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How Money Warps the Friendships Between Men and Women

It’s not just sex that challenges male-female relationships — but financial imbalance is a factor we almost never talk about

It’s the sort of question that must always be asked and answered anew by each generation. It first came up back when men started giving women the eye from across the caveman fire pit. In more recent times, it’s become a leitmotif for countless romantic comedies: Can straight men and women truly ever be friends? 

Because there’s that one big, horny problem: We fuck. 

But there’s another factor that’s mentioned far less often than sex: money. 

Cash poses a similarly thorny problem for cross-sex friendships because women and men are socialized very differently about it. Essentially, women are far less likely to feel comfortable candidly talking about money with friends, co-workers or partners. As Zaneilia Harris, a financial planner and author of Finance ’n Stilettos, points out, “Men have no trouble talking about money, but it’s the one thing that women are hesitant to discuss.” Meanwhile, Mariko Chang, author of Shortchanged, has explained to the New York Times, “Girls as they’re growing up aren’t socialized to feel that it’s okay for them to have ambition about creating wealth, not the way it is for little boys. They’re encouraged to take on roles that let them take care of other people.”

A study from Visa backs up Chang. “A gender gap exists in millennials’ relationship with money,” the financial institution found. “Women are more likely to feel financially stressed, less confident and more uncomfortable about money in the workplace, at home, with friends and in relationships.” 

While we like to think that we’re becoming more and more progressive and more and more equal, our attitudes and social expectations still trail behind. And it’s due to this friction between idealism and reality, between financial power and gender imbalances, that men and women’s friendships are just as much, if not more so, challenged by money than by sex. 

To get at the truth of this, I conducted a roundtable with five women — Shauncey, 27, an accountant; Maria, 33, an attorney; Antoinette, 40, a senior director of marketing; Jessica, 30, an editor; and Carla, age not given, a writer — about their views on men, money and friendship. Their discussion was candid, critical and surprising. 

When you go out with a straight man, platonically, is there any gendered pattern or expectation for who pays? Or do you take turns paying, or split the bill?
Carla: Mostly, we split the bill. Sometimes we’ll take turns. I hate Venmo. 

Antoinette: There’s no pattern. I’m the type who always offers, and I’m fine to take the whole bill. Typically, though, with my platonic straight male friends, we simply take turns. No one is counting. 

Shauncey: Split the bill, or take turns paying, depending on dinner, the bar, etc. If it’s just one drink, they usually pay in full and don’t expect to be paid back. If the man is more than five years older than me, he usually picks up the full bill.

Jessica: Honestly, it depends on who got to the bar first. It’s usually easier to just put a drink on someone else’s already open tab, and Venmo them. I’m late to everything, so I Venmo my guy friends a lot for this reason. But we also take turns paying or splitting. I guess the one outlier is when I’m out with guy friends who make way more than I do — like, “work in finance” levels of making more. Every so often, I forget to Venmo them. Or I ask to put it on their tab and don’t ask if they want me to pay them back. It’s a very small way to “eat the rich,” or something. 

Maria: I almost always split, either 50/50 with two cards, or if one person got way more drinks than the other, we usually itemize and Venmo. Occasionally friends (male or female) will offer to pay for everything, but I ask to split instead because feeling like I owe people makes me anxious. The exception: None of my dude friends from law school went into public interest and all have high-paying firm jobs; if I meet them for drinks/dinner and they try to pay for me, I’ll absolutely let them. Similarly, my best straight dude friend from college has a trust fund so I let him pay for me, too. 

When you go out with friends who aren’t straight men, is there any difference in how you negotiate money with them than with your straight male friends?
Carla: Not really.

Jessica: There’s no difference — we all pay our share. Maybe I’m a bit more careful to pay people back if they aren’t straight white men, but I’m pretty good about not owing anyone anything. 

Shauncey: It’s the same: We usually split it/take turns paying.

Antoinette: Among women friends, there tends to be more even splitting of the bill. No itemizing, we simply split it three ways if there are three of us. 

Maria: I have a couple female friends who I don’t see super-often, and when I do, it’s always for lunch or dinner; we usually just take turns playing. With women and gay men I see more often, we usually just split everything in half. 

Do you find there are ways straight men use money socially that are different from members of your other friend groups? Like, they offer to pay for lunch if you go to a restaurant they select, or if you let them drive. Basically, they use money to exert power and control or to influence social events.
Jessica: Not really? I’m friends with some pretty decent straight guys, so maybe I’m an outlier. 

Antoinette: Certainly some straight men interested in more than friendship will try the chivalrous thing and offer to pay the bill and reject my offer to split. I don’t interpret it as a power move. Instead, I think they’re trying to show me that they can provide. It’s very typical dating behavior. 

Carla: One of my best guy friends acted like an asshole all through my birthday dinner once. He’s very rich. He thought he’d just throw down his credit card, pay for the evening and everything would be fine. I showed him though: I beat him to the waiter and paid for everything. Still, I really resented him for it, and it ruined my night.

Shauncey: They definitely always want to drive, but that’s all of my friends; I’m a really bad driver. I’ve definitely seen men try to exert power/control with their money, but that’s usually accompanied by a douchebag attitude, or general lack of social grace. I try to remove myself from those situations.

Maria: The best example I can think is one of my friends on the Cape who is very rich. When he picks the restaurant, he often pays for everyone. It’s never presented as “if we go here, I’ll pay,” but I know that if he picks the restaurant, there’s a good chance he’ll also pick up the check.

How often do you feel bias or sexism comes into play when determining who has to pay?
Maria: I feel that bias and sexism are more likely to come into play when determining who has to pay when its non-platonic/a date. In platonic situations, if anything, the bias is coming from me. I’m more inclined to let a male friend pay for me than a female friend because I know life can often be more expensive for women than similarly situated men. 

Along those lines, sometimes there are hidden costs for a woman. Do straight men recognize these nearly the same as your other friends do?
Shauncey: It seems the older a man gets, the more he recognizes this. Most people my age/younger do not, or they only think of headline issues (wage gap, etc.).

Antoinette: It depends on the straight man. I try to surround myself with highly intelligent ones who recognize that the world is a different place for men and women. 

Carla: I’m curious as to what these hidden costs are. Shoe repair? Tampons? Unequal pay? I think women probably also deserve reparations, but not before the descendants of slaves get theirs.

Jessica: They absolutely aren’t aware of the extra costs. There are a lot of things we have to take into account, like Ubers back from the bar if it’s late, whereas guys might feel safer taking the subway. But there are other more insidious things, like makeup, or other things guys historically don’t deal with as much, and they’re surprised when I tell them what I pay for it. Haircuts are the biggest thing. I’d kill to pay $20 for a haircut. 

Maria: It’s not purely financial, but the one hidden cost that most of my straight male friends seem aware of is the safety risk for a woman walking home at night. So they’ll offer to walk/drive me home, or will wait until I’m in an Uber to leave. That said, “pink tax” costs are almost never on my straight male friends’ radars.