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The Lost Art of Small Talk or Dealing with Fair Weather Friends

How many friends do you have? Thirty? More? Ten or less? It’s an interesting question because it determines a great deal of our happiness.

Loneliness is feared as much as the night. Losing a spouse or loved one cuts deep as we know how much we’ll miss the dearly departed.

Age can bring on acute loneliness. I wrote a Christmas post a few years back about a client who died shortly after I visited her Christmas Eve. Her name was Sophie. She died many years ago. I visited her because I understood how alone she was. Sophie was a client for many years and she spent the last years of her life in unrelenting isolation. Every time I think of her it brings tears to my eyes. I can still feel her weak hand squeeze mine all those years ago.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know . . .” is a familiar ballad that resonates because we all know how easy we could find ourselves alone. Deep down we all fear the emptiness.

The worst punishment in prison is solitary confinement. Cutting a human being from the stimulation of other humans is considered punishment. It’s really torture and any human forcing another into isolation deserves the death penalty. Isolation destroys the mind; destroys the human and any intelligent person undertaking such activity is the lowest form of life.

Personal Finance and Friends

It might seem strange for a personal finance blog to cover isolation as a topic. However, there are several correlatives between avoidance of isolation, the types of friends you have and wealth.

Some people like a certain kind of isolation. Personally, I like quiet time walking my farm and working with my animals. This is radically different from the kind of isolation Sophie lived through.

Isolation in a confined space is maddening. Sophie couldn’t get around those last years of her life and needed people to visit her. To the best of my knowledge she only had one friend who visited on a regular basis.

People are so desperate to avoid being alone they start to consider acquaintances as friends.

I have a lot of acquaintances, but very few real friends. I bet you’re the same.

Business owners tend to have a larger list of acquaintances. I meet people from all walks of life and learn very intimate and personal things about them. It’s my job! I have to know my client to advise wisely and prepare an accurate return. Even digging into a client’s life doesn’t guarantee I will not miss something. As I write, a client of many years emailed to ask why he didn’t get certain credits. He never answered the questions in the organizer so it was missed until he said something that triggered me to ask the question verbally. Good thing the returns are still able to be amended.

In my life I also have employees. They are acquaintances, not friends! Employers who are friends with employees are asking for trouble!

Then we have this blog. I meet loads of people due to this abstract. Some people I meet at conferences and many more via email, phone or the comments section.

You are probably different. Your acquaintances might be a group of people you socialize with at the bar. You might consider these people friends, but they are almost certainly only acquaintances.

Who constitutes a real friend then? Mrs. Accountant is top of the list for me. Deep down she is my only true friends. My daughters and extended family are friends in a way, but family is family. I get along well with my blood relatives. We don’t chum around, but make no mistake, we will defend our own vigorously. At best I maybe have two real friends outside my bride.

Life is like that. Our true friends are limited while our circle of acquaintances is vast. This is an important understanding to have if you value living a debt-free lifestyle with ample helpings of wealth.

The Lost Art of Small Talk

Valuable time is wasted on small talk. A typical greeting goes something like this:

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Great. Haven’t been better. You?”

“Happier than a whore on her day off!”

We say it with incredible choreography. We say these things so often we don’t even know we are saying it. We even think we’re a comedian with our witty repertoire.

But nobody is listening.

If you answered a “How’ya doin’” with a “Worst day of my life” you’d probably here the same rehearsed reply of “Good to hear it.”

Small talk is wasted breath! Small talk is something acquaintances engage in. Friends are much deeper.

A simple greeting can waste irreplaceable minutes of your finite life. Added together over a lifetime and you might be surprised to know the average person wastes 4 years and three months uttering and replying to meaningless greetings (I made up that statistic).

Unchecked, you can waste massive parts of each day in empty banter with people you are only acquainted with.

There is a way to tell if you are dealing with a real friend or a fair weather friend. Think for a moment what would happen if you left the group. Would these people stay in touch at a significant level or would it dwindle in a hurry?

My experience tells me most people will evaporate like the morning mist. Staying in touch via social media doesn’t count either! When I meet people at conferences we sometimes end up connected on social media platforms. But once time passes the “likes” decrease and the interaction stops. Sure, you can keep an eye on what your acquaintance is up to, but that’s nothing more than satisfying your curiosity about how things have evolved for a prior acquaintance.

 Dealing with Fair Weather Friends

Fair weather friends can suck the life out of you. As long as you’re buying they are willing to lift a glass with a cheer.

In a manner of speaking clients are the ultimate fair weather friends. They are good people, don’t get me wrong. I love the people I serve. I also have no illusion we are not close buds.

Clients are similar to an employer/employee relationship. As long as you do good work and they keep paying for said work the relationship is golden. Do crappy work for a week and see how long the friendship lasts? Don’t get paid and see how long you feel friendly?

Fair weather friends are not bad people! Few people have what it takes to be a true friend. Most people wander through life focusing on the minutia and looking for drama. People who gossip are a perfect example of who will not make a real friend for anyone. They’ll cut you lose in heartbeat for their own petty dramas. And don’t worry. There is always something to feel righteous indignation about.

