my two cents

How to Gracefully Turn Down Plans You Can’t Afford

Photo: Ollie Trenchard

At age 5, Otegha Uwagba immigrated with her family from Nigeria to London. She went on to get a scholarship to a top private school and then attended Oxford. By her early 20s, her financial life looked great on paper — she had a well-paying job in advertising and a promising career ahead. But she also suffered from a great deal of anxiety over money, and struggled to talk about it with her friends, most of whom were from wealthier backgrounds. She writes about those experiences in her new memoir, We Need to Talk About Money, which comes out today in the U.K. Here, she offers advice on becoming more financially transparent with friends, overcoming social taboos over money, and how to cope with expensive social plans as we emerge from the pandemic. 

In your new book, you write a lot about your own money anxieties, especially growing up without much money but going to school with lots of people who were quite wealthy and could afford to do stuff that you maybe couldn’t. How did you learn how to be up front about what you were and weren’t comfortable paying for?
I never really talked openly about my financial anxiety with friends until recently. I figured it out mostly as I was writing the book. I realized that in order to explain my money story to other people, I first needed to understand it for myself. I started reading about Brad Klontz, and learning about his money scripts, and I realized that I was what he calls “money vigilant” — that was mind-blowing for me. Because up until that point, I thought it was very rational that I was anxious about money, even though I was technically good with it. I’ve always been very financially literate, but money still made me feel panicked. I couldn’t really make sense of it. And then I’ve discovered that clearly I’m not alone in that, which was really helpful for me in being able to counter that anxiety.

You’ve written a lot about how to create boundaries with friends around what you’re willing to spend, socially. How did you get good at that? I still find it so awkward.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I felt comfortable saying no to friends when it came to spending money. Initially I would make up excuses. I’d say, “Oh, I’m not feeling well,” or “I don’t want to go.” I think the confidence to be honest is something that comes with age, and knowing yourself more but also knowing that your friendships aren’t dependent on being able to keep up financially.

I remember the first time I did say something. A friend was having a big good-bye lunch because she was leaving the country. And I just didn’t want to spend money on that lunch, but I did still want to be part of it. So I just said, “Hey, I can’t quite afford lunch, but can I come and meet you after?” Because I knew they were congregating in somebody’s house later. I was like, “Can I just come to that? I still want to say good-bye.” And she was so chill about it. I was like, “Why haven’t I done this sooner?” People don’t respond as badly as you might think. And the people who do aren’t people you want to be friends with. It’s actually also a really good way of filtering out people’s values.

Did you ever have a friendship fall apart because of your financial differences?
I had a friend who was earning a lot of money as a banker and our friendship just disintegrated because I couldn’t keep up with her spending, and I didn’t know how to say that to her. And I just felt very pressured going out with her, because we’d always go to expensive places and have expensive cocktails. And we were earning different amounts and I had different financial priorities. She was able to buy a flat in her early 20s, and that was just not my position at all. I definitely understand what it’s like to not want to broach those topics. But now that I’m more comfortable doing so, a lot of my friendships are better too.

Do you have a lot of friends from varying economic backgrounds?
I do now. But when I was younger, most of my friends were from school, and most of them were quite affluent. And I didn’t think that mattered so much, until I realized how gratifying it can be to have friends with similar backgrounds to me, who really understand my attitudes towards money and the particular neuroses I have, which they also share. I need to have that outlet, to have those conversations. So I think it’s important to have friends who are in similar financial situations to you, so that you can talk about things honestly, to somebody who can relate. Just emotionally, as human beings, we need people who have shared experiences with us, as it relates to money as well. It’s worth seeking those friendships out.

Speaking of financial differences, I think the pandemic has really exacerbated a lot of financial extremes. And now, coming out of it, people are looking at their money and spending differently. And that can be tough to communicate to friends who want to get together and do things again, the way that we used to. How do you recommend handling that?
The first thing I would say, before you even bring your friends into the equation, is to personally get really clear on what your spending priorities are and what your new budget is. The easiest way to overspend, or to spend your money in ways you’re not happy with, is to not have a clear framework of what you should be spending, and what you are saving for. So the first exercise is to actually sit down and make a budget, look at your monthly income and ask yourself, Where do I want this to go? How much am I reserving for socializing? Because then, at the very least, you have something to refer back to as these plans come in, and you can say, Can I actually afford that or not?

From there, it’s about organizing your social calendar accordingly and bearing that budget in mind, as you say yes and no to certain things. And that also might require some kind of prioritization of certain friends, and just an awareness that if I say yes to this, that is going to mean saying no to something else down the line.

That said, I don’t want to encourage people to hold back and not throw themselves back into the world right now. Everyone wants to go out and do stuff. I’ve certainly been overspending with things opening back up. I totally get it, and I think it’s worth giving yourself a grace period. We’ve been shut in for a year and a half. Maybe for the next three months, saving up isn’t as much of a priority, because we have been in a pandemic. I also believe in treating yourself and enjoying life. You just need to have a realistic framework. And you need to bear in mind that you’ve now got expenses and costs happening that you haven’t had for the past 18 months. If you go out to dinner, don’t lie to yourself about how much it will cost.

Pandemic or not, though, it is important to get comfortable with saying, “I can’t afford this right now,” or “That’s not in my budget now,” or “I can’t do that this month, but do you want to fix a date for next month?” I promise you, it’s not as hard as it seems. It is actually like a muscle — the more you do it, the more you get comfortable with it, and it becomes natural. I’m now quite good at pulling back if I know that I’ve had an expensive month. I know that if I’ve been out for dinner a couple of times this month, I probably need to turn down that invitation and book it in for next month. It’s instinctive now, and I’m good at saying no — I have no shame in it, and my financial stability is my priority. But it takes a while to get to that point. It’s not necessarily sexy and spontaneous, but budgeting never is. There is an element of self-discipline that’s required for it.

What do you do when people get defensive about money, or react badly when you’re being transparent about it?
I think it’s good to expect a bit of irrationality around money. And I don’t judge that at all. I don’t expect everyone to operate the same way that I do. And I think that’s really important. I think it can be beneficial for people to be more open and transparent about money, but I also know that we’ve got a long way to go until people feel comfortable with that. There’s this perception about money transparency that’s like, “Just do it and it’ll be fine.” And I’m like, “No, it’s really emotional, it’s really tough, it’s really awkward.” I understand why people respond in the ways they do and become prickly and defensive when money comes up and they feel judged and ashamed. I have felt all those things. I still sometimes feel those things. I know I will continue to feel those things.

How to Gracefully Turn Down Plans You Can’t Afford