In the Blog
The Price of Friendship: Five Ways to Make Socializing More Economically Inclusive
Illustration by Erin McPhee
A friend recently messaged me on Facebook and asked if I’d be able to fly cross-country to go to a concert with her. I declined the invite with a phrase that has become sadly all too common for me: “Sorry, I will have to pass this one up. I can’t afford it.” Another friend asked if I wanted to go to a local pool with her. The cost was $3.50. I had to refuse with the same explanation.
Even before I became chronically ill I certainly couldn’t have afforded impromptu trans-continental flights, and I don’t know many people who could. Now, however, just about anything that costs money is out of reach unless it’s a very special treat. I’m lucky to have numerous friends who enjoy taking advantage of the myriad free events in my city; everything from free dance classes to lightsaber parties to game show tapings. However, I still get invited to many events that cost money, and I still have to decline them. Every time I have to refuse one of those invitations – either due to health or money issues, or both – I feel guilty.
Within my circle of friends, there’s a very wide range of economic situations. There are a handful of very privileged people; there are others like me who live below the poverty line. Many work in industries like the performing arts where their income is constantly in flux; some are unemployed, underemployed or too disabled to hold jobs. Others have huge student loan debt or disproportionately high housing and medical costs.
Economic diversity notwithstanding, being poor is often very socially isolating for me. Worrying about how to pay for living expenses certainly takes full precedence over fretting over hanging out with friends, but it just adds to the pile. Those in positions of economic privilege often fail to understand, too, and that can be frustrating. For instance, the friend who invited me to the concert honestly doesn’t get why others can’t spend the way she can, no matter how often people try to explain it to her.
Most articles that address this issue are directed to individuals who don’t have money, and basically say, “if you can’t afford it, don’t go out.” Why not look at the other side of the coin? Is it possible to make events more economically inclusive, and to make everyone more aware that finances do come into play in social situations? I think so.
Understand if someone can’t afford to go out.
Nobody should be vilified, guilted out or referred to as “cheap” if they have economic challenges and have to decline invitations. Unfortunately, it happens.
At my last job, my colleagues frequently liked to go out to eat after work. I always had to turn down their invitations to join them. I’m sure that some of my co-workers probably thought I was a snob. I wasn’t. I didn’t have an extra $10 or $20 to spend on a restaurant meal. I used to have an acquaintance that constantly badgered me to go to his late-night gigs in the middle of the week. He never seemed to understand when I told him that I had to get up early the next morning, that the gig would end after the buses stopped running, and that I couldn’t spend $50 on a taxi to get home.
There are myriad reasons a person might not be able to afford a social event. Most obvious: the event itself is too expensive. There are numerous other factors that might come into play, though. Perhaps they have kids and the cost of childcare is prohibitive. Perhaps they have to work and are not able to take the time off. The transportation expenses associated with the event – gas, bus fare, parking, a rideshare or taxi – might be too high. No matter how much someone might want to attend an event, financial pressures might very well get in the way, and be insurmountable.
Choose free or low-cost things to do with friends.
Let’s say that you don’t have to work, you don’t have to arrange childcare and you have sorted out your transportation needs…but it’s still too expensive to hang out with friends. Are there any ways around that?
Your mileage with this suggestion might depend greatly on your geographic area, but if you’re in a major or mid-size Canadian or USA city, you are likely to discover that there are free parades, festivals, classes and other events happening around town, especially during the summer and early winter. They sometimes show up where you least expect them, too. For example, two sportswear stores in my city offer free fitness classes every weekend, with no strings attached and no pressure to buy anything. Many museums and gardens are free at least some of the time. In some cities, there are free film screenings, dance parties and concerts in local parks. There are websites that offer steep discounts and/or complimentary tickets to activities. If you’re in school, pay attention to what’s happening around campus; many student groups and associations at high schools and colleges sponsor free activities. If you’re not in school, keep an eye on any nearby colleges or universities anyway; many of their free events are open to everyone. If you are under 18 or 21, your local youth center might have free activities, games or trips.
What if there aren’t any free events happening, or nothing appeals to you? Maybe your area has a beach or park that is free and open to the public. Perhaps you can get together at someone’s home, if that feels safe to all involved. If you want to go out, perhaps you can grab a coffee instead of a full meal.
Point being, there are ways to socialize without spending a lot of money. If you’re planning a get-together with a group or are meeting up with a friend, consider a free activity or event.
Get separate checks/tabs.
Some publications insist that when a group eats out, the bill should be split equally among everyone present, regardless of what was ordered. Unfortunately, this has the potential to really hurt those who are on tight budgets. It’s genuinely upsetting and stressful to carefully figure out what you can afford to spend on a meal and gratuity and order within those parameters, only to discover that you’re expected to contribute considerably more. And often, this is only sprung on everyone at the end of the meal, when the check arrives.
It’s more economically inclusive to have everyone figure out their own share of the meal and tip, or ask for separate checks/tabs. If you do plan to split the bill evenly, let people know beforehand – and not on the spur of the moment – so they can decide whether they want to attend.
Don’t pressure friends to spend money.
Peer pressure to spend money is a real thing. Sometimes it’s an internal conflict, but other times, people are shamed or pressured directly to spend by their friends and loved ones. We might go shopping with a friend and try to talk them into buying something they’re ambivalent about, for instance.
If someone says that they cannot afford something, They. Can’t. Afford. It. Period. That’s true even if it’s something that would be easy for you to buy. “Inexpensive” is an extremely relative term. For some people $10 is a drop in the bucket; for others it’s two hours’ wages after taxes.
Think twice about asking friends to buy expensive clothing.
Thinking of inviting your friends to play special roles at your birthday or wedding, or to go to a costume or black tie event with you? Consider the costs. Matching dresses, tuxes or custom Halloween costumes might make your event special, but they can also cause substantial financial stress for those who have to buy them. Your friends might love you dearly, but they might not be able to afford an expensive custom outfit. Even if custom dresses are not involved, a lot of people have problems affording clothing for proms or other formal events.
Are there alternatives? Sure. Quinceanera.com, for instance, suggests having a discussion with your friends and asking them to be honest about what they can afford before making any decisions (this works for weddings and other events, too!). You might consider asking the members of your group to wear the same colour instead of the exact same outfits, so they can shop around for something that works with their budget. If you are using a custom dressmaker, perhaps you can work with them to find ways to bring the cost down or choose a less expensive dress. You might also consider choosing clothes that can be rented instead of purchased.
For Halloween parties and other events, you and your friends might have a great time being creative and sourcing outfit components in used clothing stores or making the costumes yourselves, instead of buying something right off the rack. And if a friend has to turn down your invitation because they just can’t afford the clothing you want them to buy, try to understand instead of being insulted or angry about it. Your friend isn’t trying to hurt you by declining. You don’t want to hurt them by asking them to go beyond their financial limits.
Being sensitive to friends’ economic situations and making an effort to be inclusive go a long way. After all, friendship shouldn’t be determined, or limited, by one’s bank account.