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I am in my mid 30s and have finally climbed myself out of the hole of my student loans. I still have some of my loans, don’t get me wrong. I’m just in a place where the end seems near after living solely on cheap beer and home-cooked meals since college.
I feel financially secure for the first time, which is great. But I also am surrounded by friends who are much more financially successful than me because they didn’t have the same starting situation as me. We make around the same amount of money, but are living very different lifestyles. I’m generally happy with my life right now, but money makes it hard to feel free and spend time with them as we grow older. They can simply afford things—group dinners, group trips, concert tickets—that I can’t. Any advice on how to broach this subject with them, or focus our time together towards things in my budget instead of theirs? I don’t want to be a buzzkill. - T
It might feel like you’re being left out of a new normal where people prefer artisanal cocktails to cheap beers, but I think most people can empathize with your situation. As of today, the country is seeing the highest number of 30 to 34 year-olds living at home with their parents for financial reasons since 1940. And as someone who grew up in a working class family and took out hefty student loans for college and grad school right before the financial crisis hit, I can certainly identify with where you’re at. Do you know the trick where you deposit a few dollars into your bank account in order to withdraw the last $20 to your name?
The KonMari method is great for some people, but one of the easiest, most natural methods to becoming a minimalist is to be broke. That’s a fact well known to those of us who know how to make every dinner entree double as the filling for a frittata for the next day’s lunch, or who used the quarters from their laundry fund to nurse the cheapest beer at the bar on a group night out. I’m pretty sure that there’s a stage of purgatory where you have to sit at a fancy restaurant for eternity, nibbling on a dry cheese plate while your best friends dine on roasted duck, poached lobster, and guzzle fine wine.
If anything, seeing the finish line in paying off your student loans is a huge achievement, and one you should feel proud of. Congratulations! Sure, it’s disappointing to be gainfully employed and still feel like weekly group dinners and bi-annual vacations to exotic locales are out of your reach, but you’ve already proven that you have your eyes on the prize—feeling secure and stable. Advancing on that path towards financial freedom is going to feel sweeter than you imagined, even if it means missing out on hangs every now and then. Here are some thoughts on how to talk to your friends about your financial situation, while being happy about where you’re at.
Be upfront with the people closest to you.
Your friends are your friends for reasons outside of how much money you make, or have to spend. You’re not in this alone as long as you talk to them about it—#realtalk is critical to maintaining healthy, supportive relationships. If the people closest to you honestly don’t know what’s going on with you, it is probably just as uncomfortable for them if you are constantly ducking out or making excuses as to why you can’t hang out. I learned to be upfront with my wealthier best friends about my financial challenges, and it felt like sharing my month-to-month lifestyle helped them understand an important part of my life—one that often contributed to my bouts of depression, or acting strangely. It’s very likely your friends don’t think of you as a “buzzkill” when you can’t go out. And both you and your friends can have your feelings hurt when you become distant or start cutting them out of your life overall.
So, talk about it. Not explicitly, if you don’t want, but generally. Make the conversation as intimate and comfortable for you as possible—talking about this sort of thing is easier in small group or one-on-one settings than at a large gathering. Invite one or two over at a time to your place and cook up an affordable, lovely pasta dish. Tell them to bring the white wine (or some beer). Let them know about your upcoming debt payoff accomplishment and ask them if it’s cool if you can only attend the most important upcoming group celebrations—elaborate birthdays, graduations, wedding events included—in order for you to make your goal sooner. (A friend might offer to pay for you in order for you to join an event, and that’s fine! Taking them up on the offer is fine, too, if you’re close like that.)
Have faith that your friends love you enough to accommodate for activities you select, and that they will not resent you for declining their invitations sometimes. As you mentioned, you are happy with your life right now. That is incredibly powerful and infectious; they will feel it up close.
Give yourself an emergency buffer.
It’s easier to feel comfortable spending money if you’ve designated an emergency savings account you can fall back on in case something unforeseen happens. Since you are clearly already a financially responsible person, you might actually enjoy seeing your accounts climb farther out of the red and into the black. As you pay off your student loan balance, you might be tempted to play catch-up, and want to start making it rain like you never had the chance to before. And rejiggering your budget means there will be a little more room for you to allocate money to line items like a travel fund, a fall fashion budget, or bomb-ass holiday gifts. But set up that emergency fund first.
