Is Financial Peer Pressure the Fifth Wheel on Your Group Date?

When Monica and Chandler Bing get married on “Friends,” they meet a couple on their honeymoon who they think will be their best “couple friends.” The other couple, it turns out, isn’t so keen on spending time with them, but the Bings call and call their new friends until they agree to go out with them.

This was good news for Monica and Chandler. But what about that other couple? They clearly felt pressured and finally gave in when the Bings wore them down. If this were a real-life scenario, we would know more about the other couple’s perspective. But because it’s a sitcom, we don’t.

This “Friends” plotline is supposed to inspire a few laughs, but it is based on some very real challenges for couples. Something that could have been behind the fictional couple’s hesitancy? Money.

Competitive spending?

When Catalina Zimmerman was first married and became a mom in her early 20s, she was glad to have some other couple friends.

Illustration of two couples having dinner together. Financial Peer Pressure pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Sometimes you need to be comfortable talking about your financial situation with the people you care about.

But she and her husband quickly found that as nice as it was to get out of the house with other couples, they were not all on the same page about money.

Zimmerman attended a private university and had friends with trust funds; she had no trust fund and a baby by age 25.

But when her friends had children, the financial pressure rose to a whole new level.

“It evolved into… parenting competition: extravagant birthday party invitations that we could never have matched,” she said. “One had actual Barnum & Bailey Circus animals and was catered by Wolfgang Puck — for a 4 year old! — and group Disneyland visits…

“It was doubly difficult to have to decide whether to accept these costly commitments and risk having your kid feel left out.”

Striking a balance

Zimmerman’s children are all in their 20s now, but millennial parents are facing the same challenges that Zimmerman was up against in the ’90s.

Stephanie Miller, 33, and her husband, Jerry, 40, decided to cut off their friends who just were not on the same page when it came to spending. The Millers adopted two girls, Evey, 6, and Adelynn, 1, and had to save for the cost of the adoptions.

They would bring up this expense to their friends but were met with what Stephanie described as “catty” behavior; they would make the Millers feel guilty when they couldn’t attend an expensive holiday trip or nice dinner.

Today they plan friend activities that fit in everyone’s budget. Maybe they all go in on a volleyball tournament, which adds up to $100. Even a weekend at a winery can be an affordable splurge at $500.

They’re also comfortable talking about their financial situation with the people they care about.

“We openly talk about the options and see what our schedules allow for and take our budgets into consideration,” Stephanie said. “We also have a general understanding with our loved ones and close friends. They all know what budgets we are working with as a family.”

Taking control of the situation

At 27, Elise and Joe Peck are just starting to build their family. They will have been married four years this spring and are expecting their first child this year, but they already know full well the challenges of the “keeping up with the Joneses” pressure.

Elise said her friends will buy their dream cars when they get a pay raise, while she and Joe continue to drive cars that don’t have monthly payments that eat up their paychecks.

More often than not, she makes an excuse when their friends ask them to dinner or out for drinks they can’t afford.

“One solution is to encourage more house gatherings instead of eating out,” she said. “One of the financial decisions we have made is to work hard on making our house our home and we enjoy entertaining here.

“This helps to keep the eating out and drinking out spending to a minimum and is still fun.”

It’s been more than 25 years since Zimmerman first felt the pressures that the Pecks and Millers are feeling now, but she remembers it well.

Now, she is an empty nester in her second marriage, but she more than understands when her younger friends have to opt in for the less expensive menu items.

The key, she said, is to be confident about your needs and choices.

“I’ve been on both sides now, and the best you can do in social situations, in my opinion, is to be open and direct and unapologetic about your situation,” she said.

Hilary Weaver

Hilary Weaver is a freelance writer in New York City, where she covers feminism, politics, celebrity and queer issues. You can find her byline at Vanity Fair, ELLE, Bustle and more.