Friends & Money

What happens when you earn far more than your best friend? How many times do you shout her dinner, or lend her money before you begin to feel you’re being exploited? Can you stay friends?
Years ago, I asked my mother to advance me my pocket money. Keeping a firm grasp on her purse, she said, «Remember the good Lord’s words, «Neither a borrower nor a lender be.» I let the fact that it was Shakespeare who said «this not God, go by». Because I understood her point and figured she obviously knew what she was talking about.
Why is money so difficult to talk about? I’ve been writing feature articles for years, mostly about life and relationships… and there’s always been a stream of volunteers willing to tell me about their most intimate secrets, brazenly clarifying every detail. But when I asked those same people about their problems with money, I was met by a wall of silence. How much we earn, spend or lend is often tied in with our sense of self-esteem, so any problems of a fiscal nature cut deep. Money is the real last taboo. You don’t believe me? Picture this. You’re in a restaurant with a group of friends. The meal was fabulous, the conversation sparkling. The night seems perfect. Then the bill arrives. As always, one friend has ordered the most expensive dish on the menu, while you settled for the salad. Or the person sitting next to you ordered two bottles of red wine, while you settled for water… Why should you subsidize their liver failure?
Do you split the bill evenly or do the calculators come out? Either way, somebody is going to walk out of that restaurant with a mass of silent and seething resentment. So, do money and friends mix? The answer is, No!
Believe me, I know. I’ve watched a 15 year friendship fall to pieces as a result of the unspoken. Sally and Carina met at school and after graduation went on to work for the same company. Carina earned more than Sally and was living in a huge house in an upscale neighborhood, while Sally was struggling to meet the monthly rent on her rundown apartment. Carina would often splurge on clothes almost every week and yet, whenever they went out for a coffee, she never offered to shout Sally. It was the same at lunchtime: most days Carina would borrow money for her sandwiches. This baffled Sally, because she knew Carina was financially secure. But Sally never pondered over the issue. The sums were so small it seemed petty to ask for them back, but one day a request for a few dollars sent Sally over the edge. “I realized that those dollars were the reason Carina could afford to spend so much on clothes,” fumes Sally, “and I exploded.” As a result, the friends now lunch at separate tables. This typical scenario explains why friends and money don’t mix. The combination is dangerous, since a fight over money is one of the fastest ways to end any amity.
Although we tend to gravitate towards people in our own income bracket, change in circumstances – promotions, marriage, divorce, children and redundancy – usually have a financial repercussion. Take Sami and Omar, friends since they were in elementary school, when if one of them had the money for a croissant, it was considered a victory. After college, Sami’s income rocketed when he became a company solicitor, but Omar remained in the ‘croissant’ bracket by becoming a teacher. Until recently, whenever the friends went out, Sam would choose an expensive restaurant. Knowing that Omar earned far less, he would offer to pay, but Omar would insist on going halves. Then finally Omar admitted to his friends how he dreaded these nights out as they used up his months spending money.
As friends with different-sized bank accounts brush up against each other, there is ample cause for social awkwardness, which can strain relationships, sometimes to a breaking point. Many find themselves wrestling with complicated feelings about money and self-worth and improvising coping strategies. The real issue is not money itself, but the power money gives you. Despite how often it’s in our minds, money remains one of the last great taboos. Incidentally, these stories would seem to back my mother up, and Shakespeare’s advice still rings true today. His logic is as follows: lending money to friends is risky, because hitching debt can and will cause resentment, and in this case, the lender both loses his money and his friend.
Here are three common situations you might come across with friends and helpful tips on how to deal with the problem by relying on etiquette to get you through:
Someone owes you money: If a friend owes you money and the payment is past due, it’s important to give him/her the benefit of the doubt. Remember: Although we usually pay bills when we receive them, that’s not the way it works between friends. So, start by assuming that your friend simply forgot.
You owe someone money: If you owe someone money, it’s important to pay them back promptly. In an age of Blackberry’s and electronic calendars, it’s not that hard to put a reminder note in place so that you have cash or a check the next time you see them. If you can’t come up with the money, by all means, be forthcoming. You may owe him/her money, but she’s your friend, not a credit card company – the truth will go a long way when it comes to maintaining your friendship.
Offering money to someone who needs it: The worst thing you can do is embarrass him/her by publicly offering your charity. Find a time when you’re alone and tell her you’d like to help out until she gets back on her feet. Just make sure not to consider this a loan. After all, she may never strike it rich or even get it back together, so what you’re really doing is disguising charity. The key, though, is to preserve your friend’s dignity. Keep it between the two of you and make sure that she thinks it’s a loan. If she accepts the money and actually insists on paying you back, you can always mention times that she covered your lunch or movie in the past. Play on the fact that she took care of you plenty of times and this simply makes up for it.