How to Keep Friendships Strong When You Make (a Lot) More Money

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4 friends on a boat toasting champagne glassesWhen Misti Cain met a friend at a café recently, she told her that she was going to pick up the check as her treat. Instead of a simple thank you, the friend “joked that she would have chosen a more expensive restaurant had she known I was buying,” says Cain.

“I have thick skin when it comes to success; therefore, amicable jokes don’t bother me,” she says. But as a successful business owner and founder of advice site Whyzze, Cain frequently finds herself confronting the income disparity she has with many in her longtime social circle.

Sometimes that disparity leads to comments that are less jokey and more on the snide side. They aren’t as easy to blow off. Rachel Parker,* a 26-year-old who works in marketing, earns a salary many times that of her close friend, Zoe. The two bonded during their college days, but now that she’s out of school, Rachel’s income stretches a whole lot farther than Zoe’s. Even when Rachel happily volunteers to take care of the dinner check, Zoe makes an issue out of it.

“She’ll say, ‘Oh, you can probably just expense that to your big budget,’ or ‘This will be the nicest meal I’ll have all week, but it’s probably like every day for you,’” Rachel explains. She doesn’t want to lose Zoe’s friendship, she says, but the comments make her wonder about their future.

Sure, friendship friction is bound to happen occasionally. Yet when your financial success comes at a time when others are just getting by, tensions can easily come to a head—not to mention you might find yourself giving in to the pressure to reach for you wallet more than you’d like. To help you salvage not only your friendships but also, potentially, your budget, we asked experts to weigh in on how to navigate three tricky relationships.

The “It Must Be Nice …” Friend

Even good buddies can feel a little jealous when you’re jetting off to Europe. Again. But if you have a friend who can’t help but say, “Of course you’re going on another vacation!” or “Must be nice to have a new car,” then you may need to have a more direct conversation with them.

If friends make cracks, “call them on it,” suggests Maggie Baker, Ph.D., psychologist and financial therapist and author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.” Say, “It sounds like you’re resentful of my good fortune or hard work.” Then use that as a launching point to have a sincere talk about how those comments make you feel.

Or you may need to elaborate how, in your case, the money really is the fruit of your labor. As Daniela Schreier, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Chicago, points out, higher earners likely devote a lot of time and effort to their job, even though it might not always be apparent to others. So next time she gets snarky, remind your friend that you’re on call all weekend or that you work 60 hours a week. “It’s not arrogant to say, ‘Hey, I have a really stressful job, and sometimes I need to get away.’”

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It also helps to understand that the other person might not know how to manage feelings of jealousy, says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and producer of TheFriendshipBlog. Levine recommends acknowledging how fortunate you are to travel as often as you do. Then, try to work into the conversation something positive about your friend’s work or personal life, like “You’re so lucky to be doing work that you enjoy so much.”

The “Never Reaches for the Check” Friend

Sure, if you can afford to treat from time to time and want to, go ahead, Levine says. It can feel nice to be in a position to take care of the bill. “However, there shouldn’t be an expectation that you will always be picking up the tab,” says Levine. Schreier suggests setting boundaries by saying something like, “I want to celebrate your friendship tonight with a special dinner. Please allow me to treat.” That way you’ve made it clear that this is a special occasion.

If you feel like you’re always springing for the check, either because a friend asks you to or she suddenly develops alligator arms and lets it sit there on the table, consider confronting the situation in an easygoing way. “You could say, ‘Hey I got lunch last time; can you grab it today?’” advises Schreier. Or just do the math and tell your friend what he owes.

For the most part, however, the pressure is on the higher earner not to put a friend in an uncomfortable spot by choosing an expensive restaurant or bar. When Baker meets up with her friends who make less money, she will usually ask them to pick the place so they can choose something that fits their budget. It’s a good rule to go by and cuts down on the expectation that you’ll take care of the bill.

