Monday, May 08, 2006

Friends With Money

I speak not of the movie, but of the very real phenomenon.

From The New York Times, "Money Changes Everything":

If, as Samuel Butler said, friendships are like money, easier made than kept, economic differences can add yet another obstacle to maintaining them. More friends and acquaintances are now finding themselves at different points on the financial spectrum, scholars and sociologists say, thanks to broad social changes like meritocracy-based higher education, diversity in the workplace and a disparity of incomes among professions.

"The real issue is not money itself, but the power money gives you," said Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University, who studies issues of wealth and class. "Money makes explicit the inequalities in a relationship, so we work hard to minimize it as a form of tact."

Economic barriers to friendship have come about in part because other barriers have been broken down, sociologists say. College, where people form some of the most intense friendships of their lives, is a melting pot of economic differences. Students from country-club families and those on scholarships are thrown together as roommates, on athletic teams and in classes.

Once college friends leave campus, their economic status can diverge widely depending on their careers. While 20 years ago a young lawyer and a new college instructor might have commiserated about their jobs over coffee and doughnuts, today the lawyer would be able to invite the assistant professor out for a meal at a restaurant with two sommeliers and a cheese expert.

At New York University, for instance, instructors make $35,300 for the current academic year, up from $24,500 for the 1985-86 academic year, according to the American Association of University Professors. A first-year associate at a large New York law firm, however, can earn as much as $170,000 with a year-end bonus, compared with about $53,000, including bonus, in 1985.

"In New York City we're on the front lines of the rise in inequality in income because it's happening at the top half of the income distribution ladder," Professor Conley said. "The difference between the middle and the top has grown incredibly."

Although the wealthy can wall themselves off in buildings with doormen or in high-tax suburbs, other trends in society lead the affluent to brush up against the not-so-affluent. Gentrification, an urban movement from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn to downtown Los Angeles, moves the professional class into the neighborhoods of the working class. They mix when their children attend the same school or participate in athletic leagues.

The article goes on to explore the awkwardness of settling the bill, vacationing together, and keeping up with the Joneses. I don't think I would cry over not being able to afford Diesel Jeans or Issey Miyake perfume, but well, I guess I can imagine those who do.

Heck, I think I went to school with them. It's not always easy to compete with girls who regard designer handbags as a given. I have always been an extremely frugal, cheap-ass, broke girl with slightly expensive tastes with regard to certain things. I like nice leather goods, but I buy them at discount stores for say $30 when it was originally priced $90. I like expensive perfume, but save up to buy one every few years. I saved up for a year to buy my student discounted (and outmoded) 4G IPod Mini, a line they immediately stopped producing altogether 6 months later. I still haven't upgraded. It's a treat to eat out period, and I do that about twice a month, tops. Just good sandwiches and burritos, Indian food at a cheap dhaba, etc. But because I lived in Los Angeles, I know what good sushi is, and so I can't go back to bad sushi--which means I eat sushi about once a year, again saving up for that meal. Going to four $30 Disney Concert Hall recitals meant that for a year, I didn't see any movies--my entertainment budget being thus diverted, I just didn't have any left to entertain myself in the movie theatres. Every nice thing I have, I bought myself with money I saved from working. Most of the jewelry I have I made, buying my own freshwater pearls and cloisonne beads and stringing them myself. I embellish my own on sale at The Gap cardigans with glass beads.

Does anyone else think like this? I know so many people who maxed out credit cards to go on expensive vacations during spring break. Me, I went to Yosemite one year, $18 to reserve the camping site. The following year I stayed at a friend's parents in Santa Cruz, hiking for free everyday among the redwoods. I don't think one should live an ascetic, joyless life. But I do believe that it's more fun when you really appreciate how you ended up with that designer handbag on a beach in Tahiti.

I turned down many an invite simply because I was too broke to afford eating out, and I definitely didn't have the nicest clothes in law school. But I had style! I learned how to cook! And I definitely resented it when my suggestion for burgers was upgraded to something Zagat rated. And I do not understand why people "split the check" when they are drinking Cabernet and you're drinking tap. But whatever. This is when you realize that friendship is more than just the destination or the activity around which the socialization is centered. If if was really about the company, I think that the same conversation could be had over burgers, and it wouldn't be as much of an issue as to who pays and how to split the check. You could have a frank talk about it and move on.

Interesting to me about the article is how it has more to do with income and socionomic class, but barely mentions race or gender dynamics. I imagine that if you grew up poor like me, you'd be more sensitive to the "whoa, I could buy groceries with how much this lunch costs!" complaint rather than "oh, but the chef is just briliant!" retort. And if socioeconomic status is a proxy for race, well then, there you go. It goes in all directions though. Growing up a poor Asian in an immigrant family is definitely different than being an affluent Asian in a 3rd generation or parachute family (parachute: when the wealthy parents stay back in Taiwan and send their kids to school in America). Also, I wonder how wage disparity between men and women figure into this? How do gender relations and stereotypes fit into the question of who pays for the expensive meal?

College, the great democratizer and melting pot, is great for exposing trust fund babies to scholarship kids and vice versa. But afterwards, it's all about the career choice. College has allowed me to become close friends with a high-flying screenwriter (script picked up by Warner Brothers, she's met with Ron Howard), a journalist, a sociology professor to be, a schoolteacher, and civil servant for the Department of Defense. All have different socioeconomic backgrounds, all have different spending habits, and all have different levels of income. The amount we spend on things, and what we spend it on, does not necessarily correlate with our incomes or professions. I think we are all spendthrift in some ways, and frugal in others. Oddly enough, out of all of us I am the one with the designer handbag (half price on Ebay!). And we all understand when one of us asks to go out for hamburgers instead of cashew encrusted tilapia with mango salso. It's not about what we eat, it's about who we're with.


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