Dear Alma, I’m earning much more than my college friends. What should I do?

Dear Alma, I’m earning much more than my college friends. What should I do?

Daily Comfort Zone

norman lebrecht

September 16, 2023

From our agony aunt:

Dear Alma,

I got lucky (actually I worked very hard ) two years ago and got a sweet job in the same fantastic city where I graduated from music school. It pays handsomely, and I like what I do. I am quite a bit younger than most of the people I work with, and so my main group of friends is still the same as in school. I love them to bits, but it’s getting pretty awkward because they are all still broke and I am flush. When I suggest a place to eat, they all balk and say it’s too expensive, but I am sick of grabbing a slice at Franco Manca or a bowl of ramen. I feel grown up and wish they would grow up too. I offer to just pay for everyone but they don’t like that either. I like them all much better than my new, old and stodgy colleagues, but I want something better than sitting on a saggy couch and watching Bridgerton. 

  • Poor Friends

Dear Poor Friends,

Congratulations on getting a plumb job. That’s not easy to do, especially in a town that you like and know, with a built-in friend network.

These moments between school and a job certainly have growing pains, and not all of your friends will end up in the same financial spot at the same time. So hold on, and let’s see if we can find a way to bridge this gap without too much Bridgerton or KFC.

It must be frustrating to have money to spend, but not be able to spend it with your friends. Paying for them now and again is probably ok, but it will make them feel awkward and can negatively affect your friendships.

When I was in college, my oldest sister had a great job in an exotic location. She invited me to come stay with her and take a vacation together. I saved up as best as I could, managing just enough to get to her location and to bare-bones a couple of weeks of vacation. She had offered to pay my travel, but I was stubborn and proud and wanted to fend for myself. At her place, she treated me as extravagantly as she could while still making me feel comfortable. She bough amazing cheeses, pastries, great wine, and had some cool parties.

When the vacay part happened, I told her I wanted to pay my way but I could only afford campgrounds. She offered to pay for hotels but I wasn’t comfortable. It would make me feel beholden. So she agreed and was a good sport about it all. After a couple of days, she asked if it would be ok if she sprung for a modest hotel and a decent dinner. I could see she had made a good step towards me, and that it would only be fair for me to take that step towards her. We LOVED staying in that hotel! And the breakfast was divine. We ended up staying two days. She was happy, I was happy. Then we went back to camping.

I think the best thing you could do is to take a moment to write down your feelings. Really sort it out. They are your friends, and probably a great support network for you as you make this transition into your new career, so it’s important to preserve this. You have to find a balance between what makes them feel comfortable, while still enjoying the perks of your life upgrade. I am sure there is a way for you to be generous with them without them feeling like they owe you one. However, it’s more important for you to fit into their lives than for you to push them into an uncomfortable financial situation.

Why don’t you invite them over, have a potluck or make a great dinner (or have some super delivery), pop Bridgerton on the telly, and find a time to tell them how you are feeling, and see what they think. Maybe you could suggest that every 4 times you go out, they let you splurge and treat them to drinks or a dessert or a dinner. It’s good to get it off your chest, and to hear what they think. I am sure you can find a common ground!

And – former Dear Alma peeps – please write in and let us know how you are doing – we would love to hear from you!


  • Nick2 says:

    Why do I have difficulty believing the content of the original letter? Who is this Alma and why would anyone actually write such a letter to her? It all seems rather naive and silly!

  • SVM says:

    Is the OP sure that his/her friends are genuinely “broke”, as opposed to earning reasonably well but “skint” in their spending. It may be they choose to be significantly more cautious in their spending and reluctant to accept the OP’s hospitality for any number of valid reasons, such as:
    *being freelance and having variable/uncertain earnings (albeit sometimes having big earnings);
    *wanting a bigger “rainy day” fund (possibly due to not having much/any job security — a freelance performer is only one injury or bad gig away from being out of performing work);
    *having bigger financial obligations in the household than the OP (e.g.: children; elderly relatives needing carers);
    *preferring to spend their disposable income on family (or friends who are closer to them than the OP);
    *not wanting the implied obligation of reciprocating the generosity the OP is proposing if their own financial circumstances improve (and/or the OP’s circumstances deteriorate and the OP expects to be “bailed-out” because his/her “rainy day” fund is insufficient) in the future.

    The OP says that he/she works a lot with older colleagues — if he/she spoke with them, he/she will doubtless hear them moaning (sometimes reasonably, sometimes very unreasonably) about current/former friends who have failed to reciprocate their generosity or, conversely, have been too lavish in their spending. For some reasons, weddings seem to be a particular flashpoint, with many newlyweds moaning about guests not being generous enough with their gifts or preparedness to incur out-of-pocket expenses to join the celebrations. Many “skint” people are acutely aware of how disagreements or conflicts over money can ruin friendships, and extrapolate Shakespeare’s mantra of “neither a lender nor a borrower be” to include potentially implied obligations of reciprocity in the exchange of gifts and hospitality.

