How to Handle Making More Money Than Your Friends
By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist
Recently, someone actually asked me, “When are you going to buy your doctor's mansion?” I was pretty taken aback by the inquiry. I thought asking about personal finances (and someone’s home-buying ability!) was like commenting about age or weight—something generally considered taboo.
My husband, Brandon, a private practice PM&R physician, and I are nearly three years into the post-training life. We live with our two young boys and dog in southeast Michigan, and I teach at a local middle school. Let’s be honest: teachers are not typically asked when we can afford to buy ourselves a mansion. My husband and I are pretty on top of our finances—we stick to a budget each month, and we are working to pay down his medical school loans. Almost a year ago now, we finally reached a positive net worth, a big deal considering our initial $330,000+ student loan balance. Even with our debt payoff goals, we’re slowly settling into our increased household income and are starting to feel more comfortable spending money on the fun stuff.
And as that happens, we are finding ourselves increasingly aware of the differences between our financial situation and that of our friends and family. Even if we don’t talk about it, differences in finances absolutely play a role in our relationships.
It’s hard to figure out where to even start with this topic of financial expectations and differences. Navigating this with the people we love is tough. It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. And honestly, I’m a bit hesitant to write about this at all—it is difficult to discuss without diving into the territory of what might be considered “rich people” problems.
I don’t have the answers, that’s for sure. So, instead of telling you how to balance these kinds of financial situations in your life, I’d like to explore the sticking points the two of us have been trying to navigate.
For better or for worse, my early experiences with money influenced how I approach our family’s finances now. I was raised in a low-income, single-parent household, and I understood the value of money from a young age. Growing up in rural, central Michigan, my first job was milking cows on a local dairy farm at 5am every weekend morning. The hours weren’t great for a teenager and it was pretty gross at times, but the pay (at $15 per hour or about $22 per hour in 2023 dollars) was better than any of the other jobs available to me. I was expected to contribute to my expenses—clothing, sports fees, field trips—and that job made it possible. I understand financial insecurity and know what it’s like when every dollar needs to be spent mindfully.
Even today, I’m overly aware of our expenses. Without much thinking, I can tell you which store has the best prices on produce and what coupon to wait for before buying our boys’ new clothes. I’m always mindful of costs when going out—can we hit happy hour to save a few bucks? When planning a trip, I automatically look for the cheapest flight and hotel, and I have to be reminded to consider timing, location, and other factors, too.
In contrast, my husband grew up solidly middle to upper-middle class. He was almost 32 years old and starting his PGY-5 fellowship year when he first experienced what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the bills. We were newly married and he was completing an out-of-state fellowship, while I continued living in our primary home. It was a tough year.
Neither of us feels too much pressure to “keep up with the Joneses,” but we certainly are still trying to balance our wants and our needs. We enjoy going out to dinner. We like a bit of rotation in our wardrobes. We also need to keep our household running.
I am the primary spender in our household, responsible for our family’s day-to-day money management. Whether it's setting a budget for holiday shopping or a new car, determining how much to spend on a new vacuum or on activities for our kids, or ordering groceries or takeout, that’s on me. Lately, we’ve been trying to factor quality and longevity into the purchase price of whatever we’re shopping for. This comes more naturally for Brandon; for me, a lifetime member of the Frugality Club, this has been tougher. We have much more financial flexibility than I grew up with, and still, I constantly struggle with feeling comfortable spending money. All of this also contributes to how we are navigating the role that finances play in our relationships with family and friends.
I think there are two factors at play here: 1) Our income has grown and our finances are more flexible. We can spend more on the things that we want and need. 2) Our friends and family have their own idea of our financial situation, and their assumptions don’t always match our reality. Instead, they’re thinking, “Come on, you’re a doctor! You can afford it.”
