We are friends with a couple I’ll call the Joneses. The Joneses are exactly what they sound like. They are the ones on the block with the latest cars, toys, and gizmos. Despite that, they are nice people and we’ve been friends for years. Each year we go on vacation together to a small resort in the mountains. This year we are going but the Joneses are not.
When I called Mrs. Jones to make arrangements, she hemmed and hawed about how things were so busy this year and things were crazy with the kids, and one kid needed to do summer school, and on and on down the list of excuses. I said, “Fine. I understand. We’ll make plans without you, then.”
About two hours later she called me back and said they could go, after all. I said, “No problem. I haven’t called to make arrangements yet, so I’ll add you in.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. Three days later I heard from Mrs. Jones again. This time she confided that they were having money troubles. Their mortgage has readjusted and the private school bill for kid number one has jumped significantly. Add onto that the rising cost of gas and food and this trip is out of reach. Mrs. Jones was willing to go anyway, but Mr. Jones said no (Mr. Jones is the sensible one, most of the time).
I told her I was sorry and that there was always next year and cancelled her portion of the trip. I thought that would be the end of it. We would go on vacation and the Joneses would stay home. But, no. Now, almost every time I talk to Mrs. Jones she makes me feel guilty for going without them. She says things like, “If you just didn’t choose such expensive places,” or, “You’ll be having fun up there while I sit here alone,” or (my personal favorite), “I guess since you don’t have kids, you don’t know what it’s like trying to deal with all these increases. You can just go off willy nilly without a care in the world.”
The problem here is not that the place is too expensive. It’s a steal compared to other, similar places we could go and we get great discounts each year. I didn’t choose this place, either. She’s the one who introduced it to me. The problem is that it’s now too expensive for her, so therefore it must be my fault. And whether I have kids or not is irrelevant. The price increases do hurt me. I don’t enjoy paying through the nose for gas and milk and I’m not unaware that prices are rising and that some people are having trouble making ends meet. I am having to cut down on some things, too, in order to make room for other things that are important to me.
The difference between me and Mrs. Jones is that I am not stretched to my limit paying for a house I can’t afford, a home equity loan, two new cars, private school, and all the trappings and gizmos in life. I still have room in my budget for some fun. But I’m being made to feel guilty for being responsible. Mrs. Jones seems to believe that if she can’t have some fun, then no one else needs to have fun.
I’m not the only one experiencing this phenomenon. I have several friends who tell me that their less responsible/fortunate friends are making them feel guilty because they can no longer afford dinners out, movies, or vacations. Some lay it on thick and others are more subtle, but the message is clear, “I can no longer do these things, so I don’t want you to do them either.”
Nationally, we hear on the media how everyone is cutting back and having hard times and we may start to feel bad that we’re still able to go on pretty much as usual. Maybe we should suffer more, we think. Maybe we should feel guilty for being able to go out while others are suffering. Maybe we, too, should cut back just to avoid looking like we’re rubbing other’s noses in it.
So, should I feel guilty for being responsible and frugal every day of my life? Should I cave in and stay home to avoid upsetting Mrs. Jones or others? Should those of us who, through a combination of careful planning, saving, budgeting, and consistently living beneath our means, find ourselves weathering the current economic environment without too much pain, stop having fun just to appease those who no longer can?
I don’t think so. But the question arises: Is it ruder to simply exclude people from invitations that have always been assumed, or to continue asking even though the likely answer is, “No.” Should I stop asking friends to the movies or to dinner if I know their financial situation is iffy? Is asking rubbing their noses in the fact that I can do these things while they no longer can, or am I simply being a good friend by trying to reach out to them? If I stop asking, will they simply assume that I no longer care for them, thus ending the friendship? Is it good to suggest alternate forms of entertainment that are less expensive, or is this seen as forcing them to admit to their problems in public?
