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My friend thinks I’m a freeloader

What happens when tough economic times affect one friend more than another? Dr. Gail Saltz advises one ashamed, angry woman on how to prevent financial inequity from ruining a relationship.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. I have a good friend of 20 years who has always been more financially successful than myself. Because my hard times left me with lots of debt, I have become focused on budgeting. I won’t go to lunch with the work gang unless someone else picks up the tab. Usually I brown-bag it while everyone else goes to a coffee shop, but once in a while one of the guys says, “Come on, my treat.”

Well, my old friend took this opportunity to tell me that she has bought me plenty of dinners and had me to her house many times when I head straight for the refrigerator. She said that I have never reciprocated and that I have a sense of “entitlement” about having other people pay for me. She asked me when I was going to lose this impoverished mentality of mine.

I am embarrassed, angry and hurt. I have always been envious of this woman and wish I could succeed financially as she has. We always went to her place because our daughters are friends and her big house can hold everyone. They never expressed any desire to visit me in my small apartment.

Now I feel that my friend has been keeping score all along. She essentially has called me a freeloader. I feel I am absolutely right to be on a strict budget! I have big debt and small savings, and I’m worried about my future. I was proud of my determination to change things. I’m so ashamed and angry at how she characterized me. Do I have the right to be sore? She’s right, by the way. She always had tons of food in the house and I always helped myself. So I feel like a real jerk.

A. It’s good that you are aware of this situation. The fact you are upset shows you are clued in.

You feel your friend has so much that it is OK to help yourself. Your envy may have propelled you to do so without acknowledging what you were doing — in other words, without letting her know how much you appreciate her generosity and without expressing that you wish to reciprocate in some way.

If you were ashamed of having others over to your small apartment, or didn’t want people to know how serious your financial situation was, you might have kept silent about your motivation to scrimp and save. Therefore, as you say, you risk coming across as “gimme gimme gimme.”

Some people do keep a close financial score, and always feel they are being taken advantage of. Your friend may be like this.

But, as you yourself note, your friend is right! Your tendency is to enter her house and go directly to the food source. This is pretty blatant. Even though you think you have few resources in comparison with your friend, she is getting resentful because she is always putting out. Just because someone has more money or resources than you does not mean they should be obligated to always be giving to you.

It is sometimes hard to have a friendship when the friends have significant financial inequity, which leads to envy. Certainly, something quantifiable like money or food makes for an easy way to keep track of who’s footing the bill, but I suspect your friend is also referring to the spirit of sharing, in a broader sense.

So I think you should talk frankly about this with your friend. By the time she broached the subject, she was already pretty annoyed. This spilled out abruptly after she had bottled up her feelings for years, which often happens when people do not express themselves honestly. It’s fine to admit you didn’t realize the degree to which you were freeloading off her, and to express your embarrassment.

If you want to overcome your anger and hurt over this, I suggest you make an effort to be generous in ways you can be generous. This doesn’t have to cost much.

You could, for example, cook dinner for your friend instead of going to a fancy restaurant, drop her a card or note, do a favor like walking her dog or baby-sitting her kids, accompany her while she does a boring chore. It’s fine to invite her over to your small apartment — it’s not as though she has to ask. Maybe she would like a change of scenery.

I applaud you for sticking to a budget, which is something many people need to do, but you seem to be feeling resentful about it. You might be inadvertently taking this out on others around you. It is not their fault that they are more financially successful than you are.

If you act resentful or entitled because of your anger, you will drive people away. If somebody occasionally says “my treat,” make sure you let them know how much you appreciate it.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Generosity isn’t measured only in money. You can reciprocate a friend’s financial generosity in nonmonetary ways.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .