Samira from London doesn’t really speak to her brother any more. “We were best buddies, but I barely see him now,” she says regretfully. There was no big blowout, no obvious turning point. But, rather, Samira and her older brother gradually stopped speaking after he made a fortune from his tech start-up.
“As he got richer, it changed our relationship massively.” Samira, 44, who lives in London, asked not to be identified by her real name, as did the other people I interviewed – this is a difficult thing to talk about honestly and, it seems, near impossible to talk about openly. She works in advertising mostly, but also sometimes in bars “when things get really hard”. Her brother, she says, “is basically a millionaire now”.
As the old adage goes, money can’t buy you friends. Well, in some cases, it seems it can actually help you shed a fair few, as well as putting a strain on romantic and family relationships.
I’ve been on both sides of this double and sharp-edged sword. There was the extremely wealthy ex-boyfriend I simply couldn’t afford to keep up with in my early 20s and the friend I (regretfully) fell out with for a while, because she was my “friendlord” (a landlord who lets out a room to friends). As she interned in fun, creative jobs that paid nothing, I worked long days in a role I didn’t love; and I resented that, in doing this, I was facilitating her dreams and paying off her mortgage. I didn’t handle it well, but the situation felt maddeningly unfair.
Now, in my mid-30s, I’m horribly aware that my income as a single person doesn’t stretch as far as that of my sister (who lives with her partner), while also navigating delicate conversations with friends who earn less than me and are worried I’ll want to go out for dinner when we meet because they can’t really afford to.
Just when you think you’ve got your head around the emotional turmoil of feeling as if you have absolutely no money, you earn a little bit, which creates a whole new set of issues to navigate.
A recent study conducted by Credit Karma, a personal finance company, found that 88% of millennials have taken on debt after having spent time with a wealthier friend. And, as living costs rise because of a range of pressures around the world, the same study also found that young adults are increasingly ending relationships with people whose finances do not align with their own and prioritising making friends with people who have similar incomes, to avoid overspending.
That’s harder to do when you’re related to someone by blood, of course.
Samira, who also has an older sister and another brother, says she doesn’t think either she or her now mostly estranged brother consciously chose to end their relationship. Instead, she says, “The money he has and the lifestyle that comes with it just seem to have taken him away from the family.”
“He did buy my parents a nice house,” she adds. “But he rarely visits them.”
Others have made more conscious decisions to phase people out when money has started to impact relationship dynamics. “I have cancelled plans or excluded myself from situations, because I can’t afford to do the things my friends can easily pay for,” says Anna. She is 29 and works as a personal assistant in Manchester, where she earns £23,000 a year. Her mum was a nurse and her dad a social worker. She rents her home because, like 61% of young adults, her parents can’t afford to help her buy.
The issue of friends earning different amounts of money was immortalised, aptly, by the show Friends in a 1995 episode – The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant – when Ross, Monica and Chandler want to split a restaurant bill even though Phoebe has only ordered a salad and tap water. Income disparities within friendship groups are a perennial problem, but wealth disparity – the value of the assets a person owns or has inherited – is not the same as income and is usually far less discussed.
“The psychological impact on me of not being able to keep up is huge,” Anna explains. “Over the past couple of years my salary hasn’t increased and things are harder because of the cost-of-living crisis, while my friends all have good jobs and bigger incomes than me. Some of them have also been helped by their parents. I’ve felt left out and lonely. I feel like they are socially mobile and I am not. If they offer to pay for things I just feel embarrassed, and it’s made me not want to talk about myself.”
As a result, Anna says it is hard to keep in touch with her friends. “The dynamic between us has changed massively and my self-esteem has suffered. I’m not the outgoing person I once was in my friendship.
When I talk about my situation and say I am broke, my friends will say, ‘Oh me too.’ But I know they’re not.”
Losing touch with loved ones because of money sounds extreme, but given that 61% of women would rather discuss their own death than money, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, it’s inevitable. It feels impossible to extricate financial concerns from gender for several reasons: though women have entered the workforce in record numbers in recent decades, they still earn less on average than men, meaning that they are often worse off. And that’s before you factor in childcare costs for those who are parents. That said, research that has polled people of all genders offers similar findings: a recent study by the Money and Pensions Service found that 55% of British adults don’t feel comfortable talking about their financial situation.
Dr Heather Sequeira is a chartered consultant psychologist. She says that increasingly our society “seems to place huge status on wealth and equate it with personal worth”. There are those who have money and those who do not and which category a person falls into is given away by the size of their house or their watch, or the make of their car and the sort of holidays they upload on Instagram.
This, she believes, has led lots of people to “internalise their financial situation as a reflection” of their own worth, or of the value of others.
This internalised tension makes it very hard for people who do not have wealth “to discuss money, because it exposes our vulnerability” and often “brings up the issues of inequality, privilege, personal insecurity and all the really difficult, deep-rooted and uncomfortable issues that stem from that”.
But, she continues, those who have wealth are often no less inclined to discuss it. It cuts both ways. For instance, I know a number of “secret landlords” who, having been given properties by family, are too embarrassed to speak openly about their passive incomes for fear of being “cancelled”.
Stephen, 33, is a “friendlord” – half of his mortgage is paid by letting out a room to a mate in the house that his parents bought him. He says he feels “guilty” about his privilege, but tries to do the right thing by charging “the bare minimum”. To his knowledge, Stephen has never lost friends but, as I know from experience, when you’re paying your friend’s mortgage it’s quite difficult to tell them you’re annoyed with them.
“I can’t imagine anyone will feel sorry for me,” he says. “If I was reading this I’d think, ‘Oh poor privileged person.’ I do feel guilty sometimes, but then I think that’s indulgent because I’m just very fortunate.”
