Friendship Reboot

When Your Friend Has Money & You Don’t

The financial friendship drift in your late 20s is real.

Written by Charlotte Cowles
Originally Published: 

Two summers ago, Zena’s college friends organized a weekend trip to the Hamptons. “Everybody jumped on board without any question of what it would cost,” she says. “It was all being planned in a group text, so I didn’t want to be the one person who pipes up, like, ‘OK, how much will this be?’ And it didn’t seem to cross anyone else’s mind.”

The week of the trip, the Venmo requests started rolling in. The price of the Airbnb alone was more than $700 — per personand that didn’t include transportation or food. Zena (not her real name) knew immediately that she had to back out, and she reached out to the organizer she was closest to. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this. Had I known it was going to cost this much, I wouldn’t have signed up.’”

She felt terrible, especially since pulling out of the plan would increase shared expenses for everyone else. But then her friends made her feel even worse. “The response was ‘Well, you knew in advance that we were going to do this trip. Couldn’t you have saved or budgeted?’” she recalls. “They couldn’t conceive of the fact that I couldn’t just find the money somewhere.”

For Zena, now 27, the moment was pivotal. “I started to realize that this friend group, which I formed in college and was very close to in my early 20s, was in a completely different realm from me financially,” she says. “When we were in school, finances didn’t come up often, but as we get older, our different circumstances have created this wedge that infiltrates our ability to relate to each other.”

Zena works for a nonprofit and is the only one in the group with student loans and multiple roommates; her friends all have corporate jobs and bigger apartments, and they are talking about buying homes and having kids. “That’s just so far from my reality that it’s hard to engage in those conversations,” she says. “Even if I could afford to go out to dinner with them, the dynamic has shifted so much over the past few years that I don’t even want to anymore. If I met these people today, I don’t think I would pursue them as friends.”

“Even if I could afford to go out to dinner with them, the dynamic has shifted so much over the past few years that I don’t even want to anymore.”

It’s typical for social circles to shrink in your late 20s, according to a 2016 study by scientists from Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford in England. Social “promiscuity” (regularly connecting with a large number of friends) tends to peak at age 25, after which it declines rapidly — especially for women. The study’s co-authors attributed this shift to the tendency to cultivate a smaller, more closely knit network (which often includes a romantic partner) during this life stage. But another reason could be that financial responsibilities — and differences — begin to weigh more heavily on relationships at this point, too.

These days, adults in their early 20s are less likely than previous generations to hit socioeconomic milestones like a full-time job or financial independence, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. But that typically starts to change after age 25, the data shows, and can sow divisions in friendships that were less affected by money in earlier years.

What’s more, economic disparities that were always there — but easier to ignore — become increasingly pronounced in your late 20s and early 30s, says Satya Doyle Byock, a psychotherapist and author of Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood. “Maybe in college it seemed like you were all in the same boat, but in reality, a couple of your friends were on full scholarship, others were paying with loans, and others were being supported by their families,” she says. “As you enter adulthood and make your way into the job market, those differences start to show up much more.”

When I was in my late 20s, some of my friends started to earn big salaries, have fancy weddings, and even start families of their own. Meanwhile, others were finishing graduate school and drowning in student loans, struggling in their career paths, or living with their parents to save money. I was somewhere in the middle; I’d worked my way up to a senior position at work and was co-habiting with my significant other, but the notions of homeownership, babies, or even a five-year plan seemed laughably out of reach.

At 28, I remember being baffled when my close friend Jordan got pregnant (on purpose!), quit her job, and bought a house upstate with her partner. When we’d met a few years prior, I’d related to Jordan’s career ambition and sense of adventure; when she became a stay-at-home mom, I started to wonder if we still shared the same values after all. Paradoxically, I also felt left behind — my office dramas and post-work drinks plans suddenly seemed silly and frivolous compared to Jordan’s big life decisions.

Livvy, a 30-year-old teacher in Brooklyn, began to notice a similar bifurcation in her social circles a few years ago. “A lot of my close friends, especially if they’re partnered and want a family, started making it a priority to buy a house,” she says. “Because most people our age can only afford homes that are pretty far afield, that creates a geographic distance that makes it harder to keep in touch and get together.”

