“How would two people of drastically different incomes even become friends in the first place?” you might ask. I’m talking about such different incomes where the amount of money one person spends on food in a week is what the other spends on one meal. Where would they even cross paths in a way that a friendship could form? I can tell you where: childhood. And childhood spans through college. From the time you’re born to the time you graduate college, money isn’t really a factor in your friendships. I’m speaking of course about students who aren’t completely spoiled and put up in penthouses and sent to Morton’s on daddy’s credit card, but who are actually made to live like a student and fend for themselves a bit.
When we’re still developing and finding our way in life, before we become whatever our success story is, the playing field is pretty even. We make friends in this pure, innocent way. But what happens after we make our way in the world and find our career paths, that can really change friendships. I have several friends I’ve known since elementary school who are now very, very wealthy. And it’s honestly resulted in some awkward dynamics. If your friends make much more than you do, then you’re familiar with this.
Gift-giving is awkward
When a birthday, wedding day, or any other day that traditionally involves gift-giving comes up, it can be very uncomfortable. Your wealthy friends might just give you a big fat check as a wedding gift, and it’s so big, you simply can’t give them money when it’s your turn to give a gift. Giving them money would immediately welcome a comparison of the two gift sizes and yours would fall very short. Let’s say they gave you a thousand dollars for your wedding and it’s stressful for you to hand over more than $100. You have to give them something, or you’ll look like a jerk who takes advantage of well-to-do friends. So you find something “thoughtful” and hand it over, knowing that everyone in this equation understands this is arbitrary. What you spent is pennies to them, and they really didn’t need you to buy them a gift. You quietly resent this because to you, spending that $100 was a lot. To them? A drop in the bucket.
Get-well packages are very different
When I got COVID-19, my wealthy friends brought me what I know was about $200 worth of treats from Whole Foods like it was nothing. They got me the fanciest crackers and cheese, a cooling face mask, several types of tea, ready-made soups, organic fruit — the list goes on and on. They got me the nicest brand of each thing – the brands I always skip over – and then picked me up an eight-pack of pressed juices from a place where I happen to know each juice costs $8. They spent nearly $300 on what they called “Just a little something we’re having sent over.” That type of spending doesn’t warrant a second thought for them. And they’re so generous! They paid the Postmates fees on all of these things, too. When they get sick, I make homemade soup that I put in some questionable Tupperware and personally drive to their front door. Again, there is a feeling of, “Why am I doing this?”
There’s no “You get this round, I’ll get the next”
My husband and I get very nervous when we’re at a bar with our wealthy friends and one of them sneaks off to get everyone a round of drinks. We’re already somewhere where the drinks cost an arm and a leg. We, secretly, were going to look for the cheapest thing on the menu and get that, but our wealthy buddy came back with a tray of the nicest martinis and says, “You can just get the next round it’s all good!” No, it was not all good because that round cost us like $100 and we were low-key trying to get out of there spending less than $20. The same issue comes up at restaurants when our wealthy friend grabs the check and says, “You get the next one.” We’re not in a financial place to get the next one. We’d really just like to pay for our personal tabs and leave it at that.
Your real income and expenses frighten them
When individuals make a certain amount of money, they can get to a mental place of not even fathoming surviving on much less. My wealthy friend used to have a great time on $2,800 a month when we met in college. Now, she’s created a standard of living for herself where if she suddenly made that little, she wouldn’t know how to live. That wouldn’t even cover what she and her husband spend on delivery food in a month. So any time she sniffs out how much I make and how much I spend on things, she looks like her eyes are going to pop out of her head. It’s as if she’s completely forgotten that people can live on much less. When she hears we spend about $400 a month on groceries for the house, she struggles to hide the pity on her face.
