Everyone knows that feeling of being in a large group when the bill comes. Do you split it equally, even though you know some people deliberately just ordered the side salad and tap water, or do you pull out the calculator and try to work out what each person owes?
If you’re one of the higher earners in your friendship group, then chances are you won’t mind splitting it and subsidising the black miso cod. But if you’re one of the lower earners, then paying double for your side of chips is no easy ask. Especially when no one bothers to ask you if it’s an issue.
Most of us can relate to having a friendship wage gap – where financial situations have a direct impact on social lives and relationships. And, regardless of where we fall on the spectrum, most of us will understand the awkwardness of it all. It’s painful, it’s uncomfortable and, according to a new study, it could be the reason why people are being cancelled on and losing friends.
A survey conducted by Vivatic for Expert Market found that out of 1,000 polled, half of “low earners” said they've cancelled plans with friends because of fears it will end up too expensive, while 39% of “high earners” have deliberately stopped being friends with people because of this financial incompatibility.
Almost half of these higher-earners intentionally look for friends who earn a similar amount to them, while lower-earners said money impacts friendships more than geographical logistics, political beliefs or having children.
This might sound extreme, but for many, it’s just the way life is. I’ve personally been on both sides. While I’m on a writer’s salary, some of my closest friends are lawyers and doctors whose earnings are in the six figures. Like so many of us, I’ve had to turn down invitations to hen dos, birthday dinners with £60 set menus and weddings abroad.
But at the same time, I’ve also had to remember that I don’t have issues paying my bills each month and I can afford regular holidays. My friends in more unstable creative industries don’t have that luxury – and, as one of them once reminded me, it’s not helpful for me to moan about a £60 set menu when they’re still living in a flatshare with five other people (I am privileged enough to live alone).
Transparency is key to eradicating global gender pay gaps, but it’s also the best way to handle friendship pay gaps
“For me, the worst part is when my wealthier friends just don’t even acknowledge that it might be hard for me,” says Tash, 32, an actress who is struggling to make ends meet. “I don’t mind turning down brunches or whatever – I just wish that we could talk about it, and they’d actually ask me what works for me.”
This is the crux of the issue. In Britain, talking about money is still a taboo. We are seven times more likely to tell a stranger if we have had an STI than reveal our income, while 8.3 million people haven’t told their partners about their debts and, according to the Vivatic study, both high and low earners agree “you shouldn’t discuss how much you earn with friends”. For women, it’s even more taboo: 80% say they’ve avoided discussing it with family and friends, while 32% feel uncomfortable discussing it altogether.
This reluctance to speak up about money is often referenced as one of the many reasons why the gender pay gap still exists (along with unconscious bias, workplace discrimination, lack of women in STEM, etc), but it’s also why the friendship pay gap is such an issue. If you don’t talk about the problem at play, then it’s bound to lead to pent-up frustration. The easiest way to broach the gap and start repairing those fractured friendships is simply by discussing salaries, monthly budgets and realistic dinner options.
But even people like Tash, who wish their friends would start doing this, admit they’re also guilty of avoiding the topic. “I suppose I haven’t really tried to talk about the difference in our salaries,” she says. “I’m too embarrassed. And I always thought it was on my friends to bring it up.”
Outside of the UK, it’s different. I used to live in Barcelona, and there, discussing money is the norm. I know exactly how much my friends earn per month because they’ve all told me (without my asking). Taxi drivers have volunteered their salaries (also without my asking) and on dates, it’s unthinkable for a man to pick up the bill, because why wouldn’t everyone just pay for themselves?
Their attitude to money is so much more practical than our prudish reserve in the UK, and it makes a difference. At group dinners, everyone pays their own amount and no one is uncomfortable about the gaps in salaries. If someone says they earn 1,300 euros a month, and another person adds they’re on 3,000, the response is “oh, that’s a great salary, well done”. There’s no envy or comparison – money is treated as a practical necessity, not an indicator of individual value.
The same happens in other countries, like Sweden, where everyone’s incomes are public information. It’s easy to find out what your friends/colleagues/neighbours earn, and so there is less of a taboo around money. It also seems no coincidence that their unadjusted gender pay gap is 13.3%, while the UK lags behind at 21%.
Transparency is key to eradicating global gender pay gaps, but it’s also the best way to handle friendship pay gaps. This gap is one that’s always going to exist, but, at the same time, it doesn’t have to signal the end of a friendship. All it means is that you need to have a conversation about money and start being honest about *why* you can’t go to their birthday dinner.