You love the guy you’re with. Or maybe you don’t, but you really really like him. So when he casually mentions that he desperately wants to try out an extremely expensive restaurant, but can’t afford it, you offer to take him for his birthday in a few months. That gives you plenty of time to save up. Only at some point you discover that he invited his broke sister. Awkward. Do you have to pay for both of them? Surely not?
Instead of dealing with the situation on the spot (by clarifying that you can’t afford to treat them both, and that she will need to pay her own way), you freeze. Then you ignore it, hoping that they will do the decent thing and not expect you to bankroll this. But really, the tired part of you that identifies red flags knows exactly what’s happening.
You get to the restaurant. You’ve literally forgone all sorts of things over the past few months in order to save for three people to eat. Your boyfriend pigs out. His sister doesn’t eat much, but boy does she drink. You watch them, ordering carefully so that this comes in on budget. You’d love to have an entree and a dessert, but stick with just your main and a water. Your boyfriend’s sister cracks a joke about you always being on a diet.
The bill comes. They are deep in conversation, but you hear, “don’t worry about the bill, this is my birthday present”.
So you pay.
I think a lot of people go through something like this at some point. We simply do the polite thing; the action that will cause the least amount of fuss. Even if it causes us an insane amount of inconvenience. We smooth over any wrinkles in life – indeed, some of us take great pride in it.
But there’s a difference between being a collected person and being an enabler. If you constantly run along after people, you’ll start to become resentful, annoyed, frustrated and the lousy behaviour you put up with will probably escalate. If people know that you will cater to their every whim, what’s to stop the bad eggs (or even the dopey ones) from taking advantage of you? And if you only have the dopey and hapless sort in your life, then are you doing them a disservice by never putting your foot down? Are you tiptoeing around their feelings or your own?
There are quite a few points in time where most scenarios like this can be nipped in the bud.
1. When you originally offer something, make it clear exactly what you are offering. For the restaurant example, explicitly say that it’s just for the two of you. If you feel weird setting parameters, then frame it along the lines of you wanting the night to be a romantic date. Most people will understand this and any issues ‘should’ end here. The same applies if you offer to buy your SO something pricey. For example, don’t offer to replace their broken laptop, unless you are willing to be specific about the kind of replacement you mean. There’s a big difference between the latest MacBook Pro and a lowly Asus (hello my poor broken laptop!) that’s on special. Saying “I found x laptop for x dollars. I can afford to get something like that for you if want” is much better than giving someone free reign.
2. When you find out that there might be an expectation that you pay for someone else, clarify things immediately. Flat out say that you cannot afford to pay for them and they need to pay their own way. Check if the place you’re going to will split the bill. If it’s a concert or a show, then order your tickets to the event separately. If you must order tickets at the same time for seating purposes, insist on getting the money upfront – say you don’t have enough to cover the extra ticket. This might feel uncomfortable, but boundary setting is an important life skill – it’s important to your finances, and essential if you want to become and remain financially secure.
3. When payment is required, stand your ground. The moment the bill comes, re-iterate that it needs to be split. Anyone who expects you to pay might fall silent and just stare at you. The idea behind that is to make you feel awkward, and force you to backtrack until you whack down your debit card (not credit card, because to mongrels, ‘credit card’ is a dirty pair of words). They might also make excuses, like they can’t pay, or that they have forgotten their wallet. That’s not your problem, so don’t make it your problem. It’s now the responsibility of the person who invited them to work things out. Do not pay anything beyond what you agreed to.
It should be noted, the boyfriend and sister in question aren’t necessarily malicious. Thoughtless and selfish, yes but it’s entirely possible that they thought everything was fine. Maybe they always shared birthday events and thought you knew. Maybe the boyfriend said “hey my sister’s coming down this weekend. It’ll be great to see her”, and somehow thought that was informing you of the change in plans. Crappy communication, but not something that can’t be fixed.
The same problems can happen with friends. I used to hate going out with people who would try to split the bill evenly amongst the party after ordering some insanely priced steak and a bunch of overpriced cocktails. It’s an easy fix if they are real friends and you can actually be honest with them. The first time I told people that we need to split the bill properly because I only had a certain amount of money was an awkward and embarrassing moment. People offered to cover my portion as if I had no money at all. Sweet of them, but they didn’t really understand what I was getting at. It got easier very quickly, as it became standard practice that I’d want to split the bill. Nobody I know even does that ridiculous “Let’s just all pay $50” anymore. I like to think that everyone can afford what they order.
Some people that you think are great friends, are actually really lousy. Perhaps you’ve known them for years and they were once really lovely, or maybe you’re just an epic doormat and they are the biggest and dirtiest pair of boots the world has ever seen. Let’s say you’ve known your friend Gary for thirty years. You grew up together. He casually ‘borrows’ decent chunks of money from you, but never actually pays you back. He takes your clothes, your food and anything in your house that he thinks would be suited to his own. If you try to put your foot down, or say no, he manages to wrangle you into saying yes, usually by bringing up your lengthy friendship, or talking about how hard things have been for him lately.
The guy is a huge clown. Honestly, far too many people have these kinds of friends. The friendship was once there, but over time it became entirely about money. It’s not your job to financially support your friends. In fact, you shouldn’t financially support your friends for more than a few months – and that’s only if it’s not part of a pattern. So say no. “I’m on a tight budget and I can’t lend you anything” or “there’s no way I’m lending you that! You still have x, y and z!” may or may not shut old Gazza down.
Good Gary understands and is cool about it. But bad Gary can’t be stopped so easily. He’s had years of dealing with protests and your soggy paper backbone. Now he wants to know WHY your budget is so tight – I mean, you’ve got a much better job, and you just bought a new TV. Gary, old friend, that’s the magic question – and now we’re going to bore you to death.
Bad Gary asked – so make him regret it. Look serious. Sit him down. Go into it with him and make it as boring as possible. It’s amazing, if you really try hard, you can make anything boring. I’ve sat in meetings where the most marvelous things are going on, but you’d think we were talking about floor samples all day. Being boring is actually quite a useful skill. You have a budget (ideally). You should have a vague idea of where your finances are heading. If you have debt, talk about the interest rates, and string it oooouuuuttt. MongrelPunt gets a very predictable glazed look on his face when I go into the vagaries of our financial plan. To someone who isn’t fascinated by personal finance, it’s an absolute nightmare to find yourself stuck in an impromptu ten point presentation about compound interest, and how you are thinking of renegotiating your mortgage rate. If he tries to back out of it, hang on for dear life. You’re Gollum, and Gary is the darn ring.
Every time he asks for money or to borrow something, go back to your safe place, and tell him that things might be looking up for you, but it really depends on where interest rates go, and did he know how long they’ve been static for? Who knows, if you drone on for long enough you may just have a convert on your hands.
So if you say no, are you turfing the friendship? In an ideal world, no. You’re just establishing some much needed boundaries. In reality, you’ll may see the back of your friend as he finds another support person. It’s sad, but sometimes friendships erode until you’re standing on a foundation of good but very distant memories looking at some guy you barely know.
When boyfriends, girlfriends or friends act like they have a right to your money, you absolutely must stand up to them. Financial independence does not work if you are being financially manipulated. Budgets don’t work if you can’t say no. It would be lovely if everyone was honest and kind but that’s just not realistic. You must develop a titanium spine when it comes to money. You can choose to give gifts or loans (and I highly recommend you only give gifts), but the operative word there is choose.
When it comes down to it, you’re a person, not an ATM. Remember that.