In season 3 of Netflix’s Sex Education, a much-lauded comedy-drama about the lives and intimacies of students, their parents and the staff at Moordale Secondary School, money becomes an issue for best friends Maeve and Aimee.
Spiky, fiercely intelligent Maeve tells Aimee, baker of delicious ‘vulva cupcakes’, how annoyed she is that her sister’s foster carer Anna has paid for her to go on an expensive school trip to France, without consulting her first. Aimee reveals that Anna didn’t pay Maeve’s fee. Instead, Aimee asked her (loaded) mum to stump up the cash for Maeve to go to France. Maeve is furious.
Maeve is angry because she wasn’t asked whether she’d be comfortable with her best mate’s mum paying for the trip. Her character, played by Emma Mackey, is proud and independent. She lives in a trailer park, alone by season 3, after reporting her mother, who struggles with drug addiction, to social services. Her lived experience is very different to that of the far more financially comfortable Aimee, who, as Maeve snaps, has the luxury of “deciding to be a baker because she likes toast”.
Maeve’s heated response suggests that she feels humiliated by Aimee’s well-intentioned gesture and that by swooping in and paying her trip fee, Aimee has robbed Maeve of the agency to make her own decision about whether to accept the money.
School is perhaps where many of us first become aware of financial disparities between ourselves and our peers, whether that's because of things like school trips or because we visit the homes of friends in different financial situations and notice that their lives are different to ours.
In the UK, financial differences between children are incredibly marked after a decade of austerity measures, introduced and maintained by coalition and Conservative governments, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2019-20, there were 4.3 million children living in poverty, which often means living in overcrowded and insecure accommodation, being cold and hungry, basics like new school shoes being unaffordable, and parents regularly going without food so their kids can eat. Work doesn’t guarantee a route out of poverty either; 75% of children growing up in poverty have at least one parent in work.
Wealth inequality is arguably an even greater problem than income inequality. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth in Britain, while the poorest 50% hold just 9%.
Kids notice stuff - they’re not stupid. Some children know that they can’t invite friends home for tea, because there’s no money to feed another mouth. They are aware of missing out on school trips and days out, not having new uniforms, and not having anywhere to do their homework. Even if we haven’t experienced an upbringing that meets the criteria for poverty, many of us will have recollections of being faced with the realities of financial inequality as children and adolescents.
As a teenager, I remember meeting people whose parents could afford to send them to the local private school, where they had small class sizes and lessons weren’t taken up dealing with serious behaviour issues, and how this stirred up feelings of resentment. It didn’t feel fair that some people got a better school experience because their mum and dad could pay thousands of pounds a term for it.
And it’s not just school where we’re exposed to financial inequality. For me, starting university was like being plunged into a vat of cold water. I’d never seen myself as particularly badly off before, but after meeting the students in my halls, it was like a different filter had been put over the world. They had been to famous private schools, and their parents were paying their uni fees outright so they’d have no student loan debt. They spent money as freely and uncaringly as if they were scattering confetti.
I wasted my own student loan, which should've been earmarked for food, bills and books, on trying to keep up with wealthier peers. I bought clothes I didn’t need so I could dress a bit like them. I went on a holiday I couldn’t really afford, and while I was on it, I had almost no spending money at all and felt embarrassed and inadequate. This is by no means a unique experience.
Beth, 24, was also exposed to people far more financially privileged than her at university. She told Cosmopolitan UK: “It was weird being around people who didn't worry about money. No one was ever scared about paying summer or Christmas rent and no one worried about what would happen after uni, whereas I was desperately applying for jobs and selling stuff to pay non term time rent.
“I was quite jealous because after uni, they could travel and chill out until they found a job they really, really wanted, but I was desperately looking for anything that would pay the bills. I never had any anger towards friends, though. Just the universe (and their parents a bit).”
After graduating and on entering the world of work, financial disparities in friendships can become even more obvious. In media careers, for example, some graduates are bankrolled by their parents, while they complete lengthy unpaid internships in London. This allows more financially privileged candidates to get ahead, get coveted staff jobs and establish themselves in the industry.
Laura, 27, is a freelance journalist who tops up her income with Universal Credit, and struggles with accumulated credit card debt. She told Cosmo: “I regularly find myself having to turn down evenings out because I haven't been paid, or because even though I have been paid, the money has immediately been swallowed up by my overdraft or taken in direct debits to repay my credit cards.
“Sometimes my friends don't believe me when I say I genuinely only have £10 or £20 in the bank - they think I’m exaggerating or making excuses not to see them. I often feel like I'm missing out on important social time and group bonding because of my finances. I feel ashamed and guilty, but most often lonely.”
Having friends who earn more than you can really impact whether you’re able to spend time with them, if the activities planned involve spending money.
Chanté is 25 and works in the charity sector. She said: “I've got friends who earn at least £6-10,000 more than me. Sometimes we have different ideas of what's expensive and it can be embarrassing to say you can't afford things. I have a friend who will happily pay £45 for a meal regularly but for me, that would be a price for a special occasion. Then we'd go for drinks after and she'd want to share a taxi back, which could easily make one evening cost more than £100.”
It can be tricky to navigate friendships if you’re a higher earner too. Francesca, 34, made £100,000 last year as a freelance copywriter. “I often feel guilty when I'm speaking about all the things I do in a week, like the theatre, gigs and festivals, knowing my friends can't afford to go out very often. I'm also buying a flat in London, and feel embarrassed at the cost.”
Like in Aimee and Maeve’s story, financial inequality can cause ruptures in friendships, and feelings of shame, resentment and low self-esteem can take hold. Maybe you just stop going out with someone who doesn’t get that you can’t afford pricey brunches or tickets to every event, or you stop inviting your mates out because you know they won’t be able to pay to do the things you want to do.
However, this can be addressed by starting open and honest conversations with our mates about finances and financial politics. Opening up about money can be really tough, as we’re often taught that it’s rude to talk about our finances, but this discourse can help to reduce feelings of shame and embarrassment, and actually bring you closer to your friends, as you begin to better understand each other’s situation.
Sarah Lee is a Manchester-based psychotherapist, and she suggests that when broaching the subject of money with friends, it’s a good idea to think about what you want from the conversation beforehand. “Are you looking for the other person to understand that you’re feeling left behind or do you want to ensure the plans you arrange together fit your budget?
“Many people feel uncomfortable talking about money but this doesn't mean that you've done something wrong by starting a conversation. Our ideas about money vary depending on our personal experience, our culture and how much money we had (or didn't have) growing up.
“It’s okay to set yourself a budget and have boundaries about how much you’re willing to spend. It's also okay if your friends have different spending priorities. What’s important is that there’s mutual respect between you and your friends when it comes to budgets and that you look to find compromises that work for everyone.”
In Sex Education, Maeve and Aimee are able to consider each other’s point of view and repair their friendship. Practicing empathy is vital for maintaining healthy relationships, something that Laura has found with her friends. “My friends who are the most understanding are also freelancers, or have been through times of hardship themselves. Having lived experience or a lot of empathy is key.”
We can’t shy away from talking about money if we’re serious about maintaining friendships that work for both parties. Addressing the issue of financial disparity without judgement is the only way forward.
Chanté sums this up by saying: “There should be less shame in expressing what's affordable for you and it's important to be able to communicate that with a friend. Also, spending more doesn’t guarantee that you'll have a better time!”
You Might Also Like