These are questions that, during the boom years, most people rarely had to deal with. Even if things weren’t quite as good as they should be financially, there was always more credit to keep the good times rolling. Now that those days are over, there is a sharper division between those who are okay financially and those who are not. Where formerly you and your friends seemed to be on equal ground, now there is a gulf between you.
How do you bridge that gap and keep friendships? How do you respond to the guilt, whether it’s laid on by others or brought on by your own sense of unfairness? These are delicate questions and I don’t have all the answers. Many of the answers will depend upon the closeness of the friendship and how comfortable you are with each other. I offer the following suggestions, but only you know what will work with the people in your life.
1. If someone is trying to make you feel guilty, try not to respond. In the beginning, I tried to soothe and apologize to Mrs. Jones. But I quickly learned that what she really wanted was to vent and no response on my part was required. I learned to just say “Uh huh” at intervals and change the subject as soon as possible. Apologizing, rationalizing, and commiserating (particularly when you’re not hurting financially) don’t help. They only feed the guilt monster, making things seem worse and more out of proportion than they really are.
2. Continue to invite your friends out with you. Even if you know the answer is likely to be no, no one likes to be forgotten. Maybe they can’t go all of the time, but there might be times they can go and would hate to be excluded. When times are better, they will be glad you thought of them during the bad times.
3. If your friends can no longer do the things you used to do together, find alternatives. Be the one to suggest movie night at home instead of a night at the theater or suggest pot luck supper instead of the restaurant. Don’t make them be the ones to ask for a reduction in spending. It only makes them feel worse. Just don’t mention that you’re doing it because they’re having trouble. They know that and, while they might appreciate you trying to include them in more activities, that appreciation will turn to resentment if they feel they’ve become your charity case.
4. Give them gift certificates for things you like to do together. If you used to do girls day at the spa, for example, give your friend a spa certificate for her next birthday. You can have your spa day and your friend won’t have to dip into her funds. As with number 3, tread carefully because you don’t want to offend your friend by giving her handouts all the time.
5. Reevaluate the friendship. If your friends are intent only upon making you feel guilty, want you to be as miserable as they are, resent you, and are unwilling to try to get past the issue of money, then it may be time to think about the friendship. If the friendship was only built around what you could spend together, is it worth it?
6. If you have a relationship that will bear it, talk with them about their problems and ask them what you can do to help. If you can find out directly from your friends what they want you to do (keep asking them out, stop asking them out, only ask if the outing is below a certain dollar amount, etc.) you can avoid a lot of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Only a few close friendships can stand this kind of questioning, so only ask if you’re comfortable.
7. Remember that times will get better. Maybe you won’t be able to go back to exactly the way things were, but your friends will not always have hard times. Think about the sort of friendship you want to have when times get better and work from there. The relationship is the important thing. If it’s worth preserving then you will find a way to make it work.
8. Conversely, remember that you might be on the other side next time. Think about how you would like to be treated and act accordingly.
9. Consider giving to worthy charities. If you have money to spare, donate some money or time to charities that mean something to you. In economic downtimes, charity suffers, too. They could really use the help of someone who isn’t struggling so they can help those who are. It might make you feel better to give to those in need.
You shouldn’t feel guilty if you are successful and have managed to create a life that allows you to have some fun, even in challenging economic times. If you are still able to travel, dine out, or shop, then go ahead as long as it still fits your budget. You earned that fun through hard work, discipline, and consistently living beneath your means. Don’t apologize for your success, but don’t rub other’s noses in it either. Be compassionate to those who aren’t in your position.
Try to find some compromises and remember that relationships and people are more important than money. Spending time together is the important thing, not what you do or how much you spend. I talked to Mrs. Jones about their problems and asked what could be done to help. I’m still going on vacation without Mrs. Jones, but later this summer we will be going camping together. She compromised and was willing to look at some less expensive options and I’m providing the equipment, so it won’t hurt their budget. In turn, she’s stopped making snarky comments about my lifestyle. The friendship goes on.
Image courtesy of Orbitgal