personal finance

What to Do When Money Causes Friend Drama

When a pal keeps suggesting restaurants you can't afford or making snide comments about your salary, it's time to say something.

by Rachel Miller
15 January 2020, 10:32pm

Illustration by Daniel Zender

Knowing you have to have a money conversation with someone is stressful. Even fairly straightforward situations can lead to endless procrastination followed by an hour of strategizing with a close friend before you finally text your roommate… “Hey, could I get the rent check from you later today?” But the anxiety makes sense: a person’s finances can be deeply intertwined with their ego, identity, beliefs, and sense of self-worth. And because talking about money often means communicating a desire or a need, it can leave us feeling very vulnerable.

But when a friend keeps suggesting pricey activities you can’t afford, or constantly makes snide comments about your salary, avoiding the topic is only going to make things worse in the long run. Learning how to deftly handle these situations is good for your financial health, and the long-term health of your friendships.

Remember you can never really know what’s going on with someone else’s bank account.

When going into these conversations, it’s a good idea to avoid making assumptions about other people’s finances. Even if you know what a friend’s salary is, or can infer certain things based on, say, their lifestyle or past comments, none of us really know what’s going on with someone else’s bank account. People have staggering debt, medical bills, bad credit, trust funds, credit card points, job perks, alimony agreements, parents who support them, parents who they are supporting, as well as personal desires and values that influence what they want (or don’t want) to spend their money on. And because money is so tied up in self-image and can be a big source of shame, a lot of people simply… don’t ever mention any of this stuff to their friends.

We all know, intellectually, that most people are fairly private about their finances, and that everyone’s definitions of “broke” and “worth it” and “reasonable price for a bridesmaid dress” are going to be different… but it’s easy to forget that when we want certain stories to be true, or when everything would be easier if others’ perspectives were aligned with our own. If you’re frustrated with how a friend is acting with regard to money, it can be helpful to remember this, and to try to approach the situation from a place of genuine curiosity and generosity.

Make money talk a natural part of everyday conversations.

The best way to avoid money drama with friends is to be proactive about expectations in casual discussions where it’s relevant. That could mean asking what amount people are comfortable paying, suggesting activities at a range of price points, and being clear about who is paying for what. It might sound like...

“Are you cool with splitting the cost evenly? It’ll be about $X per person.”

“What are we thinking in terms of budget?” (You could also add something like, “It looks like most [hotels/manicures/restaurants] are in the $X-$Y range, for context.”)

“I’m happy to put the AirBnb on my card and then you can pay me for your portion. It’ll be $X per person with all of the fees, and I’d just want to be paid back by [specific date].”

“I have an extra ticket to see Carly Rae Jepsen perform on Nov. 4 if you’re interested in buying it and coming along. It’s a floor seat and would be $50.”

“I’d love to work with you on [thing you do professionally, that they want you to do as a ‘favor’]! I’ll send over my rate sheet and you can take a look to see if it fits within your budget.”

“How about lunch tomorrow? It’ll be my treat.” (If you’re planning to pay, it’s so good to say so up front so the person isn’t stressed about it—especially if you’re in a position of power or status.)

When you can’t afford or don’t want to spend money on something, “it’s not in my budget” is a good catch-all explanation.

Even though it’s fine and normal to say something is too much money for you, it’s not always easy. It can be a bummer to admit you can’t afford something, and there’s often a fear that you’re disappointing your friend, or making them feel guilty for asking. But being honest about your reason for saying no communicates your values and preferences to your friend (who presumably cares about you!); lets them know that your saying no has nothing to do with them; and makes it easier for your friend/friend group to speak up about their needs in the future.

If your friend invites you to do something that you can’t or don’t want to spend money on...

“Oh, I’d love to, but it sounds like it would be outside of my budget. But I’d be down for [tickets in a different section/dinner someplace less expensive/going on a trip if we can find a cheaper Airbnb].”

“That sounds great, but I don’t have much room in my budget for [dinners out/shows/trips] these days, unfortunately.”

“I’d love to get dinner, but this restaurant is a bit outside of my budget! Would you be up for going somewhere else? I can do some research and send you some options.”

Making your reason for saying no about your budget—versus the price of the event itself—is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an elegant option if you’re too embarrassed to say what is actually true (“lmaooooo I have 33 cents in my bank account rn and honestly just feel happy I’m not overdrawn”). It’s not that you’re dead broke; you have a budget, which implies you have money and/or a level of fiscal responsibility that might not feel “true” at the moment, but whatever—saying you can’t do the thing is being responsible!! More important, this kind of response centers you and your needs versus the price of the event itself, which is good—because when you say something is unilaterally “too expensive,” there’s an implicit judgment that can make the other person feel defensive.

When your friend continues to suggest activities that are too expensive for you, or your money situation is fairly tight and will be for a while...

“I’m trying to [rein in my spending/save for a trip/be diligent about not spending so much money on food this year] so I’m probably not the best person to ask to invite to [specific thing]. But I’d love to plan [some other activity] with you!”

If it’s a close friend, it’s worthwhile to be a little more forthcoming and vulnerable with them. So, you might say something like:

“I’m a bit worried about money these days and trying very hard to stick to my budget, so [fancy brunches/trips/concerts] are kind of a no-go for me for the foreseeable future. I’d still love to make plans with you; I just would prefer to do things like [cheaper activities] if you’re down for that.”

