Navigating income disparities in relationships

Stuck in that awkward position where you and your friends earn vastly different amounts of money? Journalist and artist Rosel Jackson Stern shares their tips for navigating this sensitive topic during the festive season.

It’s that time of the year when the contents of our bank accounts slowly seep out into gift giving, social engagements, booze or all of the above. The cost of living crisis affects all of us to varying extents and puts undue pressure on our relationships. 

Money is one of those topics that we put off dealing with until it blows up in our face. It’s uncomfortable because we’ve structured society to create a direct correlation between the ability to provide for our most basic needs with the amount of cash we have to our name. When we talk about how much you do or don’t earn, we’re revealing the level of ease and comfort we have navigating vital aspects of our lives. Given the toxicity of hustle culture, the belief that work is directly tied to our worth, and the myth of meritocracy, i.e that those who work hard will always be rewarded for it, it’s no surprise that we can feel a lot of shame around money. 

So how do we navigate the balance sheet of our friendships, particularly when one of us out earns the other?

Figure out what your friendship is for and let that guide you 

Different friendships and dynamics offer different experiences in our lives. I have friends who I know out-earn me but we find the biggest joy in each other through shared interests, tastes and cultural analysis. I can send them a podcast and we can chat about it for hours. In that scenario, our budgets don’t affect how we enjoy each other. With other friends, going out and having a meal or buying tickets for events are the main way we socialise. Suddenly, our disposable income becomes relevant and ideally warrants a conversation about what we can afford. 

Bite the bullet and talk about it

What’s potentially hard about this situation is that the person earning less has to either dictate the activity or receive a handout, none of which is always ideal or desirable. To alleviate this, one of my favourite things to say is: “Hey, I’m strapped for cash but I value our friendship. I’d love to spend time with you so here are some things I can afford.” What’s key here is that you don’t simply reveal your financial status but follow it up with concrete suggestions that are in your budget. This way, the focus becomes less about what you can and can’t do and more about what you want for your relationship. Conversely, you could say “I got some extra cash and I’d like to treat you to a meal” if that’s something you can afford. 

Learning how to talk about the ever-present pressure of money is one of the hardest things to navigate as an adult. If they’re truly your friend, they’ll appreciate having an open and honest conversation.

Let your friend spot you or consider offering to pay for a meal 

Every time my friends buy me something, my stomach drops a little. It’s a lingering sense that I should be able to do everything myself and depend on no one. In reality, being in community with others is leaning on them and allowing them to take care of you. Sometimes we have to teach ourselves to receive as much as we give by reminding ourselves of how we contribute to other people’s lives. Money is just one of many ways to do this. 

Over time, I’ve learned to receive love in this way knowing that I’m proud of what I bring to relationships. Making sure to have regular check-ins with your friends about whether your relationship feels reciprocal is good practice either way.

Journalist and artist Rosel Jackson Stern
Journalist and artist Rosel Jackson Stern

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