You guys! An actual question from an actual real-life reader!
Dear Captain Awkward:
I don’t have a lot of money (like, in debt right now?) but friends keep inviting me to eat out with them. Sometimes these people are from out of town; sometimes I am going to meet someone for lunch near their office, and it’s 10 below; etc. It’s important to me to spend time with my friends; how can I do this and also not spend a lot of money? Can I just always order the soup, or will they feel awkward?
This is a subject that unfortunately Captain Awkward can personally relate to. Those $8.00 sandwiches at that charming cafe near your friend’s office and that $15.00 tagine at the cute Algerian place with out-of-town friends can really add up. And then you miss the last bus home and it’s late and you take a cab and $15.00 became $30, and the cab wasn’t a stupid decision because your safety is more important than money, but now you’re eating peanut butter and jelly for a week. Or you order the soup and your friends order a dinner and a bottle of wine and then there’s that horrible moment when it’s time to pay the check and you don’t want to be That Guy so you fork over $20 anyway.
First, I want to give yourself permission to be poor. There’s a big taboo in American culture around admitting that you don’t have quite enough money. We’re all faking it until we make it. Stop faking it. Just be honest with yourself about your financial situation – you’re working hard, you’re digging yourself out of debt, and you need to be really careful with money for the time being. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and in this economy you are far from alone.
Second, I want you repeat this to yourself. Your friends just want to see you and have a good time. If they knew their invitations were causing you anxiety, they’d either offer to pay your way or suggest something different. That weird cocktail of shame and deprivation you’re feeling when you weigh whether you can really afford that Pad Thai on Friday? Sadly, I know all too much about that, but your friends don’t know.
Now I have a few strategies for you.
First, take a look at your monthly budget and set aside a set amount for fun. It should be an amount that you can comfortably afford and that is also realistic given where you live and your lifestyle. For instance, I budget about $15/week for “Cafes.” I like spending time in cafes. I get lots of (paying) work done in cafes. I’m more productive in an anonymous space. Because I’m honest about it and I plan for it, I don’t feel bad when I spend it. Okay, I admit that sometimes I think of my grandmother who lived through the Great Depression and who saved the wrapping paper from every Christmas present she ever got and what she would say if she could see me spend $4.00 on a cup of caffeine and sugar and sometimes I add that up and think “I’m spending $800/year on frothy beverages, that is insane” and cue the familiar shame spiral. But setting aside the money, actually physically putting it in an envelope marked “Fun!” or “Eating Out With Friends!” or “Porn!”, is a way to try to stop that anxiety before it starts. It’s okay. You can spend it.
Second, find cool cheap or free stuff to do. Become a local expert. Is there a museum near you that has a free day or evening? $2.00 second-run movie theater? When I first moved to Chicago I worked for very low wages as a temp and I didn’t know a lot of people in town. So I started a project where every Friday night I would try to find something fun that I could do for under $10, which led me to a whole cocktail of free improv shows, experimental film, board games at the used bookstore, a $2.00 exhibit of terrifying dinosaur bones at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and once (unfortunately) a show by a hardcore band named Blood Pollen in the basement of the local anarchist collective. If I couldn’t find something to do in the paper, I’d take the CTA to a stop I’d never been to before and try to spend my $10 on food at a new restaurant or one drink at a new bar. Obviously, I am extremely spoiled by living in a large and diverse urban area, and you might have to work harder to find the cool stuff. But if you can do it, it can make your life feel more rich and full of possibility. You may not have money, but you can have adventures and experiences. It also puts you in a position to invite your friends to things. It changes your identity from being the Perpetually Broke Friend to the Friend Who Knows All The Cool Places.
“That’s not in my budget right now.” So you’re armed with your envelope of fun money and you know 8 cool things going on this weekend, but an expensive dinner invitation comes through. Your friends are in town and they really want to try this one restaurant that just got written up in the New York Times (Hint: This place will be too crowded to get into and the evening will be mostly spent standing in line and jostling with strangers, but whatever). It’s okay to decline the invitation. You don’t have to bring up money or give a reason. Just say “That sounds awesome, but I can’t make it that night. Can we meet for ______ tomorrow instead?” (Breakfast, coffee, a free fun thing).
My own personal line is that I can’t say yes to something if I can’t pay my own way. The other person might volunteer to pay for me, and among really close friends I do feel way more comfortable saying “Hey, that’s not in my budget right now. Can you get me this time and I’ll get you next time?” But I can’t sit there and enjoy myself if I have a sense of entitlement or hope that the other person will treat. It’s better to just speak up and hash it out in advance. My really close friends are attuned to my money situation, and if they’re suggesting something expensive they’re pretty good at saying “Can we buy you dinner?” to dispel any weirdness out of the gate and somehow we achieve equilibrium.
Don’t keep score, but strive for reciprocity. Friendships, real friendships, are based in reciprocity and the principle that everything evens out in the end. I dated someone for a long time who was in much better financial straits than me and he really loved to pick up the check for things . He got active pleasure out of being generous, and he was up front about it in the beginning of our relationship: “Just so you know, I really like eating in nice restaurants and buying you dinner and am always happy to pay” which made me say in response “Okay, just so you know, that means you are training me to expect that from you, so you don’t get to resent that down the road – if that changes, you need to speak up.” After an initial period of weirdness and panic (OMG I AM RUINING FEMINISM!) he’d pay for dinner, and I’d buy coffee or the movie ticket, and we found a place where it felt equal because it was based on mutual respect and love. There did come a time where it stopped feeling okay to have him buy me dinner all the time, and where he probably didn’t want to buy me dinner anymore and was doing so out of habit, but that wasn’t about money – it was because we’d fallen out of love.
Go ahead and order the soup. By living within your means you are taking care of yourself, which your friends would want you to do. May I also suggest making the soup yourself? There’s a reason that my other blog is really focused on soup. I make soup for people. It’s what I do. “Do you want to come over? I made soup.” Soup is nourishing. Soup is tasty. Soup is usually pretty inexpensive to put together. Making soup for someone is saying “Would you like some time and love? Here you go!” So often when someone does something nice for me, like treating me to a nice restaurant or passing on a good book what I have to offer in return is soup. Can you make soup, or whatever the thing you do that says “Would you, my friend, like time and love?”