Their car payment is your rent payment
Sometimes when you do the math and realize how your expenses compare, you realize just how bad your friend would feel for you if she did the math. My friend’s monthly car payment is slightly more than my rent payment. Her monthly mortgage is more than what I make in an entire month. Her monthly Amex bill is close to what I make in half a year. Honestly, when I’m not with this friend, I feel like I’m doing pretty well financially. I have emergency savings and am able to make a modest retirement contribution each year. My husband and I can afford a couple of little trips. But when I’m with this friend, even I start feeling bad for myself and suddenly feel very poor. I don’t love how my gratitude shifts in the wrong direction when I’m around those who make so much more.
You will need to be paid back
When your friend forgets her wallet or decides it’s easier if one of you puts the bill on their credit card (you) and the other Venmos their half, you become really nervous. You can’t just cover this $100 purse your friend wants or her $80 portion of brunch (she does the bottomless mimosas and two appetizers plus entrée) and have her forget to pay you back. But you also know that that money is so small to her, it will immediately fall off her radar. If the tables were turned, she probably wouldn’t ask you to pay her back. You already know you’ll have to remind her, multiple times, to pay you back, and you hate that.
You simply can’t travel together
You’ll learn pretty fast that traveling with this type of friend is out of the question. What they want to spend per night on a hotel is what you were hoping to spend for the entire week on accommodations. They want to do lunch by the pool – $25 club sandwiches and $60 margarita pitchers – and you have grocery store sandwiches chilling in your mini-fridge that you’ll scarf down with gas station tallboys. They want to do things like go to shows and take tours. These are things that cost a lot of money. You were more looking for those free activities like, sitting in the jacuzzi, going for walks, sightseeing, or enjoying the HBO that comes with the room.
Someone they know employs you
Through a series of revelations you come to realize that, in a parallel universe, they could have been your employers. It turns out that some client or boss of whom you always complain about is actually their friend’s husband or their second cousin. If your friends’ company had made this deal or that investment or partnered with that company, your friend could have been your boss, and remaining friends would have become very difficult. You’re operating at one level in the professional world, and your friend is operating a few levels up. At some dinner party, their friend was likely complaining about an employee who is your equal….or you!
Some of your habits make them sad
When they learn of some of the ways you live, they look very sad. Like how you push it on the expiration dates of some food because you can’t afford to throw out food. Or how you walk 16 blocks somewhere in the rain to avoid paying for a cab. How about when you and your partner specifically seek out hotels that are under construction, knowing the rates will be lower during that time to attract guests? Or you’ll only go to certain restaurants when you can find a coupon. You are proud of yourselves for being scrappy. Your friends, however, are horrified by the way you live.
Some of their habits make you sad
Meanwhile, some of your wealthy friends’ habits make you sad. You see that they order way too much food and wind up throwing half of it away. You see they pay for cabs to avoid walking two blocks in the rain. What they spend on a pair of jeans could pay for a homeless family to eat for a month. They hire someone to walk their dog every day when they are both home and perfectly capable of walking the dog themselves. They buy tickets to events, don’t feel like going, and then just…don’t. They don’t get a refund. They just kiss that money goodbye.
You’ve benefited from their philanthropy
You realize that your child is part of the after-school arts program or free tutoring program that your friends donate to. Hell, they run the entire fundraising gala for it every year. Or your block is being beautified because of some initiative they funded. Maybe you go to the free night class at a learning center that it turns out they donate thousands to. In a way, they pay for some of your life, and that’s a bit awkward. Things get really weird when they invite you to a fundraiser that’s raising funds for a program from which you directly benefit.
You know they slum it when you host
When you have them over, you all know you’d rather be at their place. You host, in order to reciprocate. You don’t want to be mooches. But the truth is, you make them chips and guacamole and slow cooker pulled pork. Meanwhile, they have a cook prepare a four-course meal, complete with multiple bottles of wine, each of which cost more than you spend when you host dinner. They have a beautiful view. You share a wall with neighbors who listen to music that’s way too loud and other neighbors with a screaming baby. Your friends slum it to take you up on your offer to host, which none of you really want.