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I Admit it. I Can't Afford My Friends Anymore

Why dinners out are starting to make me queasy.

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illustration of woman and man sitting outside of cafe, finances, food, spending
Jon Krause
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Last night after dinner I had a serious case of indigestion and it wasn’t the result of eating a bum oyster or an undercooked piece of pork. The first wave of agita rolled over me as our friend Neal ordered a costly bottle of wine while my husband was frantically scanning the left side of the menu for a glass of "house vintage."

By the time Neal’s wife Shelly suggested that we order several desserts, so "we can have a bite of each!" there were knots in my stomach. I spent the entire evening mentally tallying up the dollars we’d have to shell out for this two-hour food fest with the zeal of a Weight Watcher counting points. I went home and realized that as far as dining out with Neal and Shelly, this was our Last Supper. Because every time we break bread with them it breaks the bank.

Listen, dear reader, before you start penning those nasty emails, I’m explaining, not complaining. Martin and I are not poor. We live in a nice apartment and we have a good life. I’m well aware that there are people who have real financial problems. I’m also aware from meals out with friends that lots of people have lots more than us. So, we’ve reached a point in our lives where we have to get serious about the bottom line.

Some people are afraid of dying young. I’m afraid of dying old. I have to stop watching 60 Minutes. It’s not the CBS hard-hitting stories on corruption or terrorism that get me — it’s those commercials aimed at baby boomers, asking people to determine how much money they need for retirement, that give me the willies. Finances are a problem that looms large for most women as we age, especially if we’re retiring, separated or widowed.

A recent article published on Refinery29 titled "I Can’t Afford My Friends Anymore," went viral. Aimed at 30-somethings, it nevertheless spoke to me, highlighting the difficulties in maintaining friendships when people are in very different financial positions. Complicating matters, as a 2018 study by Capital Group found, people are more comfortable talking about race, sex, politics and mental illness with their friends than they are talking about their salary, debt and retirement savings.

I remember when my parents started refusing invitations from their good friends Danny and Roz because they were always suggesting outings my parents couldn’t afford. Many years later I found out from Danny and Roz’s children how sad and confused their parents were when my parents ended their friendship. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk about the situation head-on? Certified Financial Planners Bradley Hilton, founder of Atlanta Georgia’s Sonas Financial Planning, and James D. Kinney, owner of Bridgewater New Jersey’s Financial Pathway Advisors, offer advice.

· "I’m a big fan of openness and communication," says Hilton. "Ask yourself: Where is my discomfort in discussing finances coming from? Sometimes we’re afraid our friends will judge us if we say we can’t afford an expensive trip or restaurant, but most often, they’ll understand."

· Don’t let anyone make you feel like a cheapskate. Kinney suggests keeping the conversation simple: "I have to keep an eye on my spending, I can’t swing an expensive (dinner, trip, outing) right now." Although Hilton still believes that good friends will understand if you’re honest with them, if you are indeed feeling uncomfortable talking about finances, he offers an out: "Divert attention away from money," he suggests. "Talk about something like your diet and how you’re trying to watch your cholesterol or your weight."

· Speak up in advance. Don’t wait until you’re sitting in some overpriced restaurant to express your uneasiness. Offer alternatives. A less expensive place to eat. A game night at home or other ideas that don’t involve drinks and a meal.

A potluck dinner at your house to which everyone contributes a dish is always a way to share costs.

· Even if you can afford a certain restaurant you may feel uneasy about splitting the bill. Say, if you’re like me, you don’t drink and your favorite dinner is a salad. "Get out in front of it," says Hilton. "A simple, 'Hey guys, I’m not drinking and I’m eating light — cool if I ask for a separate check?' should do it.

· Don’t be a jerk about the check. If someone orders a $14 entrée and yours costs $12 don’t quibble about splitting the $2 difference.

· And if you’re the one ordering an expensive bottle of wine or entrée while others at the table are tallying up much more modest costs, be a mensch and offer to pay your fair share.

· "Seniors need to be intentional about spending," Kinney says. "Dipping randomly into a retirement fund whenever the mood strikes is a bad idea." This is why I’m inviting my spendthrift dinner friends Neal and Shelley to have dinner at our house next weekend. I’m asking them to bring the wine — and I make a mean mac & cheese.

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Do you have this problem with friends? Can anyone relate? Let us know in the comments below.

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