Do I, should I, talk to my friend about the way she discusses money?
September 20, 2016 11:07 PM   Subscribe

A good friend has alienated me and several other close friends due to her compulsion to tell us how much she spends on things. She's quite wealthy but seems to have forgotten that not everyone has her kind of money to spend on luxury items. Should I talk to her about it? Or is this an issue of insecurity I need to keep working on within myself?

When L and I first met in our early twenties, she endeared me to her with her sweetness, loyalty, and reliability in a time of crisis. She also always had a tendency to put her foot in her mouth and could be maddeningly, cluelessly self-absorbed and self-congratulatory, but no one is perfect! I have adored her for nearly 12 years. Recently L has been promoted several times at her lucrative job and now, after years of barely making ends meet, she earns a LOT of money. This has caused some new and unnerving problems.

When L began racking up a lot of disposable income, she lost sight of the income disparity between herself and others. She would often beg to go out for drinks or order expensive take-out food during my lean times and I would repeatedly have to remind her that I couldn't blow $100 on trifles. Often she would insist on paying for the entire evening and I was forced to firmly decline, which was awkward and embarrassing, OR she would convince me to acquiesce, which was even more horrible because I felt like I was her plaything for the evening. To her credit, she sensed that I didn't like being put in that position and backed off of this tactic.

However, she still talks ad nauseam about how much things cost . She often phrases it in a "can you believe how much X was?!" which is frustrating, because X frequently = non-essentials like shoes, vacations, cab rides, hotel rooms, etc. The self-congratulatory aspect of her personality has become quite prominent, as she justifies these purchases as proof of her professional success. While I'm not a dummy and would expect her to be able to buy much more expensive things than I can, I get anxious and depressed when she names these lavish prices. The other complication is that L can be extremely generous with her money, and often buys sweet gifts that she knows I would never buy myself. I am touched by the thought she puts into these purchases but also feel complicit in her spending. I feel stuck between wanting to refuse the gift and not wanting to hurt her feelings. I find myself resenting her, dreading our interactions together, and comparing my own comparatively moderate lifestyle to hers. It's a really terrible feeling. I dislike myself and I dislike my good friend.

I was recently in therapy and discussed L and the feelings she induced in me. My therapist helped me understand why I feel the need to relentlessly compare myself to her, and clarified how my own history of growing up impoverished has contributed to this reaction. I have made progress in being kinder to myself (and, at least in my head, to L), but the resentment hasn't disappeared. Every time L and I hang out, she mentions an extravagant purchase she's made and once again I'm left feeling deflated and inferior.

I have other friends who are equally or more wealthy than L who do not induce these awful feelings, so I do think there is something specific about L's behavior that really irks me. Our other friends have told L about how her conversations unwittingly make them feel uncomfortable and resentful. Her reaction is often a mixture of genuine cluelessness, compunction, and defensiveness. Sometimes she understands how she is behaving insensitively and sometimes it goes completely over her head. None of these conversations have generated much improvement. What's left are several friendships where people feel ambivalent towards her and yet don't know how to address it.

The event that precipitated this question is that L and her husband are now buying a house and the price-dropping has hit a fever pitch. It's exhausting to maintain a straight face while she chatters on about custom Amish-built bookshelves and artisanal countertops or whatever. I want to feel happy for her but instead I can barely withstand the onslaught of conspicuous consumption. I hate that I feel weary and on-edge instead of happy for this new development in her life, especially because she has been supportive and ecstatic when I have achieved my own exciting milestones.

I don't know how to broach this conversation with L myself, or if it's even appropriate. I have never breathed a word of my own feelings about her behavior, and I think she'd understandably feel blindsided after years of friendship in which I've pretending everything was fine. Additionally, I don't want L to feel like she can NEVER talk about money, as it's a pretty universally relevant topic for friends and I have certainly brought up my own financial stressors to her. I am also seriously considering that this is mainly an issue of insecurity that I need to work on within myself, with a therapist, anywhere that is not my friendship with L.

How would one even draw such a line? If you and a friend faced such a strain in your interactions, how did you approach it, if at all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If I were a true friend, I would want to know when I get on my friend's nerves. Talk about it. There's no other way. If she doesn't like it, there's a new situation to react to...