Before we deal with fair weather friends further we should discuss the interpersonal relationships between real friends.

It can be hard to look in from the outside and tell if the friendship is real or a friendship of convenience. Greetings between real friends happen all the time. Every night when I return home I inquire into Mrs. Accountant’s day. She asks about my day. Some days are only mildly informative. Some days we sit and talk for hours.

You can share a beer with a true friend as easily as with an acquaintance. You probably mix acquaintances and true friends at the same time.

True friends stick around when the going gets tough even if you are in the wrong. Real friends hold each other accountable but never dismiss the relationship over a disagreement.

Real friends have deep and meaningful talks. Talk is 99% superficial with acquaintances.

For people who enjoy traveling, tell me your stories. How deep are the relationships when you’re passing through? Your spouse or significant other is the only real friend you have in the room.

Even when people meet with common interests the friendships are superficial. How many people have you met at personal finance conferences? How many do you stay in touch with? How many are a deep and meaningful relationship? I understand.

Meaningful Relationships

Jim Rohn said you are like the five people you spend the most time with. I think this excludes to a minor extent people you work with and might include people you read and follow.

Deep, intimate relationships are built on more than casual nights to the movies or tavern. Real relationships have emotional attachments. If the relationship were to end you would feel pain.

Conversations in deep relationships are far more personal. Two guys (they don’t have to be gay and if they are, they are) can have a deep relationship built on trust, sharing and understanding. Think of the depth between soldiers in the foxhole. It gets real mighty fast or everyone is dead. There is no doubt when I see retired military guys meeting several decades later on a regular schedule to catch up they are real friends, even if the friendship was created by circumstances. When trust is that great it can’t die!

Research has shown if a skinny person has all obese friends the skinny person will put on weight instead of the obese group trimming down.

Heading to the shopping mall with crazy people friends who like to spend and you are more likely to overspend as well. I’ve even noticed this in the frugal FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community. The same people keep attending every conference as fast as they are organized. At some point you have to say enough.

Meeting with people of like mind is a wonderful thing to do in moderation. Time spent with people sharing similar thought patterns can be invigorating and FUN! But it is superficial! Most of these people are acquaintances only. You can learn a lot from them and teach a bit, too. But friends are what matter in life.

Everything in moderation. It’s not healthy for your favorite accountant to whine about traveling because I prefer to cocoon. Stowing away on my ten acres isn’t healthy either! I still need to get out. It’s a work in progess.

My preferred method of communication is writing. In the office plenty of verbal communication takes place too. But can you imagine if I only wrote letters to Mrs. Accountant and never verbally told her the depth of my love? Letters are special because most people don’t take the time to write them. I, on the other hand, need to assure I nurture the relationships that matter in my life with verbal confirmation. (I actually framed love poetry I wrote to Mrs. Accountant twenty years ago. It was my best attempt at a sonnet. She stayed so it must have worked.)


The things you read and study, the people you hang with, family and true friends play an outsized role in your success in life. Reading powerful leaders is important. Also read the classics.

The time you spend with people will influence your thinking more than you anticipate. Take the challenge. If you are deep in debt start reading debt-free blogs and books. Ask to hang out with people who save and invest a lot. Before long you’ll brown bag lunch because in your worldview people no longer have huge debts or spend like drunken sailors.

The opposite applies, too. Have too many people around you, even mere acquaintances, who are spendthrifts and within no time you’ll have some serious credit card debt to contend with. At least you’ll have an 8-mile to the gallon Hummer as a wasting asset in your driveway.

Don’t settle for friends or acquaintances who don’t share your values to avoid loneliness. Work hard to be a real friend and you will find true friends of your own.

Choose your friends wisely. The kind of life you live will depend on it.

Susan @ FI Ideas

Saturday 3rd of February 2018

I am really taken by your love for your wife. I feel as lucky to have found my husband, who is my true best friend. I struggle to find other relationships that feel truly reciprocal. I find that I often give a lot to others and those that are acquaintances take but often don't give back. I find myself being in other people's audience, but they are not interested in return. I believe that I spend too much time being close to these people rather than trying to build something as strong and meaningful as my marriage to the right true friends. I agree with your observation that you just don't have time to build 20 or more friends.

Great post. I'll be thinking about this one. Thank you.


Wednesday 31st of January 2018

An interesting take on the you are the sum of your friends wisdom. I particularly like your comment about how that includes the people we listen to and the blogs we read. It is something that I have personally thought about often and it is good to hear the confirmation. That’s one reason I “hang” around with wealthy accountants:)

Keith Schroeder

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

You're making me misty.


Wednesday 31st of January 2018

This is one of my main critiques of the FIRE movement. Most of the FIRE acceptable activities one can enjoy involve spending a minimal amount if not no money at all. So, if you are the only person in your circle of friends pursuing FIRE aggressively, your options for social interaction are limited. (This is all dependent on the type of friends you have and their spending habits, of course.) Which can lead to isolation. Specifically if a majority of your "friends" are fair weather friends as you state in your post.

