Ask A Therapist: I Feel Left Out Because I Can’t Afford What My Friends Can

Photographed by Paola Vivas
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of Harley Therapy, for advice on the things we worry about in private.

Question:

I feel like I can’t keep up with my friends at the moment because of money. I’ve been lucky because I still have my job but because I haven’t gotten a promotion in a couple of years I am stuck on the same salary while they make lifestyle-changing money. Plus with rent, bills and the cost of basic groceries going up, I just can’t afford an overpriced dinner or night out like they can.
Advertisement
How can I talk to them about this? I say no to certain things but then feel shit and lonely at home, and I don’t know how to bring it up without making everyone feel uncomfortable and judged.
Emilie, 26

Answer:

You are far from alone. Anecdotally, therapists I work with say that the cost of living crisis is affecting most people in some way. But despite that, it is hard to avoid an intense feeling of shame around not being able to financially 'keep up'. 
Wanting to fit in is often what's driving this 'keeping up' as many of us don't want to be an outlier. We want to be able to fit in with the norms of a group. And so when you feel that you're not able to maintain a previous level of spending due to changes of circumstances, that sense of judgement can be turned inward. These internal narratives have a tendency to place blame on us as individuals, as though this shift in circumstances is within our ability to change – and often it isn't. In other words, we're looking at core beliefs about being good enough. That's often where the feelings of shame are driven from.
In order to navigate those feelings of inadequacy, I'd advise looking towards your wider group. You'll likely see that it's not just you that's finding it difficult to meet financial obligations or expenses. As such, it's a good idea to have some kind of conversation that opens the door to talking about it. You could approach it in a jocular way as well – something like: "Everything costs so much more and it makes me feel old because I remember when prices were a lot lower." That invites solidarity, and there's a good chance your friends are somewhat in the same boat.
Advertisement
The other way you can make conversations with friends about money easier is essentially to recognise how difficult the conversation is. Money is often one of the most sensitive areas in relationships because it's not talked about. It's almost got a stigma to it in the same way that sex does – it seems to be a private, personal matter and we don't find it natural to open up about it with other people. The starting point is to recognise that it's really uncomfortable and feels unnatural for many to talk about. But this is also why it's beneficial to address it. When you hide it, you can overcompensate and end up overspending, entering into cycles of regret and repetition, even debt. And that is a very hard cycle to get out of.
As I said before, so many people will be experiencing the same sort of issues and having it out in the open is generally much more helpful not just for you but for your friends too. That can be approached in a number of ways. It could be very matter-of-factly saying: "Look, I'm feeling anxious about money." You could establish that you're talking about something sensitive by saying: "I need to talk to you about something that's been concerning me." Or you could go for something much more lighthearted. You can do it one-on-one with someone you feel closest to or you can do it one to many – there are so many different permutations of having this conversation. But the main benefit is being able to share a common difficulty, which could have a common solution.
Advertisement
This is especially valuable at this time of year. The holidays are so heavily commercialised and there is this expectation that spending equals affection. Instead, if you're able, you should open up a dialogue and explain that things are really tight at the moment and offer to replace the gift of stuff with the gift of time and relationships. You don't need to spend heaps of money on an experience to give that gift either – some of the most beneficial experiences can be ones of deep connection and that can happen in circumstances that are completely cost-free. 
Whenever you can feel yourself judging yourself, I advise you to really work on that impulse with doses of self-compassion and treating yourself as you would do with friends. That means recognising that we are not alone in this situation: a lot of people are facing it, and we just have to appreciate the difficulty of the situation. That's hard work because we're often our own worst critics.
On the other hand, if you feel judgement coming towards you from your friends when you talk about this, it's worth appraising how much of a friend the person is if they can't accept your changing circumstances.

More from Relationships