You could say something like "look, I'm coming from a totally different place financially, and if I'm entirely frank, talking about lots of money makes me really twitchy. So tell me about how those Amish-built bookcases are made..."
posted by Namlit at 4:24 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I never talk about money and I hate when people do it. Like, I HATE it. Can you maybe tell her something like this sometime since you are such great friends otherwise?

"Friend, I've come to realize that I don't like discussing money or how much things cost. Is it OK if we work on taking this subject out of our conversations? I've notice it makes me unhappy if I discuss the subject, is it ok if I remind you or gently change the subject whenever it comes up? Thanks!"

Then make a list of new topics and use those to change the topic every single time she mentions money. Just start doing it. Make it about you, not her.

Please stop discussing money with your friends, generally. It's just gross.
posted by jbenben at 4:37 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wonder if you could draw on the insights you have gained from therapy to frame a change as something she can do to support you, rather than as something she should change about herself because it's objectively annoying? (I would also find it annoying, but you already know that lots of people do - the question is how to change the situation without damaging the friendship that you value so much.)

Could you tell her a couple of things - anything you feel comfortable disclosing - about your childhood experience and the way it makes you feel during conversations about spending? Then you can ask her to limit how much she tells you about the details of her spending, because it stirs up those old uncomfortable feelings for you.

This requires more from you than just telling her she should stop, without more, but the advantage is that she won't have to do the painful work of accepting a new and unflattering picture of herself. She won't have to see herself as clueless, annoying, or blind to her own privilege - whereas, if you don't make the problem very personal to you, she may sense those ideas somewhere in the background of what you're saying even if you don't use those words, and tighten up defensively or be hurt in a way that damages your friendship. Instead, she can see it as a nice kind selfless thing she can do for you specifically, without changing her own self-image or thinking that she was doing anything objectively bad before.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:14 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Don't run yourself down for feeling this way about her behavior. You are not relentlessly making these comparisons; she is relentlessly talking about her totally optional spending.

This is a dilemma because bringing up what she is doing is, in effect, drawing attention to her bad manners, since according to traditional etiquette, talk about money is a big no-no. But on the other hand, secrecy about money causes its own problems and in fact perpetuates class inequality. How many of us innocently went to a college or chose a career where a good percentage of people had inherited wealth and no student loans and struggled to deal with the resulting disparity because society (US, I am assuming) conspires to make us ignore that some people are born on third base? I think people are getting more willing to talk about money today, and that's a good thing. But she's still being a jerk.

I think you should have one more talk with her about your financial disparities and how you feel about it, but not from the point of view that there is something wrong with you. More from the point of view that it's an issue in your relationship and you want to try and figure out why it is such a big issue. Maybe a thought experiment-- what would your relationship look like if money never came up?

Also, I hate being told to practice gratitude and generosity but it helps me in these situations. I have a lot of extended family and step family with major money. One group in particular make a big deal out of their money; the mom has a blog that's basically about being rich. Whenever I get an update from these people I make myself think about the blessings in my own life. In your case maybe, you might like some of the things she has but would you like to be her?
posted by BibiRose at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

You're not wrong to feel the way you do. Talking about money and how much things cost is really bad form precisely because you never know how much money someone else has.

The challenge is that people are supposed to learn these lessons from their parents when they're growing up rather than from their adult friends.

I don't know what the answer here is. She obviously likes talking about these things, and that's the way she builds rapport with others. I think you can either learn to deal with this as one of her less endearing personality quirks or realize that you two have drifted apart as your lives went in different directions.
posted by deanc at 6:32 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you should have one more talk with her about your financial disparities and how you feel about it, but not from the point of view that there is something wrong with you. More from the point of view that it's an issue in your relationship and you want to try and figure out why it is such a big issue. Maybe a thought experiment-- what would your relationship look like if money never came up?

