Thursday, December 21, 2006

We Can Talk It Out

I talk to my friends fairly openly about money. I could tell you what my closest friends make, what they pay in rent, and what their savings allocation is (but I won't). There are a couple of things that make this possible.

We're all just now starting our post-college lives, and we have a lot to learn. When I got home from school after graduation, I would see my friends, and all anyone would talk about was a constant stream of, How's the apartment hunt going? Where are you looking? Are you using a broker? What's her fee? How many people are you living with? How's the job hunt going? Been on any good interviews lately? Know anyone at the organization I want to work for? What do they pay? And then, once we'd all had a bit more of a chance to get settled, it was, Where are you living? What are you paying? For how much space? How close to a subway? What are you doing? How much are you making? What are your benefits like? When do you become eligible for them? We usually had a little bit of meta-discussion about how we weren't used to talking about money all the time, and we'd append, "If I may ask" to the questions, but I don't think anyone felt embarassed, and the reason is simple: We needed to talk about it.

Things in New York change so much so fast that our parents aren't a great source of advice where these things are concerned. If you ask a 60-year-old who's lived in the same apartment for 25 years where he thinks you ought to look for affordable rent, he'll often shrug and say, "Brooklyn?" (Or worse, "Alphabet City?") Your friends will tell you, "Williamsburg's priced us out. Try Bushwick. Try Greenpoint. Astoria's priced us out. Try Flushing. Try Sunnyside. I have a friend who's looking to sublet this place in East Harlem..." Your friends are how you gauge what rent is fair, what salary is fair, what benefits are fair, what broker's fee is fair. Your friends tell you if they've seen a "for rent" sign on a building in a neighborhood you like or if their companies have freelance jobs available. This is what "networking" was before it was sleazy seminars with cheap wine and cheese and everyone passing out business cards--it was having friends. Like, actual friends. And as far as I'm concerned, it's still the most effective kind of networking there is, because there's real trust, not just gladhandling, involved.

It makes me sad to hear personal-finance bloggers advise their readers never to talk about money with their friends. Why not? I understand that income disparities may strain friendships, but is it possible they will have less of an effect if acknowledged? That your friends will stop asking you to meet them at restaurants that you can't afford if you tell them you can't afford those restaurants? When my friends and I go out, we look for places with big prix fixe menus for low prices, like the Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street, or Japanese places with big bento boxes. We share things. We don't like to pay more than $15 for a meal. We can't afford it. We all know we can't afford it. We buy each other drinks when we have money and someone else doesn't. We loan each other books. We help each other move. We share bargain-shopping tips. Talking about money is helpful. It helps us learn things and do better, it helps us learn from each other's mistakes and successes. It brings us closer together--makes us feel like we face our common problems together. We don't talk about money to brag or compare--we talk about it in order to help each other.

That's what friends are for, right?

So my advice is: talk about it. If you find yourself uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Ask your friends why. And if you still find yourself uncomfortable, if you feel judged or pitied, perhaps you need to think about who your friends are, and how much y'all have in common.


Kira said...

I wish that I had had friends in this city when I moved in - it was only through the kindness of our rental broker that we didn't move into this great apartment in a really shitty area.

I think what's important is to have friends who you can be honest with about your money. Too many people, when they hear that someone else has more than they do, think only about how they want it, or worse, if they can get you to give it to them. So I don't tell my salary to my friends because I make considerably more than they do and I think it would make them uncomfortable. So the honesty is what's really missing these days, I think, not the talking. For a lot of people, there's too much posturing and cover-up associated with money, which impedes having honest conversations and helping one another out within our real financial limitations, not the pretend financial limits that come with the posturing.

ispf said...

Nice Post! I belong to the camp that friends and finance don't mix. We still know what restaurants our friends are comfortable with (spending-wise) and share information with each other about where stuff is available inexpensively, but NEVER discuss specifics of our salaries. Great that you are comfortable discussing those with your friends too!

donna jean said...

I'm a big advocate of talking about money and am fortunate that I've got enough friends that don't mind crunching numbers a bit. I'm also fortunate that my partner is just a straight forward about money and doesn't mind asking people what they paid for stuff or how much they are investing (including what they make too). I look forward to reading more of your site.

Anonymous said...

As an '06 grad myself, I am so glad to see this post.

When I got my first job, I called one of my closest friends, ecstatic, and revealed everything in the first 30 seconds: starting salary, vacation time, 401k plan, and health benefits. He paused, then snootily said "Sarah, that's not something you're supposed to tell people" (and then, for the record, "is that all?"). Ouch. I decided he could shove it, because it's so important for people (especially women) our age to talk about these things.