You know that friend…the one who never has money, who always seems to disappear when it’s time to pay the tab. The one you sorta’ dread because you know how awkward it’ll be when the bill comes ’round.
I’ve been that friend. Except I didn’t know I was That Friend until it was too late.
This is how I discovered, one day, that I’d been leaching off my friends.
I was staying with them (a late-20s married couple) in B.C. They’d just bought a new place and I’d hauled my daughter to Cranbrook to see it. It was gorgeous. Way larger than I could afford, and way newer than my own condo in Calgary (sadly, the two homes’ prices were probably comparable). I was already feeling the insidious evil of envy slithering up my spine when a discussion arose about who would pick up a few extra things for dinner.
“Not Heather,” my long-time male friend said to a room full of people, including my daughter. “Heather never pays for everything.”
My stomach lurched, and I instantly wanted to jump to my own defence. But I did a quick tally of both the weekend and our friendship to date. He was right. I didn’t pay for anything.
Now, I’m not That Friend normally. Perhaps my parents taught me not to talk about money, but they did teach me to pay my own way. I’m even known to be generous. Here’s how it happened that I became the person always ducking out on the bill.
They always offered to pay. Given the financial situation I was in, I let them. In the past – before I was an unwed mother with a mortgage meant for two – I would’ve had the obligatory I’ll-pay-No-I’ll-pay tussle at the cash register. But I couldn’t anymore. I could barely pay for me, let alone someone else. So when they said: “We’ll pay”, I said: “Sure.” (Even as I’m writing this, I feel smaller and smaller in my chair.)
There were other missteps. All mine. I promised them a wedding gift that I couldn’t afford. So I never bought it. Ever.
It’s gone on so long now, that I can’t go back.
But if I could, this is what I would do to avoid this friendship’s eventual drowning. You can also apply these lessons-learned to your friendships or courtships or other ships you hope to avoid steering into this sad, sad shore.
1) Be honest: I shouldn’t have promised a wedding gift. What I should have said is this: “I can barely afford to come to your wedding. I want to be there, but I can’t buy you a gift. Can I still come?” Just like instead of letting them pay the bill whenever we went out, I should have said this: “Hey, thanks for the offer. But I’ll pay for myself.” Or even: “Can we go somewhere else for dinner? Like the mall food court, perhaps?”
2) Be creative: All those times we went out, I should’ve just stayed home and invited them over. There are all sorts of things you can do for free: build forts, play tile rummy, finger paint, have an orgy, etc. One word of caution here. Make sure people know it’s always BYOB and potluck at your house. Or these free nights could end up costing only you.
3) Set boundaries: I’ve also been on the other side, where it seemed a friend was spongeing off me. What I wish I would’ve said is this: “Hi. I’m sorry I have to say this, but I do. I can’t pay for you anymore. I love you, but I can’t afford to buy you drinks/food/rent/shoes. Can we still be friends?”