I was going to say, forget it, others have tried and failed, but I think this is really good, and has a chance of getting somewhere. (Although doubtful your friend's most impulsive expressions could be totally corrected, sounds like that's a personality thing.) Yeah, maybe really open it up to her, tell her you appreciate her (and exactly why) but find the kinds of moments you've described challenging, and ask - what does she think about it? Because it sounds like her heart's in the right place, she means well - her gifts are just meant to be gifts - but simply can't get why inequality like this can feel bad. Maybe if she thinks through it as an exercise, she'll find her way there? Don't know, worth a try.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:06 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the problem is that there is different etiquette, generally, at different class levels, about how money is discussed. Your friend was once severely struggling, and now is doing very well! But her class background of discussing money is still set on "struggling". While it's common for the wealthy not to discuss money, this doesn't usually apply to poor people who "made good".

It's pretty common, when you're struggling, to complain about how much things cost, and to treat your friends when you're temporarily flush. If your friend had had a temporary windfall and treated you to drinks or takeout for a week and then gone back to struggling, you probably would have been more okay with it.

The thing that seems like it bothers you is not necessarily the incidents, but that you think it's always going to be this way - with your former struggling friend somehow on top, while you continue to struggle. It makes you feel bad that you're not in her position.

But this is really about you - it sounds like she's being sweet and generous and wants to make you happy, to share her bounty because she loves you. And even if she didn't mention the price tag of the artisanal Amish custom shelves, I don't think it would make it that much better.

I thing it's worth discussing with her that you feel bad because she makes more money than you, but not in a way where you come at it as though she's done something wrong - for her class culture, she hasn't. If you frame it as a problem you are having, she will probably try to be supportive and help.
posted by corb at 7:18 AM on September 21, 2016 [26 favorites]

This sounds like it's definitely something she's doing and not the simple fact that she's making lots of money and enjoying it. I dunno if validating that is helpful, but that's my read.

I've been on both sides of this, and it doesn't have to be weird to make lots more and share (by picking up the tab more often than everyone else) or to be the "poorer" guy at the table and have your tab covered by the guy who makes 10x more. It's all in how it's done, and the personality of the person doing it. (And, truly, isn't that kind of sharing the essence of friendship, even on the playground when the only asset is how many cookies you have?)

I have a friend who makes serious money, but he didn't always. He's typically been pretty careful with his money, too -- lots of people in his industry do silly, splashy things with their cash, but he's been much more measured. If he decided to buy something, he'd get a VERY NICE instance of whatever it was, but only after lots of research and balancing cost and value, if you know what I mean. It wasn't until his late 30s that he started occasionally spending SERIOUS money on things -- ie, well beyond what normal people can ever consider -- but with him it comes off as "man, couldn't happen to a nicer guy!" and not envy or awkwardness or whatever.
posted by uberchet at 7:18 AM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

She's probably overdoing it and if she is being tiresome clearly ask her to tone it down. But there were also a couple of points in your post that suggest you judge 'consumerism' or find it very upsetting or uncomfortable beyond that. You may want to look at that aspect a bit more with your therapist. From the points around the house in particular I am not sure that her not mentioning the cost of things would even be enough. It seems to be tied to her spending money. I mean buying a house, moving, making a new home yours is exciting stuff people like to share with their friends even if it is very expensive. Would it be enough if she just talks about her plans but leaves out the cost?

To give you an insight in how your friend may be viewing her generousity - I am fortunate like your friend in earning good money and occasionally treat people as a result. It wasn't always that way, my family never starved but never had money for much discretionary expensiture, eating out etc. When I treat people I found that most of the more mid income people seem to enjoy that, the lower income bracket puts up the sort of resistance you mention - clearly there are exceptions but it was noticeable trend. So with people I know to be sensitive about having money spent on them I am guided by what they seem to be comfortable with, irrespective how financially equitable it may be. And I let them pick activities, restaurants etc so they can control impact on their finances. And I don't talk about how much I spend on my home or holidays or whatever it may be to anybody unless asked.

