You’re Rich, Your Friends… Not So Much

I have an airport ritual: I always buy and read one magazine that I’ve never read before. As a journalist, I figure it helps me stay abreast of what’s out there, and as a reader, it opens my eyes to articles and stories I might never otherwise know about. A couple of days ago, while waiting to board a flight to Florida, I picked up Town & Country. I’ll admit, being the summer camp junkie that  I am, I was intrigued by the cover story “America’s Summer Camp Revival.” And T&C fit the airport bill. I’ve never picked up a copy before, likely because it’s geared toward more socialitey and classy folks than I.

Anyway, I got a kick out of an article in the magazine’s “Social Graces” column, entitled “Rich You, Poor Me.” Here’s the dek: “When friendships span socioeconomic divides, the possible pitfalls are many. And they must be navigated with care.” I’ve written about this topic before. Friend dating, while great for the social life, can be hard on the wallet, and there’s nothing more frustrating than going to a meal with friends and being asked to fork over $100 for the bill when you don’t drink because your friends decided to splurge on bubbly. But it’s also rough when friends know you’re trying to save cash and simply don’t invite you places. It’s not fair to get penalized because you can’t afford another expensive night on the town.

The reason I was so interested in the T&C article is that, given its readership, the column approaches the story from the opposite side of the fence. My blog post was about what to do when you want to hang with friends but can’t necessarily spend spend spend. T&C writer Henry Alford writes what to do when, basically, you’re rich but your friends aren’t. I guess the people reading this magazine aren’t shy about spending on a meal or two.

Here’s his advice: “First, offers of birthday celebrations not withstanding, it’s best if we don’t make an exception of the impecunious person. If your weekend in the country includes a glamorous balloon trip that will set each person back $500, then it’s lovely if you yourself (or some other member of the party) hang back with Mr. Cash-Strapped so that, come sunset, he isn’t the only tiny ant on the landscape. Second, we can reduce most financial awkwardness if we take an ironic or comic approach to the fanciness of the occasion in question. ‘Of course, we all need to go horseback riding and wear the inn’s collection of top hats: We’re practicing for our Currier and Ives portrait.’ ‘I think it’s absolutely imperative that we each rent our own beach cabana–you never know what you might pick up from someone else’s shade.'”

Alford does, actually, make some recommendations if you are the “relatively poor” amongst your friends. “It’s probably valid and useful to speak candidly and tell people you’re on a budget, or that vintage Lamborghini rentals are beyond your reach. But the trick is to do so without sounding like Al Gore a plastics convention. Self-deprecation is a welcome addition here: ‘That sounds lovely, but I think I better say no. I’ve been feeling a little Dorothea Lange recently, and I’m really trying to hone my grimness.'”

Besides that fact that I had to look up 90% of the references in these excerpts, I find the tone of the whole piece sort of hilarious. Clearly I am not the Fabulous that this magazine is catering to.

But it still brings up an important question: If you know you’re in better financial shape than your friends, how do you avoid potential awkwardness?

21 Comments

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21 responses to “You’re Rich, Your Friends… Not So Much

  1. Laurie Lee

    I’m on both sides of the fence depending on who the friend in question is. I have friends (and relatives) way beyond my means. I also have friends that are cash strapped at times. My way to avoid awkwardness is to be direct. If I’ve got Panera in mind for lunch and a friend wants to go to somewhere 5 star that for me is only a special occasion place, I just tell her so, and it has happened. If that’s a problem, then they’re not your friend. I’ve also had a friend tell me they’re totally broke (like just before payday) and then I suggest we just meeting at Starbucks for coffee. Being direct works for me.

  2. Every year my mother-in-law gives me a check for my birthday. During the year, when I want to invite a poorer friend or two to do something out of their financial reach, I report that my mother-in-law is funding the event as a birthday present to me. Um, yes, I spend her check amount more than once during the year.

    • Lisa

      What a wonderful idea, Julie! Little white lies never hurt anyone. :) That takes the pressure off them (because they don’t feel bad that you are personally funding the activity, even though you are) and it lets you feel like the generous friend (which is also true) who can share the wealth. Win-win–I love it!

  3. This is a tight spot. I’ve been on both sides, though more often the “rich” one even though I’m far from rich. I just put more value on some things than others (like, for example, I’m willing to shell out the dough to see a touring Broadway show but skip buying any booze and movies for a couple of weeks to make up for it.)

    What I find the most frustrating is when friends make plans with you, say, to go out to dinner, and then they meet you at the restaurant only to say, “Oh, I can’t buy anything. I don’t have any money, so I’ll just sit and watch you eat.”

