When David Matcham and his wife adopted a baby boy in 2013, their financial situation promptly hit rock bottom. Matcham, 44, from Norfolk, had just completed a PhD, and was looking for work. They were broke; poorer than either of them had been at any point in their lives, even when they were students.

For more than a year, Matcham became a social recluse. In part, this was out of necessity – he had no money for socialising – but it was more than that. His sense of self-worth was in the red. “I felt as if I didn’t matter any more, I had made such a mess of things,” he remembers. The anxiety around his finances was all-consuming. Matcham didn’t feel he could confide in his friends because he was ashamed. “My main fear was that they would think I was asking them for money,” he says. “I was just too embarrassed.”

Matcham stopped returning his friends’ calls, and stopped being invited to things. When Matcham had to socialise with his wife’s family, he would dread it. “They’re lovely people, but they’re all very successful,” he says. “I would use every possible excuse to avoid going. I wanted to withdraw from the aura of their success, which I wasn’t exuding.” He found a job stacking shelves, and then work as a delivery driver. The family clawed their way out of their financial pit.

Years later, when his family’s financial situation had improved, Matcham started having panic attacks. “At the time, I had to keep going for the sake of my son,” he says. “But when things got better, everything I hadn’t dealt with at the time started to emerge.” As well as the panic attacks, the social implications of Matcham’s period of isolation continue to be felt. Many of his friendships from university or school simply fell away, never to be recovered.

Matcham is not the only person to lose friendships because of his finances. The so-called friendship wealth gap was most memorably depicted in the episode of Friends in which Phoebe, Rachel and Joey order side salads and tap water in an upmarket restaurant, before being asked by the rest of the group to split the bill equally. The award-winning 2006 film Friends With Money chronicled the efforts of a maid, Olivia (played by Jennifer Aniston), to keep up with her high-rolling friends. More recently, the friendship wealth gap is a plotline in the schlocky Netflix drama You, as an aspiring writer Guinevere Beck amasses credit card debt buying expensive presents and rounds of cocktails in Manhattan bars for her wealthy, dissolute girlfriends.

Just like in Friends, Declan has experienced the choking anxiety of being in a restaurant he can’t afford, about to be asked to split a bill for a bunch of food and drink he didn’t order. The 28-year-old youth worker from south London was at his former school friend Olly’s birthday. He had felt pressured to attend, even though he was in between jobs and down to his last £100. “I ordered a starter, and the rest of the table were ordering all sorts of food and champagne,” he remembers. “I was freaking out.”

When the bill came, everyone decided to split it. Declan didn’t feel he could say no. Fortunately, a showboating member of the party decided to pay for the whole thing. “The sense of relief was huge,” Declan recalls. But, despite his near miss, the evening left a sour taste in his mouth. “I felt as if everyone at the table had been trying to prove something,” he says. “The whole experience showed that they were living on a different planet from me. Since when was spending £1,000 on dinner for eight people normal?”

Declan’s experience isn’t uncommon: the wealth gap typically becomes noticeable in your late 20s and early 30s, when friends who were once your financial equals begin to pull away from you in income. University peers you shared noodles with in dingy flat-shares start frequenting expensive restaurants with their colleagues; school friends go on lavish holidays you cannot afford. As the wealth gap widens, once-solid relationships begin to buckle and cave under the pressure of all that is unsaid. Many find it easier to let the relationship go, than confront the reality of the situation: that money is affecting their friendships.

“People don’t like talking about money,” says the financial therapist Simonne Gnessen. “So rather than tackle a situation that is difficult, they say nothing, which can create conflict and break up friendships down the line.” The wealth gap also affects romantic relationships. “I’ve worked with couples where one flies first class, and the other flies economy,” Gnessen says.

Attempting to keep up with her wealthier friends put the student Poppie Platt, 23, from Sheffield, in £7,000 of debt. “When you’re at uni, you feel as if you’re missing out on meaningful experiences with your friends if you can’t do the things they do,” she says. Platt put a holiday to Ibiza on her credit card, and bought new clothes for the trip using store credit. When she maxed out all her credit, Platt turned to payday loans. Her friends have no idea about Platt’s financial situation because she is too embarrassed to tell them. Platt’s experience isn’t uncommon: one of Gnessen’s clients even had to sell their property to pay off a debt incurred trying to keep up with a high-rolling friendship set.

When we go to a bar and the bill comes, there’s this atmosphere that, because I’m better off, I should pay

Why do we find it so hard to talk about our finances? We squirm when asked how much we earn; we agree to split bills equally rather than endure the discomfort of admitting we would rather pay for what we had. “Our society does not know how to talk about money in nonjudgmental, nonemotional terms,” says Prof Elsie Michie of Louisiana State University, the author of The Vulgar Question of Money, a study of our cultural relationship with money through the lens of the 19th-century English novel.

Our squeamishness about money can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, as Britain shifted from a land-based system of wealth to an economy run on movable capital. “Previously, money was held by aristocrats in land,” Michie says. “Suddenly, people started building fortunes from money.” This cash nexus swept away the old social order, which was governed by land, titles and ancient values of chivalry.