But picking up the tab normally doesn't register on my credit card statement. And my thought process is that my friends and family make allowances for the effects of a very involved job such as being flexible about when and where we meet, overlooking the fact that I am incapable of posting birthday cards and presents on time or incapable of visiting and not working 'a bit' and that I am always late. I can recipricate by picking up the tab and giving treats because I have more money than time at this point.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:23 AM on September 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

She's being who she is. You have every right to react to her behavior with disgust, alarm, shock, and repulsion...but you are not going to change her. And you don'the need to. You can talk to her, but it will simply transfer that uneasy feeling from the pit of your stomach to hers. Instead of doing that, I'd recommend doubling down on developing a set of skills that make that uneasy feeling go away. When she talks about money, try to understand why she does it. I guarantee that it isn't something she does just to make you feel bad. Spend some time trying to process what those complaints mean, and where the behavior really comes from. When it reemerges, remind yourself of this reason. Then let go of your reaction, smile, and try to put yourself in her place...without comparing her to yourself. If you react with compassion, then it will be impossible for your to get upset.
posted by Mr. Fig at 7:27 AM on September 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think it's okay to tell anyone--but especially a friend--that you prefer not to discuss money, including how much anything costs. It's up to her whether she respects that preference, and up to you to decide whether you want to be around her as much if she doesn't respect that.

I think the key is to keep the conversation light. Don't blindside her with years of simmering resentment boiling over and it shouldn't be a big deal (though of course it is to you.)

One insight I've had about my own financial resentment: if a friend has always been better off than me, I don't seem to care when they start going on about their new house as my crappy apartment literally crumbles around me, because some people are just better off. If a friend started out where I am, though, then surpasses me, I do get jealous, and I know that's my issue, but it's a real feeling.
posted by kapers at 7:43 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this, I think. I suspect that she is being a little obnoxious and you are being a little oversensitive. I definitely had a friend whose house hunt with an eye poppingly huge budget completely took over her life. If you think it's bad now wait until she buys a place and "has to" remodel and "update" a bunch of perfectly fine stuff that has plenty of life left in it. I was grinding my teeth with envy and annoyance listening to her.

On the other hand, I've been much more successful than many of my friends since then, and I appreciate now how hard that can be to navigate. She may be trying ham-handedly to show you that she's still a regular person who looks at price tags. In offering to pay for your evening she's not trying to treat you as a "plaything," she's trying to have a nice time with someone she likes without that person worrying about funds. You seem aware that if you were totally secure with yourself this might not bug you so much. Talk to her about it, but also try to be generous with her. Making a class transition isn't easy and she may feel like she doesn't know how to talk to anyone about money anymore.
posted by the marble index at 7:57 AM on September 21, 2016 [18 favorites]

Your discomfort is valid, and you would be perfectly reasonable to ask her to nix the money talk when you're together.

However, I do disagree with the principle that talking about money is inappropriate between friends. Keeping money things quiet--especially when it informs almost every decision we make, and is often the reason why we have to turn down a fun vacation or decline to chip in for a group gift--can be toxic and implies moral judgments. On its own, a higher income does not make anyone a better or worse person. But by not talking about money, we keep it attached to shame and secrecy. There's research that suggests our culture of silence is a contributor to the wage gap.
posted by witchen at 8:52 AM on September 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

Make her feel bad about lording it over you. Say "if I had 10% of your budget...", or "My mom taught me to not mention prices...".

Demand equal time. After you've talked about the house hunt for 40 minutes, say 'Let's talk about something else...". If/when she returns to the same tired topics, say "Covered that...".
posted by at at 9:48 AM on September 21, 2016

I do think this is your insecurity and while you can talk with her about it -and I think you should - I think you should be honest about it being your insecurity. She's your friend and from what you're describing, she's being very honest with you about her situation and success. There tends to be a lot of shame around talking about success, especially for women. There's also shame when it comes to money. She's treating you like a person on equal footing with her, someone she doesn't have to hide her success or wealth from. If she were less open or honest about it with you, if she were to downplay her success at this point, then a certain kind of dishonesty begins to appear.

I feel that Corb said is right on: "Your friend was once severely struggling, and now is doing very well! But her class background of discussing money is still set on "struggling"". Talk with her about it.

But, nothing you wrote here suggests to me she's flaunting her success or wealth or being demeaning or condescending about it.
posted by wxysock at 10:53 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

actual rich people tend to be pretty quiet about this stuff.

Expounding on that, I think that people who talk about money are trying to manage the guilt and discomfort with making more money than they are used to. Especially the discomfort with how quickly you can adjust to that income level.

