Tracy, 27, is a bridesmaid in her college friend Melissa’s wedding in September. The problem? Melissa is getting married in Tuscany. At first, Tracy figured she’d cobble together the money for it somehow. But now the numbers are starting to get real, and she can’t figure out how she’ll make it work. She’s a teacher in San Francisco and it’s hard enough to make rent as it is.
Melissa’s family is wealthy, and the other bridesmaids make more money than Tracy does; no one appears to be worrying about the costs, and everyone is excited for the trip. Tracy feels guilty for even considering backing out, and she’s dying to be there, but the flights alone literally cost more than one of her entire paychecks! It just seems impossible. She knows that it would be the adult thing to face facts and tell Melissa that she can’t go — but the thought of hurting her feelings is awful. Could she just suck it up, put it on a credit card, and know that you can’t put a price on friendship?
Weddings are a universal quagmire of money and guilt — so many people to appease, fragile feelings, and dollar signs! For what it’s worth, Tracy, you and your dilemma are in very good company. “I feel obligated to spend more on weddings than I actually can all the time,” says Paige, 34, a New York–based editor from Texas. “It started with my best childhood friend’s wedding when I was 26. She had a bachelorette party in Vegas, and everything seemed like it wasn’t an option — we rented a cabana and went to all these stupid clubs and it cost a fortune.” Paige was working as an assistant at the time, and wound up having to ask her parents to bail her out. “Even now, years later, I still don’t feel like I can say no,” she continues. “You go to these blowout weddings, and then you have these memories, but you’re also broke for a couple of months. As a friend, I guess it’s worth it, but as a person who’s trying to be financially responsible, it’s really not.”
But before we proceed with extricating you from this situation, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute: Are you sure you can’t afford it? It’s worth taking another look at your finances — not to assuage your guilt, but because it might be a genuinely good use of your money. Multiple studies have shown that spending on experiences rather than material things results in greater well-being, and I’m pretty sure that availing yourself of an open bar and endless cheese platters under the Tuscan sun would qualify. “If there are expenses you could forgo to attend this wedding, it would probably make you happier in the long-term to do so,” says Sarah Asebedo, a professor at Texas Tech University and the president-elect of the Financial Therapy Association. Are you currently spending $20 a day on lunch? Simple changes like that can go a long way.
That being said, this wedding might very well be out of your price range, and it’s better to admit it now rather than later. “If it puts you in a severe financial bind — say, you’ll have to take on credit-card debt, or wipe out your savings — you shouldn’t go,” says Asebedo. “You’re the one who has to live through those consequences, and at the end of the day, a good friend shouldn’t want you to bankrupt yourself.”
Should this be the case, don’t delay — rip off the Band-Aid and tell her as soon as you can. “If this is a solid relationship, you should be able to say, ‘Hey, I love you, but I can’t make it to your wedding. I really wish I could, and I’m sorry. I want to do something else for you when you get home.’ And then plan a celebration of some kind — one that you can afford — when she gets back,” suggests Asebedo. “A solid relationship can handle that kind of conversation. One that’s more superficial and built on appearances isn’t going to handle it as well.” Paige can attest to that — one of her friends turned down a wedding invitation recently, and the bride took offense and stopped speaking to her. But if a relationship can’t handle a bump like that, what is it made of, anyway?
Still, that’s easier said than done. Credit-card debt might seem like peanuts next to a friendship you’ll have for life, and the tendency to prioritize the latter is more psychologically ingrained than many people realize. “Research shows that people with the ‘agreeableness’ trait — which is one of the Big Five personality traits, and makes you more likely to care about how others feel, and make sacrifices for the sake of your relationships — often accumulate less wealth and don’t save as much over time,” says Asebedo. “This wedding scenario is actually a perfect example of how agreeableness can affect your choices and cause you to make choices that may hurt you financially, all for the sake of protecting a relationship.” Take a closer look at your past behavior: Do you often find yourself spending money to avoid conflict, or make others feel more comfortable? If splurging on your friend’s fancy wedding is an isolated incident that you plan for, that’s one thing; if it’s part of a lifetime pattern, you might want to start second-guessing your habits.
Even if your wealthy friend seems oblivious to what she’s asking of you (perhaps because her family is paying for a lot, too), I promise you that she’s aware on some level. When my friend Andrea and her now-husband were planning their destination wedding in Palm Springs, they knew it would be a stretch for some people — and worried about it considerably. “It was the biggest part of my wedding anxiety,” says Andrea. “I didn’t want anyone to spend more money than they could. I wanted people to feel like they could say no, rather than come and feel pissed off about it. We just tried to communicate that we knew it would be hard for some people to make it, and we would understand if they couldn’t.”
If anything, Andrea wished that guests felt less guilty about not being able to come. “Some of our friends were really nervous about telling us,” she says. “One friend called me crying — she just couldn’t take the time off, and she felt so bad, and she thought I’d be hurt and mad. Another couple wrote us this heart-wrenching email about how they just couldn’t make it work. And then we felt bad about how bad they felt.”
However — and this is interesting — Andrea and her husband did help foot the bill for their closest and most cash-strapped guests. “My family gave us a lump sum for the wedding, and we used it to pay for a few of our friends — mostly people in the wedding party — who were in grad school or had other financial restraints. We basically considered it part of our wedding budget; we covered their hotel rooms and stuff like that,” she says. I mention this not because you should expect your friend to fly you to Italy and put you up at a castle while you’re there, but because you shouldn’t underestimate her ability to be empathetic towards your financial situation.
At the very least, Tracy, you have a totally legitimate excuse in terms of your work schedule. At the most, you have your work cut out for you in terms of saving up this summer. Both choices will require you to put your foot down. But if you go about them thoughtfully, your friendship will come out just fine — and with or without you, the wedding will probably still be a blast.