Several years ago, as the financial reality of my divorce was hitting hard, I met one of my oldest and dearest friends for dinner. As we ate, I kvetched about how most months it was difficult to meet the challenge of paying the mortgage and the heating bill and buying groceries for four, all by myself. Carmen* is also divorced and raising children, but she had just gotten a new, great job, and we talked about that, too. It was hard, consuming work, but the salary was great—way more than double or triple my own, I think.
When the bill came, I took out my credit card so we could split it, and she told me to put it away.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “It’s not a big deal.”
She was adamant that I would not be paying for dinner.
“Let’s just agree that from now on, I pay for dinner,” she said.
I was reluctant but did as I was told, and that was that.
Generosity and Dread
Naturally, I’m beyond grateful for Carmen’s generosity about paying for dinners. I think the fact that I’ve known and loved her for 30 years helps me to accept her largesse. But I’m also glad that she took on the thorny issue of friendship and money—and put it to bed. It’s leap years beyond what many women are comfortable tackling.
Many of us are familiar with that moment of dread that happens when we’re out to eat with a group of friends and the bill arrives.
Radically different financial situations can make it tricky to navigate friendships. I suspect many of us are familiar with that moment of dread that happens when we’re out to eat with a group of friends and the bill finally arrives. Some of us have had seafood and three drinks, while others have teetotaled and eaten an appetizer. Will we split the bill evenly, or will we pay our fair share? For those of us without a lot of disposable income, that moment is enough to make us avoid going out to eat with friends altogether.
So we politely decline invitations to dinner, to lunch, to rent a cabin for a girls’ weekend away, and we feel badly when we explain that we can’t afford to “go big” for a friend’s 50th birthday.
Navigating Money Minefields
My friend Julia, a married mother of three teenagers, has a close friend from college who never married or had children. Over the course of the friendship, Julia has felt this friend didn’t understand her life at all, and she sometimes secretly envied her friend’s seemingly carefree life. She says of the friendship, “Money is a carefully avoided subject. The few times we have discussed it, she has said things that baffle me, like, ‘Well, your house must be almost paid off, right?’ Or ‘You must have saved a lot for college, right?’”
I now say flat-out ‘I don’t have the money to do that right now.’
Like so many couples with children, Julia and her husband have borrowed against their home’s value and refinanced over the years, not to mention dealt with little things like flood damage and a furnace on its last legs. So the idea of having paid off a mortgage, well, ha! Graciously, Julia says, “I remind myself she doesn’t have the foggiest notion of how much it costs to raise kids.”
I’m lucky, because I have great friends who totally get it. Over the years my modus operandi has shifted from coming up with excuses about not being to participate to a flat-out “I don’t have the money to do that right now” approach. Do I get invited out less frequently? Yes. Is that okay? Also yes. Mostly.
Having Rich Friends and Surfing the Money Gap
Friendships are so important, and to this end, many women work hard to surf the money gap. For instance, Lily, a single mom, has been both the receiver and giver when it comes to financial largesse. “It took me a long time to accept generosity from others,” she says. “But then I realized that I mean it sincerely when I am generous, that I want people to accept, and I feel frustrated if they feel they can’t. It’s harder to receive than to give.”
Nobody likes to be a charity case.
Letting someone else pay for everything can be hard. We’re modern women, after all, right? We’re supposed to be financially stable, especially at this age. Not being able to pay for dinner can feel like a failure, like a tangible piece of evidence that we have done it all wrong, whatever “it” is. When even the most compassionate friend offers to pay, it can feel like a reminder, albeit inadvertent, that we have not made good life decisions. Some friends drift apart, as did Emily, an empty-nester, and the buddy she often treated to lunch. “My friend felt terrible that I kept paying,” says Emily. “No one likes to be a charity case.”
Sometimes it really is harder to receive, and I struggle with it. But I try to remind myself that it’s better than the alternative, which might mean missing out on time with friends. And maybe in the long run it’s good for me: I keep a running tally in my head of the people I’d like to repay in kind one day, if the tables turn, and I think this keeps me not only humble but also thankful.
Awkward! Some Coping Strategies for Money Matters
So are there any smart ways to keep dough from driving a wedge between you and your besties? Yes!
Use the Buddy System My friend Ava, also a divorced mom, found herself “perpetually stressed about money,” but without a lot of friends to talk with about it. Eventually she became close with a co-worker, another divorcée, who was willing to strategize with her about budgets and belt-tightening.
“It’s weird how we avoid the subject of money,” Ava said. “It’s not something I talk about a lot with other female friends.” But at least she has the friendship with her co-worker, whom she calls her “financial BFF—it’s liberating and empowering to have a female friend I can be brutally honest with.”
Get Creative: Sometimes Fun Can Be Free Julia, the mother of three teenagers, says, “There is little that makes my life feel as full or rich as my female friends. I need them.” One of her solutions for seeing them without going broke is to schedule free, or almost free, things together, like taking a walk or going to the gym together. I’ve done both of those things with Julia, and they’re great two-fers: I get to see my friend and I get a little exercise. A third option is to scout out the good happy hours in town and limit yourself to one drink. It’s not exactly exercise, but it’s a little bit like adventure, and by having only one drink, you save money and the rest of your evening for other things.
We’re over scheduled and over stimulated, so taking a walk instead of dining at a cute café can wind up being more refreshing.
Free (or cheap) meetups have been the best solution to my friendship money stress. I’ll go on walks with my friends, or we’ll meet up for “writing dates.” There’s an elegance to this solution, actually. Sometimes I think of it as “living small.” We’re over scheduled and over stimulated, so taking a walk instead of dining at a cute café can wind up being more refreshing.
Loosen Up and Let It Be Said Give yourself permission to tackle the uncomfortable topic out loud. A 2018 survey by Wells Fargo found that Americans are more uncomfortable talking about money than about politics, religion, or even death. Interestingly, the same survey shows that money is one of the things people are most stressed out about, and that women are far less comfortable talking about it than men. Let’s see: money stresses us out more than just about anything, but we’re terrified of talking about it. We should probably try some healthier behavior.
Wendy De La Rosa, co-founder and head of research of Duke’s Common Cents Lab, wrote in a 2018 blog for Scientific American, “The repercussions of not talking about our finances can be severe, with negative consequences to our health, wealth and happiness.” Personally, once I got to the point of being able to say, “I can’t afford that right now,” I felt some relief.
If we need our friends—and I think we all agree that we do—we need to have conversations about money. There’s no single solution, but ideally those conversations spur problem solving that feels good and frees you from dodging those “how much will this cost?” moments.
*All names have been changed.
Christine Grillo is a food systems and science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also writes about flora, fauna, people, health and human rights, and her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, Utne Reader, Civil Eats, Last Word on Nothing and local magazines such as Baltimore Style.