When you need to speak up about a bigger ask, like the cost of a bridesmaid dress...

“I think $X is my upper limit for [the dress/the bachelor party/the total cost of being in the wedding party]… I really wish that weren’t the case, but I can’t swing more than that. Can we talk about some other options or ways we could make this work?”

Don’t shame or judge your friends if they can’t afford something you want to do.

It’s not always fun to be the higher earner in a friendship; yes, having money is great, but being the higher earner in a friendship can also put you in an awkward position of having to apologize for your position, or explain/defend your choices. There can be a sense of guilt or embarrassment if you wildly outearn everyone you know, and real frustration if people constantly expect you to be willing splurge, or to pick up the bill. But even if you’re not making a ton of money, there will likely be times when you want to spend more than your friends do on something. In those instances, it’s reasonable to be a bit disappointed, but you can still be gracious and empathetic.

When someone tells you they can’t afford to do something you’re suggesting (or that it’s not in their budget)...

“OK! Would you be up for going to the concert if I could find cheaper tickets, or are you just kind of a no in general?”

“Got it! Would you like me to look for a less expensive restaurant, or should we just do something like coffee or a drink instead?”

“Totally understand! I’m sorry to hear you’re so stressed about money. And of course, I’m happy to plan less expensive outings!”

“Obviously, I’m sad that you won’t be able to go on this trip with us, but I get where you’re coming from and am glad you’re doing what’s best for you.”

“Since I’m the one who really wants to splurge on the more expensive seats, why don’t you let me pay the difference so we can both sit closer? I really don’t mind!”

Also, even if you’re bummed out, do your best not to take it personally, and try not to get too judgmental or accusatory. Remember that people who make a lot of money won’t always be willing or able to buy expensive things, and people who are broke still occasionally want to spend money on things that are “frivolous.”

If someone is being obnoxious in conversations about money, you’re allowed to shut it down.

Regardless of how much money you have, there will likely come a point where someone has Very Strong Opinions about how you spend it. While talking about money is, in general, a good thing, it’s totally reasonable to set boundaries around what you’re willing to discuss with specific people. Everyone is entitled to privacy with regard to their finances! If someone is getting a little too curious, here’s how to respond.

When someone is asking intrusive questions about your finances and you don’t want to engage...

“Oh, I’m pretty private about money, actually, so I’d rather not get into that!”

“Oh, that’s not really something I’m comfortable sharing!”

“I’m a big believer in not discussing [salary/income/my partner's money] with friends!”

If they won’t take no for an answer, you can be a little less warm and more direct, like so:

“It’s just not something I’m comfortable discussing. Let’s move on!”

“Hey—I’ve told you I don’t want to talk about this. Why are you still pushing me to share?”

When someone is giving you a hard time about how you spend your money...

“Well, everyone’s priorities with regard to money are different, but [drinking the occasional lattes/going to concerts/traveling] is something I really enjoy, and [thing] makes me genuinely happy and improves my life.”

If the person still won’t let it go, you can go a little harder, like so: “Hey—if you just hate hearing about [this topic], I get that, and I won’t bring it up with you again. But I am really into [thing], and it bums me out to hear you shitting on something I’m excited about.”

When your friend keeps complaining about how “poor” they are—even though they know you’re really struggling to make ends meet, and they make twice as much money as you do...

“Hey, could I ask you to be a bit more mindful of how you’re talking about money when we’re hanging out? Obviously, I don’t know the particulars of your finances, but when you talk about $100K not being nearly enough to live on or your 10% raise being insulting, it really bums me out! You’re my friend and of course you can always vent to me, but it’s a little hard for me to engage with these conversations because I’m making less than half that and am constantly worried about money.”

Even if your patience is wearing thin, try to avoid going too hard here. (Look: maybe your friend really is struggling and just hasn’t told you yet!) Start from a place of good faith and see what they say.

When a friend makes snide comments about your high salary/wealth/etc….

The first time it happens, you can grimace or frown, and let an awkward silence do the talking. And try not to get defensive; this probably isn’t the best time for a “I worked really hard for this!!!” monologue, even if you did work really hard for this. And if they won’t knock it off, you can address the pattern.

“Hey—I’ve noticed you’ve been making a bunch of ‘jokes’ about [how much money I make/my partner’s new job/my inheritance] and I don’t love it—I’m never quite sure what to say, and I always end up feeling kind of guilty and bad.”

“Hey—I don’t love this thing where you make snarky comments about how much money I have; I don’t know what kind of response you’re hoping for, but it always makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. Could you please stop?”

Finally, know that if breezy money conversations feel downright impossible, it could be a sign of underlying issues.

If you’ve been trying in earnest to talk about money with your friends and they just aren’t getting it or things still feel really fraught or tense, it might be time to take a look at the friendship as a whole. Even relatively mundane discussions, like where to go for dinner, can highlight class divides and major differences in values within a friendship, and not all friendships can sustain that discord. That’s not to say that people with different incomes or backgrounds can’t be close—they can! But if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up about your needs, or your values and boundaries aren’t being respected, there might be larger issues to address.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.