Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where snowflakes, snowbirds, and snowmobiles alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about how money can make friendships weird.
I’ve been friends with the same group of people since we were all in college and living off ramen-and-bottom-shelf-beer budgets. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to go into a field that pays me well, and I’m pretty comfortable. My friends have also been successful, but they’re in fields that just don’t pay quite as much.
The problem is, I want to treat them well, and do nice things with them, but I’ve been getting a weird feeling lately when I do. When we were in college, whoever had the money at the moment would pick up the tab, and we assumed it would all even out. Now, even though I can (and want to!) pay, I get a weird vibe from my friends, and it seems like they feel uncomfortable with me. Is it wrong that I want to share my good luck with them? How can I be generous without making it weird?
First, let me try to explain why you’re probably getting weird vibes off your friends when you spend money on them: basically, you’re reminding them that there’s difference between you now. When you were in college, you were all in the same cheerfully malnourished (because you bought beer instead of oranges that week) boat, so having or not having funds felt more like luck of the draw than anything else. Now, though, when you play the high roller, your friends may be feeling a lot of different things: guilt that they can’t reciprocate, envy at your ample bank account, shame that they aren’t making tons of cash, anger at your perceived showing off, or maybe just discomfort at recognizing that they’re not in the same circumstances as you anymore.
And it makes sense that this is surprising to you; the first lesson we learn when we’re tiny is to share, and to let other people have a piece of what we have so that everyone is happy. But kids’ senses of pride and self-worth aren’t centered on their rung on the capitalist ladder, and, for better or worse (hint: it’s definitely worse), as adults we put a lot of value on how much money we make. Of course, that’s dumb, and as you might be thinking, these are your friends. You’re not competing against each other. And, also of course, you’re right, but you’re not going to be able to undo some deeply embedded societal norms with your silly logic. Your friends’ feelings are their feelings, and you can’t tell them that they’re wrong to have them.
Something to point out, though, is that you haven’t actually given any evidence that your friends really feel this way. All you have are vibes and hunches — are you certain you’re not projecting feelings on them because you feel weird? Think about that a bit before you alter your behavior too dramatically. Are you experiencing some guilt because you’ve found yourself lucratively employed? You describe your success as “luck;” are you discounting your hard work because you don’t feel like you deserve it? Or are you maybe looking down on your friends a little because you’ve done well for yourself, and they’ve chosen paths that don’t look like yours? Take some time to process your own emotions before you focus too much on others’.
Regardless, though, there’s a good way and a bad way to be a generous friend, and the real difference between the two is remembering that generosity should be about the recipient, not the giver. Don’t spend your money because you want to (whether out of love or showing off or whatever); give to your friends because you want to make them happy. That means taking their feelings into account, and refraining from going over the top no matter how much you want to shower them with your cash-based affection.
Some general guidelines that will allow you to continue to be generous without making it all weird:
- Keep your gifts small, and in the ballpark of what your friend can reciprocate. It doesn’t matter if you found the perfect artisinal espresso maker/Roomba/curling iron combo for their birthday; if they’re operating on more of a here’s-a-card-and-I’ll-buy-your-first-drink-tonight budget, you cannot buy it for them. Unless they’re getting married or something. Weddings are bonkers and the rules get funky, but that’s another column.
- Instead of trying to get the entire check, let your friends split it with you; they went out, too, and they likely already budgeted for the expense. If you still want to contribute a little more, offer to grab the shared appetizer or the tip, but also let them shout you down if they’re not into that.
- Save the big, expensive events or experiences for very special occasions, and give your friends ample time to budget and save for them. It’ll be more special that way, for one, and it will keep the invitation from coming across as “Hello, dear friends, I subsist entirely on caviar and champagne recovered from hundred-year-old French shipwrecks; would you like it if I deigned to allow you a brief taste of my decadent and tackily gilded lifestyle?”
- Next time you all get together, offer to host. There are a lot of silent expenses that come along with having people over (like making sure there’s enough food and drink, taking the time to make sure your living space isn’t a horrifying slough of filth and expensive desperation), so offering to host is a way to contribute to the evening without rubbing it in anyone’s face. As with all these tips, though, again, don’t go over the top, because that’ll bring you back into show-off asshole territory.
- Last, remember that you can express your appreciate for your buds in ways that don’t involve money. Like, I dunno, tell ’em you like ’em or something? That sounds nice.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.