    Of course that means I’ll be paying for both of our dinners, which I really can’t afford.

    • ana

      Sorry, but that is really tacky of your friends, Megan! You’re better than me for going ahead and paying for both meals, I’d probably suggest leaving.
      I am with you on the priorities thing; I used to save up for cool experiences like shows/concerts & eat at home more often when I was in grad school, but then my friends couldn’t come with—I had to find a few like-minded people to enjoy those experiences with. Even now that all of my friends are working, these issues arise. Its not a matter of “rich” vs “poor”—some are just (to put it nicely) WAY more frugal than others.

  4. deb

    When I found myself dying to experience Chicago restaurants that my current friends could not afford or didn’t value, I started an online dining group with a mission to try one new restaurant per month. I satisfied my goal without stressing my friends out. Meanwhile when I am the strapped invitee I politely decline. When pressed for a reason I follow Mr Alford’s advice and use humor, albeit decidely less lofty.

  5. What a terrific topic. I think it not only depends on finances, but also what stage of life both friends are because I used to treat my assistants all the time because they made zilch while I made much more.
    However, as a married lady, now it’s touchy. We don’t drink and more often than not we have to decide before we go out with new people if we don’t mind splitting the bill or if we will ask for separate checks. Often the liquor bill is twice that of the food bill, so it pisses me off if it happens a lot.
    However, when I became close friends with someone over 25 years ago knowing nothing of her background (and it never came up somehow for the first few months) she invited me to join she and her family on their vacation when they docked in south of France on their rented yacht. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t even afford the fare to France.
    Our financial status is still Alpha/Omega, but we’ve managed to work it out pretty easily. I pick up the check at the less expensive places and she at the more expensive ones. Her choice and I’m fine with it.
    When we got out as couples, we split the bill and they don’t drink either.
    Thanks for this outlet.

  6. Wow, I don’t know what that’s like but I’d sure like to find out! I spent years as the poor friend, and my better off friends took amazing care of me, picking up the tab at dinner or giving me enough notice to sell belongings to raise the funds for a trip. (Half kidding here.) Now that I’m “better off” but by no means wealthy, I really enjoy being able to pay it forward and return the favor… nothing feels better than treating loved ones to something they weren’t expecting.

    That said… when you’re the broke friend, you really find out who your true friends are, and that can be an invaluable lesson.

  7. That article is hilarious! And I love your routine in the airport – what a great way to expose yourself to different things. I have always been the poorer friend – at least until very recently. I wonder if people adjusted their plans to accomodate my budget. I didn’t even notice! I was probably always the one bringing a coupon or discovering a cheap dive or happy hour. I think people were just generous, knowing that I worked for a non-profit and was tying to make it on single income, when many of my friends worked for corporations and were married. But I also know if I was ever flush with cash for one reason or another, I was alwas th first to pay more than my share. Interesting topic – great post!

  8. During my years in grad school, my BFF thought nothing of treating me to lunch, movies and whatever. She had an actual salary and preferred to fund our outings instead of missing the opportunities. Now that I am making a good salary, I regularly return the favor and cover our bills. It’s usually not anything as extravagant as the town and country affairs but still makes an impact and let’s her know how much I appreciate her being there for me through the good times and the bad.

  9. Love your blog – great relevant subject matter. I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. check it out at http://livingsimplywell.wordpress.com

  10. mom2two

    I was in an awkward place recently. Friends we hadn’t hung with in a while invited us over for dinner. They had another friend couple over as well. The nice thing was they gifted us with a grocery store gift card as my husband has recently lost his job. That was super nice, and I hope to be able to do the same sometime in the future when finances allow. The awkward part? Listening to the other couples talking about their new jewelry and how expensive their kids’ sports lessons/activities are but it’s so worth the sacrifice. Really? I think for others in the “richer friend” category, it would be good to filter the conversation through the brain and make sure the *conversation* isn’t also contributing to the awkwardness.

  11. emilylemieux

    This is difficult, but I think there was a part in the book that said that going out can be expensive but that it pays back in the end because having friends enriches one’s life. You have to pick and choose what to spend your money on, but I also think cheap things like coffee and having people over for casual dinner parties can keep friendships going without anything being super expensive.

  12. I hate to use a political example, but it so apt: Mr. Romney has made a number of gaffs with the electorate by offering to bet $10,000 against an opponent on some point. Then there was something about his wife driving a Cadillac or BMW or something similar. Anyway, the specifics aren’t that important, it’s the idea that he has forgotten, if he ever knew, that most Americans don’t identify with that level of income and spending. The suggestion that people like this should filter their comments is a nice thought but it is incredibly difficult to act as though you don’t have money. It takes time and cultivation to learn to live as though wealth doesn’t matter to you. And then, if one could hide it, would that be misrepresenting ones self somehow?

