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How to bridge the friendship wage gap

Vanessa Tsai
Written by  Vanessa Tsai
10 min read
Updated: 28 Jul 2023

I turn to sitcoms for some light-hearted entertainment, not answers to life’s burning questions. But upon rewatching Friends, some parts hit close to home.

Although the TV show might gloss over some of the more questionable situations (who is lucky enough to inherit a rent-controlled apartment, smack bang in the middle of NYC?), one thing they did address was the problem of the friendship wage gap.

In the episode The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant, the group splits into two when the difference in their salaries becomes painfully apparent. While half of them easily splurge on dinner without a second thought, the other half struggle to keep up. “We three feel that sometimes you guys don't get that we don't have as much money as you,” says Joey. Chaos ensues.

While these issues are largely forgotten by the end of the episode (and indeed, for the rest of the show), they’re not so easily brushed away in real life. As soon as we enter the ‘adult’ world of working, everyone’s paths begin to diverge. Differences in lifestyle and income emerge, and we’re confronted by some uncomfortable truths: that money can affect our friendships.

In an ideal world, friendships would remain untroubled by the practical concerns of finances. But there’s no escaping the fact that it can muddy the waters, causing resentment and creating a divide in social circles. And it shouldn’t be ignored, either – money is a big part of our lives and should be addressed accordingly.

Whether you’re feeling anxious about seeing your bank balance drop below what you’re comfortable with, or finding yourself withdrawing from gatherings and social events, you should never feel like you’re being priced out of a friendship.

Here, I go through some tips on how to navigate the friendship wage gap in a healthy way – and hopefully in a way that’ll strengthen your friendships.

Be open to honest conversations

Although talking about money can be uncomfortable – particularly if you’re the one with less money – it can pay to have an open and honest discussion about finances.

Of course, you don’t have to divulge every detail of your financial circumstances. You don’t have to talk cold, hard numbers or how much you earn, which can lead to comparison and resentment. But talking frankly about your concerns and feelings can help your friends better understand your situation.

They might’ve been completely unaware in the first place – and bringing it up will help lay the groundwork for setting boundaries. It can also help to dispel some of the embarrassment or shame you might’ve felt about the topic of money.

While it’s good to be transparent, it’s also good to be mindful. If you’re doing well but you notice your friend is struggling, it’s best to exercise some tact. You shouldn’t have to hide a big achievement, such as a promotion or buying a house, but don’t dwell on celebrating it for too long.

There are many ways to start a conversation, depending on your preferred method of communication. You might want to discuss it in relation to an upcoming plan, or simply chat about it in general conversation. As with any difficult topic, approach the conversation in an empathetic and non-judgmental way.

Friends talking

Setting boundaries

In a social setting, it’s easy to get carried away into spending more than you’re comfortable with. Whether that’s peer pressure from others or the innate urge to fit in, you might find yourself blowing your budget in the heat of the moment.

I get it – no one wants to seem like a Debbie Downer, and FOMO can drive us to try and keep up with everyone else. This is why it’s best to have these conversations ahead of time, when you have a clear head. Just as you’d apply a budget to other aspects of your life, set a spending limit to your social plans and politely – but firmly – tell your friends upfront what you can and can’t do.

True, it can be a struggle to say ‘no’. Rather than saying “I can’t afford that”, why not try saying “That’s not in my budget”? Reframing it as a conscious choice can help you feel more empowered and in control of your decision. Plus, being open about your financial circumstances can alleviate the pressure of going beyond your budget.

On the flip side, if you’re noticing your friend is often turning down invites, don’t begin excluding them or automatically assuming they can’t participate. Although you might be doing so out of consideration, it’s highly likely that they don’t want to feel left out. When extending an invite to a pricey event, let them know that you understand it’s an expensive ask and it’s OK if they can’t make it. It’s also a good idea to reach out privately and arrange something you can do cheaply or for free, such as a walk in a park.

Remember: maintaining a good friendship doesn’t mean having to spend beyond your means. And no good friend should make you feel left out if you can’t participate in certain activities.

Reaching a compromise

As with all relationships, friendships require a bit of give and take to make all parties happy. And if you’re in a large friend group, that does require a bit of skill and negotiation.

If you’re planning a fun activity or getaway together, be prepared to take the initiative to work out a compromise. Let’s take the example of booking a holiday:

  • Your friends are suggesting expensive destinations – Can you come up with alternative, more affordable locations? Instead of capital cities, you could suggest smaller towns and lesser-known spots

  • Your friends want to go during peak season – Is it possible to tweak the dates, or travel out of season?

