My spouse and I have been friends with a neighboring couple for decades, until recently. In our early 30s, we worked, struggled, and endeavored to improve our lives. This included career changes, setbacks and successes, vacations and fun, work on our respective houses, and dinners out.
Our approaches to life were different but we remained fast friends nonetheless. For example, we took camping trips in the mountains, while they enjoyed trips to Europe.
In our early 40s, our friends invited us to meet with their financial adviser.
We dug trenches, poured concrete foundations, and worked to build our house; they hired contractors. They traded in cars frequently; we ran ours into the ground.
Our idea of a fun night out was the special at the local Chinese restaurant, while they clubbed it in the city. Indeed, their combined income was twice ours — probably more — and we had unemployment setbacks. But we never suffered relationship problems with the so-called wealth gap as so many friends do. While out for an evening together we split bills evenly, treated or were treated. It worked.
In our early 40s, our friends became interested in retiring early, and invited us to meet with their financial adviser. We accepted and had a great time. Well, they did poke fun at us for participating too much on their dime. It was a good experience, and my spouse and I took it to heart and so did our friends, or so we thought.
After all, they talked about finances all the time, shared conversations they had with their financial adviser, and frequently forecast their future. Our friends had absolute plans to retire with their current lifestyle at 55, which at the time seemed out of reach for us, even if the underlying financial concepts seemed sound. We adopted the financial advice, mostly.
We stopped discussing finances for the next decade or so, enjoyed our lives, and enjoyed one another’s company. In our mid fifties, finances came up again. They asked us about our plans, and we reminded them about the financial adviser meeting so many years back.
We stopped discussing finances for the next decade or so, and enjoyed our lives.
We shared that we had just finished our last five-year plan and, at 55, we were ready to retire with no debt, a steady income stream, full and nearly free lifetime medical insurance, and a healthy nest egg. This includes a nice capital gains exemption on our house sale.
We assumed they had outperformed us with their income but no, that same financial adviser is telling them that they need 10 more years of work to meet their retirement income goals. They have mortgage and credit-card debt and incomplete medical coverage.
They can’t down-size and sell their home at a profit, nor is their home configured to sell easily. The subject came up a few times more, but then they lost interest and we stopped discussing it. Now they have pulled away, and we haven’t spoken for a long time. We pass each other in town with polite nods or thousand-yard stares.
Maybe we can understand how they feel, but it is confusing. What happened?
The Future is Bright, For Us
Your letter was compelling from the get-go. It exists in that bittersweet spot between friendship and hardship, romance and finance, saying too much and not enough, good neighbors and bad manners, and good manners and bad neighbors. When I read, “In our early 40s, our friends became interested in retiring early, and invited us to meet with their financial adviser,” I knew we had reached a turning point or a crossroads or — perhaps for your friends — something of a spaghetti junction.
It was an equal friendship in terms of dinner checks, but that doesn’t mean it was equal.
They were living well, and they were also comfortable with you and your wife living, well, not quite in the same fashion. But you were A-OK with that. And you’re right. You can have just as much fun camping as you can have in Europe staying at a five-star hotel. More, in fact. Plus, you can enjoy a home that was lovingly renovated over time with the sweat from your own brow as much, if not more, than if you had hired contractors to turn it into a marble-encrusted suburban palace.
It was an equal friendship in terms of dinner checks, but that does not mean it was all equal. It may not have been a 50/50 relationship in the eyes of your friends. They wanted to help you when they believed that you needed their help, and whatever propensity they had for competing with others was not triggered in your company. It may be harsh to say they were at ease with perceiving you and your wife as the underdogs in this relationship, but it certainly seems that way.
If they did live beyond their means and live a lifestyle to which they hoped to become accustomed — and they can’t blame you or their financial adviser for their credit-card debt — it suggests that they may not be 100% happy in their own skin. When people are unhappy and they have a brief respite from those emotions when they buy a smart TV or a face cream that promises to make them look 10 years younger, it might not feel so bad to have friends who do not have access to those luxuries.
Pull up a chair because I am now going to tell you a story about a friendship.
Look back without anger or diamond-encrusted rose-tinted spectacles. Was your friendship as real as you believe it to be? Pull up a chair. I’m now going to tell you a story. My father died 20 years ago and, after reading the death notice in the newspaper, my best friend from elementary school got in touch. In high school, he dropped me. I was crestfallen, but I also realized that it wasn’t healthy to have just one “best friend.” We had not seen each other since then, so I was curious to reconnect.
We arranged to meet for dinner in a restaurant in Dublin. When I arrived, he said, “Why don’t you sit down there — and relax.” Why was he telling me to relax? I was relaxed! Now I wasn’t feeling so relaxed! The evening started with that weird, condescending tone, and it went downhill from there. He asked a lot of questions, which soon took on a common theme. All roads led back to money, money, money: “Where do you live? How many bedrooms do you have?”
Late into the evening, and too many pints of Guinness later, he asked me in a slow, slurring drawl: “Do you mind me asking, ‘How much did you pay for your apartment?’” Again, I told him. He could do all the calculations he wanted to, but it was no skin off my nose. My friends have been, and always will be, the most valuable thing in my life. But at that moment it finally hit me: A childhood friendship I had encased in a special snow globe of my mind was, like this evening, actually difficult to endure.
Your frugal living led you to where you are today, retiring in your 50s.
Memories came flooding back. Bad ones. Summer vacations when he didn’t return my calls. Reminders that he had more money, a recurring topic. Recalling those experiences led me to feel bad for my younger self. It wasn’t that he had changed, it was that he had not changed. He was the same. That high status/low status was the dynamic of our childhood friendship. I was so happy to have a friend back then that I put up with it. In 2001, however, one night was enough.
What did I learn from that? If someone is no longer in your life, it could be for a good reason. It’s OK to have a smaller home or less money than everyone else, so drive up to that school reunion bursting with pride in your old jalopy! Listen to how you feel, and take action. When you are spending time with neighbors or old school buddies who are not healthy for you, you are taking time away from yourself, and from days and nights spent with others. Time is infinitely more valuable than money.
They, and they alone, bear the sole responsibility for their own finances.
Similarly, your friendship with these neighbors may not be exactly as you remember it. It is revealing that they poked fun at you for taking too much time with their financial adviser, or for asking too many questions. It shows that there was an invisible line not to cross. You could take a stock tip or two, but just enough so you would stay in your proverbial box. Have no doubt: Your investing and frugal living led you to where you are today, retiring in your 50s. No one is responsible for that, but you.
You never did ask your friends what went wrong. They may not give you an honest answer, but you may feel better by acknowledging that this friendship has come a cropper. They may be genuinely struggling financially and, while that must be hard for them to deal with, they — and they alone — bear the sole responsibility for that. Some people will only be around for the good times. Others will relish the bad times. But true friends will celebrate and commiserate, and be there for both.
If this friendship doesn’t recover, that’s OK. What was your part? Were you quietly competing with them too? Either way, I believe that we journey through people, and just because a friendship ends does not mean it was not a success for the time that it lasted. Sometimes, they simply run their course. Finally, every challenging experience we have and every person we meet is here to teach us something. And so what has this decades-long friendship taught you?
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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at [email protected]. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.