Dr. Peggy Drexler
September 26, 2013 3:00 pm

Layla, a stay-at-home mother of two, had a pretty good life. Sure, money was tight—her husband, Bill, had been out of work for a year before landing back on his feet—but the couple could claim a perfectly nice house in the suburbs of Boston, a strong relationship, and two polite, well-behaved children. She had most everything she needed.

The problem was, her friends had more. And it was all Layla could think about. “I’m very blessed with two great kids and a great husband. We have a roof over our heads and two functional cars to get us around,” she told me. “But it’s so hard to see so many people with huge houses and fancy cars and expensive clothes who take vacations every single year and all of that.” She and Bill weren’t struggling, but they didn’t have much in the way of extravagance. “Sometimes it just makes me feel bad about myself,” she said. “I want to be happy for my friends and their success, but it can be hard not to feel terrible in comparison.”

There are few things that can come between friends as easily as money can. Having pals who are well off can force those with less to confront their own thoughts about money—how much they have versus how much they may want. Jealousy, envy, resentment, and feelings of inadequacy are common. Some people may try to counteract such feelings by imagining the “better-offs” as miserable in some other way. “I just tell myself they’re probably in debt or trying to ‘appear rich’ to overcompensate for something they’re lacking,” Susan, an elementary school teacher, told me of those she calls her “fancy” friends. Others may remove themselves from the friendship.

But while some people do live above their means, certainly that’s not the case for everyone, and imagining your friends as miserable in order to make yourself feel okay about their wealth isn’t much of a solution. Meanwhile, neither is ending friendships—especially if those richer than you aren’t doing anything to actively make you feel bad.

Erika and her husband are what many people might consider “rich.” They live in a big house and drive nice cars. They travel often. And it’s not just for show: They work hard at well-paying jobs and carry no debt. But she and her husband often feel as if they’re judged for what they have, Erika told me. “So many times we’ve had people over for the first time for play dates or adult get-togethers and they react in such a way that I know that we’ll never see them again,” said Erika, a divorce attorney. “And it’s not because I’m flaunting my latest trip, or what is in my family room, but because someone has jumped to a conclusion about who I am based on external appearances. And that’s hurtful.”

It’s difficult not to feel resentful over what other people have, and what you don’t. But not impossible. The trick is learning to manage your own envy and jealousy before it becomes destructive. (And destructive it is: An American Psychological Association study found that jealousy is linked to negative behavior and aggression.) It’s important to remember that money makes life easier in many respects, but it doesn’t buy happiness. It also doesn’t make those who have it any better—or worse—than those who don’t. How to deal if it’s driving you mad that your friends have more:

Set boundaries. If you’re reluctant to hang out with friends with more money because you feel pressured to spend cash you don’t have, don’t be afraid to be upfront and honest. If $50 entrees aren’t in the cards for you right now, suggest a more moderately priced restaurant, or getting together at home. Real friends will value your company over trying out the trendy new restaurant (though don’t fault them for being interested in the trendy new restaurant, either).

Don’t judge them for what they have, but for who they are. It’s not how much money you have or don’t, but how you live your life that matters, and you might have more in common with your rich friends than you think. As Erika told me, “We’re nice people. We treat others with respect and dignity. We do a lot of charitable giving. We are good neighbors and friends. We shop for bargains. We are trying, just like everybody else, to raise our kids as best we can.”

Use the opportunity to reevaluate your situation. Maybe you’re perfectly happy at work. Or maybe you’re not. If you find yourself getting uncontrollably envious about what a friend has, you might use those feelings to get in touch with your own goals. Do you deserve a raise? Do you dream of a career move? Maybe your friends are a source of inspiration, rather than a source of misery.

Resist the urge to keep up. Just because your better-off friends host you for lobster and champagne, say, doesn’t mean they expect you to do the same when it comes time to hang out at your house. If a friend offers to treat you to dinner, she’s trying to say that your friendship is worth more than money—and that she’s interested in sharing what she has. Accept graciously. Don’t keep score, and don’t assume they are either.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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