Friends is not a series known for its realism. No doubt, for many people it came to symbolize twenty-something life in 90s New York City—but let’s be real: As a part-time coffeehouse waitress, Rachel couldn’t even afford to get a Rachel haircut. Don’t get me started on those highlights.
No, the fantasy element was (and is) a big part of the show’s success. The fun of Friends was watching six young, relatable people who had relatable lives, but not exactly relatable lifestyles. Money in particular, was never an issue. There was no mention of student-loan debt or stress over retirement planning (even Phoebe had a “four oh wunk”).
Even when Joey went into massive credit card debt buying decorative porcelain, his buddies apparently had more than enough cash to swoop in and keep him afloat. For the characters onFriends, money problems were an annoyance—not the kind of issue that affected real life, and certainly not their friendships.
With one exception: “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant.” This episode (which first aired 23 years ago this week—I know) is one in which Friends got way real about money and friendship.
“For the characters on Friends, money problems were an annoyance—not the kind of issue that affected real life, and certainly not their friendships. With one exception.”
Quick recap: It’s Ross’s birthday, and the whole gang plans to celebrate with presents, a cake, and a Hootie and the Blowfish concert. (Again, 23 years ago, people.) Chandler’s paid for it all up front—something he can do, as a guy with a steady, corporate paycheck—and casually informs the others that they owe him $62 bucks.
Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe are taken aback; $62 dollars is more than a little steep for them—a waitress, an out-of-work actor, and a freelance massage therapist slash coffeehouse singer. Next, Monica comes home from the high-end restaurant where she’s just been promoted to head lunch chef and head of purchasing. Hooray! They’re all going to go out for dinner to celebrate, Monica declares. “You know, someplace nice.” Womp.
This one-two punch of expenses leaves the three low-income friends feeling ambushed and embarrassed. “Do you guys ever get the feeling…” Rachel stammers to the others, “that, um, Chandler and those guys just don’t get that we don’t make as much money as they do?” Of course they don’t. Because they’ve never talked about it. Because talking about money with your friends is hard. Rachel can barely raise the subject with her equally broke friends, let alone the ones dropping cash on restaurants and Hootie tickets.
“Money is a constant complication in our social lives, whether or not we want to acknowledge that (and we really don’t).”
The three of them are forced to say something though, when that night at dinner, Ross splits they check evenly — despite the fact that half the table only ordered side dishes and tap water. Without even thinking, Ross adds that, duh, Monica shouldn’t pay because it’s her promotion they’re celebrating! So, that’ll be $33.50 apiece. At this, Phoebe calls bullshit: “No, huh-uh, no way. Sorry, not gonna happen.”
As usual, Phoebe comes off like the weirdo when in fact, she’s the voice of reason. It’s Ross, Monica, and Chandler who are making it weird. They’ve failed to notice that three of their best friends are quietly nibbling on breadsticks while they order dessert and a round of coffee. Backed into a corner, the friends who don’t have as much money finally say out loud that, cough cough, they, you know…don’t have as much money.
A deeply uncomfortable silence follows. “I guess I just never think of money as an issue,” Ross says, clearly believing he’s unbothered by money because he’s a progressive academic who cares naught for material wealth—when in fact, as Rachel replies, “That’s because you have it.”
Because this is a 22-minute comedy, the scene concludes shortly thereafter. We don’t get to see the awkward subway ride home, or the quiet small talk they try and fail to make. We skip ahead to the even more uncomfortable phase, where the haves tell the have-nots they’ll pay for the concert, and then get all high and mighty when their charitable gesture doesn’t go over well. As Chandler adds, they work hard for their money and deserve to enjoy it! It’s not their fault they’re paid so much better than their peers (including one who grew up homeless and another who’s a second generation American from a working-class family).
For the last time, I will note that this was 23 years ago, and had this scene been written today, it might have ended with Phoebe telling Chandler to check his trust-fund, corporate, white-guy privilege already. (At least that’s how it goes in my rage fantasy when watching this episode.)
Even so, “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant” tells a story so acutely familiar, no matter what the era. We’ve all been there one way or another: Declining a wedding because you can’t afford the flight. Asking to go to the cheaper restaurant, or maybe just stay in this time. Keeping quiet about your raise because you don’t want to make anyone “feel bad.” Money is a constant complication in our social lives, whether or not we want to acknowledge that (and we really don’t!) This is especially true in our twenties when the income disparities amongst friends tend to get noticeably wider.
That’s what makes this episode so great. It epitomizes the reason millions of people still watch this show each day — despite its many dated flaws and surrealistically huge apartments. At its heart, Friends was not about the fantasy. It was about something universal, timeless, and incredible simple: The experience of friendship. That’s it.
That’s the magic of the so-called “Friends formula” that television creators have been trying to replicate for the last two decades. Friends was at its best when it explored stories like this—the relatable and even the uncomfortable realities we’ve shared with our closest friends.
Perhaps the best part of this episode, though, is its ending. It doesn’t conclude with Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe suddenly getting raises so that everyone is rich and happy. Instead, it ends when Monica, riding high on her new promotion, makes a big mistake at the restaurant, accepting a gift from their meat supplier (the titular “five steaks”). It’s a serious violation of company policy, and she winds up getting fired. Like everything else in the episode, this is one of those painfully real moments that many of us can relate to.
Monica went from feeling like a big-shot—a real grown-up with a grown-up job—to feeling like an idiot for losing it all in one thoughtless mixup. Just like that, the money fight is over. Monica’s friends circle up around her, focusing on what really matters.
It goes without saying that Monica will be okay. She’s got a rent-controlled apartment and a decent resume. Above all, she’s got five good friends—and one of them is Chandler. When in doubt, he’ll pay for the coffee.