Stephen is cagey about his situation and says most of his friends are privately educated and from similar backgrounds. “I don’t really know anyone who has done it (bought a home) on their own,” he says.
Warped, perhaps. But this is Britain today – the country of Jane Austen’s acerbic eviscerations of the aristocracy, Charles Dickens’s desperate depictions of poverty and Hyacinth Bucket’s absurd attempts to play at being posh and elevate her social status. A country where, for a long time, politicians have talked of “strivers” and “shirkers” and working people’s quality of life and opportunities have been intrinsically linked to how much wealth they can amass.
Shelley, 40, feels the weight of this every day. She is a civil servant from the south of England, on what she calls “a basic salary” of around £15,000 a year, a single mother, working part-time and struggling to make ends meet.
Shelley has grown apart from the friends she met at university, because they have been given houses and she has not – a gap in their lived experience that she has found impossible, and which they have not tried to bridge.
“We have drifted over the years, because I can’t afford to keep up,” she says. “They were all privately educated and immediately after uni we would party together and it didn’t matter so much. But then I started to feel quite rejected. People’s family wealth was never spoken about. They are good people and I know they also worked hard, but they didn’t explain that they were coming from a different starting point to me in terms of how much money was behind them. I think wealthier people worry about making others feel bad, but by not saying anything they’re pretending to be the same as everyone else.”
“It’s really hard to acknowledge our own privilege,” Sequeira says when asked why some people might not want to be open about the financial leg-ups they’ve had. “We naturally tend towards emphasising our great work ethic and discounting the advantages or access to opportunities that we had to help us.”
Those who have made their own way in the world and managed to accrue wealth might start to feel protective of what they’ve worked for and feel anxious about being asked to share their newfound money.
Sarah, 35, says her father, a retired shipping broker in his 60s who came from a modest background in south London, would actively hide his high income from family members and once told her “never to mention” how much he earned because “people might expect things from him”.
The economic strain of wealth inequality on our relationships is real and, often, extremely painful even if nobody wants to say that out loud.
“When one person starts earning more than the other, a power dynamic can easily be created,” Sequeira says. “Jealousy can come up and so can insecurity and resentment, even if both people have the best of intentions towards each other.”
In Sequeira’s view, regardless of whether it is family members who come from the same background, but go on to experience money very differently – like Samira and her brother – or friends who come from different economic backgrounds – like Shelley’s – relationships between those who have money and those who do not can easily become strained “due to the differences in their life experiences, opportunities and financial realities”. In the pressure cooker of human feeling, wealth, income and class disparities create tensions that we aren’t always able to articulate.
These pressures of differing financial realities are intensifying. Increasingly, the age of social mobility – which loosely spanned the later half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st – looks like a blip in time. Social mobility has gone into reverse and the wealth divide between those who have and those who do not is growing. It is harder than ever to avoid or back away from because it confronts us wherever we look, because of the rising price of, well, pretty much everything: homes, food, energy, cinema tickets and holidays.
Professor Mike Savage is the author of Social Class in the 21st Century and is the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. He has also been part of the academic team behind the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, a piece of public sociology so popular that it had 9m hits on the BBC website.
“What we’ve seen in Britain and in many rich countries in recent decades has been that wealth inequality has increased,” he explains. This is something that economist Thomas Piketty addressed, warning that we were returning to something akin to modern feudalism where there is a class of rentiers – that’s people who live off of their income from property or investments – while others struggle to pay rent and save.
“If you are in the privileged position of having some wealth assets in this country today, then you’ve done really well,” says Savage. “This is what’s called the “Matthew effect”, which is where the more you have, the better you do. This has a number of implications for our society. One is that it leads to greater polarisation, because people with wealth assets are getting wealthier and pulling away from the rest of society in economic terms.”
“When I do see my friends, I find myself turning the conversation away from myself constantly,” says Anna. “They’ll be talking about the renovations they’re doing or their lavish wedding plans, but I self-censor. I do come away feeling low. I hate that my financial situation is affecting my relationships, but my friends aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. These are people I grew up with, we always had shared experiences, but now suddenly I’m in a position where I can’t share these moments with them. It’s really sad.”
On the flip side, Stephen says it’s not necessarily easier on the other side of the divide. “The guilt I feel is more an abstract guilt at the society we live in and my helplessness within that. I feel guilty that I’m better off than others, but what can I really do about it? I’ve got nothing to hide beyond being lucky to be privileged. I do wonder if people judge me, but I think most people understand that this is the world we live in.”
These relational dividing lines caused by having money, or not, could be about to deepen. As serious economic uncertainty becomes the new normal thanks to inflation and conflicts around the world, Savage worries that decreasing social mobility and growing inequality in Britain could mean more people’s life experiences will differ in major ways, depending on how much money they have. This won’t just be about access to housing, but childcare and healthcare, too.
“Wealthier people can find answers and develop personalised and privatised solutions to their needs. But the majority of people – around two-thirds of everyone in the UK – don’t have significant wealth assets. I fear socioeconomic divides will intensify over time.”
This could put even more pressure on relationships. Will we move beyond the difficult conversations about children who need the Bank of Mum and Dad to fund buying a home and find ourselves living in a world where some friends can access private cancer treatment while others see their survival chances diminish on growing NHS waiting lists? Where some people in a friendship group can have children because they can afford childcare and others can’t?
And, if the things we once took for granted become luxuries available to those with money, how will our relationships bear the burden? Will we find the courage to say the unsayable?
If she could change one thing for now, Samira would start small. “I just want my brother back,” she says.
Tenants by Vicky Spratt is published by Profile at £10.99. Buy it for £9.67 at guardianbookshop.com