Socioeconomic disparities are a reality of our society and a major source of passionate emotion and political disagreement. Economic disparities are a major source of tension in society and this tension can also affect our personal relationships.  You are right to be sensitive to these issues and how they play out over the lifespan with friends whose lives have taken different directions.

Some people in positions of socioeconomic privilege find it much easier to socialize and develop friendships with individuals and families similar to themselves. However, many people have long-term friends and make new friends who are in circumstances different from your own. All of these friendships are important and may remain very important to you throughout your life.

There are no clear guidelines or book of etiquette I am aware of that deals with these issues so the best approach combines common sense, awareness and communication. Since people are often reluctant to talk about money issues, even with close friends, it is also important to pick up on verbal and non-verbal clues about your friends’ comfort levels talking about retirement, investments and other money-related subjects.

Depending on the individual, his or her circumstances and personality, discussing these kinds of topics may be just fine or may be very uncomfortable.  Such discussions can inadvertently stir up feelings of anger, hurt and resentment that could mar your friendship.  Here are a couple of things to be aware of as you choose to approach or avoid these topics.

If you have had an open, disclosing type of relationship with your friend that has always included discussion of your respective financial situations, plans for work, retirement and so forth, there is probably no reason to discontinue discussing those subjects.  If you do have that level of open communication, it may also be fine and appropriate to talk about your own comfort level and your concerns about your friend’s potential discomfort. This conversation will provide you with information valuable to you in making future decisions.

Second, be conscious of maintaining a balance in the give and take of the discussion of these and other topics.  Whatever your friend’s interests and issues may be, their needs, feelings and struggles are just as important as yours and your conversation should not primarily revolve around you and your hopes, dreams and plans.

Third, if there is an especially large economic disparity between you, it is not uncommon to feel an internal emotional tug to take care of your friend, to help them out financially and try to shoulder some of the responsibility for their life situations.  This is tricky territory.  Your assistance may be appropriate and welcome at times, but it can also foster an unequal power relationship between you.

As most people have discovered at some point in their lives, issues of money often contaminate the dynamics of friendships and family relationships. Resist the urge to step in unasked and take responsibility for your friend’s circumstances and situations. If you wish to help, do so out of a sense of choice rather than obligation and be clear as to whether the money is a loan or a gift.  If it is a loan, it is important to have a clear, preferably written agreement about terms of repayment.

The topic of money, like the topics of sex, religion and politics are delicate conversations to navigate.  With good will and some sensitivity and regard for the differences in your financial situations, this need not become a barrier to a lifetime of wonderful sharing with your new and long-term friends.