I heard from a friend recently that Billy Joel is still close with his best friend from kindergarten. “Just this regular guy,” she explained; the regular guy being a cousin of hers by marriage. So when it’s your birthday and your friend Billy Joel gives you, like, a car? Must be awkward, we agreed — especially when his birthday rolls around.
But even when the disparity isn’t so great, an imbalance of income can cause serious problems in any close friendship. All kinds of difficult social interactions can arise, from minor awkwardness like choosing an income-compromised restaurant for dinner to literally paying for someone’s plane ticket. Seinfeldian debt scenarios run rampant.
That’s borne out by the two best friends I spoke to, student and writer Connor Simpson and accountant Brian Mason. Both are in their mid-20s, childhood friends from a small town in the tiny, basically unpopulated Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. Simpson is now in college in New Brunswick, while Mason lives and works in Toronto, but the two both lived in Toronto previously, and Simpson even sublet a room in Mason’s apartment for a few months.
Even when the disparity isn’t so great, an imbalance of income can cause serious problems in any close friendship.
At the time, Simpson was eking out a living as a blogger for a high-volume website (the Atlantic Wire) for meager pay and no benefits. Luckily, he is Canadian, which takes away the expense Americans have to shell out for healthcare. Simpson was making, he says, somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 a month, pre-tax, which puts him in the 25-percent tax bracket or thereabouts. So he was taking home $2,250 to $2,625 a month, and paying around $900 in rent. “I was maxed out in terms of how much I was paying for rent,” says Simpson. “Basically, I couldn’t afford anything higher.”
Mason works, and worked then, in Toronto, for one of the Big Four accounting firms, which handle the books for massive international corporations. He currently works on the accounts of some national telecoms companies. He lives in downtown Toronto, an expensive area, and pays $1,550 for rent. His income is around $60,000 a year.
That discrepancy meant that some activities were off-limits to Simpson. But the two figured out how to remain friends and even cohabitate despite their income discrepancy by being, well, open with each other. Both were up-front about the divide. “If we were going out together, he’d make sure we weren’t going somewhere I’d get priced out of,” Simpson says. And it was always acceptable to ditch an activity due to price; Simpson remembers going to a hotel bar “where domestic beers were $10 to $12” and leaving after a single drink due to the price.
Mason says that the big sticking point, if there was one, was in the great Canadian pastime, hockey. “Obviously in Toronto, Maple Leafs games are expensive,” he says. “So we couldn’t necessarily go to those.” (Maple Leafs tickets, at their very cheapest, start at about $75. That’s despite the team being truly horrible.) But even for more expensive outings like Leafs games, Mason would make sure to invite Simpson. “I would still bring it up to Connor, and give him the opportunity to say yes or no,” Mason explains. “I wouldn’t shun Connor because he couldn’t afford it.”
Cultural norms make it hard to discuss income, but sometimes those norms need to be broken in order to maintain a friendship; without knowing, how can you adjust?
These days, with Simpson in school and lacking even his blogging income, the discrepancy is more pronounced. “Now that he’s in school, I’m more open to just outright paying for something that I want to go to with him,” Mason says. “Like if I’m back home and there’s a hockey game that we want to watch, I’ve got no problem with just paying for the tickets.”
Cultural norms make it hard to discuss income, but sometimes those norms need to be broken in order to maintain a friendship; without knowing, how can you adjust? How can you live similar lives, in similar cities or neighborhoods, how can you go to similar bars or clubs or restaurants or sporting events, with even a moderate discrepancy in income?
The generation in early adulthood right now, embarrassingly and frequently referred to as the Millennials, occupy a peculiar space with regard to incomes within their peer group. For one thing, Millennials (of which I, full disclosure, am one — BOO!) have significantly higher levels of student debt and unemployment than past generations did at similar stages of life. But income inequality is also on the rise, and those who have figured out a way to make money have, in higher numbers than in past generations, figured out a way to make a crazy amount of money, whether in the financial industry, the tech sector or other booming industries.
If we talk about what we make, competition will be more transparent, less cutthroat, and more fair, even to the point of locally addressing issues of gender discrimination.
That’s a recipe for some awkward relationships: there’s a pretty high chance that, in contrast to your parents’ or grandparents’ generations, your immediate social circle will include some whose incomes are several times higher or lower than yours. And it’s hard to talk about; the general secretiveness around incomes encourages the very trends that have created the income inequality tearing the world apart. If we talk about what we make, competition will be more transparent, less cutthroat, and more fair, even to the point of locally addressing issues of gender discrimination. If it’s well known what everyone makes, how long can a business get away with paying a woman 78.3 cents on the dollar for the same job as a man? Our well-mannered silence breeds nothing but problems.
Differences in income can cause major rifts between friends; some might have to shore up new groups of friends in their income brackets to step in for high-priced activities, or may end up becoming secretive and weird to avoid the taboo. But Simpson and Mason never had any issues, and openness is the reason. “I’m generally very open with friends, about what they make,” Mason says.
Whether the income gap is massive or just huge, being straightforward about it makes it easier to stay friends.
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. His cat is named Victoria.