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One of my co-workers, a fellow teacher, has been incredibly generous with sharing clothes and toys that her boys have outgrown. She’s passed on some big-ticket items that could have had significant resale value along with things like unused boxes of pull-ups from her kids’ potty training days. I’ve offered to pay a few times, but she’s always refused, saying that she’s just glad the toys and clothes have found a new home. But as our income has increased, I’ve started to feel a little weird about taking it all. Is it OK to accept these items when we could technically afford to purchase them new? She could sell them and perhaps recoup some of the cost, or the clothes and toys could be donated to a local resale shop and sold to a family who can’t necessarily afford them. I’ve gotten a bit in my head about it and wonder if I’m in the wrong here.
In some ways, I feel similarly about birthday and holiday gifts. We’re not super rich by any means, but we can afford what we need and much of what we want. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach to imagine our friends or family stretching their budget to afford a gift for us or our kids. I’ve been in the position of having to hand-make holiday gifts to save some money; I have overspent my budget to join in on a friend’s birthday dinner. I would hate to be the cause of this kind of financial stress for any of my loved ones. But I know gift-giving is a whole love language for some people, so I wonder: am I just overthinking this?
I’ve also passed along some of our baby stuff to a friend as she prepared to welcome her first child. I’m happy to just give her the items for free, but she’s continued to offer to pay for the items—even looking up how much the specific bassinet was going for on Facebook Marketplace and suggesting that as a price. I’m just beyond thrilled to be getting this stuff out of my house; with two adults, two kids, and a dog, we need every inch of space. It’s doubly exciting that I can see her baby use and love all this stuff, too. Still, I’m unsure how much I can pass along for free without making her uncomfortable. Do we need to have a more formal conversation about this?
Last Christmas, we also struggled with family expectations of a gift beyond what would comfortably fit into our budget. My husband’s siblings decided they wanted to get a new rowing machine for his mom and dad. The equipment was going to cost about $1,800, coming to a bill of $600 each when divided between the three families. This went way beyond the standard norm of gift-giving in his family; we’re usually pretty generous with each other, but gifts usually cap out at around $150-$200.
Even more than the cost, the timing was tight—this gift was being planned in early December with a purchase date of “I’ll order it as soon as you Venmo me the cash.” We had to initiate a pretty uncomfortable conversation with my husband’s siblings about our financial restrictions. They, of course, had the same childhood financial experiences as he did, and they all seem to be living pretty comfortably now. We still ended up going in on the present, but gift-giving occasions have been pretty awkward since then. Right now, we’re not OK with stretching our budget to meet others’ expectations. Are these gift-giving occasions just going to be uncomfortable forever? How do we navigate this?
In our household of two working parents with two small kids, we don’t get out much. When we do, we’re often trying to make an occasion out of it—getting a little dressed up and visiting a fancy-ish new place. That’s fine when it’s just the two of us. We’ve found things a little more difficult, though, when navigating this with other couples. My experiences growing up and in my early 20s make me especially concerned about the financial constraints someone else might be experiencing. I’ve had times when dining out at certain places—or just dining out at all—wouldn’t fit into my budget. I never want to make my friends feel that kind of discomfort. The standard internet advice for navigating this issue seems to be to ask the other party to suggest an activity or a place to eat, with the assumption that they’ll choose a place that fits their own budget. Is that enough?
I wonder, too: when do we just cover the bill? A child-free friend of mine accompanies my boys and me on kid-centric adventures all the time. If I’ve invited her to help me corral my kiddos, I don’t think she should have to pay. She surely would not go to the children’s museum otherwise; I don’t have it in me to take my boys on my own. I’ve been pretty firm about this, even when she’s insisted that she doesn’t mind paying. Is that the right line? Am I overthinking this, too?
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As I said initially, I don’t have this figured out. My early experiences with money have ensured that I’ll always be acutely aware of our finances. While I hope never to forget what it’s like to have a limited budget, I also want to navigate our new financial situation with grace. How have you navigated these situations with your friends and family? I would love to hear about your experiences, and maybe, we can troubleshoot this together.
Has your increased salary changed your relationship with friends and family? Do others have an unrealistic expectation of what you can actually afford? What have you done in all of the above situations? Comment below!By Alaina Trivax, WCI ColumnistOur Financial BaggageMore information here:Accepting Hand-Me-Downs and GiftsGiving GiftsGoing OutoccasionMore information here:What Do You Do?