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Young strivers see slacker friends as costly

There is an inherent dilemma in young people moving from the collegial phase of social life, where sharing the wealth prevails over bar tabs and entertainment, to assuming the mantle of financial maturity.

"Every time the check arrives when I am out with my friend, he looks at me like it is not his problem," says Mike K., a 26-year-old bond trader in Chicago who asked not to be fully identified.  Mike admits he is doing well financially, but not so well he can pick up tabs whenever he is with someone making less. "It is to the point where I feel I have to choose between friendship and money." 

There is an inherent dilemma in moving from the collegial phase of social life, where sharing the wealth prevails over bar tabs and entertainment, to assuming the mantle of financial maturity. 

"It puts a serious strain on relationships, from both sides," says Stephen Hunsaker, a Texas Tech University student who provides peer-to-peer financial counseling.  "No one, regardless of their age, wants to break social connections over finances."

Yet that is what James Raysbrook, a 28-year-old Realtor in Seattle felt compelled to do. "I went through a bit of a grieving process," he admits.  Raysbrook began his career at 19, moving into a very adult tax bracket while his friends were still attending frat parties.

"These were folks who supported me emotionally and cheered me toward my goal.  But once I achieved it, they felt they were owed a piece of it.  There was so much pressure to prop them up." He adds, "There still is. I went through a period of denial. I wanted to believe I was the same person, but I was not. I moved on." 

And while many successful young people may feel they can afford to subsidize their less-affluent friends like Vince, the young Hollywood star at the center of the HBO series "Entourage," they often are surprised when the add up the costs, financial consultants say.

"The other day I asked a client if anything had changed," says Phil Traa, president of Traa Wealth Management in Lake Oswego, Ore. "She said, ‘Yes, I’m getting rid of my friends.’ "

His client, a woman in her 30s who won a generous settlement in a recent divorce, realized she was spending more money on everyone else than she was on herself. "An extra zero’s worth," says Traa.  Putting an end to years of peer-pressured spending, she is learning who in her life was just hanging around for her handouts.  "She is feeling used right now," says Traa.

"Sudden money, whether through inheritance or early success, creates a huge transition," he adds. "Not only is there pressure from friends and family members to be resisted, they also have to deal with what I call ‘the sharks.’ Sharks see a name in the newspaper, and start to circle in hopes of fast [money]."

But the most financially damaging source of pressure may just come from expectations. 

"Young adults feel pressure from what they and their friends think success is supposed to look like—how they should act and where they should live. It is not so much keeping up with the Joneses. It is a matter of keeping up with 'MTV Cribs,'" says Traa.

Traa, having counseled both newly professional athletes and software millionaires, has seen peer-pressured spending turn infectious.  "During the dot-com era — and more recently with young mortgage brokers — they all hung out together, reinforcing one another’s extravagant spending habits.  But what the former dot-com millionaires learned is once money is wasted, you can’t get it back," says Traa.

"For every hour of TV you watch, you seem to see three credit card commercials and an overwhelming number of images of the life you could be living," says Raysbrook, the Seattle Realtor. He confesses to learning the hard way, early on, that buying into the need to appear as successful as he felt was not getting him where he wanted to go.

"My financially immature friends all want to be that guy — whether that guy treats everyone at dinner or covers the bar bill or drives the hot car," he adds.

"But I’m the guy who scrimped and saved to put myself through college and have been working really hard to get where I want to go," says bond trader Mike. Which is why he is struggling not to let money come between him and his friends, nor his friends between him and a financially secure future.

That twentysomethings are even thinking about nest eggs and retirement accounts may be somewhat surprising.  But Mike is far from alone. Scottrade’s recent 2007 American Retirement Study found an astonishing level of financial maturity for its youngest adult respondents.

"While 59 percent of 18-24 year-olds said they saved for retirement in 2006, that number jumped to 89 percent for those who said they planned to save in 2007. Of 25-to-34-year olds, 70 percent saved in 2006 while 85 percent indicated they will save in 2007," says Chris Moloney, chief marketing officer for the St. Louis-based broker. "Previously, people waited for assets to accumulate before they began thinking about their financial futures and retirement.  With the Internet and the wealth of information available to them, many are starting younger," he adds.  

Still, there is a deepening gap between young haves and their have-not friends even though more of the "nots" possess college educations, according to Tamara Draut, author of "Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead," which examines why many young Americans lag financially while others spurt ahead.

"When a teacher and a stockbroker are old college friends, for instance, you find their dramatically different financial resources often create tension," says Draut.  "The stockbroker may resent the teacher expecting her to treat her to dinner, but the teacher may be equally resentful her friend chose such an expensive restaurant."  

Such inequities create social awkwardness, yet little conversation, observes Draut.   "It is hard to be the friend who says, 'I can’t come along because the restaurant is too expensive for me.' But we need to make it OK to start having these conversations; to start saying, ‘I cannot afford it.’ " 

And conversely: "I cannot keep floating you."

Financial maturity does not come with a job offer. But like the line one crosses into adulthood, emerging into financial maturity may come earlier for some than for others. It may also come at a cost — the loss of friends or of hard-earned money.