“On my first day of college orientation, I met and fell in love with the girl who would quickly become my best friend. Our friendship was seriously like a romance: we were obsessed with each other, constantly hanging out, spending late nights drinking wine on the green and talking about everything in the world. I finally felt like I had met my ‘friend soulmate,’ after spending my life up to that point in a small town full of people who didn’t get me, with my goth-ness, love of death metal, and tattoo collection. Everything that I had thought would happen when I moved to college really came true with her, and we quickly found our own little niche group of friends (as I eased my way out of the tragic high school goth lifestyle).
As I got to know her better (let’s call her Sarah), I came to learn that she came from a less-privileged background than I did. My father is a pediatrician with his own practice and my mother is a SAHM, and we’re not ‘rich,’ but have a household income of over 250,000, and therefore a family you would consider well-off. I wasn’t on loans for school, which I realize is a huge gift, especially now that I am 25 and debt-free, instead of many of my peers who are living with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans to repay. Sarah was definitely one of those people on loans, and even though she was a hardworking and smart girl, it was easy to tell that our paths in life would be very different.
I felt guilty about this, because I realized that my unearned privilege was something that must make our friendship feel a little awkward for her. I tried to be discreet about buying anything for myself, I never insisted that she come with me to a nice restaurant or bar, and whenever it wasn’t weird, I would quietly pay her share of something. And for the most part, it didn’t come up, because our friendship was totally based on personality and sense of humor, our connection was never about the things we could buy together or the places we could go. We had plenty of fun drinking eight dollar wine in her room while making cheesy popcorn and watching our favorite movies, and money was never a concern for us.
Before spring break of our freshman year, I asked Sarah if she would be interested in coming back with me to visit my hometown and stay with me for the week. She was really excited about it, and I felt proud to show all the people I didn’t necessarily get along with in high school that I was a different person with a cool, hip friend from college who came from the big city (Chicago in our case) and was a million times more interesting than any of them, in my opinion. I was looking forward to it for weeks, and when the day came for us to go to my house, we piled into my VW with glee.
As soon as we got to my house, though, it became clear that the money issues that were not a big deal while at the confines of our school became something much more noticeable when we were in my home. We didn’t live in a mansion, but it was definitely a nice house in a good neighborhood, with new cars in the driveway and a cleaning lady who came twice a week. Sarah immediately started making snarky/passive-aggressive comments about everything from the size of my bedroom to the fact that I had my own bathroom to my mother’s manicured hands. She clearly understood for the first time that I was from a very different background, and that her family — a single mother who worked managing a restaurant in Chicago — did not have the kind of opportunity that we did.
It was uncomfortable, but the week went by and she (thankfully) didn’t make any of those comments around my parents, so I figured it would just be a bad experience that we didn’t need to repeat and could all forget about. But when we got back to school, it was clear that her attitude about our money differences had changed permanently. Where she used to be extremely strict about not letting me pay for things, and encouraging hangouts where we were both free from spending, she suddenly became okay with me paying for things. She would meet me out for coffee and arrive late, asking me to ‘grab her something,’ and it was always a drink AND a pastry/bagel that she wouldn’t pay me back for. We’d go to happy hour with our fakes and she’d go ‘Do you mind getting this one, Princess?’ (She used to call me Princess just to be cute, but it had taken on a sour tone.) She would borrow my things and not give them back, half-jokingly saying, ‘You can buy a new one.’
This should have been the sign I needed that this relationship was not going to work long-term (at least, not without some real changes), but I kept my mouth shut. I felt guilty about my money, I felt guilty about her financial background, and I felt like it was my job to make her college life easier because she was the one with tons of loans. I also, if I’m being honest, didn’t want to lose my friend that had meant so much to me. She was the first person who ever truly loved and accepted me for who I was as a friend, and even got into my music, where most people just made fun of it, so I wanted to stay her friend. I was irrational, but it was friend-love. The heart wants what it wants.
We went our separate ways for the summer, except for a week that I spent at her apartment in Chicago. And yes, she was not rich, but it wasn’t a shack. She had a mostly normal life, and if I had to guess, I think her mom probably made about 65,000 per year. Not a ton, but she wasn’t starving. And while she worked a traditional ‘teenage’ job over the summer, and I had an internship, she did make a ton of money at it. She was a server at her mom’s restaurant and was making hundreds of dollars of tips on weekend nights. I recognize that this is not an excuse to discount my privilege, but it did make me aware that if she wanted to be going out to dinner or coffee, she could be getting it herself. Overall, the week with her family made me all the more upset, especially meeting her brother and seeing how chill he was about money and life.
We didn’t talk much for about a month after that, until shortly before the school year. I don’t think things were weird between us, we just had other things to do and didn’t reach out much beyond a few texts here and there. But one morning she called me panicking, sounding half-crying, half-freaking out, telling me she needed $2,000 to go back to school or they were going to take away her spot. She said that she wasn’t able to make the deposit for her housing and didn’t get enough loans and scholarships to cover everything. She was in full panic mode, and I felt horribly for her.
Every thought I had about our disagreements and her weird behavior melted away, and I imagined her hardworking single mom not being able to give her the two thousand. It seemed too horrible and embarrassing, and the last thing I wanted to do was drag it out further. It took me all of five minutes to tell her that I would get it out of my savings account and send it to her right away, and that she could take as much time to pay it back as she wanted. Through her sniffles, she thanked me profusely and told me that the second she had it, she would give it back, because she felt terrible at the idea of being in debt to me.
When we came back to school a few weeks later, we were closer than ever. It really seemed like all of our money turmoil had happened for a reason, and that we were going to make something great out of our friendship, even if it meant I would have to take the financial hits more often than her. Honestly, I was okay with it, and was happy to have her no longer making her weird comments.
Then, a month and a half into school, she leaves. Disappears. She had been shady and weird about her upcoming plans whenever I’d ever asked, and wouldn’t tell me the details, but just that she had to ‘go out of town’ when I asked if she would go to a party that weekend. When I called her one Thursday and her phone was off, I figured that this was her leaving town for whatever thing, even if I didn’t know what it was. She was gone for a total of 15 days, and when she came back, she was all tan and happy. I demanded to know where she’d been, half irrationally worried and half offended that she wouldn’t tell me about it.
I eventually got it out of her, through bottles of wine and many tears, that she had met a Greek guy at a music show in Chicago that summer and ‘fell in love,’ and needed $2,000 to buy a ticket to see him and cover incidentals, and that her mother wouldn’t give it to her, but that she ‘needed’ to do it. She told me that, yes, she had used my money for something other than school and had lied to me, but that she was still planning on paying me back. She even Paypal’d me 200 bucks while sitting on my couch, which I rejected. I didn’t want it, especially not on the terms I know she’d give it back, which was dragged out over the course of the year while I still had to maintain contact to get the rest of it back.
The next day, I sent her an email telling her that the money was hers and the debt was done, but that so was our friendship. I poured my heart out and explained that it wasn’t just about the money, or the lies, or paying for her Frappucinos, but a fundamental disrespect she had shown for me in her desire to make us more equal, or get what I had. I told her that I definitely felt guilty over my privilege, but allowing her to manipulate me into giving her money because of it wasn’t going to help anyone. I cut off the friendship, and it felt like finally healing a wound that I had ignored for a long time.
I still miss Sarah all the time, but I know that it’s better that we’re not friends. Last I heard, she was still being pretty crazy and floating around different jobs, but this time in New York. I hope she’s happy, honestly, and I hope that the Greek guy was worth it. But if nothing else, I have learned a valuable lesson from her: Sometimes money and friends really don’t mix, no matter how much you think you will be the friends that get over it.”