Mind the ‘friend­ship’ pay gap

Can you cel­e­brate a pay rise with friends you out-earn? How should you han­dle be­ing priced out of a group hol­i­day? Alex Holder re­flects on what it’s like when you earn con­sid­er­ably more, or less, than your friends

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last sum­mer, i had to send a text that took 40 min­utes to com­pose, in­clud­ing two calls to friends to check its tone was suf­fi­ciently breezy. The con­tent? To thank a friend for invit­ing me on a group hol­i­day, but de­cline the of­fer, as there was no way I could af­ford a room in the villa. That text shouldn’t have taken as much emo­tional labour as it did, but be­cause the rea­son was fi­nan­cial, find­ing the words was dif­fi­cult.

I didn’t want to lie: I’m not ashamed that I earn less than these friends. But I wanted to keep the re­ply ca­sual, so they didn’t feel awk­ward. It’s not their fault they earn enough to think £2,500 for a room in Cor­sica sounds rea­son­able.

New re­search* shows that 39% of Mil­len­ni­als have gone into debt to keep up with their friends and nearly 30% don’t feel com­fort­able say­ing no when a friend sug­gests an ac­tiv­ity they can’t af­ford.

Pay gaps be­tween friends are par­tic­u­larly awk­ward. Un­like in romantic re­la­tion­ships, where ‘ What’s mine is yours’, friend­ships are re­cip­ro­cal – we have a cul­ture of buy­ing rounds and split­ting bills. Friend­ships are rooted in shared ex­pe­ri­ences, whether it’s af­ter-work drinks, spa ses­sions or mini­breaks. So how does a friend­ship func­tion when one of you is wealth­ier than the other?

‘ There’s noth­ing more stress­ful than meet­ing friends for what’s meant to be a

low-key week night and re­al­is­ing the venue is £50 a head,’ Susie, 29, tells me. ‘Every time some­one or­ders a drink, I wince. But the worst bit is them moan­ing about money when I know they earn dou­ble what I do.’

It’s hard to ac­cept that money af­fects friend­ships, but there are many oc­ca­sions when it does: when you find your­self judg­ing a friend for buy­ing make-up but never a round of drinks; when you feel a friend doesn’t re­late to your life; you feel some­one’s be­ing ‘tight’ ( in re­al­ity, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to places too ex­pen­sive for them).

‘If you re­ally like your friends and want to keep them, it’s ac­tu­ally not a good idea to earn sig­nif­i­cantly more or less than them,’ says Brad Klontz, founder of the Fi­nan­cial Psy­chol­ogy In­sti­tute. ‘Peo­ple ex­ist in tribes and those in the same so­cio-eco­nomic group are closer: they have the same strug­gles, they feel part of a group – they can re­late to each other and that’s com­fort­ing.’

Brad’s words ring true. Lately, I’ve found my­self ask­ing if I can cel­e­brate a pay rise with a friend I know earns less, or moan about the gen­der pay gap with a friend who is find­ing it hard to get work at all.

Clem­mie Telford wrote a blog about sur­viv­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis af­ter her hus­band’s busi­ness went un­der and they were left with a five-fig­ure debt. I asked how her fi­nan­cial mis­for­tune af­fected her friend­ships. ‘It all went wrong in Novem­ber, so at Christ­mas we had to opt out of all gift buy­ing and ex­plain to friends why we weren’t at­tend­ing any par­ties. It was lib­er­at­ing to say it out loud and, ac­tu­ally, all our real friends un­der­stood,’ she says. Af­ter hit­ting fi­nan­cial rock-bot­tom, Clem­mie landed a great job. ‘In 18 months I went from be­ing the most broke out of my friends to one of the higher earn­ers,’ she tells me. ‘ What’s strange is that I felt the same shame about money when I was earn­ing well as when I earned the least.’

Telling my friend I couldn’t af­ford Cor­sica felt stress­ful, but once I’d done it I re­alised it wasn’t that big a deal. The next time they went away they in­vited me again and of­fered me the cheap­est room. My friends and I have dif­fer­ent means, and I can’t change that, but how we deal with it counts. You’d think ig­nor­ing money would make it less of a thing, but we’ve found the ex­act op­po­site. The bur­den shouldn’t al­ways be on the rich­est to down­play their life­style; nor should it mean those who earn less hav­ing to con­stantly say, ‘I can’t, I’m broke.’

In­stead, we’ve found that break­ing a Bri­tish taboo and be­ing open about money works for us. And it’s not just about shar­ing salaries, it’s hav­ing more hon­est chats about hopes, dreams and money stresses. A friend told me she’s sav­ing so she has a safety buf­fer, so now I un­der­stand why she says no to fes­ti­vals. If you’re talk­ing to peo­ple you trust, and no one is show­ing off, talk­ing about money is il­lu­mi­nat­ing: ‘Oh, so that’s how you af­forded a flat in Lon­don!’ I hear my­self ex­claim­ing. Also, it’s hard to re­sent some­one when you know they’re work­ing all the hours in a misog­y­nis­tic law firm to af­ford that Mercedes. And I now re­alise that just be­cause a friend earns more than me, it doesn’t make them im­mune to money wor­ries. I earn more than I did 10 years ago, but money can still be as stress­ful now.

There are points in our life when talk­ing about money is im­por­tant – ask­ing for a rise, work­ing out a ma­ter­nity pack­age. If we can’t talk to our friends, why do we think we’ll do bet­ter in these high-stakes con­ver­sa­tions? I’ve found that talk­ing helps me work through stresses – and say­ing ‘I’m wor­ried about money’ doesn’t mean you’re ask­ing a friend for char­ity. Once it’s in the open, you un­der­stand friends’ choices and can dis­cuss im­por­tant top­ics prop­erly, like should you move in with a boyfriend af­ter six months to save on rent? And how much money is it re­ally OK to spend on a room in Cor­sica?

they moan about money, when i know they earn dou­ble what i do

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