Can relationships work across socio-economic levels? A reader sent me a direct message the other day on Instagram asking if I would do a post about this.
I think this reader was not wondering something like, “Hey, will it work for me to be friends with someone who has less money than I do?” Rather, I think she was struggling more with the difficulties presented by being friends with someone with much more money than she does.
Also, I don’t think she was asking about romantic relationships; she’s referencing friend and family relationships. And I gather that she was having a bit of trouble not feeling less-than or resentful about the disparity between her and her wealthier relations.
My experiential credentials
I don’t tend to mix with people who have personal yachts or anything, but I do definitely have family members who have more money than I do.
And in the leaner years of my early adulthood, almost everyone I knew had more money than I did!
(When you have four kids and are living on around $35K a year, that tends to be the case. Ahem.)
So, I have a little bit of experience with this.
The level of disparity matters
I would say that I struggled with this inequality way more during the super-lean years. We were not far above the poverty level, and at that point, finances cause a lot of stress. You have to agonize over nearly every tiny purchase, and a lot of things and experiences are out of reach.
Every time you turn around, there’s another thing you can’t afford, and it’s not yacht-level stuff!
I can remember being around a group of moms who were talking about their plans to buy more produce, eat more nuts and go organic, and how it’s really not all that much more money, and I remember thinking that such a plan was out of reach for me.
I couldn’t even afford regular nuts, other than peanuts!
This type of thing is exhausting after a while, and this exhaustion can easily turn into sadness when you look around and see other people who have even a little bit more financial cushion.
At $35K a year, $50K sounds like positive bliss!
Now, even on my own, I have more financial wiggle room than I did back then, and finances are not causing me a terrible amount of stress. I’ve got what I need.
So, when I look at someone who has more money than I do, I really am not bothered.
And I gotta say, I am very, very happy to be able to buy lots of produce. And nuts other than peanuts. 😉
(This reminds me of the way that money DOES increase happiness quotients when it gets a person out of poverty. But beyond that, more money doesn’t correlate strongly with more happiness.)
The attitudes of the richer people matter
When I think about people like my brother, or my aunt and uncle that I visited this summer in Wisconsin, I am reminded that attitudes are what really matter.
These family members have waterfront homes, boats, jet-skis, paddleboards, and such, but they are so kind and generous; they share what they have.
My aunt and uncle host various family members all summer long at their cabin in Wisconsin, feeding them, taking them out on the boat, and sharing all their water toys.
My brother routinely shares his boat and jet skis with family and friends.
My parents have spent decades sharing their pool with family, friends, and neighbors.
I always get the sense that they all think of their possessions as things to share and enjoy with others, not as things to flaunt.
So. I think when people with money also have a generous and kind attitude, it’s very easy to be around them, even when you have less money.
On a less-positive note, I’ve written before about an experience I had at a baby shower when I was 23.
You can read about it here, but basically, I was Poor Mom, and this lady that we’ll call Wealthy Mom related to me in a way that made me feel super out of place.
I don’t think the disparity in our incomes was the problem, though; it was definitely an attitude issue.
The attitude of the less-rich person matters
It’s a little paradoxical, but sometimes those of us who are less wealthy can develop an attitude that looks down on people with more money, as though everyone with more money has screwed-up values and is overworked and unhappy.
Sometimes we say things like, “Well, they may have more money, but at least my family is happier.”
Or, “They may have a big house, but our family values what’s important.”
Or, “Yeah, they have a lot of stuff, but it was given to them. I’m only impressed with people who work hard for their success.”
It is true that some people with money do work too much and do place too much value on material things, and I’m sure some of them are unhappy as well. Some people definitely had their wealth handed to them.
But blanket statements aren’t helpful (they’re not true all of the time, for every person), and besides, making yourself feel better about your situation by criticizing someone else? That might give you a short boost, but I really don’t think it’s a sustainable path to peace and contentment.
Your contentment level matters
If you bring discontentment, envy, or a feeling of less-than into a situation or relationship, you are probably going to struggle if there’s economic disparity in a relationship. But if you bring an attitude of contentment, you’ll probably feel peaceful about someone else’s riches.
I currently have enough money to meet my needs. I do not stress about being able to pay my rent each month, I have enough in savings to cover unexpected expenses, and I’m going to be able to pay for my schooling.
But it would certainly be possible for me to frame that another way, a way that would make me feel less-than.
- I’m currently renting instead of owning.
- My car is over 10 years old, and it’s a minivan (which is arguably not the sexiest vehicle ever.)
- Most of my house is furnished with free hand-me-down furniture.
- My health insurance situation is going to become more challenging in 2023.
- My financial future is rather up in the air; I’m in mid-life, and the financial plan I had is going to be dismantled. No matter how the dust settles, this change is not going to be a financial upgrade.
If I focused on those aspects of my life, I might feel a little resentful around other people who have more than I do. But honestly, I feel pretty content with my situation. I have what I need, plus a little more.
If someone else has more than me, that’s ok. I am at peace with what I have, and no one else’s financial situation needs to have an effect on my own contentment.
In summary: I think relationships between people of different income levels can work, but a lot depends on:
- the level of disparity
- the attitudes of both parties
Alrighty. I’m 1200 words into this, and that’s probably enough of my perspective. I’d love to hear yours!