Conversely, Livvy is finally starting to feel financially stable and wants to enjoy it. “For the first time in my life, I have a job with benefits that pays me enough that I don’t have to walk dogs or work at a bakery on the side,” she says. “I’m not paying for grad school anymore, and I actually have some free time and resources to spend on things like traveling and joining a soccer team. My partner and I are not interested in having kids right now, if ever. Instead, I’m really excited to be able to afford to go to Scotland next year and get my summers off to do what I want.”

Still, she misses the friends who are choosing another path. “I can understand the decision to have a family, but sometimes I’m sad for my friends who won’t get to explore more of the world because they’re scraping by to pay their mortgage,” she says. “I can’t imagine giving up the small amount of resources that I’m accumulating right now when I’ve barely had the chance to enjoy them myself.”

Astrid, also 30, is one of these newly minted homeowners. Over the summer, she and her significant other bought a house in rural New England with considerable financial help from her partner’s family. She’s thrilled, but sharing the news with friends has been tricky. “Almost all of our friends are still renters like we used to be, and some of them are not exactly happy for us,” she says. “And I can understand — we scrimped and saved to make this happen, but we also had a huge privilege of family help that a lot of our friends don’t. It’s a hard line to walk, because I understand why this feels unfair to them. But I’m also like, ‘Why can’t we be excited?’”

At the same time, she knows what it’s like to feel resentful of those who have more. “My partner has some wealthier friends, and when they saw pictures of our house, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a great starter home.’ It definitely stung,” she says. “Like, it was the very tip-top of our budget, and we’re super proud of it, and they think it’s some shack out in the boonies.”

Shack or not, the new house has stretched them so thin that they haven’t been able to host their friends properly yet. “A friend asked us when we were having a housewarming party,” Astrid says. “We were like, ‘We can’t really afford to throw a party right now.’ It feels wrong to ask our friends to bring us anything.”

The truth is that no matter how much money you have, it’s always a fraught topic — even (or especially) with the people you’re closest to. “As a therapist, I see that money may be the most significant area of shame for people in our society,” says Byock. “Whether people have enormous amounts of money or almost none of it, it’s a source of tremendous uncertainty and confusion, which leads to poor communication within relationships as well.”

When financial differences create a rift, is it possible to save the friendship? Byock says yes, but it takes some major self-awareness. “I think one of the most important things that people can do for themselves in their 20s is a deep assessment of their experience of money growing up, and clarifying and being conscious of it,” says Byock. Only by excavating your own financial background can you begin to understand how it plays out in your relationships, what you want to do differently, and how to talk about it.

“Everyone has baggage around money — everyone. And I wish that people had more honest conversations, not just about their financial situations, but about how this stuff really scares them and makes them uncomfortable,” adds Byock. “It could be an amazing source of intimacy, but more often it exists in a place of shame, separation, and isolation.”

“Everyone has baggage around money — everyone.”

Of course, sometimes financial differences are just another reason that people grow apart. My friend Jordan, the one who moved upstate, now has two children and started her own business a few years ago; she occasionally comes back to New York to visit. Sometimes, we go out to dinner; other times, we just take a walk and laugh about our kids and spouses and the ridiculous things we did in our early 20s. We still have plenty in common, but we’re not as close as we once were.

For Zena, disengaging from her college friend group has created more space in her life for people and activities she actually likes. “When I’m meeting up with friends now, I’ll often look for free comedy shows or bar trivia or a fun event that doesn’t cost a lot, but also isn’t necessarily considered elegant or tasteful,” she says. “My college friends are like, ‘Oh no, let’s go to this expensive dinner and split an $80 bottle of wine.’ It’s like they’ve lost interest in being playful and walking around and exploring. I get the sense that they consider that childish. They’ve outgrown it.”

Then there’s the awkward dynamic of pity. When Zena lost her job earlier in the pandemic and panicked about health insurance, her friends’ response was “wildly off base,” she says. “I felt like I was a charity case. Their immediate assumption was ‘Do you need to borrow money?’ And I was like, ‘No! I need emotional support from people who understand how scary this is!’ It made me realize that I needed to find some other friends who know what it’s like to be on unemployment and Medicaid, or at least understand that it isn’t something to be ashamed of.”

Zena is uncomfortable with her friends’ apparent assumption that she wishes she was in their financial position. “Just because I don’t have it doesn’t mean that that’s all I want,” she says. “Sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, well, have you looked at other jobs?’ And I don’t want another job. I’m OK with where I am. I can afford my life, and I like it.”

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