Saying “no” to friends — in a clear, non-judgmental, positive way — can be one of the biggest obstacles to making serious changes in your financial life. But once you master it, you’ll find that your social calendar stops being “where all my money disappears” and becomes “a fun way to spend from time to time, without feeling guilty.” Personal finance is ultimately all about balance, and carving out a reasonable portion of your budget for social activities, without going overboard, ensures that nights out can simply be fun, and not fraught with those awkward “I-can’t-afford-a-14-dollar-cocktail-right-now-but-I-also-can’t-back-down-at-the-bar” feelings. You won’t wake up and find a decimated checking account and a throbbing headache — or, at least not very often.
But saying “no” sucks, and is awkward. No one likes having to decline invitations, either because you actually want to go to the event in question, or you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings. We tend to take “no” as “fuck you” in our culture, and assume that people bailing on us means that they are dismissive, selfish flakes. Add to that the inherent discomfort in being like “you spend money like a Vanderbilt and I am trying to pay off my student loans faster,” and you have one of the most unpleasant social interactions you can experience between friends. But it doesn’t have to be this way! There are three simple, easy rules that we all can follow to make saying “no” easier, and saving money a much bigger part of our lives. These rules don’t guarantee that no one will get hurt, but they certainly help, and once you master them, you will find that looking at your Facebook events leaves you feeling calm, instead of panicky and resentful at the people who invited you.
Rule #1: Frame it positively.
There is no need to make up weird, half-assed excuses when declining something for financial reasons. And there is also no reason to be embarrassed about wanting to save money — in fact, it’s arguably something to be proud and open about, particularly amongst people you consider friends. But to prevent some of the awkwardness, and avoid sounding like you are judging the other person for spending too much, frame the situation positively.
Instead of saying “I really can’t be spending money right now,” or “Going out to things like this always costs way too much,” say “I’m actually trying to save a ton this month, so I’m really trying to be good about staying home more.” You can talk about your goals if they ask, or mention some of the cheaper alternatives to bar nights you’ve been coming up with. Make it fun, light, and always about “what you are trying to do” rather than “what you are not doing anymore.” The conversation will be much smoother when no one feels judged, or like they have been contributing to your financial stress.
Rule #2: Never do it at the last minute.
Regardless of why you are declining something, the most surefire way to get the other person to hate you is to do it at the last minute. We all have the flake friend whose pre-hangout text messages we dread, because they are honestly more likely to cancel 20 minutes beforehand than actually show up. So, in addition to not wanting to be that person in general, you especially don’t want to be that person when you are trying to make a significant life change and streamline your social activities.
Give your friends the courtesy and respect to decline well ahead of time, and to never leave them hanging about things. If you are really debating whether or not you should go, you must force yourself to make a decision with at least 24 hours’ notice, if not more, and stick to it. It’s tough at first — as we are both plagued with FOMO and buyer’s remorse — but once you get used to the concept of RSVP’ing like adults, it becomes second nature to make final decisions on activities ahead of time. A “maybe” response is for children and Facebook mass invites, neither of which you should be.
Rule #3: Provide alternatives.
One thing to keep in mind is that, often, a friend will propose an activity offhand, but be more interested in hanging out with you than doing that particular activity. This is flattering, and awesome, and you should have something prepared for such a case. If they tell you that going to that fancy restaurant is totally not an obligation, and that they’re open to doing other things, have some options at the ready that you are financially comfortable with.
Personally, I like keeping a few pages bookmarked of free or cheap activities going on in my city at any given time, so I can quickly see what’s going on this weekend. Movies with wine and snacks at someone’s house is always a great option, as is outdoor eating when the weather is good. Inviting someone over to cook a meal together is a fraction of restaurant prices, and provides both an activity and something delicious to eat. There are tons of options for less-expensive hangouts, but if you are trying to be smarter about social spending, it’s up to you to have them on hand. And who knows? You may end up liking that gallery opening (with all its free champagne) way better than that bougie bar, anyway.
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