The other day, I met up with Rick, a friend from college who I hadn’t seen in a while. After briefly deliberating where to go for a drink, we settled on “Mike’s,” the sort of salt-of-the-earth establishment that makes America great, complete with sponsored umbrellas and $10 pitchers.
Neither of us were in the mood to stimulate the economy by dropping a lot of money, and, thus, we “cheap bastards” erased a Hamilton on clear beer (though it did occur to me that we could have gone the double Olde English 800 route, so who’s cheap now?). We chuckled at our collective sigh of relief at not dropping $50 or more on an evening, which is easier to do if you’re hanging out with people who are just as short on cash as you are.
Surrounding yourself with wealthier friends makes your own money at least twice as flammable. Rick, a stipended intern, had been hanging out with people with French collars and suspenders who work in monolithic buildings. The odd man in a hungry group of five, Rick told me they would invariably settle on something at least twice as expensive as he wanted, and that he could only suggest other options, or protest to a certain extent.
After a few of these outings, budgetary concerns altered the protocol from “I’ll meet you for dinner” to “I’ll meet you at the bar after,” and finally to “I’ll meet you halfway for a drink.” For the first time, these prodigal sons could afford slightly better food for twice the price, and were willing to pay. Rick preferred to make better use of his budget by grabbing a sandwich, or cooking, and occupying the not unreasonable middle ground between being a foodie and the “it’ll all look the same in 10 hours” sort of eater.
I don’t know how you can maintain a regimen of economic austerity when surrounded by people who make it rain at every bar, bistro, and burrito place they pass. For some reason, our society has made it almost impossible for the young and social to venture from the apartment after 8 p.m. without bleeding green from cover charges, cab fare, and bootleg booze at boutique prices. Even letting go of your ego and letting your friends know you can’t afford a night out doesn’t always help. We all know that the lowest common denominator isn’t always so low.
As Rick—the Greece of his friend group—lamented his situation within his EU (making the rest of his group England, Sweden, Germany, and Finland), I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Mexico. I come to the uneven wealth distribution situation from a different angle, having surrounded myself with just one future executive—the United States in this slightly ridiculous analogy I’m using to illustrate this situation.
It doesn’t have to be this way: My wealthier friend couldn’t care less if we ate cheap, shotgunned gas station beers in an alley, and took the subway or an odyssean walk home instead of a cab. He works long and hard, but still can play dirty like the rest of our group—represented in this analogy by various Central American countries (though I’m sure he loves that he’s the U.S.).
I don’t know exactly how much fun it is to live like Rick’s bros, but I would be shocked if they really do live better. We don’t exactly think our twenties are exactly for living the ramen, multivitamins, and protein powder diet, but we do know it’s a time not to live and spend like a 35-year-old with an established career and healthy amount of money in the bank—even if you can pretend you can. Besides, the savings can be put to better use, because, like it or not, it will look the same in 10 hours.
Ultimately, Rick’s course of action was not determined during our sit-down. Rick’s caught between the rock of growing broke and the hard place of “fear of missing out”—a classic dilemma. Fortunately, I compounded the dilemma by adding two more undesirable situations: resorting to crime to finance a posh lifestyle, or requesting assistance. Having choices make us feel better, right? The matter remains unresolved.
All I can say is that if you’ve got wealthy friends, try to get them to live like the proles. The cost of living is way lower here in Central America.
Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer, editor, and artist from Vermont. Hear him testify @midnitemann.