When I was 20, my best friend and I used to buy our wine out of an actual bin in the corner of our local shop. Each bottle of wine cost £3.33 (a “3 for £10” cardboard sign had been stuck to the bin with a cable tie) and we washed it down with Doritos, Amber Leaf roll-ups and a double CD called The Greatest Love Songs…. EVER. We were both students, both living off loan payments, both more concerned with getting laid than getting paid and both very good at making a meal out of an onion, an egg, two tomatoes, half a bag of rice and some salt.
Today, she owns a house, a car, works four days a week and has a partner with a well paid job. I earned so little over the last financial year that I haven’t even reached the threshold to owe any tax (hello, maternity leave). The change in our material circumstances has had no discernible effect on our relationship; I would still happily give her my last tea bag, spare kidney, my favourite shoes, a lung.
Income or wealth disparity, much as we may hate to admit it, can make it hard to make friends and cause conflict within existing relationships.
But I do wonder, if we met today, would it be quite as easy? Would we slip together like teaspoons if we’d met now, pushing our kids on a swing? Would I have been embarrassed to bring her back to my cold little rented house, full of charity shop furniture and ugly crockery? Would I have been embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t afford to go out for dinner that month? Would my embarrassment have got in the way of a wonderful friendship? I hope not.
In their late 20s and early 30s, people start to earn different amounts of money. Sometimes significantly different. Sometimes that is out of choice, sometimes it’s a product of the systematic discrimination that lies underneath British society: gender, class, race, disability, where you live, access to education, inherited privilege etc. This income or wealth disparity, much as we may hate to admit it, can make it hard to make friends and cause conflict within existing relationships.
You can’t afford to do the same activities, you might feel judged by other people’s choices and career progression, you may feel uncomfortable in their homes or awkward whenever this disparity is thrown into sharp relief. You might not like talking about money, work, housing, holidays, shopping. You might not feel able to tell your friends why you feel like this and so a great tumour of resentment begins to build within you, or them, or both.
“I’m 24 and I work in publishing and I feel like I’m just beginning to see the impact of money on friendships,” one woman tells me anonymously via Twitter. “After uni most of my friends and I were on equal footing but slowly a couple of them got some big jobs and started bringing in some crazy amounts of money. It was an almost immediate change. Holidays are the kicker because people start inviting who they think can afford it; if you’re somewhere on the cusp it becomes this very awkward conversation. I’ve been at dinner parties where people have said things like, ‘If I go for this new job I would miss my bonus but I’m not about to be petty about 10k,’ and at the other end of the spectrum I’ve made porridge for dinner (actually quite comforting) with a friend trying to live in London on 18k.”
We’ve all seen The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant, where Rachel, Joey and Phoebe can’t afford the restaurant dinner that Monica, Chandler and Ross blithely organise without checking. We all know the buttock-clenching awkwardness when the question of money — what doors it opens, what doors it closes — rears its ugly head within a previously tight-knit group.
Talking about money is part of showing vulnerability to your friends. You have to challenge yourself to be vulnerable if you want a deeper friendship. If you’re never vulnerable with the other person then you should think about what type of friendship that is. (Simone Bose, Relate Counsellor)
“I went to a school in a middle class area and so my friends were all very well off,” one woman in her mid 30s tells me over Twitter, preferring to stay anonymous. “At the time I didn’t notice much; I thought it extravagant their families had cleaners and their holidays were always incredible, but I didn’t worry much about it. As we’ve got older and they mix more with people of their own backgrounds they can forget how lucky they’ve been. I have become increasingly frustrated and bitter, and I hate this. Hearing friends complain (I think due to a misguided attempt at self-deprecation) how difficult and stressful it is buying a house was especially galling. I had just come from my mum’s where she had received a letter from the council, threatening her with eviction from her home of 15 years. It was so awful to hear an affected hardship by someone with more money than my whole family combined.”
This woman loves her friends. She also knows that it is hard for any of us to really understand other people’s experiences. Yet the issue of money can still drive a wedge where previously there was none.
“Talking about money is part of showing vulnerability to your friends,” says Relate counsellor Simone Bose, who offers a whole range of relationship counselling to friends, sexual partners and families. “You have to challenge yourself to be vulnerable if you want a deeper friendship. If you’ve got a friendship where you’re never vulnerable with the other person then you should think about what’s going on there and what type of friendship that is. Money is an emotional issue; you should be able to talk to friends about it and for them to hear you out. Taking that risk might actually strengthen the friendship.”
So how do you go about repairing a relationship that may have become strained, even estranged, by money? “Firstly, I would say, try not to make assumptions about how much your friends have, just because of how much they earn,” says Bose. “You don’t always know how things like debt, other priorities, dependencies may affect them. Second, try to talk about your own experience, rather than what you assume is theirs. Don’t blame the other for their situation, whether that is earning more or less than you.”
Instead of using accusations like “You always want to go to fancy places” or “You use money as an excuse to get out of things,” Bose recommends being open and centring your own feelings instead, saying “I’m feeling anxious about money and can’t afford to go to that place at the moment” or “I feel sad that we don’t see each other as much as we used to.”
Money is an emotional issue; you should be able to talk to friends about it and for them to hear you out. Taking that risk might actually strengthen the friendship. (Simone Bose, Relate Counsellor)
This is because people are less likely to argue with your feelings; less likely to behave defensively. Be prepared to compromise and don’t expect your friends to be mind readers. If money is an issue (however much of it you have), you owe it to your friends to explain that, rather than resent what you see as their insensitivity. Finally, says Bose, check your feelings about that friend and ask: Where are those feelings coming from? If you feel guilt, shame, pride, anger or judged, then ask yourself where that emotion stems from. Is it something they’ve said or done, or is it something that has been triggered in you?
Money is not worth. Income is not value. People are not and will never be what they have or how much they earn. To only have friends within your own economic or earning circle would make your life narrower and, dare I say it, poorer. But in order to get along with people across the mountain range of income, class, inheritance and wealth we need to talk more openly, honestly and often about money. Good friends will listen. Good friends will understand. And if they don’t? Well, perhaps they aren’t the sort of people you want in your life anyway.