How to talk about money, privilege with friends : Life Kit Even among the closest of friends, conversations about money and privilege can be awkward. In this episode from Life Kit and The Cut, author Otegha Uwagba discusses how we can break that ice — before it's time to split the check.

How to talk about money, privilege with friends — before it's time to split the bill

How to talk about money, privilege with friends — before it's time to split the bill

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Sol Cotti for NPR
Illustration of a group of four friends sitting around a table made out of a giant dollar bill. The friends are talking about money as they eat food, drink wine and presumably plan to split the bill.
Sol Cotti for NPR

As restaurants and bars slowly open back up and group outings have returned, I, Jazmín Aguilera, find myself wondering how it is that we as a society have lived through a deadly pandemic and reorganized our whole way of life — and have yet to definitively decide on what's acceptable etiquette for splitting a dinner check.

Of course, that's not for the lack of options available. There are countless tools and resources for money transfers or bill sharing, and very little resistance to incorporating Venmo or cash apps into our social lives. But those tools come into play after a group has decided on how to settle up.

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Despite how easy it is to pay for your share, the social nuances of deciding how the check will be split are not so easy to sort out. Some folks want to pay for themselves only. Other folks don't mind an even split to make the server's life a little easier. Others prefer the most chaotic option: Oh, don't worry about it. You just get the next one.

This is just one of many awkward situations that can arise among friends when it comes to wealth and privilege. Because deciding on who pays for the shared appetizer is more than a question of dollars and cents — it's a question of values and a marker of class. It's many social mores and socioeconomic forces all rolled up into one moment in time.

Otegha Uwagba is a speaker, consultant and author of three books, including We Need to Talk About Money. Left: photograph by Ollie Trenchard; collage by NPR. Right: Fourth Estate hide caption

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Left: photograph by Ollie Trenchard; collage by NPR. Right: Fourth Estate

So Life Kit and The Cut have teamed up to shine a big ol' spotlight on this issue. I spoke with Otegha Uwagba, author of We Need to Talk About Money, to figure out what real-life tips and guidelines we can use to find some common ground with our peers without breaking the bank.

Bring it up early and set boundaries

Let's be honest. Oftentimes, we can sense that tricky conversations around money will arise at upcoming social gatherings. If this sounds like you and you're avoiding that elephant in the room, remember that it's important to make your boundaries clear and create a plan of action before accepting an invitation. You can say something like:

This sounds like a lot of fun, but I'm keeping a close eye on my spending for the month. So I might order my meal separately from the group. Is that cool?

Or:

This sounds like a lot of fun, but I'm keeping a close eye on my spending for the month. So I might make dinner at home tonight, but I'll catch you next time!

This can feel really tough, understandably, because it forces you to be honest about your limitations and expose your vulnerabilities. But the alternatives are harder.

Uwagba aptly points out that trying to keep up with your richer friends is an exercise in self-delusion. Eventually, you won't be able to do it anymore, and you'll have to come clean.

So don't try to keep up with the Joneses' on this. Set the tone for what you are comfortable with as early as possible.

Be transparent, neutral and supportive

Remember, if your friendship with someone is important to you, chances are it is also important to your friend. So start conversations around this topic with an open mind and in good faith. It can actually be beneficial to your relationship.

Uwagba points out that it can be helpful when both friends are forthright about their wealth and sources of additional financial supports. It was through down-to-earth conversations with her friends that she was able to contextualize her own success, she says.

So encourage an environment with your trusted friends where they can feel comfortable being honest about their privilege or lack of it. Break the ice with something specific and neutral like ...

I'm curious. How were you able to do so much vacationing and travel last year? What's your secret?

Or:

Hey, congrats on your new home! Buying a house sounds so stressful. What was your experience like?

Being frank about privilege, especially wealth, is hard, but a good close friendship can survive frank conversations. In fact, they depend on them.

And when in doubt, proceed with caution. "I think you kind of just have to go slowly and see how receptive people are to what you're sharing," says Uwagba. "What's their body language? Do they want to know more? Or are they sort of closed off and they don't seem engaged?"

Choose your company wisely

So what if you're not so close to someone at the table or don't trust them to engage with you meaningfully? I'm sorry to say that there's no easy solution.

But there is a simple one: Don't engage with them at all.

Unfortunately, the root of societal tension around money is how divisive it can be. If you've made attempts at good faith conversations and boundary setting with friends but still feel awkward or uncomfortable with this topic, the best course of action may be to limit those friends in your life.

"If I feel like someone is kind of tone-deaf or insensitive or doesn't really appreciate their good fortune ... I have to say that over my 20s, I've kind of phased those friendships out, like not in a deliberate way, but just in terms of thinking who I want to spend my time around and who frustrates me to be around," says Uwagba.

Consider how much emotional labor you'd like to devote to your relationships. Does an acquaintance you see occasionally at parties merit the time it takes to have nuanced and trusting conversations? Or would it be easier to stick to small talk and keep it moving?

These are tough questions to ask. But at the end of the day, only you can decide whether your friendship is worth the awkward back-and-forths — and disagreements — on economic values.


This episode is a collaboration between Life Kit and The Cut from Vox Media Podcast Network. Listen to The Cut's episode here.

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Marcia Caldwell. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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