THE BLOG
07/25/2015 06:10 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2016

Friends and Envy: When Your Friends Have More -- and When They Have Less

Luba Nel

Other people's wealth. Here in the U.S., we're seemingly obsessed. The idea of it inspires movies and books, sells magazines, and makes headlines. It provokes endless gossip.

One reason for that may be because the difference between those who have, and those who have less, has never been starker. The gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is the widest it has been since the Great Depression. And our social lives may be suffering as a result: There are, after all, few things that can come between friends as easily as money can.

There's a difference between a celebrity or real estate tycoon who has more than we do and a neighbor or friend. Having pals who are well off, even if they don't flaunt it, can force those with less to confront their own thoughts about money -- how much they have versus how much they may want, or think they want -- far more so than they might be inclined to do if they lived in a bubble. Studies show the temptation to compare ourselves to others financially is nearly impossible to resist, and intensely impactful on our feelings of self-worth. A 2005 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that "relative income" -- that is, how much you feel you earn in comparison to others -- is more important in determining self-esteem than what you actually earn. Subjects who thought their friends and neighbors earned more than they did felt unhappier than those who thought they were their network's higher earners.

What's tricky is that whatever we know, or think we know, about other people's finances is largely speculative. Which means that many people are basing their self-esteem on the theoretical. This may lead them to spend beyond their means, whether to keep up with others or project a certain status, or simply out of unconcern for the concept of debt. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when subjects were made to feel a lack of social power, they were willing to pay more for high-status goods, presumably to compensate for lower status. And yet, we don't really know what's going on in the bank accounts of others: That new house on Nantucket your best friends just bought or their "August in Hawaii"? Maybe they can actually afford it. Maybe they can't.

Still, it's hard not to feel jealous, especially if you're spending August working indoors, or barely able to keep up with the mortgage on your first house, never mind a second. Money confers power, and it makes inequalities painfully clear. Some people may try to counteract feelings of envy or insecurity by imagining their "better-off" friends as miserable in some other way. Others may remove themselves from the friendship. But while it can be difficult not to feel resentful over what other people have, and what you don't, it's not impossible. Can you be friends with people who have more than you (without, that is, thinking the worst of them or yourself)? Of course you can. Just keep a few things in mind.

Be clear and honest. If you're worried about feeling pressured to spend money that you don't have, don't avoid the friends. Instead, set boundaries. You needn't get into the financial details, but if your friend suggests fine dining, simply ask if it's possible to do something more low-key instead. A true friend will value your company over trying out a trendy new restaurant -- though don't blame her for wanting to try the new restaurant, either. She'll also, most likely, read between the lines. Besides: Outings are about compromise, and any good plan will incorporate input from both parties.

Don't try to keep up. Resist the urge to overspend, just for show, whether it's the latest designer bag for yourself or the fanciest private school for your child or the most lavish hostess gift they've ever received. So your friends have an amazing beach house and invite you over for a weekend of lobster and lounging. That doesn't mean they're expecting you to reciprocate with the same level of extravagance. Bring a gift that's within your means, help with the dishes, and be gracious with your thanks. Don't keep score, and don't assume they are either.

Ask yourself: Is it really them? Or is it me? Use whatever feelings your friends' wealth stirs up in you to consider your situation and your goals. There's a difference between having less, and having money troubles. Do you spend too much? Are you overdue for a raise? Resentment is a waste of time. Instead, turn the critical eye on yourself. You might find your friends are a source of inspiration, rather than a source of negativity.

Remember why you're friends in the first place. Don't judge them for what they have -- what they wear, the trips they take, the house they live in -- but for who they are, and how they treat you. You probably have more in common with your rich friends than you think; you did, after all, become friends in the first place. Keep comments about their purchases, or displays of wealth, complimentary, or avoid commenting at all. Making a snarky remark about your friend's "giant diamond" or "how nice it must be to not have to work" will only make her feel bad, and make you seem petty. What's more, don't assume that their money automatically makes their lives easier. It might. But just as finances aren't your whole story, neither is it theirs.

On that note, if you're the friend who has more, pay attention to how you behave. Don't hide what you have but don't be showy about it either. You shouldn't have to make excuses for your good fortune, whether it was due to hard work or luck, but you can also be mindful that your reality may be different from that of others -- and that many people feel sensitive about money. Don't offer to pay for every meal, but treat friends with less to a casual meal once in a while, either out or at your house, without expectation. Invite them to your weekend house. Don't accept money, unless, of course, the friend insists. No one wants feel like a charity case, and although most people will be happy to accept an invitation extended from a place of friendship, some may feel more comfortable paying their way. Let them. In the end, good, solid relationships come down to one thing: respect for one another. Money can't buy that. It can't take it away, either.