I have found people who pursue FIRE are usually naturally drawn to solitary activities, or have already found a partner that shares their ideals to a high degree. Pursuing FIRE definitely requires a certain mindset, and/or a balance between spending for social reasons.

Keith Schroeder

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

There was something I forgot to add to the post, Sara, I wanted to add to an earlier comment. IMO you can't have more than a few, five at most, real friends because real friends take time to build and maintain the relationship. There just isn't enough time for 20 true friends, but you can easily handle 100 acquaintances. This isn't a bad thing, just a thing.

Part of the isolation from entering the FIRE community surrounds the fact there is such a limited number of people who live that way. Two or three really good friends with a reasonable number of acquaintances is a pretty darn good life in my book. The more people you know the more superficial the average relationship must be due to time constraints. My message encourages you to nurture a few meaningful relationships while enjoying the acquaintances you meet along the way.

Jeff Cady

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

Hey Keith, One of your tax clients here. Fantastic post!! Thank you for sharing... I completely relate to everything you're talking about. One observation, seems like you're still working through your answers. What are better questions than the normal small talk to create more genuine connections? How do we identify the people we want to move from acquaintance to friend and find space to do that? How do we become ok with being vulnerable? Dudes have some weird norms in that there is pressure to be a rock island of self-sufficiency. We should be ok with being vulnerable and seeking support.

You might be interested in this group my brother-in-law recently founded called Evryman that's all about this topic. They do men's groups, retreats, expeditions to create more meaningful connections for personal growth. Not that it amounts to shit other than a little credibility, some of their participants in their first year include a range of dudes from Joe Rogan, to Jason Mraz, to Simon Issacs of the 'Fatherly' blog, to just everyday dudes who came because of this feeling of total isolation and inexperience of how and where to reach out. Good shit.

Website: Podcast: Facebook:

Keith Schroeder

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

Jeff, there is a risk of reading too much into what a writer publishes. Stephen King isn't working through issues of horrific tendencies. This post is important as we balance out needs and desires. Business forces me too far into the spotlight while I prefer my 10 acres of the world. I think we all work through our answers till the final bell. Can anyone really say, "Yup, that's all there is for me!" How horrible!

Moving an acquaintance to the friend category isn't all your choice. There must be common ground. Acquaintances tend to enjoy partying while "real" friends tend to sit with a cup of coffee/tea/beer and discuss meaningful matters relevant to them. Not everybody is willing to dig that deep. Deep friendship takes time to grow.

I've published often on handling vulnerability. Studying the Stoics is a great way to build a defense against perceived vulnerabilities. Remember, it's an adventure, not a destination.

As for being a "rock island of self-sufficiency", my opinion is its an illusion. Even a rock can be moved.

I abhor groups. I've been a part of writing groups as well as others. I've never witnessed much progress. It could just be me. (Oh, how can I live with myself?) Readers should always realize writer's include interesting tidbits under the surface. I always try to interject at least some mild humor into every piece. Mrs. Accountant and my youngest daughter thought I was taking a jab at certain people, too. I wasn't. This post circled around the concept of "your wealth is determined by the friends you keep." Anything else is reading in more than was intended. The greatest risk I have when publishing is readers only get part of the story. I refuse to punish readers with an info-dump. Of course there is always a personal piece of me in anything I write, same as any other author.

Thanks for sharing the links, Jeff. Readers should find the resource valuable.


Wednesday 31st of January 2018

when i attempt to reconcile my ambi/introversion with decisions to travel and/or spend time with acquaintances or unknown folks, i'm often comforted by the optionality that i'm entering into a la Nassim Taleb--

'...he's throwing a party for his students the next night "to get them drunk". With what aim? "No aim. They're just so uptight." He loves parties "but with close people. Not with hotshots. Not some black-tie dinner where you're sitting next to some schmuck who's going to tell you what he paid for his swimming pool. And not artsy fartsy. I can't stand artsy fartsy...'

it's more intriguing when i realize and can convince myself that it's much more likely that i'll get to see something new/weird/interesting if i go out and mix it up with folks vs sitting at home reading. :)

Keith Schroeder

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

Do we have to travel to experience the grandness of life, Madmulcher? Immanuel Kant never ventured outside the city limits of which he was born and became one of the greatest philosophers to ever live. Don't confuse "not liking travel" with "not liking people." I spend most of my time with people. You don't get deep inside with a new relationship, however; that takes time. I prefer fewer, long-lasting relationships. In 2 1/2 months Mrs. Accountant and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. You can't understand how thrilling it is to still discover newness in our relationship.

If your cup of tea is travel, then travel. My ventures are closer to home. (Still planning on a four-hour drive this summer to see the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.) I enjoy cards Friday night with neighbors and family. I enjoy talks with my bride. New is okay. When it comes to money and new it can deplete your wealth. The point of this blog.