Friends With — And Without — Money
Friends season two, episode five, “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant,” aired in 1995. This is the one, I’m almost ashamed to recall so readily, where Phoebe, Joey, and Rachel can’t afford to go see Hootie & The Blowfish for Ross’s birthday. They’re always splitting the check at “some place nice” with the richer half of their group of friends and no one talks about it or takes their income disparity into consideration. An awkward confrontation ensues, is mishandled to comedic effect, and only half of the group gets to see Hootie — a true ’90s tragedy if there ever was one!
I spent my formative years of class awareness binge-watching the DVD sets with college roommates. I like to think it inspired our demands for our better off friend to charge all of our takeout to her parents’ credit card, but who can really say? I still find myself paying $33 for cold cucumber mush while a rich friend orders the cajun catfish (modern-day: kale salad; pork belly), except now friends will ask, “Is anyone getting screwed here?” and we all say, “No it’s fine. It’s fine!” Is it though?
I interviewed a handful of lowercase-f friends, acquaintances, former coworkers, and internet strangers about how they experience money issues in friendships. Is income disparity a dealbreaker, or no big deal? Is it more awkward to be the rich friend or the broke friend? Are we still, occasionally, all these 20 years later, just not “in a Hootie mood”?
On talking about money with friends:
Mike (Not Dang): It’s so unspoken. I know some of my friends definitely make more money than me, but I don’t know how much, and in general, we can all go out and eat at the same places fairly comfortably, without anxiety.
Charlotte Shane: I love talking about money. I’m always dying to know what other people make. And I don’t mind sharing what I pay for rent or have saved or anything like that. But there has to be a context to it and some mutuality. It can’t be one-sided. So I think the conversation has to evolve organically, or I have to offer up some information first to signal I want us to speak they candidly, and they can seize the offer or not.
Logan Sachon: My friends all know about my shitty financial situation, that I have a lot of credit card debt and am slowly paying it back. Everyone knows how much I make and I make people tell me what they make. I make the least amount of everyone, and everyone knows that.
Manjula Martin: I honestly never have a problem just saying, “I can’t afford it.” If you have to hide who you are from your friends, they might not be the greatest friends. And if a friend tells me they can’t afford something I want to do, I either pony up and help out, or choose a different thing to do. Because what a dick move it would be not to!
Cassie Marketos: Saying “Can’t, I’m broke” in my peer group comes with a whole new set of manners and weirdness and subtle social navigations. I actually try to avoid talking to my friends about it. It automatically makes people feel so guilty and weird, then you end up in the position of reassuring them that everything is OK, which is funny because you’re the one that is sort of in trouble.
Lauren O’Connell: I am very open with how much I make, when I’m broke, and when I get a raise. I feel like our generation is more open with talking about salaries as a way of informing each other about what we could be making. Though I suspect that since I don’t make a huge salary it is (maybe ironically!) easier for me to talk about.
Emily Gould: I’ve been so open about money in my writing that I sometimes feel like my tax returns are emblazoned on my T-shirt — I mean, I’ve had strangers come up to me at parties and ask about my credit card debt. So it’s hard for me to be “private” about money if it comes up. And I don’t think it serves anyone’s interests to be private about it, anyway. Well, it serves extremely rich people’s interests if everyone is going around feeling like they are the only person struggling to make ends meet and keep up appearances, of course.
On keeping your friends in your income bracket:
Emily: I do think in general I gravitate to people who are about where I’m at, just because you get to avoid a lot of awkwardness. When I was younger and more wildly optimistic about my future finances, I had friends who had a lot more money than I did and it wasn’t ever weird — but that was because I was spending a lot of money I didn’t have whenever we hung out. Those friendships fell away for all kinds of reasons, but that was definitely one of the reasons.
Manjula: Basically, my rule is, I just try to hang out with people who share my values. That usually means they share my income bracket too, with a few exceptions. Most of my friends are do-gooders and artists — writers, organizers, teachers. We’re all broke as fuck and we all love each other and help each other out when we can.
Logan: I actually think that friends tend to sort of self-select along class lines, even if it’s unintentional. I went to a private school with some really rich kids, but all my friends ended up being in pretty much the same class as my family. I’ve found that to be pretty true of my friends throughout my life.
Rachel (pseudonym!): Income disparities amongst friends also seem particularly pertinent at this age, because people are either in transition career-wise, or starting to hit their strides. The whole thing feels fraught. When I go out with a friend of mine who is a consultant and wants to order wine that isn’t the cheapest bottle on the menu, I resent that and wish they would pay for it; when I go out with a friend who makes less than I do, I feel like I’m being lavish if I want to take a cab home.
