friend's failure.

I can relate. I have friends with some pretty big accomplishments under their belts. They've written movies; they've published books. I hate to admit it, and it's not very endearing, but I'm jealous. Sure, I'm happy for them and all. But more so, I'm jealous. I want to do those things, and the more they succeed, the more I think, “I'm not succeeding at that.”

Similarly, when our friends start to monumentally surpass us financially, I think it's only natural to self-reflect. And that self-reflection can lead to jealousy. If that jealousy inspires us to reach our goals, that's one thing; if it builds resentment, that's another.

Conversely, the other person — the one who's making more money — might start to feel guilty. Especially if you feel like your income inequality is causing a rift in your friendship, you might start to feel like it's your fault for “changing.”

Solution #1: Communication

For my MSN job, I interview a lot of relationship experts, psychologists and therapists. When I talk to them about relationship problems, their solutions always go back to one thing — communication. It might be cliché, but it's important. If you're having feelings of guilt or jealousy, it's important to talk about it. Money is an awkward subject. But the longer you bottle in your feelings, the more resentment will fester, and then awkwardness will thrive.

Last year, I met a new friend who loves going out all the time. I began feeling the same way I did with my old coworker — like we couldn't afford to be friends. But this time, I decided to not let that get in the way. I flat out told her, “I can't afford to do these things.” Interestingly, we still hang out, and since then, she's even told me, “I can't afford to go out to dinner. Let's hang out at my place instead.”

A simple act of communication salvaged — nay, improved — my friendship.

Problem #2: Giving and Taking (Advantage)

You should treat friends sometimes. Especially if it's your idea to go to a fancy place and you make more money than they do, you shouldn't have a problem with picking up the tab sometimes.

That being said, it's easy to take advantage of a friend who enjoys giving. Even the nicest, most polite of us sometimes take advantage of people without even realizing it. My parents, for example, always insist on paying when I visit them in Texas. While I don't mean to take advantage, I've come to expect it. It's not right, but it's easy.

After college, I started my first “real job.” The pay wasn't spectacular, but it was better than the near-minimum wage I was making while in school. A good friend of mine was still in college, making near-minimum wage. We would go for drinks every Friday night, taking turns on picking up the tab. But when I got my new job, suddenly it was assumed that I should start paying the tab week after week. When I inquired about this, my friend's answer was: “well, you make more than me now.” Our new income inequality meant that I had to make things equal by paying most of the time.

Solution #2: Set Boundaries

I told my friend that this wasn't how things were going to work. I shouldn't have to pay each time simply because I made more money. Also, I explained that I now spent a lot more time working and I moved into a nicer, more expensive apartment. So my “entertainment fund” was about the same as it used to be. It was an awkward conversation, and for a time, I felt like money caused a rift between us. But it needed to be said; boundaries needed to be set.

On the other side of the coin, all of us have that one friend who always insists on paying. Sometimes it gets to the point where you just get used to it — like with my parents. If that friend doesn't feel the need to set financial boundaries, find other ways to repay them. That could mean babysitting, helping them with home repairs, etc. You might earn significantly less than they do, but your time is still valuable.

Problem #3: Growing Apart

As your net worth starts to drastically differ from your friend's, growing apart may be easy. I hated nodding and smiling while my old coworker talked about what the weather was like in Santorini this time of year. Similarly, while I live a pretty middle-of-the-road lifestyle, I still have some friends who have to worry about paying the bills each month. It's hard for me to talk to those friends about certain topics. We can't talk about things like savings goals, for example. Or even simpler things — like cable alternatives or road trips. When I talk about those things, I feel like I'm inadvertently being condescending, as those are not even options in their financial lives right now. Sometimes, this makes conversation difficult, and often, I feel like we're growing apart.

Solution #3: Keep Traditions Alive

It's important to keep doing the things you were doing. If you used to invite your friend over for Sunday dinner, don't stop doing that just because you (or they) start making more money. Your lifestyle and priorities may change, but keeping the traditions alive will help ensure your friendship stays in tact.

I don't know all the answers, as this is something I'm in the process of dealing with. The sentimental side of me thinks that true friendship won't let a little thing like financial inequality get in the way. After all, laughter, love and understanding are the elements that make friendships thrive, and they're also free.

But there is the unpleasant reality that sometimes, friendships end. It's the last resort answer to all of this, but it happens. Maybe the income gap is too big an obstacle for a friend. Or maybe you set boundaries, and they just don't get it. For whatever reason, I suppose, sometimes, you just have to accept the end of a friendship and learn to move on.

These are the problems and solutions I've come across, and I'd like to ask — has financial inequality ever been an issue in any of your friendships or relationships? If so, what happened? How did you deal with it?

More about...Planning

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