I Can’t Afford My Friends Anymore

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet
When Emily*, who is in her early 30s, boarded a plane to visit her childhood friend, it ended up sparking the unraveling of their relationship. She was struggling to make ends meet and had saved for months to afford the trip. So she was angered when, on the holiday, her friend’s work commitments meant she wasn’t as available as Emily had expected. 
It led to a huge argument during which Emily made clear that the trip had come at a significant cost to her. "My financial strain contributed to me wanting to make the most out of every moment we had by spending quality time together," she says. "[My friend] couldn’t understand the financial sacrifice I had made to spend time with them." 
After falling out on the trip, Emily says that she and her friend "have not been the same since." For Emily, the trip highlighted their very different financial positions. "This is someone who has been a very good friend since we were younger," she says. "But now that we’re adults in different economic brackets, the expectations are a lot different. She expected me to be okay with her not being very available."
As inflation remains high and interest rates soar, more people like Emily are losing friendships because of money. Socializing is increasingly a luxury, with one study finding that the cost of living crisis has impacted about a third of people's ability to spend time with friends. Another recent study, conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Intuit Credit Karma, surveyed more than 1,000 people over the age of 18 and found that more than a third of Gen Z and millennials have a friend who pushes them to overspend.
Gillian, 23, says soaring costs mean she is now spending less time with people in her circle who frequent expensive bars and restaurants. "I joke that I can’t afford to hang out with certain friends of mine sometimes because I always end up spending more than I intended to when I go out with them." 
It’s unsurprising, then, that the Credit Karma study found that people are increasingly looking to make friends with others whose incomes are similar to their own, to avoid overspending. "It’s easier not to overspend when I’m out with people who also want to be frugal," says Gillian. She says that wanting to spend time with people who have similar incomes was "definitely a factor" in choosing who to live with. "My roommates are my main friend group. We have similar spending habits and do almost everything together."

I joke that I can't afford to hang out with certain friends of mine sometimes because I always end up spending more than I intended to when I go out with them. 

Gillian, 23
Similarly, since the cost of living crisis has worsened, Sade English, 30, says she has noticed people within her circle spending more time with friends on comparable salaries. It has also sparked some difficult conversations about finances. "My friend isn't on the same earnings as me and made a joke [to me] that she told her mom she 'doesn't know if she could be my friend anymore,'" she recalls. Sade felt it was not a joke but a genuine concern of her friend’s. "That just shook my brain because she’s literally like a sister to me." 
Sade was upset that her friend hadn’t felt comfortable opening up to her before about their different spending habits. "I was kind of speechless," she says. "I felt embarrassed that she [felt she] couldn’t tell me." This reluctance to talk about money — even with close friends — is widespread. According to a survey by the Money and Pensions Service, 55% of people don’t feel comfortable opening up when they have worries about their financial situation, despite 48% admitting they have regularly worried about money recently. Shame or embarrassment was cited as the top reason for not wanting to talk about money.
The feeling of being unable to talk to close friends about money is one Emily knows all too well. "It’s very isolating when your friends are doing well and don’t understand that you’re struggling," she says. "It’s hard to emphasize how bad things are going and how limited you really are." As psychotherapist Anna Sergent explains, many people find it difficult to talk about money because of feelings of shame. "To admit that you do not have the money to go out to a certain place is to admit some sort of lack — and that’s painful to admit," she tells Refinery29.
Anna adds that it can also lead to people feeling "different" or "not belonging" within their friend group. The desire to fit in can in many cases cause people to overspend in order to keep up appearances. One British survey found that the most common reason people feel pressure to overspend is that they don’t want their friends and family to think that they can’t afford the same things they can. 
Like Gillian, Emily says it’s led her to spend more time with friends on similar incomes. According to Ellie Austin-Williams, author of Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. "If you have particular friends who like to spend big, it can help to prioritize hanging out with friends on a similar budget," she tells Refinery29. 
However, Ellie stresses it’s important not to assume that all friends who spend more than you aren’t happy to adjust to your budget. "Unless you tell them that you are working to a budget, they are unlikely to know you're feeling stressed about spending. Give them the chance to make plans that suit everyone's budget by letting them know what you are comfortable with financially and go from there."

I now make a conscious effort to meet in places that are more affordable, as friendship is more important than the venue we are in. Salaries shouldn't determine the friendships we have.

Sade, 30
Since her friend opened up to her about money, Sade will think twice about inviting her to restaurants and bars that she feels might be out of her budget. "If I was going out to a certain spot, I probably wouldn't ask her to come because I don’t want her to feel awkward," she says. 
She has also made an effort to do activities together that cost either nothing or very little. "I now make a conscious effort to meet in places that are more affordable, as friendship is more important than the venue we are in. Salaries shouldn’t determine the friendships we have," she says. Sade says this has had a positive impact on her own relationship with money. "It made me reflect on myself a bit. If anything, it’s made me more self-aware." 
As Ellie points out, finding ways to spend time with friends that don’t involve spending can be beneficial for relationships. "It’s easy for friendships to get clouded by money and lifestyle factors but go back to what you have in common that drew you together and focus on spending quality time as friends," she says. "Also, don't be afraid to admit that sometimes you outgrow friendships and walk away from those that no longer serve you." 
For Emily, going through a rough patch financially has made her realize which friends are there for her, no matter what her circumstances are. "I had a really good friend who would drive an hour to pick me up and hang at the beach and another friend who made excuses to hire me for freelance work that they didn’t really need," she says. "People who had only known me a few years surprised me in how generous they were toward me." 
Ellie stresses that communication is key. "If you're on a budget and finding it hard to maintain social plans with your friends, take the initiative rather than waiting for plans to appear," she says. "Put forward your suggestions about what social activities to do and look for options that fit within your budget, such as hosting a potluck dinner and movie night or going for a picnic in the park."
Although the cost of living crisis is impacting some far more than others, it could help change the way we think and talk about money for the better. As Ellie puts it, "Money is a challenging topic to be transparent about for many, so having a universal experience of bills going up and rent struggles can break down barriers to the conversation." Financial woes might be a death knell for some relationships but in other instances, they can forge stronger and more honest friendships.
*Name changed to protect anonymity

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