Sometimes it can feel like the pandemic has split the whole nation into two groups: those who are worried about their finances – and those who have managed to save a bit (or a lot) while staying home.
We know the past 10 months have exacerbated existing inequalities in the UK – new research by the Resolution Foundation has shown that low income families are actually spending more, not less during the crisis – and there are millions of people out of work for the first time or struggling to keep businesses afloat.
A study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that women were one third more likely to work in a sector forced to shut down by the pandemic, such as retail or hospitality. And data, from the Department for Work and Pensions found an increase in single parents – who are predominately women – claiming Universal Credit.
The money gap is growing, especially among women, but it’s also become more hidden.
None of us are eating out, going on holiday or spending much time face to face with friends and family right now. That may well mean that someone you care about is struggling behind closed doors. Or, that you’re the one worried about your finances, but no one else has realised.
To get conversations started, we’re discussing the friendship money gap in the latest podcast episode of Am I Making You Uncomfortable?, finding out how to talk about money with mates.
Clare Seal, who started the Instagram account My Frugal Year, admits that the pressure to keep up with friends (particularly other new mums in her NCT group) contributed to her getting into £27,000 of debt.
But Seal is now tackling that sum, and recommends speaking to mates about your financial situation before agreeing to any costly post-pandemic plans.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to declaring money struggles. “When I told my really close group of girlfriends, I literally sent a really long text to the group just blurting everything out,” she says. “But the way you talk about money is so dependent on your individual personal relationships. And it’s
really difficult. There isn’t an easy way to do it.”
If you’re finding it hard to open up, it can help to avoid a formal setting. “I always find having difficult conversations much easier in the car when someone’s driving, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes,” adds Seal.
“Or on a walk if you’re in motion. But some people respond well to getting a text or an email, or a letter. And some people really hate that. So I think I tried to navigate the topic within my personal relationships in a bespoke way.”
Seal says scribbling down some notes first may help to keep things on track. Think about what you want to say, and what you want to get out of the chat.
You also don’t need to tell everyone in your phonebook at once. If you’re in a large friendship group, think about telling one person you trust, who can help advocate for you in the group, before you’re ready to be completely open.
Making it clear that you are not asking for financial help may help conversations go more smoothly. Instead, tell loved ones how they can best support you.
Asking a mate to be your “accountability partner” is also a great option, says Kia Commodore, who runs the financial literacy platform, Pennies To Pounds. This is someone you can disclose your money goals to and who can help you achieve them – whether you’re trying to get out of debt, or want to save for something in particular, like a new car or a house deposit.
Commodore says she uses the idea with one of her own friends. “They check in with me at regular intervals and make sure that I’m on track with saving,” she explains. “So if that person knows that I’m trying to save – and now all of a sudden I’ve splurged out and bought this nice pair of trainers which cost me £300 – they can now keep me on track and say: ‘You know what? You shouldn’t have done that. I thought we’re in this rhythm of saving?’”
Your accountability partner is also there to celebrate small wins. Find someone who will cheer you on when you’ve made a dent in your plan – however tiny.
We need to get better at talking about money, but we also need to get better if we’re on the receiving end of these conversations.
Seal emphasises the need for listening and responding to information without judgement. And Commodore says you can be an even better friend by adapting your own behaviour if someone has disclosed financial worries to you.
“As and when things open up again, once you’re back outside, instead of going to a really lavish restaurant because you can afford it, be mindful that maybe friends are trying to budget,” she says.
“The great thing to come out of Covid and the pandemic is a lot of people have realised that there are a lot of free things that you can do. You can go and meet up with friends outdoors, and go and enjoy the wildlife and
the nature. Say to friends: ‘You know what? Let’s meet up to go for a walk.’”
Opening up about her financial situation largely a positive experience for Seal, she says, as it helped tackled the secrecy and shame that often accompanies being hard up. But not everyone reacted positively, so do be prepared for that.
“Often if people don’t really struggle with money or have always had quite a straightforward relationship with it, they just don’t understand what an emotional pull it can have on you,” she says. “But then other people within the same group, I could almost visibly see relief on their face.”
And if friends do not respond positively – if, for example, they exclude you from that post-pandemic holiday rather than reevaluating their plans – it may be time to reassess the friendship.
“You should never feel obliged to have to take out extra amounts of credit – for example, a credit card or an overdraft – just to keep up with friends,” says Commodore.
“A true friend would never put you in that position. If you have friends like that, that’s probably a sign for you step away and leave them where they’re at, and continue the path that you’re on.”