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Building Friendships In A New City Is Daunting — & Not For The Reason You’d Think

I honestly never thought that building friendships as a young professional would be a problem for me. It’s apparent that meeting new people and dealing with a “new” culture and its differences would a huge challenge, but I didn’t know that the nuances of other people’s spending habits in the face of huge debts would intimidate me the most.

Being financially independent, swiping credit cards constantly, hanging out in the bars of Washington, D.C. almost every night — it’s what I learned was the norm, and it was foreign and daunted me. As someone who’s trying to be financially conscious, I was anxious that I might not be able to fit in due to my financial status.

I moved to D.C. after immigrating to the U.S. in June of last year. It is a diverse city, but working in it has sometimes made me feel isolated. I started working in an organization without any coworkers my age, and I badly wanted to build my own circle. Ever since I moved here, I’ve joined several social networking apps and platforms, like Meetup and Eventbrite, and different networking organizations. I’ve tried to expand my circle by going to different events. At one point, I started getting desperate.

Eventually, going alone to a bar for a happy hour on a Friday armed with nothing but my awkwardness and eagerness to make new friends became a habit. My nervousness eventually faded, and it was productive to attend these events and buy myself a few cocktails or whiskeys while I networked. I was carefree and happy — YOLO if that’s what you want to call it — until my bills started coming in. I realized I was spending almost 15% of my salary just to have friends. It was shocking, but I was too embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t afford to hang out anymore. I didn’t know what to say to these people. I found it so hard to say that I was broke that I started ghosting some of them.

I’ve also had to deal with the financial insecurity of living with my parents. I’ve met a lot of people who have been nice and understanding, but I’ve also met a few who have been taken aback and said, “Oh, you still live with your parents? Um, you should move out.” It feels as if someone in her early twenties is expected to be completely financially knowledgeable and independent. It eventually started making me feel irrationally self-conscious and insecure about my life — a huge hindrance standing in the way of building a friendship with anyone. I began feeling like I shouldn’t even try to mention anything about money or where I lived in order to feel validated.

I was building friendships, but also cutting people out due to my financial anxiety. I learned how to introduce myself without mentioning that I live with my parents; I now know how to dodge the question if it ever comes up.

Some of the new friends I’ve met have even asked me to hang out again, to go on a lunch date or a coffee date — which is great, except that saying yes to these invitations would cost me a lot. Spending almost $50 on transportation, food, and drinks for each hangout makes me feel irresponsible. I have a salary of an entry-level professional, and I live with my parents — but I also help them with the finances while setting aside some of my money for an emergency fund and my small investment on Ellevest. My financial situation rattled me and made me think, Why does building friendships in D.C. have to cost me $150 – $200 of my monthly budget? And why do I need to move out, when I know that I’d struggle and maybe end up in deep debt?

How can these people even afford this lifestyle? It appears that it is a staple to have a financially independent facade, regardless of whether you’re also in debt and just winging it in order to feel validated. “We all have debts but at least we don’t live with our parents anymore. And also, we have a budget for going out because it is the way it is. You ought to be like us.” Why does that have to be the rule?

I know the value of money because I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. My first job in the U.S. was a barista gig, and I had three jobs all at the same time before I finally got my foot in the door of the corporate world. I’ve experienced a ton of crap just to earn money. I still remember back when I had almost zero knowledge of how to budget, and how owning my first credit card threw me into a panic. Imagine my horror after seeing how much I was spending galavanting around mindlessly just to make friends.

Declining most people’s invitations just so I can save money is still excruciating. I still can’t confidently say, “I would love to, but I gotta pass because my budget is maxed out.” If not silly, I still at least feel embarrassed.

But when I get too lonely, I have to set aside my financial anxieties for a night out with some friends and remind myself not to look too hard at my spending the next morning. I’m not sure if keeping in mind that most people I hang out with have student loans to pay and still manage to spend money on every hangout should comfort me. Yes, I still want to meet new people, and I still desperately need my own circle — but should it give me a run for my money? Should I be adapting their lifestyle and spending habits while I’m still young? It’s still a huge question for me. Building your network as a young professional comes with excruciating expenses and faux financial security — but I still want to do it.

Erika Sabalvoro is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and social and communications consultant from the Philippines. She handles the backend of the social media project Immigrants of America and could be reached at

Image via Unsplash

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  • Rebecca Ann

    Why not just be honest with your friends, and ask for a night in, instead? I’m sure they’d also be relieved to spend less, as well, even if they don’t say it out loud. I loved living in DC, but had to move back home to Michigan because I couldn’t afford it. The pressure to appear financially independent there is real, but I can guarantee almost all of your friends feel it, as well.

    • Kira90

      I think she means new connections who are not yet real friends. It is not always possible to invite someone to your place (or invite yourself in their place), you just accept what option is offered bacause you are simply glad there is any offer in a new and lonely place

    • Erika Sabalvoro

      True!! I am just starting to realize that not everyone I meet isn’t financially independent as they appear to be. And I’m trying to be candid about my financial spendings too. Transparency is the key, I guess! 🙂

      But yeah, as Rebecca said it’s kind of difficult to ask them for a night in since we’re not officially ‘friends’. It will take time to build some trust and etc

  • Court E. Thompson

    Maybe instead of going out, find an activity you like doing. Then, you’re surrounded by people who also like the activity and, even if you have to pay for it, you’re getting something out of it besides cocktails and fries. My closest friends that I met outside of school are people I met while doing theater or in my barre classes. Theater was free. The barre classes were expensive when I was a client (I became a teacher for free classes!) but I met two of my best friends in the world there and have a wider circle of acquaintances that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    You shouldn’t feel like you have to adapt to your friends’ lifestyles. Figure out what you like and follow that.

    • Dana Ernest

      Seconded! Or, budget a little bit (maybe $30/month?) to join a club or take a class and make friends that way. That way, when they develop into close friends you can feel comfortable inviting them over for free/cheap things like game nights, wine/movie nights. I did a community theatre show recently (free!) when I moved to a new city. I made friends who also aren’t afraid to admit they have money issues. So now we have nights in or try to take advantage of low-cost fun in the area.

    • HL

      Also agree and would add, volunteering is also a great way to meet people and make friends. There’s something about doing something for others and taking the focus off yourself that helps people to let their guards down and connect a little bit easier. Even if you don’t get a bunch of new BFFs out of it, you still spent a productive day giving back to your community and helping other people out, and at little cost to you. It can be a great way to professionally network as well.

    • Erika Sabalvoro

      I tried going to the gym and volunteering for nonprofit orgs too!! It didn’t work out well for me because I did quit quite early and I was just financially insecure back then too.

      But I totally get your point. I would consider joining another gym within my budget or attend a class with people my age so it would be easier to network. Thank you all! 🙂

  • seattleminimalist

    I really relate to this! When I first moved to the city and had very little knowledge on how to handle my own finances, it was really tough. Making new friends was also very challenging (and still is), but I managed to make a few that share common interests and are also honest with their finances.

    I think what you need to do is to reevaluate your priorities and stick to it. It is very difficult to stay true to yourself and stick to your budget when almost every young professional in the city engages in conspicuous consumption.

    The reality is that, it is all a facade and they are trying to keep up with those who have more money and can spend it indiscriminately.

    in my city, there is this expectation that everyone works for a certain tech giant (won’t mention their name) and earns a 6-figure salary and can afford a 3k a month flat downtown. However, the truth is, the population has people who earn 30k a year, too, and those people have to pretend that they earn 300k a year.

    I’ve decided to become a “financial minimalist” where I spend less and save more. The downside is that, this eliminated those “friendships” that centered around expensive happy hours, spendy trivia tuesdays, and the like. But in the end, I gained true friendships with people who are also inspired to stay true to themselves and their budget.

    Instead of joining the gym, I go out for walks with a buddy around the lake or at the small park near my apartment. We also go for picnics after making some home made sandwiches. We walk to the day market on weekdays and visit food trucks when we have a few dollars to spare.

    Making friends doesn’t have to be spendy. You can be frugal and still enjoy your youth, the beauty of the city, and the joy of making long lasting and meaningful friendships.

    Good luck with your future! 🙂

    • Anon

      I’ve been in Seattle 5 years and know what you mean…I’ve literally been called a “unicorn” at a party because I didn’t work for Amazon, Microsoft, or Boeing. Luckily, there’s a ton to do here that doesn’t require the 6 figure salary every other 20-something around here makes.

      • seattleminimalist

        There’s plenty more of people like ourselves in the city. It’s just hard to actually find one that thinks exactly this way when everyone else says “LET’S BUY EXPENSIVE THINGS AND TRIPS AND EXPERIENCES TO SHOW OFF OUR 6-FIGURE SALARIES!!!”

        To be honest, I’m not a young 20-something anymore so it is even more difficult to find friends in my case. However, I cherish the few that I’ve made and just accept what I’ve got right now and enjoy it (without breaking the bank).

    • Erika Sabalvoro

      Oh wow. Thank you for sharing!! This is really helpful 🙂

      • seattleminimalist

        I’m glad my suggestions provided some helpful tips. 🙂

  • Jess

    I feel like this is the millennial version of “keeping up with the Jones’”. Often times I’m in a perpetual spiral of questioning how the hell my friends are able to afford their lifestyle and how to I keep up the facade that I can afford it too. But as I get to know my friends I learn that they’ve had advantages that I haven’t had like living with their parents until they were 24 (I had to move out at 18) or having opportunities that practically fell in their lap. I frequently remind myself that although I had a few setbacks learning how to manage my money, to which I’m still paying for, I’ve done quite well for myself despite adversity. And fortunately for me, as my confidence and self-security grew, those superficial friends faded out and my true friends have shined through.

    • Erika Sabalvoro

      That is so true!!!!!!!

    • seattleminimalist

      I totally agree with your statement “This is the Millenial Version of ‘Keeping up with the Jones”! It is really difficult when most of the professionals you interact with engage in some form (or all forms) of conspicuous consumption. Then you get judged when you hit the brakes on your own spending.

      Keep doing what you’re doing now and prioritize what matters to you. You don’t have to explain to anyone why you stick to your budget. A lot of professionals keep up a facade in order to fit in and not be left out.

      The real friends will come to you and they’ll stay true.

  • Lexie

    I have this same problem with friends, I have this one friend who I love but everytime she asks to meet up its never just for a drink or some lunch, she wants to go to the zoo then a gallery and do some shopping then top it off with a trip to a cute bakery etc etc. It is exhausting and hard to say no all the time.

  • buckwheat

    I live in DC. Let’s be frugal friends!