I was wondering if you could spare some advice on how to go dutch (AKA ‘make-people-pay-their-share) with people who are ‘sensitive’ (where ‘sensitive’ is in the ”easily-offended’ way, not the ‘sensitive-they’ll-figure-it-out-with-only-a-little-prompting’ way.) And these ‘people’ are all members of my in-law family which I would described as a relationships which are ‘generally-pretty-friendly’ but coated with a thick layer of ‘don’t-rock-the-boat’.
I don’t mind being generous (and I come from a family of similar) but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to deal with my in’s who are all financially well-off but when a bill comes around for a shared service are always suddenly stuck by the need to ‘go to the bathroom’ or ‘get something from the car’, have forgotten wallets, don’t have cash on them right now, will ‘get the next round’ or ‘are really short this week’.
I’ve tried some techniques in the past –
- Pre-arranging payment methods beforehand (these get ‘forgotten’, wrong payment is brought, or guilt is brought out ‘I didn’t know it was so expensive here’)
- Only bring a set amount of cash or trying to remind them that I had the last round (the ‘bring only a set amount’ has been a disaster – its resulted in long moments standing awkwardly round the till in silence with everyone looking at me while I muttered pathetically “Sorry, I only brought enough for me” or worse, they have all walked out/vanished leaving the bill unpaid. A member went back and paid it once we realized it hadn’t been covered but the experience was very unpleasant. The ‘I had the last round’ is met with excuses similar to if payment is pre-arranged).
- Ask my husband to speak with HIS family about this. This had been met with either apathy and sympathy but no results. (“Yeah, they are like that and it is annoying. But that’s just how they are.”) (“Just don’t go out with them then.”)
I like spending time with my in-law family and we do a lot of other free fun things together but I’d also love to occasionally go out for a meal, see a movie or get my nails done in their company without having the pay for the pleasure.
Dear Not Made of Money,
This would drive me absolutely bananas.
Your desire to see your spouse’s family and to have them behave reasonably is a perfectly reasonable thing to want. Unfortunately, I think your husband is right. You’ve tried all the things that normal people would do to fix this, and they have shown you that they have a complete inability to feel shame and zero desire to change.
Let’s be clear: It’s possible to actually forget one’s wallet, or to misunderstand whether something was an invitation that included an unspoken “I will pay for you,” or to be caught unawares by prices. It’s possible…one time. If that happens to you, you thank the other person for covering you with a minimum of fanfare. “I’m so sorry, I’m really embarrassed. Are you able to cover me for now and I will get you back tomorrow?” The next day, if humanly possible, you contact them with an offer to pay them back or issue an invitation to something where you will cover the cost entirely. What you invite them to doesn’t have to match exactly, dollar for dollar, as long as the spirit of reciprocity is observed. “Thank you so much for getting my dinner last night. Can I treat you to a movie soon?” There are loving and good ways to deal with friends around income disparities. The Letter Writer’s in-laws are not using any of those, though.
You could change the dynamic, slightly, in a few ways. This first batch of tactics are relatively un-confrontational and might have some impact:
- With the entire group, do ONLY free things or things that happen at someone’s house. No “let’s ALL go to a restaurant” stuff. And if you’ve been the one making the plans for large group activities, scale that all the way back.
- Invite them to dinner or to get nails done in smaller groups, or one at a time, and make clear in advance that it is your treat. You’ll still be paying, but you’ll get what you want which is family time without setting yourself up for horrible awkwardness and anger.
- If you are the one suggesting the places or activities, and you are getting “I didn’t realize it was so expensive” feedback, take this at face value. However well-off you perceive these people to be, maybe this particular thing IS out of their price range or out of their comfort zone for what they want to spend on x activity. They have a responsibility to speak up when the plans are made, to suggest a different place, or decline if they can’t afford it, and they are almost definitely falling down on the job there. But if you’ve been eating at “moderately-priced” sit-down restaurants, try going to the $8 fancy sandwich joint where everyone pays for their own thing at the counter and see if it gets better.
- Separate checks separate checks separate checks. Restaurants will sometimes limit the amount of separations in one party, but you want separate checks from now on, and you want to get on that quickly and loudly to the server (don’t negotiate it with your dining companions). As soon as you order anything, speak up. “Spouse and I need to be on our own check, thank you.” When your bill comes, pay it, leave really good tip, as I imagine you already do, and be the one to put on your coats and leave first. And don’t take them to your favorite places.
- If one of the main offenders from his family invites you to do something that costs money, get very explicit in a way that will feel rude and unclassy to you. “I feel very awkward about saying this, but the last few times you’ve suggested we get together I’ve ended up paying for everyone and I don’t want to do that again. Is this your treat or are we going Dutch? Because if this is going to be on me, I’d rather not go/go to this other place that I prefer.” Yes, they will be offended. Hold that thought.
- See also “Thanks for inviting us, but after the way everything went with paying the bill last time, let’s do something free/at your house. I want to see you, but I’m never going through that again.” Yes, they will get offended. More on that later.
- Talk to the person you are closest to out of the people who do this. “Hey, this has been really weighing on my mind. I love seeing you, but I hate making plans with anyone in Spouse-family lately because there is always some complication about the bill. What am I not understanding? Do we need to agree to pick less expensive outings? What are we supposed to do when everyone bails out at the last minute?” Ask the question directly in a way that makes it their problem to explain and sort out.Yes, they will be offended by this, too.
If all of this sounds AWKWARD AS FUCK, it’s because IT IS. It sounds like that in their family, the culture is “when you invite me, I assume you will be paying, and when I invite you, I also assume you will be paying.”
You say they are “sensitive,” aka, easily offended, which it sounds like they wield as a manipulation tool. Let’s break this down, shall we? They repeatedly act like total clods, leaving you to pay their tab, and then they are the ones who are offended if you bring it up? Like “how dare you be so crass as to mention money“? And you are sort of …not allowed…to get offended yourself at their behavior? They are taking advantage of the social contract that says it’s rude to call attention to rude behavior, and deliberately trying to make it emotionally expensive for you to challenge them so they can keep enjoying the status quo where you take on the entire financial and emotional burden. So what’s the worst thing that could happen if they get really offended? Is it worth it to you to keep paying for them to avoid Mount Offended from erupting? Or is it time to pick the “You can’t actually be serious” fight you’ve been itching to have? Only you and your husband can decide what feels right, just know: It will never change on its own. They will never get it on their own. Hints do not work, they just create a sea of plausible deniability for clueless and malicious people to swim around in.
They shouldn’t behave this way. And your husband should probably be the one to handle this – “Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister, what’s up with bailing on the bill every time? Is there something you want to tell me?” But “should” is not working, either because the other people involved don’t know better or because they don’t care. Because it’s not your family of origin, and because the behavior is so ingrained, I think your power to change this dynamic is very limited, so my honest suggestion is to give yourself a long break from dealing with any of it. Hang out with your family and with friends who pay their share without it being a thing. Keep your expectations very, very low. Accept invitations from your spouse’s family sparingly, and issue them only when you are happy to pay the entire bill.