I have a bunch of anxiety, so let's not be surprised that I have plenty about money. I like having the ability to talk about it with friends. But it is a common anxiety, and can be difficult to discuss without triggering their own anxiety. And triggers aren't universal, so you can't expect to know what they are. I think this is why we default to "Not Talk About It", which I find potentially equally unhealthy.

So it's a tricky negotiation. Being open about what the conversation does to you, without trying to place blame on her, typically gets the best results.
posted by politikitty at 11:59 AM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

In an episode (maybe #2) of the Bad With Money podcast, the host visits a 'financial psychologist' and discusses money anxiety. The psychologist said that transitional times are most stressful -- obviously transitioning down in income is challenging, but even ~moving on up~ to a higher income class. Even before they fully realize their own emotions, people are afraid (sometimes rightly) that they'll lose their friends and social support because they're leaving that financial level.

I agree that your friend sounds reallllly obnoxious with the incessant price/spending talk. But it does seem like a subconscious attempt to bring you in, so that she doesn't lose your companionship. What if, at least, when she starts mentioning prices of this that and the third latest thing she purchased, you break in and ask her kindly to just... not mention the specific numbers? To be so number-focused outside of business is really gauche, and she should learn that... or at least have the chance to hear it from a dear friend, whether she processes it or not. Then you'll have said your piece at least.

I think she could get across the point of her story just by saying, "it was expensive!" Or, "got it on sale!" And you or anyone else can relate to that, then move on to next topic. (I'm guessing the stories of shopping/spending become repetitive, less interesting or substantive without the price data points. Maybe she'll realize that and start to talk about... um, interesting stuff?)
posted by cluebucket at 6:34 PM on September 21, 2016

I kinda agree with Mr. Fig on this: "You can talk to her, but it will simply transfer that uneasy feeling from the pit of your stomach to hers." I'm kinda biased today because I got sat down again and told what's wrong with me again and what personality traits I have that severely rile this person. I have tried and tried to please them and it's just not working--I keep being annoying little me, and anything I try to do differently isn't pleasing either, and I just end up going back to being my old awful self by default somehow anyway. We're gonna keep having this conversation, apparently, and I stupidly thought we were done with the Things Jennifer Does Wrong talks. Hahahahahanope. Eventually this relationship is going to end and maybe it's all for the best, because I just irritate the person and it's not getting better and I just feel sick to my stomach and beat myself up constantly over the situation and apologize for being me...and then get told to stop it, that's annoying :P

It sounds like you've tried talking to her and the same thing happens with her like it does with me: she ends up doing the annoying behavior again. You can try again, and make her feel shitty and nervous about how to communicate with her, and then give it one last try to see if she can stop. You can try some kind of animal behavioral technique to smack her down in conversation every time she says the words "how much it cost." Or you can just drift apart. She probably is what she is, and maybe you're just better off to let it go.

In retrospect, I kinda can't blame people who have done this to me in the past. It's easier to drop someone than it is to try to get someone to stop being their annoying selves. This moneyed her is the new her, and it is what it is. She's always had some annoying traits from the getgo to you and this money thing just magnifies it, but she's always been like that. If you can't take it any more, then drift away from her.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:01 PM on September 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is your issue.

When you were both poor did you discuss the prices of stuff? I bet you did. When I was poor I discussed the prices of stuff all the time. A large chunk of my life was taken up with finding stuff that costed less or lasted better or did more. Now I'm wealthy (because of who I married only) I still do. I am still me. Even if it turns out later to have been a permanent upturn in fortune, having not "come from money" it still feels like a transient windfall to me. I still want to reflexively treat friends because they once treated me, I still want to talk about The Thing We Bought this month as I did when I was poor. It's just The Things cost more nowadays.

I was in a mixed group today when someone said to me "Is your dress from Boden?". The person on the other side of me snorted and looked away. "It is," I replied, "i got it off eBay second hand, I love it!". The asker was clearly revolted and the snorter have me a broad grin. Would the snorter have smiled if she knew I could buy Boden new if I wanted? Would the asker have been happier with me if she knew that? These people have issues. Beyond the gratitude that I wasn't there naked it makes no difference where my dress came from or how many people wore it before me. None. They feel it speaks if me in some essential way. I guess I like patterns with a lot if blue in them. Beyond that it is all in their heads.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 2:14 PM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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