    The best solution for cultivating friendships in these circumstances is to find ways of staying connected that are not predicated upon money being spent. Finding time to write really long letters (whether physical or electronic) or have really long conversations (whether in person or by telephone) can be a wonderful gesture of friendship that does not depend on significant sums of money being spent by anybody.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Dear “Poor Friends”,

    Whatever you do, don’t invite your friends for a great dinner to tell them how you are feeling. You won’t like to know what they think, if mind to do it. After that dinner they will avoid you for life.

    As we say in Sweden, equal children play best (“lika barn leker bäst”). Thus, play on their terms if you want to keep those friends.


    • Poor Friends says:

      Dear Pianofortissimo,
      This is Poor Friends. I like some of this advice here, even in the comments. I don’t want to give up on my friends, they mean a lot to me. I am going to try to save my extra money for a rainy day and also just hang out like we used to. Couch and slice style.

      • David says:

        Don’t listen to a lot of the people here. Comments on this site tend to be made by elderly conservatives who come from the generation where talking about money was a faux-pas, since they believe that people deserve whatever they earn. The younger generation tends to be a lot more open about financial issues. You just have to broach it in a way that doesn’t make you sound superior or that you are pitying them. In that sense, I think you should re-think the way you say ” I feel grown up and wish they would grow up too”. Being grown up does not mean spending money lavishly. As long as you have this mentality, they may sense that you think you are better than them, and this may not work out.

        Instead, when you talk to them, focus on how quality time is what matters most to you, and that you are happy to do things you used to do with them, but that you’d love to treat them sometimes if they won’t feel bad about it, because earning more means very little if you can’t share it with the people you like. Emphasize that you prefer to hang out with them over your colleagues who are in a similar situation as you. like Alma’s suggestion of inviting them over and cooking/ordering things, since you can have good food using good ingredients without showing how much you pay at the end.

        Also, focusing on quality time means that you can still do things that are cheap, but are different from before. Take cheap/free guided visits of museums/walking tour of the city, go for a picnic, go hiking, go for cheap plays/stand up comedy, etc. The more you do things with them, the more they’d be open for new experiences, and the more they may be fine with you paying from time to time. Unlike Alma, I wouldn’t suggest making a deal, like you paying once in 4 outings. Instead, find reasons to pay, such as birthdays, celebrating small wins, etc.

  • msc says:

    Don’t rub their faces in it, but enjoy it. Enjoy it a lot.

  • Althea T-H says:

    It’s ‘plum job’, not ‘plumb job’!

    Be that as it may – Poor Friends, a contrasting approach would be to sock away your profits, and to continue to hang out at the same economic level as your pals, for as long as you want to keep them.

    At the end of the day, a young person earning well should not be wasting money on lifestyle upgrades, but saving for a deposit on a house – or suchlike.

    If you already have a house, then put the extra money into a pension or holiday fund, instead.

    It’s good to save money, whilst it’s plentiful.

  • Nova Pilbeam says:

    The tone and content of this letter paint the writer in a rather poor light. Coddled, whiny, arrogant, insufferable, and entitled are just a few of the adjectives that came to mind after reading “Poor Friends” letter.
    The problem with this child is not their social circles lack of funds or their colleagues age, it’s his/her smug self-importance.

  • David says:

    Actually, this is great advice! Congrats on the column!

  • Maximilian Syracuse says:

    Sounds like this guy decided not to go into music! Congrats!

  • Reality Sux says:

    You know what you should do? You should keep it to yourself. Musician peers are very sensitive to what they usually perceive as undeserved success of those they had once upon a time perceived as equals. In other words, musicians are prone to envy and are not particularly aware of it.

    God forbid you have a high earning partner or family, you’ll hear fellow musicians gossiping about that too. Good ol’ ‘I hate you because you make me feel inferior by having more’.

  • Henry says:

    It’s hard to find a proper balance. It’s great that you found a good job, and I am sure your friends love the free tickets you can give them!

  • Isabelle says:

    Hanging out doesn’t need to cost money to be good. A conversation with friends is priceless.

  • Stuck says:

    Dear Alma,

    This is Stuck
    I am the violist stuck in a bass players body. Just checking in here. I took your advice and picked up a rental viola, and I was absolutely terrible! Couldn’t figure out a way to hold it up comfortably and it gave me a huge neck pain. I took a couple of lessons from a retired symphony player which helped, but then they suggested I try a viola da gamba, and directed me towards an amateur group. It’s the perfect fit – comfortable to play and really gets me out of my classical funk. Thanks for shaking it up for me, Alma!

  • Heiko Who says:

    Fall in love and have children. That way you’ll be poor again. Plus you’ll have no time to worry about your friends.