Life

“I'm 27 and the poorest of my friends by a long way. Now what?”

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Alexandra Jones
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Stylist's Alex Jones ponders the awkward nuances of a life where her friends are all a lot richer than her...

It’s the day before payday and my bank balance is showing £0.97. As for most people, December’s orgy of food and festivities wreaked havoc on my finances. And there would have been a time, not so long ago, when I’d have laughed at this figure. When I’d have sent a screenshot to my friends - ‘ha, ha, look how broke I am.’ 

Now, though, I’m not so sure it’s funny anymore.

Stylist features writer Alex Jones

Stylist features writer Alex Jones

I can’t tell you exactly when or exactly why the laughter died. Last spring, talking about holiday plans, I noted the faint flinch of concern on my mum’s face when I told her – with a laissez faire, ‘oh well, what-are-you-gonna-do’ eye roll – that I earned over ten grand less than my next poorest friend.

“Oh, that’s not good…” she said, paling slightly. I brushed it off.

Then in the summer my friends and I downgraded our holiday plans. “Can’t afford it guys,” I wrote on the Facebook group. “Soz.”

No one minded, really, but as we dumped our bags in the sweaty hallway of our island crash-pad, I couldn’t help but picture the villa-that-could-have-been: infinitely swankier. With a bigger pool. And solid gold toilets.

Writing it down, it all looks a bit…entitled, doesn’t it?

And compared to the myriad problems in the world, it’s small fry. Right now, according to the UN, 14.4 million people in Yemen are starving. 1.3 million children are acutely malnourished. There is true, torturous poverty and misery, the kind that I can’t comprehend, the kind that it would be disingenuous of me to even try to comprehend.  

So yes, the fact that I can’t afford the chicken kiev AND a round of pisco infernos at Coin Laundry like rest of my pals is not really a big deal. Not properly. 

But, being human, with all the emotional-sagginess that carries, I’ve also found it more and more difficult to #checkmyprivilege.

And part of the reason for that is because my friends – who are completely brilliant people, with stellar chat, and who absolutely deserve their riches, well they’ve all got their shit together.

There isn’t a single one who at the end of the month is eating beans out of the can (for effect more than anything, I could use a bowl) and dodging threatening calls from British Gas.They buy expensive suits and are saving for houses. Or – sweet Jesus, already own houses.

Last year my savings were frittered on festivals, mid-week cocktail suppers and rounds of jaeger bombs in pubs where they play 2007’s biggest R&B hits on repeat.

(Instead of saving actual currency, I’ve begun to horde acorns and pine cones, like a squirrel. I can’t help but think that when the eternal winter comes, I’ll be the one who’s rich! Then I think ‘that’s crazy, what a crazy thought to have.’)

dinner with my friends. We split the bill.

Dinner with my friends. We split the bill.

I look back on my life so far and wonder at the choices I made – are they really so different to the ones that led each of my friends to boardrooms or sales floors or offices with a standard yearly pay increase of 12%?

Alright, some of them did maths, which was basically code for ‘likely to end up working at PWC’. But even the ones with humanities degrees have, thanks to talent and hard-work, leapfrogged into positions of dizzying power. They have minions. I ARRANGE LUNCHES THROUGH THEIR PAs.

They have all been very kind in the face of my non-too-attractive jealousy, reassuring me as I’ve stared morosely into my fourteenth jaeger bomb, the dying strains of Fat Joe and Ashanti warbling in the background, that it’s just because I’m not “money motivated”. It’s just because I “followed my dreams.”

Does this mean that I was I just born without the money gene? Money certainly seems like a motivating factor right now. Or is it that they just realised quicker than me that pension plans and stock portfolios are magic pots of gold at the end of life’s long, shitty rainbow.

Perhaps there's something to be said for our backgrounds.

I'm one of the only ones who went to state school - a not-too-bad comp in an ex-mining village outside of Sheffield. They all went to private grammar schools. It's no so much the quality of the education that I wonder at (I'm easily the brightest of our group *winky face*) but rather the weight of expectation that they admit was heaped on them from the moment they turned 11.

They were expected to succeed, at school and beyond. And success meant earning a decent wodge of cash. It's not like anyone expected me to fail but there was never a sense that I should go out and become a baller. I guess it just never occurred to me.

Until now.

back in the day it was all silly costumes and making the most of pre-drinks

Back in the daym, it was all silly costumes and making the most of pre-drinks

To be always the one who can’t afford the group holiday or the one who’d rather not, if everyone doesn’t mind, split the bill, is a dizzying prospect.

It’s not so awkies yet – I heave hints about how poor and destitute I am into conversation at every possible juncture (aren't I a treat?) so that they aren’t tempted to invite me somewhere nice, with tablecloths (unless, of course, they’re willing to pay – of which I’m very much in favour). But what about in 20 years’ time?

Will our friendship survive when I have to commute from Hull as it’ll be the only place that I can afford to live?

On the flip-side, I get to write self-indulgent polemics on why I can’t get my act together while they have to endure crushing pressure from the European Head of Sales. And stress, I’m told, can lead to baldness.

In 50 years’ time I’ll need this thought to keep me warm at night, because unlike them, I won’t be living in a penthouse apartment, with underfloor heating.

At least I get paid this week and can douse my sorrows in a vat of wine.  

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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes and commissions features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.

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