For a significant chunk of my time in college, I thought of myself as the poor one in my friend’s group. I was paying my way through school and studying journalism, a field with shrinking job prospects, while my boyfriend was preparing to graduate debt-free thanks to a college fund created by his grandfather. I always felt like the one saying “no” to everything.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered another close friend had more debt, a longer degree path, and even worse job prospects after graduating. I was so focused on my own financial obstacles, it never occurred to me that someone else might be worse off.
It made me realize that money discrepancies are inevitable, but they don’t have to interfere with your friendships. If you know the potential issues that money discrepancies can create, it’s just a matter of avoiding them.
Make Plans First
When you’re the person with the least amount of money, it can be depressing to constantly turn down invitations to concerts, movies or road trips. Even if your friends say they understand, they may still take it personally when you’re always saying no.
Instead of waiting for them to come up with ideas, make your own plans for affordable events. Look at what your school offers. My university had free movies every weekend at the student union. It was easy to convince people to go to a free movie within walking distance of the dorms.
Lots of clubs have free or cheap activities, even if you’re not a member. If your friends like to play soccer or basketball, find an intramural league to join. Invite people over for a game or movie night. Make it a potluck dinner or ask people to bring snacks.
Learn to find good deals and free events by scouring your school newspaper, reading blogs about the city and looking at any flyers you see posted outside classrooms. If you become known as the friend who always has fun ideas, your pals won’t be tempted to suggest their own pricey activities.
Be as Honest as You Can
It’s an awkward subject to discuss, but being honest about your financial situation is usually the best solution. Your friends may not realize there’s a money discrepancy between you, or they may have forgotten. If new friends have joined the group, they may not be aware.
You can make this a casual group conversation or talk to people one-on-one. Tell them, “Hey, I don’t have as much money to spend on going out or going to restaurants. Do you mind if we do things that are a little cheaper?”
Your friends may be grateful for this reminder or even embarrassed that they’ve never considered your needs before. Some might be glad for the opportunity to cut back because they’ve been financing everything with a credit card or mooching off their parents.
Practice Gratitude for What You Have
When you have less money than your friends, it’s easy to be bitter about the discrepancy. You might feel annoyed that your roommate doesn’t have to get a part-time job during the school year or can take an unpaid internship without worrying about money.
Focusing on your misfortune won’t make you feel better – but learning to be grateful for what you have will.
According to Harvard researchers, being grateful makes you happier, and can even encourage you to foster other positive habits like exercise. Make gratitude part of your daily routine, like something you do after brushing your teeth or taking a shower. You can keep a notebook where you write down what you’re grateful for or just say it aloud.
It’s easy to be grateful for the big things, like having parents who love you or a close-friends group, but I’ve found being appreciative of the small things works even better. Try being grateful for a picturesque walk to class, your professor granting an extension on a term paper or for having a cozy apartment. The more you can appreciate the little details of your day-to-day, the more feelings of gratitude will permeate your life.
Treat Your Friends Well
When you have friends with more money than you, it can be tempting to avoid paying them back or splitting things evenly – but doing that can cause irreparable harm to your friendship. Losing friends definitely won’t make you feel any better.
Don’t expect your trust-fund friend to pick up the tab, even if she does have more money. The last thing you want is someone thinking you’re just using them to get a nice dinner, and you’ll feel better about yourself if you pull your own weight. If that friend does decide to pick up a check now and then, consider it icing on the cake.
It’s also important to consider that not everyone’s financial situation is as it seems. Your friend with wealthy parents could be paying their own way through school, while your friend from a low-income background might have their tuition covered by financial aid and scholarships.
Understand the Discrepancy Will Still Be There
Even if you follow all the strategies listed above, there still may be times when your friends want to do something you can’t afford. When that happens, you have two basic options: You can say no and explain why you’re declining, or you can try to find a way to mitigate the cost.
If they want to go to a concert, see if there are cheaper tickets available. Pick up extra hours at work or find a side hustle you can do for a couple weeks. Still can’t afford it? Find something else to do that night so you’re not wallowing while your friends are seeing Lizzo.
Saying no to a social event might seem like the end of the world, but we all have to do it eventually. Part of growing up is realizing that you won’t always be able to afford everything you want to do. But the more you learn to make responsible financial choices now, the less you’ll have to sacrifice in the future.