    Supposedly we all aspire to being rich. But as I find myself in the upper middle class now vs. growing up lower class (less money) I want to do something more useful with my money than hanging out with people who even think up outings including vintage Lamborghini(s). Instead, I have volunteered to house foreign students and treat them to experiences they otherwise could not afford, like live theater. Or, I do the driving or pick activities that cost little. My friends all differ greatly in their monetary circumstances. When we get together, because our interests are so similar, money just doesn’t enter into our friendships.

  13. Learn to enjoy simple things. Invite a friend over for a lavish and luxurious lunch of . . . cold cereal. Real friends derive their pleasure in your company, regardless of the circumstances.

  14. Liz

    I think obliviousness is a real danger.A lifelong friend was always complaining she’s broke, and soooo tight, that I’ve covered things like printing out-of-town booklets for the guest goodie bags for her (third) wedding, or other such things that require a little extra budget planning on my part, because I wanted to help. I knew she was a corporate attorney, but everyone has expenses, right?

    I had no idea she makes 10 TIMES what I do in a year! At that point, I think it’s rude to allow someone who makes 1/10th of your salary to foot the bill for certain things that are total luxuries, especially when you that person is very careful and frugal, and can’t just whip out a credit card or drop $20 to valet park because you don’t feel like walking a block or two.

    One of the reasons we’ve drifted apart . . . sad, but I’m no longer willing to foot that bill.

  15. I’ve been on both sides of this fence: the better off person at times & the poor person at times. What I try to do mostly is plan activities which don’t cost a whole lot, so everyone can afford it eg. our dinner club met once a month & there was a general agreement among us all that dinners should not come out to more than $20 per person, so if it was your turn to pick the restaurant then you needed to pick wisely. Almost everyone can afford $20 a month for a little treat for themselves. Another example is going out for New Years which is typically quite expensive. We agreed to go with friends to a fancy party a couple years ago, but made it clear it could not be an every year type thing. It would need to be every other year & have a house party on the off years. This way it’s more affordable for everyone.

  16. Me and my friend just had a discussion on this exact subject. It ended with the two of us respectfully disagreeing with the other’s opinion. My take on the matter was/is it is outrageous for a person to assume that you would be interested in splitting the bill and you only purchased an appetizer or a beverage. It’s ridiculously absurd. My friend says it’s proper etiquette. I call it a get-over. The first time that happened to me, I politely told the people at the table that I would not be participating in their long division math equation. I was only 19 and then I didn’t care about the side-eye looks and mumbling under the breaths. But now, over 30, I’ll respect the law of the land and choose wisely who I dine with. Otherwise, I would have to invent a new meaning to dine and dash.

  17. Josie

    This issue has hit home for me. I earn substantially more than my childhood best friend. We now live across country from each other so this comes up when she visits me or when we have taken trips together. I am more than happy to treat my friend, especially sine we don’t get to see each other often. But my friend is too proud to let me treat her. Just to be clear, on a trip, we’re not talking about the RitzCarleton and some hoity toity restaurant that costs a week’s salary, we’re talking about a Marriott and eating out at Applebee’s instead of Motel 6 and making baloney sandwiches in your room! I don’t want to make my friend feel like a charity case, so when she balks at me treating I tell her to pay whatever she can afford and I will pay the rest, but she refuses that as well and insists on splitting everything down the middle, which I know she cannot afford. So I have always been the one to compromise and stay only at the places or do only the things in her price range. I love my friend and enjoy her company, but I only have so much time off and I’d like to do at least some of the things I want and not have to always go on the cheap. As a result, my friend and I no longer take trips together, which I really regret. Things work better if I have her stay at my house, where at least I’m happy with the surroundings and can stock up on the foods I like before she arrives so there doesn’t have to be a debate about buying the cheapest groceries. Then compromising on the activities doesn’t bother me. I do wish my friend would allow me to treat her more, think it would allow us to do a lot more stuff together.

  18. Well I believe it depends on your definition of friendship.
    If you have friends just to be popular or loved then u really shouldn’t care about spending money on them to keep them satisfied. However that’s not a correct course.
    If they are your true friends who care for u and are there for u and truly wants what’s best for u then u should have no problem saying that though they ate a joy to hang around, they are a financial burden and u would be much obliged to them if they could stop leeching off u and pay their own way.
    It may seem heartless at first but true friendship requires that u confront them when there’s an issue and trust they react properly.

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