Imagine your friend texts you with the following invite:
I’m taking you and 12 friends out to dinner at Olive Garden. I’m paying the check. Wanna come?
To me this feels… tacky? Like I feel obligated to at least offer to cover part of the check right?
Okay, how about this:
I’m throwing a dinner party for you and 12 friends at my house. I’m making all the food. Wanna come?
Now this suddenly feels more natural. It would even be socially unacceptable for me to offer to pay for my friend’s cooking!
Why is this? What’s happening here?
It’s not merely a matter of expense; when you consider the value of your friend’s time, plus the amortized cost of cookware, appliances, furniture, and housing—the home meal could be more expensive than the restaurant meal.
Let’s try another one:
I rented a vacation home on the cape for the weekend, wanna come hang out on the beach?
Okay, now this feels super awkward. I’ll probably ask how much it costs. But what if instead the invite was:
I’m going to my cottage on the cape for the weekend, wanna come hang out on the beach?
Now this offer feels less like a weird power imbalance, even though renting the cottage could be a lower total cost of ownership, especially if you don’t vacation often.
What wealth allows you to do is to buy things outright instead of renting them. It feels more authentic to allow your friends to access assets that you already own, like inviting them to your home, taking them out in your kayak, or driving them in your car. But paying for dinner, gifts, or activities feels like a direct wealth transfer, like you’re paying your friends.
I don’t think this is a constructive social norm. Firstly, because it’s often cheaper to rent than to buy, and secondly because owning has higher up-front costs and hence presents a greater barrier for people without wealth to still spend money on their friends in socially acceptable ways.
When you own, you never “give” the wealth to your friends; you keep the asset to yourself—you’re just letting them access your assets temporarily, and your assets are returned to you at the end of the day. Hence it is actually more generous to just buy things for your friends, instead of buying things for yourself and letting your friends use them.
Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you socially acceptable excuses to do awesome activities with friends, and your friends bring you happiness.
Let this essay be my open declaration that if I’m buying something for you, it’s not because I’m trying to bribe you, but because I want to be generous with you. 😊
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