Dear Captain Awkward,
My husband and I are newlyweds. He is currently unemployed and job searching. We are living on my income and it isn’t much. However, I place my health at a high priority because I’ve had high healthcare costs in the past. We eat well, but we make up for it by almost never dining out. We budget carefully for when we do dine out and for our discretionary funds and we’re financially responsible.
We’re not exactly poor, but we do watch our budget. However, many of our friends don’t seem to understand this. When we arrange hangouts, we try actively to schedule something that doesn’t cost money or costs little. We even prefer having a single person over to going out to dinner with that person, because it is literally cheaper to cook for 3 than to pay for 2 at a sit down place in our area.
Our friends don’t seem to understand that we’re not poor, and that we don’t want to be treated to dinner. Everyone wants to go out, and when we ask about how much the place they want to go is, they offer to pay. This is not what we want. We just want to pay for our food or ask to hang out somewhere a little more affordable. We are hoping to have a family in the next 5 years so I’m saving very carefully.
We would say something like:
“I’d love to hang out, but we’re on a tight budget and we’re trying to eat home more. Would you like to come over for brunch instead of going out? I can make an amazing gingerbread waffle and some bacon and eggs, and Husband makes amazing pour-over coffee.”
And get this:
“No don’t worry, my treat!”
I know some of these friends are in financial difficulty too and their money is tight. I can’t tell if it’s cultural, because many of them are from my culture (Chinese) and we really love to treat others to food. That’s how we show love! I think it’s great, but how can I tell them that we can’t keep going out on their treat and enforce it lovingly but firmly?
Trying to Adult
I think your script is lovely and direct, and also that more people should be frank about financial boundaries. Not 100% sure you’re in the USA, but I know that in the USA we have a very sick culture of everyone pretending to be wealthy and feeling a lot of shame about reversals like a job loss. Your frankness here is awesome.
I also think there is some tweaking to do here, in the delivery and in the how these conversations come about. One suggestion that come to mind is: Don’t ask the friends how much the restaurant costs when they make the suggestion. Say instead, “That sounds nice. Let me check my calendar/check with husband and let you know.” Then find the restaurant’s menu online and make a decision for yourself. If it’s affordable AND you want to go, you will have sidestepped the offers to pay. If it’s not affordable, you could tell the friend your script inviting them over, or ask them to meet you somewhere less expensive, or decline without giving a reason at all, i.e. “Thanks for the invitation. We can’t make that, but can we invite you over for brunch next Sunday? We want to see you.” I don’t think your friends think you are fishing for them to offer to pay, but I do think that having the cost conversation at the same moment as the invitation conversation is muddying the waters.
I also think that sometimes you should cook dinner for your friends, sometimes you should go and pay your way, and sometimes you should think about letting your friends pay for you if they want to. It feels good to treat someone, when you have more than enough. Someday your husband will be working also and you’ll have more than enough and it will feel good to you to treat people (the way it feels good now to host them). Your good friends likely know that your husband isn’t working right now, and offering to take you to a nice dinner isn’t mean to stress you out. It’s meant, sincerely, to be a treat for you and the treat of your company for them, and it’s done with the understanding that you’d do the same for them. Reciprocity in a friendship isn’t counted dollar for dollar. I think you are being very responsible with your money in an admirable way, but you don’t have to control everything about how you hang out with your friends. Learning to accept a gift gracefully is part of adulting, too.
Finally, I think you might enjoy this piece about some freelancers who started a tradition of having their friends over for dinner on Friday nights. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few ongoing Friends-Who-Are-Family dinners over the years, and they really keep people connected in lean times and in fat. If your budget and schedule allows for it, you could do worse than channeling your hosting energies into such a gift for your community.