It’s the forbidden question most of us prefer to avoid, at our financial peril. If you’ve ever picked up a tab, purchased a ticket or taken a trip with friends against your better judgment, you’ve probably wondered, however fleetingly, if your social life is driving you into debt.

“It is a dirty little secret. It isn’t something anyone wants to look at or talk about,” says MP Dunleavey, author of “Money Can Buy Happiness.”

“Your friends can put a lot of pressure on you economically if you’re not willing to admit that that dynamic is going on. You have to acknowledge the financial disparity between you and your friends. It’s painful, but if you don’t, all kinds of crazy things can happen.”

Money counselor Ruth Hayden says couples will tear themselves apart to maintain their country club memberships, ski trips to Aspen with the old gang and expensive private schools for the kids rather than risk ostracism by their social circles.

“Whether you’re 27 or 67, you are under pressure financially to be part of a group, although we don’t choose to think of it that way,” Hayden says.

How did we go from keeping up with the Joneses to having lattes with the Trumps? Read on — if you value your money as well as your mates.

Author learns class lesson
Meet Eliot Schrefer, whose novels “Glamorous Disasters” and “The New Kid,” deftly mine the modern no man’s land between the haves and have-nots.

The trouble with ‘Friends’

Hayden traces the recent escalation in peer-driven debt to one particularly perky, insidiously seductive TV program.

“It all started with ‘Friends’ on television, which set up an impossible image for young people today,” she says. “There are two reasons that young people are in trouble: They’ve never learned how to problem-solve with money and they’ve never learned how to defer what they want. Part of the reason is ‘Friends.'”

OK, so maybe Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey did seem to have a surfeit of spare time, cash and clothes as struggling 20-somethings in NYC. The point was that friends of different income levels could put money aside for the sake of their friendship, right?

Dalton Conley, the chair of sociology at New York University who studies wealth and class issues, says “Friends” is a nice fairy tale that doesn’t accurately reflect reality. He says the friends/money friction in this country dates back to the first immigrant communities where enterprising sorts pulled themselves to success, left and never looked back.

“There is a long tradition in America of people who no longer feel connected to or comfortable with their old buds once they themselves have made it economically,” he says. “They go off to college, get a big job, and they can’t really relate to the people they left behind in the old neighborhood.”

The awkwardness is more common among college graduates today than it was a generation ago, in part because their economic backgrounds are more diverse. According to Thomas Mortensen, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute in Washington, college enrollment of adults ages 18 to 24 from the bottom quartile of family income increased from 28 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2003.

Conley says the fast-track jobs tend to go to upper-income students, either because of family connections or their financial ability to accept unpaid internships that lead to prime job offers. Considering the growing disparity in starting salaries and the likelihood that lower-income students will emerge with loan debt, college pals today can find themselves in drastically different economic strata soon after graduation.

“It’s a growing issue because inequality is increasing,” says Conley. “Take a common scenario: One person goes into education where wages aren’t great and the other person goes into investment banking and makes a fortune. That’s more common now than it was before.”

‘Organic parting’ of ways

Hayden says money disparity hits us hardest as we make the transition from life stages where our focus is nonmonetary — such as college, parenthood and grandparenthood/career peak — to scary new stages where belonging is paramount, regardless of the ante.

“I think each age has its price tag,” says Hayden. “For 20-somethings, it’s setting up patterns, setting up credit scores that could take years to clean up. The middle years, you’ve got children involved, so if you decide you can’t afford the private school, you have disruption that goes much broader. The part that nobody talks about is the retired folks. There is no way to redo that income, no way to remake it.”

Hayden says one benefit of retirement communities is that they “level the playing field” to promote an egalitarian lifestyle.

Dunleavey, a married new mom who left New York City to live upstate near Woodstock, says the economic disparity didn’t begin to take its toll on her friendships until her early 30s.

“I have friends where I know they do things with their other, richer friends that I can’t afford to join them in,” she says. “I have a friend who regularly goes out for weekends in the Hamptons, and she often invites me and my husband to join her, but we can’t afford that — a weekend in the Hamptons, minimum, is going to run you $1,200.”

She says losing friends is sometimes just part of life.

“If you have friends who take ski vacations every winter or rent or buy a beach house and you don’t, they’re naturally gravitating toward a different social circle. That may indeed be an organic parting of the ways.”

Friendly concessions

New York therapist April Benson treats the friends-with-funds issue from the other side; her rich clients wrestle just as much with the social awkwardness of unequal fortunes as their less-wealthy friends: Should I pick up the dinner check and risk offending? Or, should I be egalitarian even though I know the meal will cost them a week’s wages? Should we book lodging at a place our less wealthy friends can afford or should we stay where we would normally?

One woman who had had enough of running with a fast crowd found her own comfort level: She dines at home and meets friends after the theater for a nightcap.

Benson’s advice: “Suggest a lower-cost alternative activity and see how that flies. If it doesn’t fly, it may be that this is really not the peer group for you. But depending on who your friends are, if you tell them the truth, you may get an earful back about how they have felt the same way but felt unable to talk about it with you.”

Dunleavey agrees. She suggests floating a few low-cost suggestions, such as hiking, county fairs, outdoor concerts or ice skating. Then, see who’s in. When friends bring up expensive ideas, have a short list of defensive parries (OK, they’re excuses) at the ready: We’re putting all our money into the house right now. We just went there last week. Mom’s coming with cannoli, etc.

“When we are tempted to keep up with the Joneses, you don’t know how much debt the Joneses are in and you don’t know what it’s costing them to keep up that facade,” she says.

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