In college, I had one goal: make strong female friends. For once. I’d always been intimidated by other girls, and a little jealous. My adolescence had been spent in competitive dance where I was always too poor, too academic, too plain.
So when I met “Anna,” as we’ll call her here, I finally felt like I didn’t have to strain to identify with another girl. We came from similar backgrounds — families whose place in the middle class always felt precarious, childhoods filled with more extracurricular activities than pool parties — but more importantly, we connected. Our conversations felt real and deep.
Anna was the kind of friend everyone wanted
I could always count on Anna to swing by for a drink, or come on an early morning trip to the farmer’s market. She loved projects — we’d often spend days sewing old T-shirts into cute tanks or doing Henna on one another. She often had me over to her parents’ house, and they always made me feel at home. During our senior year, we even took a trip to a bed and breakfast and spa.
Anna was that close with all her friends. If I couldn’t reach her, it was usually because she was at the farmer’s market or cutting up T-shirts with another friend. I admired her initiative to keep things interesting. But I also feared I would be replaced any minute. If I couldn’t make it, she’d find someone else to do these meaningful things with. So sometimes, that meant spending a lot of money. It wasn’t obvious at first. Unlike the prima ballerinas I grew up with, Anna drove her parents’ car, shopped at thrift stores, and wasn’t into expensive things.
But Anna was simply a doer. While most of my friends socialized over coffee or beer, Anna always had something bigger planned. In junior year, she and her boyfriend added our friends to a closed Facebook group to plan a winter trip to Cuba, although none of us had mentioned wanting to take a trip (I didn’t even have a passport). I was barely scraping by at school, and my parents weren’t in a position to lend me money for a trip. But Anna was already in planning mode.
Rather than tell her I couldn’t afford it — my friends knew I was broke, anyway — I assumed she’d invited me to be polite, and left the group. In the end, the trip never happened. As the year went on, we went dancing, planned fancy dinners, went to shows, and embarked on project after project. I monitored my bank account to the cent, and tried to find ways to balance out the sudden $20 to $40 expenses I hadn’t planned on.
I almost didn’t agree to the B&B trip in our senior year. I was financially and emotionally exhausted, and our other friends had backed out as well. But my Mom was so happy that I’d found a female friend who wanted to do something special, that for Christmas, she gave me $300 toward the trip — the least she could do after three years of barely being able to help, she said. But as Anna sent me her top-10 list of venues, I realized $300 wouldn’t go very far. I found a silly reason to pick the cheapest one, and kissed half the money good-bye right there.
Anna went all-out. On top of the baths, we went to a different spa where she’d booked a massage. She told me to get something too. Rather than spend 90 minutes alone in the waiting room, I settled on the cheapest thing they offered: a gaudy spray tan. We then went out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, bonded over wine, and drove back to the B&B. I was grateful, but as we drifted off, I checked my balance and made a memo to pick up some extra shifts at work.
Settling into new circumstances
After graduation, I was staring into the bleak horizon of unemployment, and Anna was going away to grad school. I imagined she’d tighten her purse strings as well, but one weekend, she invited me to her boyfriend’s birthday dinner in the city. I ate at home so that I would only have a drink. Anna and her boyfriend, however, ordered multiple rounds of sake and apps to the table, and then told the server we’d split the bill. I didn’t want to look cheap, but not only had I not asked anyone to order any more food or sake, I’d explicitly declined to have any. My boyfriend came to the rescue and discreetly picked up my check.
I felt embarrassed for being so ill-prepared. So, a month later at Anna’s birthday (which involved dinner at a pub, followed by a private karaoke room), I tried to ready myself better by taking a few extra jobs leading up to the day. But she switched the dinner to a pricier venue once we got there and, after our karaoke session ended, added on an extra hour, which we all had to split evenly. The night cost more than double what I’d budgeted, and once again, my boyfriend bailed me out. I vowed to pay him back as soon as I got a new job, which I did soon after. It wasn’t the best salary, but crawling out of my financial black hole felt like a rebirth. I could be the girl my friends wanted me to be, instead of being an anxious mess at every gathering, unable to hear what someone said because I could feel my heartbeat in my ears.
As life got in the way, Anna and my visits did become more low-key. We were grateful just to see each other. Drinking iced tea on the porch felt more special than any spa could ever feel. I started to miss Anna deeply — and, like Anna so often did, I craved a special occasion.