RELATED: ‘Help! I Can’t Stop Spending More As I Make More’

The “Can You Help Me Out With a Down Payment?” Friend

Getting a request for a big sum of cash can be a real shock to the system, but don’t be so shocked by it that you automatically say yes. Remember, you don’t have to be the friends and family bank, and you shouldn’t feel guilty when you say no.

Sometimes, however, you may really want to help the person out or the circumstance of the request warrants consideration. But before you say yes, think about the cardinal rule of lending: “Never loan money that you can’t afford to lose,” says Levine. If it’s a friend you feel is really in a bind, you might offer it as a gift by saying, “I can’t lend you $2,000 but I can give you $500.” However, if it’s a loan, protect yourself by writing out a clear contract that includes interest as well as terms and conditions, says Schreier.

Ultimately, what’s important to keep in mind is that you’ve still got your own budget and financial goals to think about—and all those “small” requests for cash (or the tabs you always pick up out of habit) shouldn’t come at your expense. At the end of the day, knowing how to set boundaries will help you better foster your friendships and your finances.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Take Charge of Your Financial Future in Your 30s and 40s

*Name has been changed.

  • Tanya

    Great article. I have a related question about when it’s time to stop treating your adult stepchildren (with great jobs) to every meal out, or even in. My husband and some friends who have kids of their own say you treat “forever.” Not having my own kids, maybe I don’t “get it,” but I feel like I’m being taken for granted as it is just assumed that we will pick up the whole tab. Occasionally there is a thank you, but not often.

    • flours

      Sounds like that can be tough…and I’m sure being a step parent makes it an even more touchy subject…I don’t have kids, so I probably shouldn’t reply, but I never would have expected my Mom or Grandparents to treat me once I was working…it is probably more of a conversation with your husband…along the lines of, ‘Now that the kids are out of the house, we can focus on our retirement goals’…I do not envy your situation…best of luck!!

      I do see it with friends of mine that have adult children…actually it burns me up, so I stay out of it…my husband & I talk about it on the drive home from visiting them, but it isn’t our business…they have children that are in their 30s, married, both with jobs, still on their parents cell phone plans, or car insurance plans, or getting chunks of money for one issue or another…my mom didn’t give me a dime after I moved out, but that was always clear once I became a teenager…I could live with her until I started working full-time, but once I moved out, I was on my own…that works in reverse as well…she needs money now due to an issue with getting her pension checks started (newly retired), but she refuses to accept money from me…says I need to save it for my own retirement…

      • Tanya

        Thanks flours. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this feeling. Like you, I also feel that I could never do that to my parents. Once I started working, I wanted to treat them. I felt they worked so hard for their money, how could I blithely take it for granted? You’re right, I do need to have that discussion with my husband.

  • Lgraymc

    Suggested way to approach your friend: “It sounds like you’re resentful of my good fortune or hard work.” That’s an “I” statement FAIL. I would suggest saying something like, “I feel like you may be resentful of my good fortune and hard work in my field when I hear you make statements like that. Am I getting that right, do you have any feelings of resentment?” Way less accusatory as it’s coming from a “Am I getting this right?” place.

  • Dawn R.F.

    I have a different situation with a friend of mine. She has always made more money than I do, can afford to do more, etc. I do _not_ expect her to pay my way when we get together, and I’ve said to her that I expect to pay my way. A few months ago, we were planning to get together for two different events, and she said, “I’ll get the movie tickets tomorrow and the concert tickets after I get paid.” I said, “Or, You get the movie tickets and I’ll get the concert tickets.” And that’s what we did. I told her that I don’t want or expect her to pay for everything, that even if it doesn’t work out exactly 50/50 split, I expect to pay either tickets or dinner; that I do budget for these things. Could I afford a concert or a movie every week? No. Once or twice per month, however, is very doable for my budget. *sigh* I don’t want this to sound like a brag-complaint, but I do wish she would be a little less generous and let me pay!