#FinancialFridays: Telling Friends No

On December 7th, I did an interview with CBC Ontario Morning, the hosts were bantering about how they make choices for their entertainment budget. One lives a frugal low-cost life so they can attend big-ticket concerts. Another chooses to have her friends come to her home, and I assume their other friends host them too, and they entertain at home. The third was a bit of both.

It got me thinking about how do you say “no” to friends and family who want to invite you out to restaurants, bars, and concerts but you’re concerned about your budget. It can feel really embarrassing to admit you don’t want to spend $100 on drinks and food, or $50 on a play or local concert.

Francesca out hiking with friends

Francesca out hiking with friends

There’s a real stigma to saying “I can’t afford to do X”. Our identities are often tied up in how much money we do or do not have. Learning to set that aside is a real positive skill.

So how do you hang with friends and participate? The first step is to create an entertainment budget. If you have a household budget and it’s got $5 leftover after all the must-haves, that’s ok.

Depending upon your income, your entertainment budget might just be paying for a streaming service, and that’s it. Homemade popcorn, special favourite foods from the grocery store, and a stay-home night of a great new movie that’s popped up on your streaming service. If you make it an event, it will be eventful.

I have a friend with an August birthday and in 2015 I started taking him to a Blue Jays game for his birthday. I budget for the tickets in the spring and purchase them as soon as I can and my schedule permits. Then I set aside the transportation money: gas, mass transit tickets, the hot dogs, so come game day, I’m not stressing as much. For us, it means no matter how busy and crazy our lives are, at least once a year we spend the day together.

My local arts budget is pretty small. I am fortunate to have friends who often share a spare ticket with me here and there. So while I don’t financially support the local arts scene that much with ticket purchases, I will share and celebrate all the arts available in the community.

So how do you say no, without embarrassing yourself, without being a constant “no I can’t afford it” person, and without your friends thinking you don’t want to hang out with them?

First, you don’t have to explain. Don’t feel bad, you are making your needs the priority, and if you need to be careful with the money you have, that’s your choice. It’s the responsible thing to do.

Don’t apologize, you have nothing to apologize for.

Thank them for the invite, and acknowledge that you appreciate that they wanted to include you. Then be simple and clear: “I just don’t have that in my budget right now.”

Offer a counter-proposal: I can’t do dinner AND the movie, but I could meet up with you for the movie. Or: I can’t do Saturday night, but why don’t you come over Sunday morning and I’ll make a “morning after” bunch and you can tell me all about your night.

Share a financial goal you’re working on: “I’ve set a goal to pay off my credit card or student loan or save for a newer car” and celebrate your goal setting.

If you can go out, but you’re just going to have the salad and a side of fries to keep your expenses down, be clear up front and ask how the bill will be split. If everyone is paying for their own food, you have a choice. If they want to divide the bill evenly, then you’ll have to decide if you want to go or not. But it is better to ask ahead of time. If your friends “trick you” and change the plan when they get to the restaurant, speak directly to the server, that you want to be billed for just your items. Then consider if these are really friends you want to spend time with.

Giving voice to being careful with your money, may actually help a friend who is struggling in silence, and is trying to fit in. I’ve had friends put on a brave face and try and pretend they are good and they can participate in all the things. And when I decline and offer a lower-cost option, they are thrilled. It often then starts a conversation about money.

We are all feeling the stress of higher grocery prices and the insane cost of housing, so don’t think you’re the only one of your friends going through tough times. It is rare you would be the only one keeping an eye on your budget right now.


Francesca is the Executive Director of the United Way and is celebrating the start of her 20th year with the United Way. You can often find Francesca out on the trails of Owen Sound hiking, biking and talking to the birds.