I’m in my early 20s, live in Brooklyn, and make about $45,000 a year in publishing. After rent, student loan payments, and pretty basic living expenses, I don’t have much left over. But my best friend does, and she usually pays for me when we do things together. (Her family has money, and she has a job in finance and no student loans.) I’d be lying if I said it made me all that uncomfortable — it just doesn’t seem like a big deal to her. Whenever I’ve said I feel bad about it, she waves it off. But I’m worried about this long-term. Will it get to a point where she feels like I’m taking advantage of her? I don’t want to come off as a freeloader, but I don’t want our financial differences to get in the way of our friendship, either.
Having been on both sides of this equation, I’d say that for the most part, if someone wants to treat you to something, great! I can think of times (mostly in my early 20s) when friends with deeper pockets bought me drinks or dinner just because they could, and I’m still grateful. One friend even gave me a pair of shoes for my 20th birthday — shoes that I definitely couldn’t have afforded myself at the time — and I wore those things into the ground. The point is, your friend’s generosity sounds really nice, as long as you’re both on the same page about it. She offers, you say yes and thank you, she feels gracious and you feel gratitude, the end.
The thank-you part is key, though. To me, there’s a clear line between freeloading and polite acceptance, and it all depends on how you acknowledge the nice thing that’s being done for you. To figure out how you might do so, I consulted Lizzie Post, the co-president of the Emily Post Institute and an expert on modern etiquette and social taboos. “When you’re on the receiving end of someone’s generosity, enjoy it!” she says. “That’s part of the point.” Also, say thank you twice: “It’s important to say thank you when you accept the offer as well as afterward. Make sure you give that verbal thanks during the actual activity, and then send something written — a text or a note or email — later on.”
Furthermore, when your friend pays, don’t make a weak protest. “I hate the idea that people feel the need to falsely refuse,” says Post. “Either be true in accepting or true in refusing, but don’t feel like you have to fake a refusal before you accept.”
Unless, of course, you really do feel uncomfortable. I’ve seen plenty of situations where generosity gets weird, and morphs into something more transactional. Maybe you start to expect your friend to cover every dinner bill, or worry that you vaguely owe something in return — red flags. If you feel like you can’t turn down her invitations to hang out because you feel indebted to her, that’s also a problem. I can understand your anxiety about drifting apart if you can’t afford to do the things she wants to do, but her buying stuff shouldn’t be a central part of what makes your friendship function.
To find out how you should handle this, I called Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and counselor who researches female friendship at Northern Illinois University (she is also the author of Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing With the Friends Who Break Them). She explains that friendships usually include two types of support: emotional support (listening to your friend vent about a crappy day, etc.) and instrumental support (more tangible stuff like treating you to dinner or giving you a ride somewhere). “Friendships are almost like a shared economy,” she says. “I’ll invest something and you’ll invest something, based on what we can contribute. Plenty of us have friends who are in the lucky position of being able to pay for things and enjoy doing so. Ideally, we should be giving something back something that’s of equal value, even if it’s not the same commodity.”
But friendship capital isn’t tit-for-tat; it’s complicated, delicate, and ultimately unknowable. Degges-White describes it like a pot that you’re each contributing to: “At the beginning of a friendship, you’re each putting little things in the pot, and then upping the ante and seeing how the other person responds,” she says. “When you stop keeping tabs on how much or when someone put something in that pot, the friendship is solidified.”
Presumably, you aren’t tallying up every dollar your friend spends on you, just like she (hopefully) isn’t keeping track of the thoughtful things you’ve done for her. But the only way to know for sure is to do the obvious: talk to her. When you bring it up, be curious — it helps to frame tough conversations with a question. You could start with something general, like, “Do you ever feel like people take advantage of your generosity?” Then be honest that you sometimes get anxious about pulling your weight, and you don’t want her to resent you. People make false assumptions all the time about what’s going on in their friends’ heads; it’s only fair that you give her the opportunity to speak for herself.
And if she does admit that footing the bill for you gets annoying? Then it’s a good thing you asked. This is your chance to set some boundaries around the whole situation and find out how you can reciprocate more in a way that’s valuable to her. Maybe she’s worried that you’ll be less interested in hanging out with her if she stops paying for things, in which case you can put her mind at ease. Or maybe she’s not sure how she feels, but now that you’ve opened this channel of communication, you can keep talking about it.
Finally — and this may go without saying, but — you should find at least one thing to do together that doesn’t cost money. Sure, that can seem impossible in New York, but be creative. If she’s a good friend, she’ll be just as happy taking a walk with you as she would be anywhere else. And if she’s not, well … that gives you some insight on where your friendship stands.