A culture of manners emerged, as the upwardly mobile middle classes approximated aristocratic values by appearing uninterested in money – superficially, at least. “As money becomes more powerful, it becomes good not to talk about money,” Michie says. “It’s a denial of what is happening socially. Although we have become a money culture, maybe if we don’t talk about money, we can resurrect medieval chivalric gentlemanly values.” Over the Victorian period, this manners-based culture became as rigid and enclosing as a whalebone corset. “Vulgarity solidifies in the Victorian era as a concept to describe people who want to talk about their money,” Michie says.

We have not come so very far since then. “It’s the things that aren’t said,” says James, a 27-year-old software salesman from Montreal. He earns 250,000 Canadian dollars (£145,000) a year, more than any of his friends, and he feels they impose upon him. “When we go to a bar and the bill comes, and I mention splitting it, there’s this atmosphere that, because I’m better off than them, I should pay for it.”

James finds these situations uncomfortable, and normally just pays. On the occasions he has asked friends to reimburse him, it has been awkward. “I get looks, or people make jokes about how I don’t need the money.” James doesn’t want to appear miserly, but he also doesn’t want to create the expectation that he’ll always be the person to pick up the tab. “I don’t want to be that guy who always pays for everyone,” James says. “I don’t want people to hang out with me for that.”

Part of the reason that it’s difficult to talk about money with friends is that it’s about much more than that. “Money isn’t just money,” says Prof Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, a professor of organisational behaviour, at the Open University. “It stands for all kinds of stuff.” He explains that people typically view money in one of several ways: as security, freedom, power and status or a way to show love.

It is more difficult to maintain friendships across the wealth gap if your friend is someone who views money as a source of power and status. “Money will be something they flaunt,” Fenton-O’Creevy says. “That may make them seem less likable to someone who has less money.” This is how Declan feels when he hangs out with Olly, who works in finance. “All he usually wants to talk about is a deal that he has just cut,” he sighs. “Conversation is usually about spending money or materialism in general.”

Wealthier people may prefer to socialise with people on similar incomes. Logistically, it’s easier, as they can afford to do the same things. “We like to be in tribes of people like us,” says Alex Holder, a journalist specialising in money issues and the author of Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life. “There’s so much comfort in being in places with people who like the same clothes and read the same newspapers and eat in the same restaurants.” This is the case for James, who recently attended a concert in Montreal. As the tickets cost £90, James didn’t bother inviting his lower-earning friends – he knew they couldn’t afford it. “I don’t want to only hang out with people who earn the same as me,” James says, sounding guilty. “But it’s already happening.”

With this shifting of social groups comes an escalating sense of estrangement from former friends. “Evidence shows that the richer you are, the more likely you are to believe that success comes from hard work and talent rather than luck or privilege,” says Fenton-O’Creevy. “If those attitudes harden, it’s easy to be judgmental about friends who are less successful, and attribute their lack of success to the fact they aren’t trying very hard.” Declan has felt judged by his wealthier peers for taking a low-paying job. “I know they think I’m tight with money,” he says. “But I’m just trying to do a job that benefits people.”

Being the one excluded from a higher-earning social group can feel deeply alienating. When Katrina Johnson, 34, changed her career from finance to advertising, she knew she would have a lot less money. (Her income dropped by two-thirds.) But she didn’t expect to be shut out of her former circle. “I’ve stopped being invited to things,” Johnson says. “People think: ‘Oh, if we invited her, she’d have to say no as she can’t afford it.’ It sucks. Just because I don’t have money, doesn’t mean I have to be a social pariah.”

Johnson doesn’t believe her friends are being unkind – they think they’re sparing her blushes. But she wishes they would consider suggesting affordable options to hang out instead. “They could say: ‘Hey, do you want to go for a coffee on Saturday?’” Johnson says. “That way, you can still spend time connecting.”

A rule of thumb when it comes to navigating the friendship wealth gap is to start with what the person with the least amount of money in the group can afford to do, and work with that. “It’s good to be mindful of people’s affordability when choosing holidays, restaurants or weekends away,” suggests Gnessen. “That will help avoid conflict.”

Be sensitive if a friend tells you that something is too expensive, and find alternatives. Gnessen is working with a client who is in debt and lives in a cramped flat. The client will often volunteer to cook a meal at a friend’s house, so they can socialise together in a more comfortable environment, without spending much money. As she is the one cooking, she doesn’t feel as if she is imposing. “It’s about trying to find creative solutions to accommodate the wealth gap,” Gnessen says. “Work with each other, rather than creating a distinction.”

As with so much in life, the solution is to talk about it. This can feel uncomfortable at first. “It takes one brave person in a friendship group to say: ‘I can’t afford to do that,’” says Holder. She recently shared her salary on Instagram because she believes in the transformative power of speaking about money openly. “Money isn’t inherently hard to talk about,” Holder argues. “It’s a social taboo. It’s a construct we’ve created.”

Because, when it comes to money, it is never just about the numbers in your bank account. Our relationship with money is about as complicated as an offshore investment fund, and even more secretive. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“It’s not inevitable that people with different amounts of wealth will drift apart,” says Fenton-O’Creevy. “It depends on whether both parties care enough to keep the friendship alive. In friendship, very little is insurmountable.”

Some names have been changed.

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