How do you deal with income disparity in your friend group?
Income disparity in a friend group can occur in varying degrees. Some of your friends could make more than you, some could make less and some might be juggling three jobs just to make ends meet. Whether you’re the friend who is always trying to subtly veer toward a movie night at home that costs less, or you’re the friend dying to try out an expensive cocktail bar but afraid to suggest it, confronting the income disparity in friendships can be a challenge.
Conversations about money are often seen as distasteful and uncomfortable – no matter how high or low your income is. While sometimes it appears safer to avoid the topic entirely, solid friendships can buckle under the pressure of the evaded subject of money. This is especially common when some friends begin to move up the pay ladder, while others are left behind.
Finances are personal and sometimes it’s difficult to discuss money with friends without the feelings of being judged. Being in your twenties means coming face to face with some real problems that often lead to a quarter-life crisis. Some of these problems are financial in nature. Money is a signifier of class, upbringing, freedom, power, and status— components alone that can complicate a friendship.
It’s time to address the expensive & awkward elephant in the room. So here are some tips about how to have better conversations with your friends about money.
Communicate – but don’t overdo it
If money tension is brewing between you and a friend, don’t feel the need to talk numbers. Acknowledging a money difference is vital, but not everyone needs to know the details of your paycheck. Complete transparency isn’t necessarily the goal, it shouldn’t feel as brash as ripping off a bandaid. Almost everyone has experienced that sinking-stomach feeling when a friend divulged their exact salary—whether it’s higher or lower than expected.
It’s perfectly human to experience emotions of guilt and jealousy and these should be acknowledged when opening up the lines of communication. Learn to accept your friends’ money anxiety, no matter how good they appear to have it. Even some of your highest-earning friends might experience money anxiety, as there are often hidden expenses that creep into life, and sometimes a higher income comes with a string of expectations. Never dismiss a friend’s money worry.
Set boundaries & find a middle ground
When it comes to money, every friendship dynamic is different, so find what works for you. Perhaps you’re happy with taking turns paying for outings, or maybe you prefer the precise logging of expenses on apps such as Splitwise, or Venmo.
Either way, if you have an, albeit slightly awkward discussion at first, it should save you the pain of having to return to the topic again and again. State your preferences, what you can afford, and what you’re comfortable with. If you like to treat your friends, don’t hold back, just make sure they’re okay with it. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone relishes others paying their way.
If your friend is always paying for you, repay them with your time, or skills you can offer. Perhaps there’s a favor you can do for them, be-it babysitting, cooking them dinner once in a while, or maybe an errand. This isn’t about working off what you owe them, but rather showing that friendship can be reciprocal in a moneyless way.
Keep traditions alive and let the friends who earn the least set the bar for the holiday/restaurant to avoid resentment. If there’s an expensive place you want to check out, but you’re afraid to upset a friend who cannot afford it, open the invitation to them but make it clear that you understand if it isn’t feasible. A lot of friendships are unnecessary lost just because someone is afraid to upset the other, and thinks no invitation is better than causing discomfiture. If they can’t manage it, make a plan to see them the following week, perhaps staying in for that one.
Split the bill correctly/ pay what you owe
This rule alone would end a huge amount of money resentment amongst friends. NEVER assume that everyone wants to split the bill equally. Though the TV show Friends is not known for its realism, it referenced this scenario in the episode “Five Steaks and an Eggplant.” Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey talk about how the others “don’t understand that [they] don’t make as much money as [them]”. The money disparity grows further as the episode progresses until finally, at a nice restaurant where the less fortunate three have purposely ordered cheap dishes, Ross divides the bill equally between the six. An awkward confrontation ensues wherein their money issues are made clear, to which Ross says “I never really thought of money as an issue” to which Rachel snaps; “That’s because you have it.”
Just as those who order expensive items shouldn’t expect to split the bill equally, those who can’t afford a lavish meal shouldn’t expect their friends to foot the bill either – the pendulum swings both ways. Unless spoken about previously, it’s always better to assume you pay what you get/order. When the bill comes, just ask straight up, how do you want to split this? Or else state your preference directly.
Ultimately, finances are personal – don’t judge or begrudge your friends on the matter of money. Whether you’re the highest earner in the group of the lowest, your true friends should know where your money-spending line is without needing to constantly draw it out for them. Of course, money disparity is an issue we should all face head-on, but it shouldn’t dictate our friendships to the point of destroying them. Money is a huge part of our lives, but don’t forget that our relationship with it is based upon a social construct, one that we can change our approach to and overcome.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto