my two cents

I Can’t Afford to Keep Up With My Friends

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Dear Money Mom,

Three of my best friends are trying to organize a girls’ trip to Miami this winter. I really wish I could go, but I just can’t afford it. I make a decent living as a physical therapist (about $90,000 per year), but we’re trying to pay off my husband’s student loans, and that takes priority right now. Still, I know I have a reputation for being cheap (I’m very careful with money), and I’m worried my friends will get touchy when I say this trip is outside my budget. I don’t want to throw my husband under the bus when I explain, either. How can I explain why I can’t go without sounding like I’m being overly defensive, or talking too much about money and making things even more awkward? Incomewise, all three of these friends are about on par with me (I think), but they spend a lot more freely than what I’m comfortable with, and I just can’t imagine how I could make this work without causing myself a ton of stress. How do I say no?

— Feeling Cheap

Dear Feeling,

Full disclosure: I would be the friend whose judgment you’re worried about. I get peeved when a person says that they “can’t afford” something that they technically can, but have simply ranked lower on their priority list. In your case, it’s not that you can’t afford this trip; it’s that you’ve chosen to put your money elsewhere — and responsibly so. Part of being an adult with disposable income is that you have every right to decide whether to earmark it for a plane ticket to Florida or your loved one’s student loans, and you’ve made a noble trade-off. Why not take ownership of your choice, instead of acting like the matter is out of your hands? A healthy sense of financial agency is rooted in knowing what you genuinely can’t pay for, as opposed to what you won’t, and your ability to communicate your decisions about the latter.

I was talking about this to a friend recently (let’s call her Alice, and I should mention that she, too, is helping her husband pay down his loans), and she told me I was being too simplistic. “For most people, the difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ isn’t clear-cut,” she said. “Where’s the line? It’s not necessarily about how much money they have. It’s a matter of personal preference, and what they find stressful.” She likened this gray area to time management: For example, I’m the type that tries to squeeze everything in and believes that if I play my cards right, I’ll succeed (I usually don’t, but I’ll die trying). Meanwhile, Alice is always prompt, if not five minutes early to everything, and would rather turn down plans than risk cramping her schedule (and God forbid she arrive late). The point is, it’s impossible to evaluate someone else’s definition of “can’t” versus “won’t” when it comes to how they allot their resources — time, money, or otherwise. The spectrum is too nuanced, and people’s motives and boundaries are too messy and complex.

What’s more, saying “I can’t” is just easier sometimes. “When facing a conflict, we might frame it in a way that removes our control, so that we aren’t blamed for the resolution or outcome,” says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia. “That’s why we say ‘I can’t’ when we mean ‘I won’t,’ or ‘I don’t want to.’ We want to save face and prevent hurt feelings.” People also don’t want to be subjected to Judge Judys like me. “If you’re honest about why you don’t want to spend money on something, the other person might be offended or even angry,” Alice added. “At the end of the day, it probably isn’t their business.”

Still, that doesn’t mean you should give up on your friends’ ability to understand where you’re coming from, financially and emotionally (after all, I was adamant about my “can’t afford it” rant until Alice explained her position). But first, since your embarrassment seems to be part of a behavioral pattern — “being cheap,” as you put it — you should investigate the source of this anxiety. “Someone who’s consistently frugal, even if they objectively have the means to pay for things, may find that they say ‘no’ as a reflex,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in L.A. “What’s behind that? It may be that at some point earlier in their lives, they were taught that it’s inherently shameful and bad to need or want anything. Therefore, they have a subconscious belief that the only way to be good and safe and acceptable is if they need as little as possible.” Common signs of this mind-set include giving your money to family or friends, or hoarding it for hypothetical future expenses that never seem to materialize.

If “I can’t” is your knee-jerk default, it might not feel like a choice. But when you back up and ask why you’re keeping such a tight grip on your wallet, you may realize that saying no is a decision — one that’s shaped by your upbringing, values, resources, and what’s on the docket in your life. It also isn’t a bad thing. Passing up fun beach plans and fruity drinks to help pay down your significant other’s loans reflects loyalty, selflessness, and grit —qualities that plenty of us could use more of. “Placing a high value on financial security and organization is generally positive,” says Ford. “The question is, if you honor your own comfort level with spending, how does that affect your relationships? If it severely impacts them, then it’s worth examining further.”

If these friends love you enough to want to spend their vacation days with you, then at least one of them is probably down to chat about your financial unease — and it’s worth trying to do so, says Ford. “Ultimately, we need more honesty about money in our close friendships,” she continues. “The only way we become more confident in our own relationship with money is if we become more confident in exposing that part of our lives to others who care about us. As a culture, we aren’t very good at talking about money openly, and I think that breaking that taboo helps de-shame it.”

How you broach the topic should depend on the other person’s financial hang-ups, and be prepared that she may not respond perfectly. “Some people might feel rejected because they can’t connect with your experience of shame or fear,” says Clayman. “They might be frustrated. They might point out objective facts about your financial life, or misunderstand your anxiety, which could have the effect of making you feel more ashamed, and defensive.” They might also feel insecure about their own spending, and seek reassurance. Be aware of these possible reactions, and avoid comparing yourself to the person you’re talking to; your objective is to shed light on your vulnerability in a way that incites empathy, and helps find common ground. And remember: You don’t know the other person’s full situation, either.

Not all of your friends are going to be open to hearing about your money anxiety — not because it’s intrinsically embarrassing or stupid, but because they may have their own financial worries that they’d rather ignore. In that case, you’re better off avoiding a detailed justification. “It helps to state boundaries in the positive,” suggests Clayman. “You don’t want to say, ‘I’m not choosing to spend money on this trip, because I’m choosing this other thing.’ Instead, suggest another idea for a group gathering that’s more your speed.” And be genuine about it, says Ford: “When you do suggest an alternative, make sure that you really mean it. Don’t just use it as an excuse. It’s important to be thoughtful and not just try to get people off of your back.” Because if anything spoils friendships more than money, it’s insincerity.

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I Can’t Afford to Keep Up With My Friends