Are friends to blame for your debt?

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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