Becoming the “Anna”
After a couple of years, Anna had a job, and I had a better one than before. I’d moved into a more modest place and generally had my life on track. While chatting one day, the idea of a visit came up. She wanted to do a cliché holiday activity like skating in Nathan Phillips Square. Suddenly, an idea struck me — a ballet!
I loved ballet, and Anna was one of my only friends who really appreciated fine arts. So I suggested we see The Nutcracker, which I’d been wanting to see anyway. She was overjoyed and accepted, and I bought the tickets. But even the nosebleeds cost more than $90 each. I sent her the confirmation, thinking she’d pay me back when she got here. I couldn’t have asked for a better date. She kept her eyes glued to the dancers, laughed at the characters and asked me questions that made me feel like a sophisticated expert. She slept over, and in the morning, I gave her a lift to a relative’s. I felt so happy — our friendship hadn’t missed a beat, and for once, I got to be the Anna.
Then, we pulled into the driveway and she said she couldn’t afford to pay me for the ticket — she hadn’t saved much from her job yet. I tried to hide my disappointment. I’m not sure if she noticed. She hugged me, told me she loved me, and left.
I didn’t hear from her for a while — possibly because she felt awkward bringing the cost of the ticket up. A year later, I found out from Instagram that she was in my city with two of our other friends — in my neighborhood, in fact — and hadn’t told me. Boldly, I called to ask them to a bar with my partner and friend. She awkwardly agreed, but they showed up extremely late, and the night just felt uncomfortable. Something had changed. After that, things were even more quiet from her end.
I felt bitter toward Anna. I asked over and over why she’d been so cold when she had stiffed me, considering our history. I didn’t invite her to my wedding, after years of thinking she’d be my bridesmaid. I couldn’t think about her without crying, so I gradually removed her from social media, waiting until the opportune time when she wouldn’t notice. It took me more than a year to realize that I probably hurt Anna worse than she ever hurt me. And the one thing we had in common was that neither of us wanted to say what was bothering us. Because that was it: I’d gone six years without telling her “no.”
Why had I been so ashamed?
Anna was not a bully. Anna did not belittle me. She was a good friend who loved me. The only reason I hopped on board to every adventure was my own insecurity that she’d think less of me if I said I couldn’t afford something.
I’d assumed that because Anna and I came from similar backgrounds, I didn’t have to explain my situation to her. But no one’s financial situations or attitudes toward money are the exact same. Anna lived with her parents and prioritized different things. While I thought I’d made it “clear” to Anna that I couldn’t afford a lot of her adventures, I’d done so only by passive-aggressively suggesting low-cost activities and complaining about being broke. I got angry at her for not understanding something, but I made no effort to help her understand.
I can’t explain why I felt scared to actually use the words “I can’t afford it” with so many friends. I was never ashamed of where I came from and was never dishonest about my family’s situation. But growing up around rich kids, I was always accused of using “I can’t afford it” as a way of guilting people who were more well-off. But Anna wasn’t a spoiled competitive dancer. Anna was a good friend who would have probably accepted it if I’d just been honest with her.
I see so many stories about young women ending friendships over money, and so many times it comes down to lifestyles and expectations not lining up. I don’t want to make any assumptions about those friendships. But I will say this about Anna: the blame does not rest on her.
Was Anna wrong about the ticket? Kind of. She should have told me that she couldn’t afford it before I purchased it. But I would have undoubtedly paid for it anyway. When she told me she couldn’t afford the ticket, I chose to see a hypocrite, not someone hoping I’d understand. I didn’t see an inability to say “no” to something fun. And at least she had the guts to say “I can’t afford it,” even if it came too late.
Even after my realization, I’ve not broken the ice with Anna. In many ways, I think it’s too late; our lives are different in almost every way. But I can still mourn the special thing we had while reminding myself to not make the same mistake again. I spent years thinking our friendship ended over money, but it really ended over shame. Because female friendships are powerful. I know so many of us feel like we’re not good enough, pretty enough or even rich enough to fit in with women we admire. But we can’t put those insecurities on someone else or assume we’re the only ones experiencing them.
What I’ve learned from this: Practice conversations about money with your friends as much as possible. Don’t keep your situations or your insecurities a secret from them. Your friends love you, and they will understand.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
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