Why It’s Ok to Just Say “No” to Your Friends With Money
There’s a Friends episode that took me about 15 years to get. In it, Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe struggle to make ends meet while Ross, Chandler, and Monica bask in the affluence of their successes. The richer pals don’t understand the struggle of their poorer ones, and instead of coming to any sort of compromise, the episode simply ends with Monica getting fired, effectively humbling her.
Which is almost as offensive as Ross, Chandler, and Monica expecting to split a six-person dinner bill while three of their friends consumed only sides and water. It shouldn’t take a job loss to understand that money issues can make socializing feel bleak and terrible, especially when you’re expected to spend money or risk being deemed “a bad friend.” The lesson shouldn’t be, “Well when something bad happens to one of your rich friends, they’ll finally understand.” The lesson should be, “Don’t expect your friends to be able to shell out for your gargantuan karaoke birthday party tab — what’s wrong with you?”
In actual life, most friends wouldn’t ask their social circle to cough up dollars to celebrate a success.
But in actual life, most friends wouldn’t ask their social circle to cough up dollars to celebrate a success — especially since most of us spend our twenties trying to navigate the ins and outs of rent, bills, entry-level jobs, and any other sources of money-defined stresses. The majority of us aren’t living like Helen in Bridesmaids or like characters in any Nancy Meyers movies. We’re not Chandler, Ross, or Monica (pre-dismissal). Which means that if we’re asked to live excessively, we can simply opt out. Nobody here owes anybody money that they don’t have.
This feels like a much bigger issue when it’s happening. During a friend’s wedding about five years ago, I was struggling to pay for groceries around the same time we were paying for bridesmaid dresses. (And any/all other wedding-oriented details.) And while I felt like a huge buzzkill eventually shutting down plans for a Vegas trip, it turned out that nobody really cared. First, because I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t afford it, and also because asking anyone to spend more than $20 on anything is actually a big deal.
We forget that when we’re the ones saying “I can’t.” Mainly because passing on events and gifts makes us feel like we’ve failed; like had we lived differently or made other, more responsible choices, we’d be able to participate alongside the masses. For me, saying “I can’t afford it” felt on par with standing on a table in a restaurant and yelling “I’m a fuck up!” And it didn’t help that I had friends who could throw down their credit cards like a $15 dinner bill was no big deal.
Most friends will just be happy to hang out. And if they’re not, those aren’t real friends.
But that’s when this becomes an issue more about friendship and less about money. Especially since most humans worth knowing are aware that to project their financial circumstances onto another person is unrealistic and offensive. Real friends won’t throw tantrums if you can’t afford their spa bachelorette weekend in Ojai, nor will they cry if you suggest having them over for dinner instead of joining them on a birthday bar night. Most friends will just be happy to hang out. And if they’re not, those aren’t real friends.
Which is why saying “I can’t afford it” is a reasonable response to being asked to travel for an event, attend a wedding, or go in on any party out of your price range. It’s unreasonable to ask a person to dip into money they don’t (or may not) have for the sake of social norms. Especially since those norms serve only to benefit people who can afford to abide by them. The rest of us have to work, to save, to pay off debt, and to juggle everything from familial responsibilities to student loans. “Spending money” is a lovely idea, but for a good portion of our generation, it’s not realistic right now. And if friends are human beings with hearts and with brains, they will more than understand that.
After all, for all the times I’ve said I can’t afford something, I’ve had friends come back and tell me the same. And at no point has there been conflict or strife or underlying resentment. (Duh.) Instead, despite how anxious I’ve felt or they’ve felt or how many apologies we’ve served alongside our regrets, there’s been an understanding. There’s been a compromise. There’s been an alternative suggestion or an offer to cover a cost or the mutual agreement to skip whatever expensive thing we’ve been asked to do and go for a walk instead. The norm is not a case for frivolity. The norm is saying, “Oh man, I’ve been there.” The norm is Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe.
Despite your guilt, you’re not a bad friend for not being able to afford something. The only bad friend is the one who demands you do anyway.
Anne T. Donahue writes for MTV News, Refinery29, The Guardian, The Flare and other outlets. She is also the host of the Podcast “Nobody Cares (Except Me).” Her book Nobody Cares was released September 2018. She is in a loving and committed relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, even though he is not aware of that.
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