Should you drop friends who are poorer than you?
WHEN cash-strapped Bridget Hourican was asked to travel abroad for a friend's wedding, she balked at the cost and made her excuses, prompting her to ask if there is a price on loyalty.
A FRIEND recently got married abroad. During the boom, everyone got married abroad. It didn't seem like a proper wedding unless it was in some castello in the sun, with a big meal the night before and a champagne breakfast the day after. But that was then. Before work dried up and salaries slipped. I totted up expected costs for travel, accommodation, living expenses, gift, clothes. Then I crossed out clothes -- I'd do without the new dress. Unfortunately there was nothing else to cross out. I didn't tell my friend I couldn't afford it. I DUPEd him (pleaded a Dull Unavoidable Prior Engagement). Apparently, I'm not alone. According to a survey (CouponCabin.com), more than a fifth of Americans have said no to being in a bridal party because they couldn't afford it (and more than a third of 18-34 year olds).
I've a friend who starts foaming at the mouth when he's asked to a wedding abroad. "They've got a nerve," he says darkly. (He's an anti-romantic. He thinks people should head to the nearest register office with one witness).
Personally, I've every sympathy with people who want to get married in the sun. We're all making concessions to recession but does that have to encompass the Most Important Day of our lives? Why should my friend have to stay dully home just because he fell in love a few years ALB (after Lehmann Bros)? But since the times they are a-changing, I guess anyone doing an away job should accept that their guest list is going to be a bit -- a lot -- thinner than if they'd stayed put. The problem is, if you don't go to the wedding, you've missed out on a seminal day of your friends' lives and your friendship may be affected, even if neither you nor they wish it. In truth, I should have made that wedding. I could have recouped the costs by turning off the central heating and spending all winter in woollies and Uggs. (No really. Central heating is bad for you anyway).
The past four years have been brutal for all and they're not getting any better. Hello Universal Charge and we just can't wait for the surprises in the next budget. Bring it on! (I'll cut the electricity and see how I do in candlelight). In truth I don't know anyone who isn't affected. But as the wise pigs in Animal Farm said some of us are more equal than others. Some lost their jobs and are surviving on less than €800 per month. Others made the right investments at the right time and are in sectors that aren't too badly hit. They're the ones keeping Victoria Beckham and the Canary Islands in business.
In the Adrian Mole diaries, Adrian is told by his parents that he's not the son they hoped for. They have an ideal imaginary son called Brett Mole. This Brett is precocious, witty and open minded; his best friend is an old African woman.
But most of us are more Adrian than Brett: we pick friends who are just like us. Roughly the same age, same level of education, same social class, same ethnic group.
Also, somewhat scarily: similar weight, similar intelligence, similar degree of attractiveness.
I had a colleague who even claimed that good friends are always around the same height. I was about to dismiss this as totally bonkers when I recalled a close set of my male friends who are all exactly 5ft 10in. Another set are all over 6ft 3in. Perhaps male competitiveness can't give or take a few inches.
If we choose friends narcissistically to see our own reflection in, isn't wealth the greatest signifier? Never mind height or education, how can you hang out with someone -- go out to dinner, take holidays -- unless you're on roughly the same income?
We all do, though. That group of male friends who are all 5ft 10in -- they also all got second-class BAs and they're all offbeat, cute, and humorous, clones almost, but they're not now all on the same income. They had the same amount of money in college, but now they don't.
Wealth can veer wildly in the course of a life. Often new friends are within your income bracket, but that still leaves the old guard. College friends of mine bought a stately pile and did it up, no expense spared, in such taste and opulence, that visitors would exit dazed and ill. I christened it the House of Envy and had to warn my sister not to visit in case she had a turn and ended up hospitalised.
When you've shared digs with someone and had to decide together whether to pay the phone bill or buy dinner, then their success in later life is your failure. And yes, you are being judged -- or at least you're judging yourself.
Then there's what Time magazine christened 'fat flu' in response to a 2007 medical journal claiming that obesity was a contagion you can catch from your friends. If your friends are skinny, you'll be skinny. And if your friends are rich, you're more likely to be rich.
One of the world's wealthiest men, Warren Buffet, says: "Hang out with people better than you." Which means my friend with the stunning house should drop me, or risk catching 'poverty flu'.
In this Darwinian view of the world, the rich are, as F Scott Fitzgerald famously said, different from you and me.
And their poorer friends are the weakest link. Goodbye.
Except that's not what happens. Or not in my experience. I've read articles about people losing money and being dropped by friends. But is this an urban myth? Or something that happens in more ruthless, socially mobile societies? Maybe during the boom, but in recessionary Ireland with its tight-knit groups of long-established friendships, I can't find anyone this has happened to.
Instead what happens is this: your rich friends keep generously entertaining you in their lavish homes and expect nothing but thanks and good company. They do go skiing without you and you go to grungy pubs with newer, younger friends. But you all keep in touch and muddle along.
Despite high-sounding words about love and loyalty, friendship is transactional, like all relationships. You don't get something for nothing. But the transaction isn't always financial. A party where everyone is rich and bent on making money is a dud. As publisher of the (now sadly defunct) Dubliner magazine, Trevor White was famous for his parties. They worked because he'd invite the corporate people who invested; the loyal and hard- working who put in the hours; the young and glamorous who looked good; the sassy and well-informed who talked good; and the true eccentrics who gave the whole thing a zany edge.
So rich, loyal, hard-working, beautiful, smart, zany? You probably fit into one of these and I hope you don't fit into all of them. At the risk of coming across a nauseating mix of Pollyanna steeped in Paulo Coelho, if you're satisfied with your own worth, other people will be.
Mind you, the concept of 'poverty flu' isn't wrong. If you really want to be rich, you should probably dump your lower-income friends. Hanging out with wealth-focused people no doubt concentrates the mind on wealth-creation and gets you in the orbit of big deals.
But once you ditch your poorer friends, you're no longer among the wealthiest in your social circle. It's not money per se that makes you happy, it's having more money than the people around you.
"Earning £1m a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn £2m a year," Chris Boyce, from the University of Warwick, said of a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010.
Or, as my friend, Sinead, says: "It's harder to receive than to give." It's the poor man at the gate conferring the favour, not the rich man in his castle. By continuing to hang out with less rich friends, you're making them feel better and risking yourself feeling worse.
But before you start feeling smug and martyred, how much richer are you than your friends, really? When I told my wry friend Hugh that my friends were richer than me, he replied tartly: "Everyone's friends are richer than them."
This does appear to be a truth universally acknowledged. (Ask around -- no one admits to being the richest in their social circle).
When we think about friends and wealth, we automatically think of those with more. Those with less aren't the yardstick we measure ourselves against. I might explain away friends with less money as younger, more artistic or unluckier than me, but, whatever, they're still friends.
And, of course, if you earn $20,000 (that's €15,675) a year then you're in the top ten per cent of the richest people in the world. So on a macro level, your wealth differs as little from your friends as your looks, weight, and education.
You can always go for a walk together instead of going skiing. You really do have to go to that wedding, though. But maybe you can waive the gift.