Good Friends and the Money Gap
What happens when one pal is a saver, the other a spender, and the bond between you two gets frayed? Learn more about this all-too-common situation.
Darcy was that quiet coworker who kept a low profile, but when you happened to take a coffee break with her, you discovered she was a total hoot, with the best dry wit. I adored our time together a decade or so ago, but people change jobs. The years pass. We'd fallen out of touch but reconnected via social media.
A dinner plan was set into motion, and she sent me the name of a restaurant she was dying to try – would a 7 p.m. reservation be good?
Yes, we live in New York City, but $56 for an entrée for one human being? I don't even spend that much when I go out for an anniversary dinner with my husband.
Of course, I googled the menu.
Lamb Chops with Herb-Roasted Tomatoes, $56 … and the prices headed north from there.
My mouth was watering, but I was also in a cold sweat. What was she thinking?? Yes, we live in New York City, but $56 for an entrée for one human being? I don't even spend that much when I go out for an anniversary dinner with my husband.
I was equal parts outraged by these prices and embarrassed by my inability to keep up financially and have such a luxe meal. Should I call in sick to the dinner, I wondered? Tell her I have a last-minute work deadline and can't meet? Or be honest and say the place is too pricey?
Welcome to the world of the friendship wealth gap. It may not be Rich Friend, Poor Friend exactly, but it can be dicey territory.
The Great Money Divide
For those of us of a certain age, money can morph. Some of us are worried about our retirement savings not being as hearty as we would like and spend sparingly. In households headed by those age 60 to 65, the typical retirement nest egg rings in at $150,000, according to Employee Benefit Research Institute. While that's not an insignificant sum, it can be a troublingly small amount as you are rounding the corner into Social Security land.
Others are dealing with new, budget-confounding medical issues or find themselves under- or unemployed as the years pass.
"It can invite a lot of shame if you feel you might not be able to keep up with your friends, your social circle."
But there are also the Have's to these Have-Nots — after all, boomers control half of all wealth in the US, an astounding $78 trillion. And some of those feel, Dammit, I worked hard, and it's now or never to enjoy the spoils. Others may have sold a business or hit the jackpot with a lush pension (yes, a few are still out there). They have a pool of money sitting, all but tapping its foot impatiently, and demanding, Spend me already!
So what happens when a person from Camp A and one from Camp B are pals? Likely, the free-spender will wonder why their friend doesn't jump at invitations to score crazy-expensive tickets to the World Series or Billy Joel's (really and truly) final tour. And the one with the shallower pockets dodges these pricey outings.
This can be a sizable gulf to bridge. "In our society, we often get the message that our self-worth equals our net worth. It can invite a lot of shame if you feel you might not be able to keep up with your friends, your social circle," says Megan Ford, PhD, who's a financial therapist and clinic director of the University of Georgia's ASPIRE counseling program.
These tough emotions, when not confronted, can erode friendships.
Greg, 63, in Hartford, Connecticut, who's been scraping by since losing his corporate job a few years ago, knows this scenario only too well. "I admit to avoidance tactics. Without an explanation, I've declined so many invitations to events and dinners that are out of my budget," he says. "People simply don't ask me to join anymore. It can be a lonely and sad feeling."
"I don't believe in disposing of friends just because they are truly clueless about your reality in your financial world."
But there are ways to lead with the truth or just hint at it, if you prefer. Val Walker, an educator and author of "400 Friends and No One to Call" and "The Art of Comforting," says that anyone carrying negative feelings about their financial status can benefit from giving themselves some grace and self-compassion. Check in with yourself and realize some of your feelings may be coming from your past experiences and beliefs about money. Untangle those from the friendship and recognize that there is likely a path forward. "I don't believe in disposing of friends just because they are truly clueless about your reality in your financial world," she says.
A wealthier pal may be oblivious to the financial guardrails you have in place and would be horrified to know that they had put you in a difficult position.
Having the Money Talk
Once you make peace with that, what if a friend invites you to an outing you can't afford?
Knowing your financial boundaries and respecting them can give you a real sense of empowerment. When you have that clarity about your budget and spending limits, says Ford, "you can say to friends, 'Hey, I can't make it this week, but I'd love to get together next month. Let's make a plan.'" You're in control of the cadence of spending.
"Ask to talk and say, 'This conversation really matters to me because our friendship really matters to me.'"
That can be a good script if you don't want to get into details about your finances. After all, many people have spent an entire lifetime being told "Don't talk about money," and simply don't want to go there.
But you might also tackle the issue head-on, with full transparency.
Elizabeth White, author of "55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal," advocate, and founder of NuuAge Coliving, recalls when her finances took a turn south. While her wardrobe and address still communicated high earnings, her bank account did not. "It can be excruciating," says White, "but you can say something like, 'This is a really difficult time. I can't afford to go to the Four Seasons, but we could go to a restaurant downtown that I've scoped out. I love it and think you will, too."
Another tactic: "Ask to talk and say, 'This conversation really matters to me because our friendship really matters to me,'" says Walker. "'I really enjoy my time with you so much, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable about spending money. Can we find ways to make things comfortable for both of us?'" In this way, you're not guilt-tripping the other person but finding common ground and moving ahead.
Walker herself, who says she leads a modest life, has been in this challenging situation. "I have a super-wealthy friend, and when I go to her gorgeous, six-bedroom home, yes, I feel a little small. But she is very important to me, and I have had her to my humble home for tea and homemade shortbread cookies. We had a wonderful time, and I gave of myself as I could."
I jumped in with, "Can we go to my favorite ramen spot instead? I'm totally craving their tonkatsu broth; it's rated the best in town." She said yes.
That concept of sharing as you can is a powerful one. "Instead of focusing on the money aspect, as in, 'Hey, I'm broke,' you might lead with ways to spend quality time together," suggests Ford. "Ask a friend to join you at the farmers' market." You can treat them to a cold brew as you wander. You might go to a Free Friday night at a museum or whatever other outing resonates for you.
Flipping the Script
There's also — ahem — the other side to this story: the big(ger) spenders. Let's not leave them out. Friends should be aware of the cues that a pal is perhaps not financially flush.
"The person who is financially secure should notice when a friend who would normally order a glass of Chardonnay is suddenly having mineral water; that's a clue," says White, "or if they're asking for separate checks at the start of a meal. It means they don't want to be stuck paying for a part of the other person's drinks, dessert, latte or what have you."
Being sensitive to that, you might invite a friend out for a wonderful meal and say it's your treat from the start. "I believe there's a saying, 'Money shared is money enjoyed,'" says Walker.
Or you can find a comfortable middle ground and treat your friend with a less grand gesture. Greg, who likes to keep his financial situation private, says that he splurged on concert tickets with a friend but then made excuses about why he couldn't meet for dinner before the show. "I think my friend picked up on the subtext. He said, 'I'm going to bring snacks, and we'll tailgate before the show. He brought a couple of huge deli sandwiches and some IPAs. What a great idea: good food, good conversation … and my dignity was intact."
As for me and the $56 lamb dinner invitation — what can I say? I didn't want to price-shame someone I hadn't been in touch with for years. I jumped in with, "Can we go to my favorite ramen spot instead? I'm totally craving their tonkatsu broth; it's rated the best in town." She said yes.
We ate well and had a fab time catching up and railing against our former evil boss. Bonding without worrying about the bill? I'd call that priceless.