I find myself struggling lately with the issue of friendship and income. I’m finding it challenging to sort out, emotionally wrapped up as it is with questions about life choices, self-esteem, power, respect and the assumptions we all make.
It’s said that money is the most frequent cause of marital strife. I don’t remember seeing a lot written about income differences between friends. I have acquaintances and friends, near and far-flung, of all economic stripes. A few of them can barely pay the rent, much less stash away an emergency fund or save for retirement. One is underemployed, her kids still at home, but her spouse makes six figures and she came into a significant amount of money a couple of years ago. At least one grew up with great wealth. But most are well-educated and well-paid, part of dual-income couples whose kids are mostly – or almost – grown. Me? I fall uncomfortably in the middle.
In a perfect world, I would have reached this age financially established. My life’s financial pattern has been pretty consistent: enough money to live pretty comfortably but with definite limits. Unlike most of my friends, I’m single, so there’s less wiggle room. If I don’t live paycheck to paycheck – I’m not so strapped that I can’t plan an occasional weekend away or bite the bullet to afford a new car– then I make sure the checkbook is balanced and have to carefully time when I pay the bills.
But my discomfort with having to pay my way when everyone else is either flush with cash or less reluctant to accumulate debt has given me pause, caused me to change plans and generated some hard feelings. One trusting acquaintance, along for the ride but not part of the group, has ended up with the short end of the stick on an upcoming trip. “I’m sure that people will take everyone’s budgets into consideration,” she had said. Au contraire, mon ami. I’ve been there, done that, on a smaller scale with this particular group, and my cash flow never figured into the expenditure equation.
And there’s this unsettling question: How do I treat friends who are financially worse off than I? Am I more considerate, or just as guilty?
I like all of these folks – some I love dearly. But money is only the surface layer here. While many of our beliefs mesh, our values around money clash when we don’t have the same access to it. I just hope that our differences don’t someday cost me far more than a few hundred bucks.