Earn Salaries

The Compensation Conversation: Is It Healthy To Compare Salaries Among Friends? 

Emily Ward  |  August 27, 2019

How often do you and your friends talk salaries? If you’re scared to go down that road (or don’t know how) read this, ASAP. 

There’s no easy way to ask the question. 

“How much do people in your industry typically make?” Not bad, but it sounds a lot like a desperate attempt to come off as casual. Granted, “What’s your salary” might be met with outright hostility, even though it’s certainly respectable in its frankness. But where’s the in-between? In other words, if you want to talk about money with your friends, where do you even start? 

When it comes to friendships, many of us would rather talk about anything other than money — and I mean literally anything else. According to Bank of America’s 2017 Friends Again Report, friends would rather talk about their weight or family drama before talking about money. And — just keeping things real — 61% of women would rather talk about their own deaths than money, according to a recent report by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave.  Those are certainly some strong opinions, but conversations surrounding money don’t always have to be so painful.

Taking The First Step 

You’re probably already having little conversations about money without even realizing it. Carolyn Rooke, a 30-year-old social strategy manager in Chicago, says her closest friends have always willingly shared how much they pay for rent — mostly so that they can all ensure they’re getting good deals. And sometimes (but not always) those conversations about rent have dovetailed into salary. “It feels like a more natural transition,” she says. 

But those conversations are only happening with her contemporaries. Rooke says that in her experience, older generations seem much more hesitant about divulging their income. “I, to this day, couldn’t tell you within 75% confidence what my parents make,” Rooke says. “But I wanted something different for myself because I want to be able to have more honest conversations about money with my own friends, and I think [financial transparency] is kind of a new wave of thinking.”

A profitable new wave, actually. A few years ago, Rooke’s propensity for transparency came in handy when she was talking to coworkers and discovered she was being drastically underpaid. She found her colleagues in the exact same role were making $13,000-$20,000 more than her, and she remembers being mad at herself for not negotiating her salary. Ultimately, she left that job, but says she learned a lot from the knowledge she gained that day, and channeled some of that anger into becoming a tougher negotiator

Making Social Comparisons 

One reason why talking salaries is tough is because at the most basic level, a salary comparison is a social comparison. We’re seeing how we stack up compared to our contemporaries, and it can sometimes be hard on our egos, describes Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Vogel studies social comparison theory as it relates to social media and self-esteem, and says there are generally three reasons why we compare ourselves to others: to enhance or diminish our self-esteem, to self-improve and emulate what someone else is doing, or, as in Rooke’s case, to use other people as a frame of reference to evaluate yourself. 

When the friend seeking advice does the sharing first, it makes the other friend feel more comfortable to divulge their numbers,  and leaves the door open for them to share as little or as much as they want.

In one of Vogel’s studies, she created fake Facebook profiles and found that participants who viewed the most desirable social media profiles — of people who had exciting lives or received many comments or  likes on their posts — tended to feel worse about themselves than participants who did not view the profiles. “On social media and in real life, people tend to compare themselves to others, and that can affect how they feel about themselves,” Vogel says. “Social comparisons happen so automatically that sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening.”

Diving Into The Conversation 

While there’s no “right” way to approach these conversations, Rooke shared a strategy that has worked for her to get her friends talking. She usually says something like, “Hey, I’m trying to figure out if I’m being appropriately compensated, and I’d love to run some numbers and ideas by you. Would you be open to talking about that with me?” When the friend seeking advice does the sharing first, it makes the other friend feel more comfortable to divulge their numbers,  and leaves the door open for them to share as little or as much as they want.

Relationship expert Dr. Melanie Ross Mills says that when it comes to money and friendship, she recommends treading lightly, but that it’s important for everyone to have at least three people in their lives with whom they can be completely transparent. “We need people in our lives who will jump for joy with us when we get a raise,” Mills said. “We need those who will help us figure out a plan to get out of debt.  And we need the wise, safe and neutral friends who won’t hold our paychecks against us, whether we make more or less than them.”

Ultimately, the point of having conversations around compensation isn’t about knowing your friend’s exact salary. It’s about being able to know where you stand in your career, and being able to have honest conversations with the people closest to you. In this way, these conversations can help both of you work toward financial health. 

As for you? If, at the end of the day, you’re not the kind of person who can have money conversations without judgment or jealousy, then maybe it’s best to rein in your curiosity. But if you think your friendship could benefit from an open dialogue about salaries, then save your dramatic family stories for another day, and get over your fear of talking about money. 

Be honest, vulnerable and kind. And have the damn conversation.

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