How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
Maybe you’ve experienced this, like I have: A friend invites you out. They sneakily cover the bill while you’re in the bathroom. Or they let you know before any definitive plans are made that no matter where you decide to go, they’re going to cover the bill.
They recognize that spending money to go out is a non-option for you. You can’t afford it, but not because you’re budgeting with Mint or saving for a house down payment, but because you’re poor.
“You work so hard. Let me cover this for you,” they implore.
It’s a kind gesture. But every time I’ve found myself in this situation, I feel hostility and a lack of balance. It’s a weird split, being intellectually appreciative but carrying a vague, nagging sense of negativity. I wanted to figure out why.
Poor vs. broke As I previously wrote, we use “poor” to mean “broke” fairly often, but there’s a distinct difference between the two. Being “broke” refers to a short period of financial instability. As Erynn Brook explains, “When you’re poor there’s no flow. There’s no wiggle. There’s no credit. There’s no extensions. There’s nothing... It’s all survival.” And that stress can lead to a host of health issues.
The closest I could find was “gift guilt,” an experience of feeling guilty when someone does something nice for you. It boils down to feeling unable to reciprocate the gift. But this doesn’t quite fit.
I have no problem accepting gifts. Please, send me gifts! The dissonance I experience is seated in the premise that I can’t mindlessly afford nice experiences, whether that’s a dinner or a coffee with a friend or even buying new shoes for work when my old ones are completely worn out. So when a friend offers to cover a meal for me, it feels somewhat akin to a real-life “teach a man to fish” scenario, but sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m the man or the fish.
This is a complicated situation. You shouldn’t look a gift horse (or in this case, sandwich) in the mouth. I want to spend time with good people and not have to worry about the cost. I appreciate the comfort and understanding when someone says “I got this” so I don’t have to worry about being stuck in a situation where I’m forced to spend beyond my means.
I’m well aware that financially stable friends offer to pay for nice things because they want to experience something nice with me. But that intellectual awareness does little to offset that knee-jerk, deeper negativity.
Yet at the same time, the automatic assumption that I can’t afford it feels somewhere between a lack of agency and being pigeonholed as “your poor friend.” I don’t want to be your poor friend! I want to be your friend whose meal you want to cover exclusively because I am nice and fun to be around, and you paying the bill is your way of reciprocating the gift that is my existence.
I want my bill to be your gift guilt, where you feel like you have to pay for our meal because you can’t reciprocate the gift of my incredible personality (honestly, who can blame you?).
This, of course, isn’t rational thinking. Intellectually, I’m well aware that financially stable friends offer to pay for nice things because they want to experience something nice with me. But that intellectual awareness does little to offset that knee-jerk, deeper negativity.
I contacted a bunch of people who have experienced a similar dissonance. While they were all able to identify the feeling, figuring out the why was a bit more tricky. So, I sought out a couple experts to figure it out.
Ultimately, it comes down to shame
Claire Hunt is a licensed independent social worker who works in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). When I ask about this complicated, nuanced, and deeply confusing disconnect, Hunt says, “I think we can chalk that ‘feeling bad’ thing up to good old-fashioned shame.”
“There tends to be a lot of pride that people hold on to when they’re in poverty,” Hunt says. “Especially when they’re faced with constant daily stress and trauma. Sometimes the only thing they can control is what they present to others.”
Financial anxiety and the shame it carries can make the desire to fit in, to hide your poverty, feel dire in even the most casual circumstances.
In elementary school, for example, your classmates might not notice that you need new shoes. But if you’re getting free or reduced price lunch with the other poor kids, a bright neon sign lights up over all your heads labeling you as separate from the rest of the class.
In college it might be that you’re on a full scholarship, but you still have to work two jobs to pay the bills. You’re too exhausted to go to parties your classmates invite you to, but you also feel stressed to miss out on those classic College Memories™ everyone else around you is creating.
Later on, it might be that you get a new job where everyone’s wearing much nicer clothes than you. The panic of clearly sticking out like a sore thumb is only overpowered by your hope that you’ll get paid before anyone realizes you’ve been wearing the same suit all week.
This same shame of poorness can also follow you from the office to your friendships, coloring how you relate to more financially stable friends and — notably — how you feel they see you.
How, then, do we navigate this shame-driven anxiety?
“In cultures where money is associated with status or virtue, people do link their sense of self-worth to their relative financial standing,” explains Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University.
According to Van Bavel, the main psychological tool people can use to help navigate these feelings? Identity.
“[Poor people] can cultivate a sense of identity that is based on dimensions other than money,” he adds.
One example Van Bavel gives is attending a basketball game: You’re not there as anything other than a fan, regardless of your socioeconomic, racial, sexual, or political status. You’re just a person, there to watch some balls hit some baskets. Same goes for dinner or drinks with friends: You’re just a person, there to eat some fries and enjoy spending time with people who enjoy your company.
When I ask Hunt the same question, she goes a step further, explaining the way we see how the world sees us isn’t always accurate, especially when we gauge our self-worth (or lack thereof) in terms of our income (or lack thereof).
“We have to understand that information is presented to us about ourselves or the world is not always accurate. Sometimes this is subjective information. To be able to challenge these negative or unhelpful thoughts is to actively look at what might be irrational, to see what we’ve learned or told ourselves that isn’t ‘accurate’ or helpful, and to simply practice challenging that,” Hunt says.
“Understanding that just because a thought pops into our mind, it doesn’t mean it is factual. This takes practice, and we can rewire our brains, so to speak,” she adds.
Challenge negative thoughts Hunt explains that one tip that can apply to a lot of situations, not just money-related ones, is challenging negative thoughts by putting them in a more positive frame. For example, “I hate that friends have to pay for me to go eat with them” can be replaced with “I love that my friends want to hang out with me so much that they’ll pay for my meal/movie ticket/drinks so I can just focus on being my excellent self.”
Acknowledging contradictions and addressing the elephant in the room can help
So, how do we challenge the (irrational!) minimization and sense of tokenism that comes from a friend covering us because they assume we can’t afford it?
Acknowledging the contradiction is a good start.
“We assume we can’t feel two things at once or believe them to be true if they are seemingly in opposition,” Hunt says. “[But] we can feel both at once, and that is OK.”
Meanwhile, for those “financially stable” friends who are reading this and possibly panicking that their kindness is being misinterpreted, the best thing you can do is just address the elephant in the room. Clearly state your intentions. Don’t be shy about possible income imbalances or financial strain.
“Just address the elephant,” Hunt says.
“[Financial strain] is not uncommon. I think we are too polite, or we let discomfort prevent us from just being straightforward about things,” she says.
Saying something like, “I’d like to go to this restaurant with you, and I want you to have a good time. Is it OK if I cover you?” isn’t the most organic conversation, but it can provide a sense of agency to a friend who doesn’t want to feel like they’re being treated like a sympathy case.
Plus, it opens up the opportunity for your friend to let you know, “Actually, I’ve been doing pretty great lately. I won’t have a problem paying! Hooray me!”
Ultimately, there’s a lot we need to break down and dissect in terms of our finances and perception of class guilt. Being open about those differences and removing them from our sense of identity can do a lot of the heavy lifting. But it starts with realizing the disconnect of internalized shame and opening up the conversation beyond blanketed assumptions.
This doesn’t mean I’ll ever say no to a free dinner. In fact, it’s the opposite. I need more people to take me out for free meals so I can learn to acknowledge and work through the disconnect. It’s been a while since I untangled my class guilt over a 32-ounce steak and some red wine, you know.