“Oh, wait, you gotta see this,” she said as I was leaving. She opened the freezer, which was packed with frozen meats and cheeses purchased by her mother at BJ’s, the bulk-discount store. “We go shopping there every six months. That’s how I can afford to go out with my friends.”
Imagine the four of them at dinner—Liz, Sara, Alex, and Michelle—talking about work, about men, about what the Democrats need to do to get their act together. What they don’t bring up, ever, is money. A somewhat subconscious omission, it’s also a function of necessity: the maintenance of an illusion, a way for them to believe that they are the same. But even among friends—especially among friends—the illusion has a shelf life. The check comes. Handbags—some newer than others—are reached for. The bill is split. For Sara, it’s a splurge with no lasting reverberations. For Liz, it’s something she is able to do—occasionally—because she is a “very clever budgeter” who supplements her income by babysitting, dog-walking, coat-checking, and selling things like old cell phones on eBay. For Michelle and Alex, it’s something in between: a reminder of why neither has any savings.
Alex and Michelle, both 27, are in almost identical financial situations—similar salaries, similar spending habits—and are seemingly all the closer for it. When they go shopping together, they try on everything, pretending they can afford it all but purchasing just one or two items. Both guessed they spend about $500 a month on clothes and beauty products. Alex jokes about how her savings account isn’t really for putting money away, “it’s just sort of like delayed spending.” Michelle—who’s single and happy to live in her Soho studio for many more years—doesn’t think twice about this lifestyle. “Unfortunately, I have good taste” is how she put it, as serious as she was sarcastic. She wouldn’t mind having an apartment big enough to entertain in, but she has friends with money, like Miss X, and when she feels the urge to throw a dinner party, she calls them up and asks if she can cook them dinner.
Alex, on the other hand, has started to question the sustainability of an adult life that feels like an extension of adolescence. She’s been living with her boyfriend for two years, and wants to start a family sometime soon(ish). Raised in Virginia, she’s thinking that one day she’ll leave New York for a place where you don’t have to think so much about money. “In Manhattan, you can’t help but have an attitude of consumption,” she said. “You walk down the street—all those ads are for you. Even going to meet friends is about consuming. You don’t meet at a park bench—you get coffee, you get a drink, you have to buy something. Every time I walk outside, I just feel like I’m losing money.”
The idea of Alex leaving remains too much of an abstraction for Michelle to really worry about. When I asked her about where she noticed money affecting her friendships the most, she brought up Miss X, who operates on a seemingly limitless budget. “I try to avoid going to Barneys with her,” Michelle told me half-jokingly. “Like, maybe just once a month. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.” During a recent outing, Miss X bought a $600 sweater. “I would never do that,” Michelle said. “If I really ‘needed’ a $600 sweater, I would maybe, like, get it in double discount or mention to my parents that I need really nice sweaters for Christmas because I’m so cold.”
Then there is the matter of vacations. When New Year’s plans were recently discussed, Miss X brought up the idea of spending a long weekend in Croatia, or maybe the Maldives, which Michelle and Alex took to mean the group wouldn’t be spending the holiday together. “Last year, she wanted to go to the Dominican Republic and was like, ‘If you can’t afford it, just ask your parents for Christmas,’ ” said Michelle. “I can’t have the same dismissing quality that she can—oh, a weekend in the Dominican Republic!” Both Michelle and Alex stressed that this doesn’t stir any animosity or envy on their part. In fact, they point out, Miss X can be quite generous, loaning Michelle money when she moved into a new apartment. But there is some distance where before there was none. “Three years ago, we would spend every single weekend together,” Michelle said. “Now there are some weekends where I don’t see her. But I think that’s also, like, healthy for us.”
Bring up Miss X’s wealth around Liz, on the other hand, and within five minutes she’ll run the gamut from aggravated to embittered to confounded to repelled to even more aggravated. Back at our takeout dinner at Sara’s, not long after assuring me that she no longer felt any resentment over Sara’s apartment, Liz turned the conversation back to real estate. This time, the object of understandable envy was Miss X’s recent apartment purchase for an amount that not one of the other girls could even conceive of touching: $1.5 million, rumored to have been paid in cash.