  • Your friends want to do pricey activities – Find cheaper or free activities for everyone to do, or suggest splitting up into smaller groups to do different things

This does involve stepping up to be the one to organise plans (which can be admittedly difficult, if you’re anything like me and prefer being the ‘yes man’ than the planner). And if you decide to go with the flow, carrying cash might be a way to stick to a budget.

In situations where you have no control over the plan, consider ways you can compromise. For example, if your friend has organised lavish birthday plans, why not join for part of it? Skip the dinner but join for drinks afterwards.

After all, being on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be left out of activities. Rather, you can take part in a way that suits you.

Navigating bill-splitting

Going out to dinner can be a bit of a minefield when you’re sticking to a budget.

It’s safe to say we’ve all been there: you order the cheapest thing on the menu and stick with tap water, while others don’t hesitate to get an abundance of sides and alcoholic drinks. You’ve already mentally calculated the exact cost of your meal and have your card out, ready to pay – only to hear someone pipe up, “Let’s just split the bill”, to murmurs of agreement.

To avoid having an awkward debate at the point of payment, it’s best to be upfront beforehand. Although it can be nerve-wracking, shooting a message to your friend or the group chat can help clear the air and set your boundaries. Plus, chances are that others are grateful you raised the issue in the first place – you’re likely not the only one feeling that way.

This can be daunting, though – particularly if you’re in a group where there may be plus ones or people you don’t know very well. If you prefer to keep things on the down-low, you could privately tell someone you trust in the group, or the person who organised the plan. That way, you have someone who’s aware of your concerns, and can advocate for you when the time comes to pay.

Gift-giving

Even a scrooge like me enjoys picking the perfect present for friends. But the politics of gift-giving can be difficult to navigate.

From birthdays to Christmas, friendiversaries to “congratulations on your wedding/new job/baby”, there are many events and milestones that come with the expectation of gifts. There’s also the worry that the present you give doesn’t match the monetary value of the present you receive, prompting you to frantically splash the cash during the next round of gift-giving. All this can make gift-giving begin to feel transactional.

If you’re worried about being caught up in a cycle of spending more to keep up, be honest with your friend. After all, if you’ve already had a chat about finances, they’ll be aware that you’re not in a position to splurge. You could get creative and try making something instead – and your friends will certainly appreciate something thoughtful and handmade.

On the flip side, if you’re the higher earner in a friendship, you might also be wondering how to treat your friends without seeming like you expect something reciprocal. You might also be worried that a generous gesture may be misinterpreted as ‘charity’.

If you’re happy to indulge them with a lavish gift or cover their share of something, communicate that in advance rather than putting them on the spot: let them know you don’t expect them to match your spending. They’ll likely accept graciously and look to give back in their own way.

Comparison culture

The oft trotted out phrase “Comparison is the thief of joy” rings true. But when you’re rubbing shoulders with your peers, it’s hard not to notice the disparities in income and spending – even if no one is shouting about it from the rooftops.

While you may be happy for your friend’s success, you may also be wrestling with a small twinge of envy. That’s a perfectly normal response, and it doesn’t make you a bad friend. There’s also the inextricable feeling of money being intertwined with our own self-worth, which may leave you feeling ‘less-than’ your friends. Overall, thinking about money in relation to your friends might dredge up uncomfortable emotions.

Although it’s far easier said than done, try not to let these negative feelings impact your friendship. Comparing yourself with others is never helpful, particularly as there are so many factors underpinning each person’s situation. Even if their lives and finances seem better than yours on the surface, that might not be the complete picture.

It may be worth taking a step back to reflect: while money can be a factor, perhaps there are deeper things, like feelings of low self-esteem, that need to be overcome. As with everything listed above, it’s good to have a honest chat with someone you trust if you’ve been feeling this way.

What’s next?

Returning to that Friends scene, it seems the issue of mixed-income friendships depicted in media is usually centred around twenty- to thirty-somethings. Indeed, all the articles I read while writing this were purely focused on friendships within that narrow age bracket (although it might very well be down to selection bias in the things I read).

However, disparities in wealth remains a perennial problem among different generations. It merely evolves with time, throwing new challenges along the way.

For example, parents may feel pressured to throw extravagant birthday parties and unforgettable summer holidays for their kids, or cough up money for expensive sports and music lessons. This could be for a multitude of reasons: to prevent their child from being left behind, as well as to prevent themselves from feeling like a bad parent for not giving their child such opportunities.

Meanwhile, pensioners are left comparing their weekly pension allowances and what small luxuries it can afford them. And faced with a fixed pension amount, with little in the way of opportunities for earning extra income, some may feel trapped in their circumstances.

Sorry, this all might paint a bleak picture. But the point is that clear communication with our social circles is a necessity at all stages in life. Unlike TV shows, where disagreements are quickly brushed aside for the sake of plot, real life requires truthful conversations and practical measures.