Coming Up Short

Can you talk about your finances without feeling uncomfortable? Let's face it: some topics are still off limits, even among the closest friends. I'm going to talk about income disparity, even if it IS the last taboo. 

I am on the have-not side of this equation, and my financial status is a social handicap. I am a widow with two kids. In a story too long to tell here, I realized only after my husband's passing that there was no life insurance. No job, two young children, a mortgage. I used to be a stay-at-home mom who employed a lawn service and a cleaning lady. I was not prepared for the reversal of fortune.

Now many years have passed, and I am out of the very dire straits I found myself in, but I still can't live as I did with my husband's income. I just paid off the orthodontist, and I'll soon have one daughter in college, with the other on her heels. That is to say, things won't look better financially for a while.

The expenses of daily living take up all (and then some) of the income I make working several part-time jobs. There's nothing left at the end of the month to sock away for later life. At 58 years of age, I can't imagine reinventing myself professionally. A Social Security check is still years away and, heaven knows, I'll be working as long as I am able.

I am cautious about my spending and don't go out much. If I'm looking at Facebook and see my friends all out at a function I couldn't afford to attend, I'll be honest, it's tough. But it's also hard to have well-meaning friends pick up the tab, though I can’t expect them to always make a choice based on my needs when they might want to go someplace or do something outside my budget. There are a few people who have been very generous with my girls with gifts and checks, and for that I will be forever grateful. I know it makes them happy to give, as it would me if the situation were reversed. But it changes the friendship because I can't reciprocate—how could it not?

I've pretty much stopped exchanging gifts with anyone but my kids. When money was not an object, I really enjoyed finding perfect gifts for the people I love; by mutual agreement, most of this has stopped. I find my holiday gifts go to the mail carrier or the hairdresser, not friends and family. I miss that.

It's easy to keep in touch with email and texting. Instead of dinners out, I do coffee, and my close female friends are fewer in number. But I'm by no means a hermit and I’m not wallowing in self-pity. I am very active in my community and volunteer in ways that add meaning and richness to my life. But my social life is different than I imagined it would be because money is an issue. For one thing, it takes more planning—spontaneity can be expensive.

Maybe you too find yourself on a fixed income, determined not to outlive your retirement savings while still trying to enjoy life. Or maybe a good friend of yours is the one carefully walking the line. Either way, you won't want to suspend your friendships for want of money but you may have to find new ways to engage. Anyone up for a walk?