Be honest. Be understanding. These are the two most important things to remember when your friends are making plans you can’t afford – or vice versa. Janet Potter and her friend Kurt talk about how they managed to stay friends through thick and thin paychecks.
At some point in your late 20s, you and your friends start to make drastically different amounts of money. No matter what path you take after college, the first few years look about the same for everybody—grad school, entry-level corporate jobs, coffee shops, and your basic unemployment. Then one day, people who chose lucrative career paths start making that money, and stop responding to emails about $3 pitchers of Bud Light.
This happened most obviously in my life with my friend Kurt, a 31-year-old lawyer. We met working at a bookstore after college, and we spent a lot of time together one summer five years ago—I was a bookseller doing freelance writing and he was studying for the bar exam. But in the fall I was still a bookseller and he was making six figures. Overnight we went from being peers to having very different lifestyles, and in a sense we had to re-learn how to be in each other’s lives.
Five years later Kurt and I are still good friends, and we recently compared notes about how we dealt with income disparity developing among our friends. While our experiences were from opposite ends of that divide, and not everyone’s friendships will change quite as drastically, we agreed on the basic principles that helped us.
On the financial side of things, as always, communication is the most important thing. Because talking about money is somewhat taboo, you may feel like you have to go along with plans that are out of your price range to avoid embarrassment or being excluded. This is especially true of group plans, when you don’t want to be the lone dissenting voice. But if you go to a cocktail bar with the secret goal of “not spending too much,” you’re either going to fail at that goal or hope no one notices while you try to make one dark and stormy last three hours.
Have confidence that your friends will want to make plans that accommodate everyone, but they’ll need social cues from you. You don’t have to show them your tax returns, but if everyone wants to go out for cocktails, it’s ok to say you can only stay for one. If a group dinner gets added before your movie plans, let them know that you’ll meet them at the theatre.
It’s not always pleasant, but it’s far better than putting three martinis on a credit card. You can also take the lead in planning less expensive nights every once in a while. Unless you’re honest about what you can afford, your friends have no reason to stop suggesting things you can’t, and you’ll get resentful.
It’s a bit easier making plans with just one person, when you can be more direct about what’s in your price range. When I asked Kurt about this, he said, “I find it easier to let the other person steer the arrangements. I don’t want to inadvertently pick something that taxes someone’s budget, but I also don’t want to be insulting by picking something that’s conspicuously cheap.”
If you suggest something pricey and you’re planning to treat someone, make that clear when you make the plan. Simply saying “Let me buy you dinner tonight” rather than “Wanna go out for steak?” can save the other person an hour of silently worrying about whether or not they’re paying for that steak.
Things can be even more difficult from a personal standpoint than a financial one. It’s hard not to feel jealous when your friends earn twice as much as you. It’s awkward to tell people who earn half as much as you that you’re going to Greece for three weeks. Even if you find a lunch spot you can both afford, you might not find anything to talk about.
If you want to keep the friendship, the most important thing is to recognize the results of your own decisions and respect the decisions the other person has made. As Kurt put it, “A lot of us are where we are because it’s where we wanted to go.” Your friends that went to law, medical, or business school worked very hard for their high-paying jobs. Your friends that went into advertising or engineering might have to get promoted a few times before they’re comfortable. Your friends who work in non-profits didn’t get into it for the cash.
Kurt said, “I think there can be a lot of romanticizing both ways here. I often wonder about how freeing it would be to have developed and pursued passions. I confess a certain jealousy of my friends who are teaching high school, or writing, or who are otherwise engaged in professions that my 18-year-old self would have envisioned for me.”
I myself could never be a lawyer, but of course sometimes I think I should have gone into marketing, graphic design, or something that would put me at least one income bracket higher than the one I’m in. If you’re really and truly unhappy or surprised by the financial prospects of the path you’ve chosen, take steps to change it. Otherwise, get used to it and don’t blame your dissatisfaction on other people.
If you make more than your friends, Kurt said, “Don’t become an entitled dick. I’ve noticed among my peers an increasing sense that just because they did work very hard for their money, that people without the money must necessarily have not worked hard. That’s objectifying and dehumanizing and can lead to a really fucked worldview.”
If a difference in income is palpably hurting a friendship, it’s most likely a sign that it was weak already. Money undeniably complicates relationships, but the modicum of honesty and consideration required to navigate the complications is not too much effort for a friendship that’s important to you.
Some strong opinions here, Grownups! What do you think? Do you have a friend who can’t always dish out the dough for a fancy dinner plan? Or is your pal the one who will not settle for anything but the best even though your bank account’s best left alone?
Janet Potter is a freelance writer living in Chicago.