Two-thirds of American don’t have $1,000 saved in case something unexpectedly bad happens. Try to avoid that for yourself by saving up between three and six times the equivalent of your rent cost to start, and then figure out if you want to add a little on top of that for some extra security. Do you have a retirement fund set up? Because that’s the next thing to think about before even thinking about any other big ticket items. Honestly, a lot of this stuff is just as much about practicing discipline and identifying what’s really valuable to you than the hope that one day you can become a millionaire by saving $5 a paycheck.
Be the planner.
Going out to a fancy meal, or treating yourself to a more costly jacket/TV/trip/whatever is truly a treat, but it’s just a fact that some of the most interesting and exciting activities in life are low-cost. Which is why spending money feels the best when it’s special, not when it’s a common occurrence. Centering your friendships around time spent together is hands down more fulfilling than the money you spend together. Take advantage of life’s natural way, by being proactive about planning friend-group activities yourself.
I’ve always found that long phone calls, silly inside jokes, or lazing around with friends on a nice day usually create some of the best, long-lasting bonds. As life gets hectic, those impromptu hangs are less frequent, less obviously available—so take control! There’s a ton of cost-efficient (or even free) things that you can look into for budget-friendly hangs: free summer concerts and movies, hiking, going to a minor league baseball game, attending an art gallery walk, free yoga classes, book clubs, and more. It’s easy to find a great, cheap taco stand, or pho joint, or a park with a barbecue pit where you can picnic almost anywhere in the U.S., and your friends will think you’re cool for finding it for them.
The most rewarding aspect of being the planner—outside of enjoying time with people you love—is ensuring that things can fit within your budget, and that no one else will feel their wallets being squeezed. By volunteering to plan, you can also do all the vacation-y stuff that you and your friends always talk about doing, but never activate on… but affordably. Think about day trips to the beach, camping trips, keeping tabs on cheap travel or discounted group rental deals. These are great getaways, and serve as the bonding, memory-creating events that you feel you might be missing out on.
Don’t confuse self worth with net worth.
If your pals know that you have been working really hard to pay off your debt and still center hangouts around overly expensive things, or just frequently make plans without asking if you can swing it, then that can get tricky. It’s probably reductive to call them uncaring people (they’re your pals by choice, after all). And it’s not necessarily wrong for wealthier friends to do what they want to do and can afford to do.
Nonetheless, it is easy for people to start to equate their self worth with net worth on both ends of the earnings spectrum. When someone reserves a $100/person dinner at a Zagat- or Michelin-rated restaurant, it might be tied so much to their own feelings about what they deserve as equated to what they earn—they might not even leave the mental space to consider that it might automatically cause an anxiety attack in others. It’s not surprising that the way a person’s lifestyle shifts with their earnings can affect their understanding of what’s normal for others— once someone has more room to spend freely, the price of admission to a concert or a rooftop bar can also seem correlative to its quality. As raises and promotions start to climb in this age-range, people can sometimes take extra pride in how hard they work, thinking what they spend should reflect what they have been able to achieve in financial success. That can be totally understandable (if not always reasonable), and you shouldn’t resent them for that. Just as you shouldn’t resent yourself, the work you do, or the responsible choices you’ve made.
Accept your different lifestyles.
I do have some bad news: it’s likely that there will continue to be some imbalance between your financial situation and that of your friends’ as you get older, and maybe forever. (The generational wealth gap is real.) Hopefully, some of the tension you feel about the disparity of your lifestyles will dissipate over time—things got better for me, and my friendships, after serious budgeting and hefty debt reduction (which led to its own bit of existential soul searching). One of the most sobering realizations that I came to was that the same friends who were throwing those $100/person dinners and planning resort vacations a few years ago are the ones buying houses with fancy countertops today. Those types of friends will continue to live on their budget, and you’ll continue to live on yours—and coming to terms with that will be surprisingly liberating. (Besides, being down on yourself ultimately affects how you’ll grow, or earn going forward.)
As long as you are feeling good about what you have going on, and have confidence in the financial stability you are building for yourself, you are on the right path. When you are in a place where you feel comfortable raising a family, investing in a purchase you’ve wanted to for a long while, or traveling the world post-retirement, I promise you won’t even remember that time you had to buy a Tecate instead of a fancy cocktail at the bar.
Alexis Stephens lives in Brooklyn and writes about cities, identity, pop culture and music. Her nom de internet is @pm_jawn.