Emily: It’s the outer ring of valued but less-close friends who are sometimes a trouble spot. I am often conscious that it’s hard to really socialize with them in a way that would allow us to GET close, because probably a lot of the stuff they do is just way out of my league and they know that so they don’t invite me because they know they’d be putting us both in an awkward position: me of potentially having to spend more than I’m comfortable with, them of possibly having to pick up the check.
On having friends with more money than you:
Manjula: If a friend makes three times as much as me, when I ask her if she thinks I should rent an apartment in a neighborhood where a lot of robberies happen, her perspective is going to be questionably applicable to my situation. We have different options available to us. And different comfort levels around class-based life issues.
Cooper: Most of my friends make more money than I do now, and they’re working more as well. Hanging out suddenly becomes an unspoken debate between two views on economic activity. We could go out and get a falafel sandwich, because to me this represents freedom. To my friend it represents trying to unload the trauma of a 40-hour workweek onto a soggy pita lacking in catharsis.
Emily: Some people just pick up the check, subtly and gracefully and without any expectation of reciprocity — which is wonderful. I like them more for it. But that can also become its own fraught thing. I try to reciprocate by having richer friends over for dinner, bringing a very thoughtful gift if I am invited to a vacation place for a weekend, that kind of thing. But there is a feeling sometimes of being Lily Bart.
Logan: I had some friends who were about five years older and all pretty successful at their careers, making like $80K when I was making like, $20K. Day-to-day hangs were totally fine. They bought a lot of my drinks. I also was using credit cards then, so I think I was pretending I had more money than I did. I went to a lot of dinners I couldn’t afford but threw down my card anyway.
They took a few trips a year that I was invited to but like, nope. “We’re planning this thing, I wish you could go.” It was so out of my range though it wasn’t even an option. I think them being older made it easier — “one day that’ll be me.” HA HA HA. (It’s not.)
On being the friend with money:
Mike: I’m more than willing to pick up the check on pretty much any occasion — especially if it’s just two of us. I don’t think about it too much, but I actually think my nonchalantness actually makes others feel uncomfortable, like I’m babying them.
Charlotte: Sometimes it is explicitly acknowledged, like if someone is excited about what they made, or telling a story about not getting paid what they were owed, and they interrupt themselves with a comment about how it’s not like what I make or something along those lines. (Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re not.)
Rachel: A friend of mine just came to visit me a few weeks ago, and while I make basically an entry-level tech salary, it’s more than he makes (he’s a grad student). I felt like I should be picking up the tab, but I resented that because a) I work at a job that isn’t my passion and while it does pay well, I’m trying to save up and lead a life that feels different than the one I had when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, and b) he comes from money and his parents supported him for years after college. I feel this way hanging out with other friends who have chosen less lucrative industries, too; it’s not that big a deal for me to pay for drinks, but should I?
Cassie: I did have a friend, once, who was also literally broke and didn’t have a really employable background. Instead of inviting her to go out to dinner, I’d just cook and invite her over. Then I’d let her do something small for me, in return, like help cook or the dishes, or something or anything that silently made her feel like she had ‘earned’ the gesture, because I knew that was important to her. Not to feel like she was taking handouts.
Rachel: I also have an unnamed friend who loves to eat at expensive restaurants and while I can afford it, I guess, I always resent it because WHY! The food is not that good! And part of me wants to be like, “You make a publishing salary — you can’t afford this! I don’t want to pay for it! What are we doing? Let’s go home and make a salad!” but this is antisocial behavior.
On the universal horror of splitting the check:
Manjula: It has gotten to the point where I literally have an anxiety attack if I’m out at a restaurant with a large group and the bill ends up in front of me, and I have to be the person to do the math and collect the money.
Lauren: No one ever wants to be that awkward person who orders way less or comes to dinner just to have a drink because they can’t afford the food: “Um, they promised all they wanted was my company and to not worry about money but oh god, here comes the bill, nerves hit, I am feeling hot, oh boy, please someone speak up for me… “
Mike: This was especially annoying in college, when you’d go out, and someone would be like, “oh just give me cash,” and then charge the bill to the CC their parents gave them, and you know for a fact that they are just going to take your cash and buy weed, and that their parents paid for the bill.
It was like the best rich-kid college ponzi scheme of all time — all for buffalo wings. I cancelled a lot of friendships over situations like this.
Meaghan O’Connell is a writer in Portland, Oregon and a former editor at this website.
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