Rachael* became friends with Cassidy* last summer. They'd go out together all the time, talking about their jobs, friends and romantic interests. But whenever the check would come at the end of the night, Cassidy would pull out her wallet and Rachael's heart would start to race.
Her anxiety about the bill had nothing to do with her own finances, though. It was because of Cassidy's money issues.
"She would count every penny, and it would give me so much anxiety to see her overspend in my presence," Rachael, 24, told Mic. "I'd rather us just hang out at home than watch her stress out. It makes me feel terrible to face her anxiety over spending eight bucks on a gin and tonic."
After a stressful road trip full of haggling over itemized receipts, Rachael couldn't take it anymore. "The whole weekend was literally [Cassidy] keeping tabs of who bought us seltzers when we stopped at a gas station, because she really couldn't afford the trip," she said. "I was throwing money at her at some point because it was so uncomfortable for me. But I can't afford that either."
Welcome to the constant struggle of balancing finances with friendship.
An awkward conversation: There are a few taboos we're not supposed to talk about in polite company: death, religion, sex, our bowel movements. How much money we make ranks high on that list.
In a September 2015 Google Consumer Survey of 255 people, 69% of respondents told Mic that they don't openly discuss how much they make with their friends. Nearly half said that talking about money at all makes them uncomfortable. But money always comes up somehow, in some way — and when it does, it can get weird.
"Money mostly comes up when planning trips or splitting bills," one Google respondent told Mic. "It gets weird when people don't put in enough money, and others are expected to cover it. For some people, $20 to $30 doesn't matter, but for some it does."
In social circles made up of young adults of varying income levels, the wealth disparity can be a major source of tension. It's also incredibly common — so much so, there's a perfect example to be found in an episode of Friends, in which the gang wants to go to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert. While Monica, Chandler and Ross can afford tickets to the show, Joey, Phoebe and Rachel cannot, which ends up causing a rift in the group.
Money matters matter: To a certain degree, most people struggle to figure out what social activities they can and can't afford. But the issue is particularly applicable to millennials, in part because generationally speaking, we're not awesome at budgeting and saving money. One USA Today poll found that while 69% of millennials have savings accounts, 41% are concerned they aren't saving enough money for the future.
According to Zac Bissonnette, a personal finance expert and the author of several books on budgeting, that actually goes for most young adults, regardless of how much they make.For millennials especially, there's also another factor that compounds the woes of having a low paycheck: student loans.
"Often, the disparities in student loan payments affect disposable income more than salary differentials," he said. "Among recent grad friends, people in their 20s and early 30s, are their income disparities going to be huge? Probably not. But the differences in student loans might be."
Having to deal with financial difficulties is no fun — but it's even less fun to have to tell your friends you can't join them on Movie Night because you're broke. The stigma associated with money troubles often prevents people from speaking openly about it with their friends.
"It's really hard to have a money disparity. There's status associated with income," Bissonnette said. "You tend to end up with more debt and less savings if you have a social circle that makes more money than you do."
Money can hurt our friendships: According to our Google survey, many millennials will make vague references to their financial situations with their friends, telling them they're having a "rough month" or that they need a raise. But some just don't come clean about their money issues at all, which may lead to them spreading themselves too thin financially.
In Rachael and Cassidy's case, Cassidy's anxiety about spending outside her means was enough to cause a permanent rift in their friendship. "I've needed a break since our trip," Rachael said. "[The money issues] were too much."
They certainly weren't alone: A quarter of millennials Mic polled said that money had, at some point, negatively impacted their relationships with friends. In many instances, the stigma of falling on either end of the financial spectrum, whether they were "too poor" or "too rich," led many people to be dishonest about their lifestyles.
"I once had a roommate who was also my best friend at the time, and he couldn't make rent for four months in a row because he wanted to live the Drake lifestyle and blow all his income on strippers," one Google respondent told Mic. "He would end up asking me to cover rent. He would pay me back a couple weeks later, but it was still annoying and straining on our friendship."
Honesty is the best policy: When faced with an outing that's out of their price range, most millennials will straight-up tell their friends they can't afford it. A quarter of Google survey respondents told Mic they wouldn't shell out for an activity that was beyond their means.
"I've always been very upfront if I can't afford something," one respondent told Mic. "For instance, I'm trying to pay off some credit card debt right now, and when a friend invited me to go skydiving, I just told her that I was on a financial diet until my balance was under control. She said it was fine and went with other people."
According to Bissonnette, these types of blatant disclosures are unnecessary. He suggests that, instead of telling your friends it was a bad month and you can't afford to go to that Taylor Swift concert, you just change the subject. "Largely on the issue of talking about money with friends, I'd say talk about something else," he said. "It's just not a great thing to talk about."
Some friends, however, find that being honest with one another about money can make their relationships stronger. For 23-year-old Abigail*, who told Mic she's become extremely open about her income since she became financially independent, talking about money has helped her feel closer with her friends. She says that the trust required to open up to someone about money also helps people open up about other issues, "whether it's a matter of pride or problem."
"There's some cliche about money being 10% of a relationship when you have it and 90% of a relationship when you don't," Abigail said. "Most people I know, my peers and otherwise, think a lot about money and saving and spending, when they have money and when they don't. So why not talk about it? If another topic was on my mind, like a boy or something, I would of course talk about it and want to hear other opinions. Why is that weird with money?"
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.