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You're Rich. I'm Not. Can We Still Be Friends?

Money is emotional. There's a way to stop feeling so bad about it.

by Gretchen Brown
March 11, 2020 | Work

Money is emotional.

Studies suggest that any happiness we get from wealth comes from relative income — that is, feeling like you have more money than your friends.

On the flip side, having less money than your friends can make you unhappy on both a relative level and a personal level.

Financial difficulties are associated with depression, stress, anxiety and alcohol dependency. Debt is correlated with depression, anxiety and anger.

Inequality breeds resentment, so it's pretty common to have some feelings of anger — not just embarrassment — toward friends who might be more well-off than you, whether that's because they make more money or because they don't have student debt.

[ICYMI: When You Have Student Loan Debt — and Your Friends Don't]

"It can certainly come between your friendship when someone earning a higher income only wants to do things that you cannot afford realistically," said Jackie Bencivenga, a New York-based licensed mental health counselor.

Maybe you've been frustrated seeing them hit big milestones you can't personally afford. Or they always want to eat out all the time and you're stuck ordering water.

Illustration of a person with a bike looking at a billboard of a fancy SUV. Rewire PBS Money resent
It’s important to keep the focus on your own life, instead of trying to compare to others.

If you really value the friendship, it's possible to make those feelings go away — even if you don't win the lottery overnight.

Figure out where those feelings are coming from

Bencivenga said she'd tell a client to really look internally and identify those negative thoughts — even say them out loud. Put that feeling of resentment into words.

What do you think about when you think about that friendship? About money?

"Identifying these negative thoughts can allow an individual to think rationally about the issue before confronting someone due to built up anger that they may not understand," she said.

Because resentment comes from comparison, sometimes it's linked to your own self-esteem and the way you view yourself. In other words, it might not come from being angry at them, but from being frustrated at your own situation.

"Are you angry because your friend has no student loans or because you do?" said Victoria Woodruff, a Maryland-based licensed clinical social worker.

Woodruff said that everyone has their own circumstances and setbacks. It's important to keep the focus on your own life, instead of trying to compare to others.

Take stock of everything you've done to get where you are today. You've been resilient. You've accomplished big things, even if it doesn't always feel like it.

"To resolve your jealousy you have to become comfortable with yourself," Woodruff said. "Look upon your own life and consider your strengths and weaknesses. Accepting yourself is key."

You don’t know what you don’t know

Keep in mind: you probably don't even know your friend's entire financial situation.

Money is still taboo, and even if you feel like you have a sense of what their life is like, you might not know the whole truth. It's often seen as impolite to talk about the actual numbers.

"I know people who were resentful of their friends' big houses when he stuck with one he could afford," said Derek Hagen, a Minneapolis-based financial therapist.

"It turned out that those friends had mortgages they couldn't afford and eventually lost their homes."

That's important to remember, since it's easy to overspend just so you feel like you're at the same level or doing the same things.

A 2018 Credit Karma survey of 18 to 34-year-olds found that 40 percent of them had gone into debt just to keep up with their friends.

Most don't feel comfortable actually telling their friends that, though. Seventy-three percent said they had kept it a secret.

Keep the conversation open

It doesn't have to be this way.

You might find that your personal feelings of resentment come from not feeling like you can talk with your friends about money like an adult. Keeping it all inside can actually make your feelings worse.

It's important to be open with your friends if an activity is out of your budget.

"You could just say that you're wanting to watch your spending and so maybe activities can be at people's houses, rather than out at restaurants or coffee shops," said Nicole Sbordone, a licensed clinical social worker.

"People usually understand when we're wanting to be financially healthy and smart."

Focus your energy on the things you can do rather than the things you can't.

Once there's an open flow of communication, you can freely suggest more budget-friendly activities, Bencivenga said. Your friend will also know that you're not declining activities because you don't like them or don't want to keep up the friendship.

There's a good chance they've been there before and understand where you're coming from.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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