As an artist I have an intimate relationship with debt. At the beginning of my career, he was a close companion who got me through years of classes, shows and headshots (a fancy word for actor pictures). Now he is a distant relation I have to call on from time to time in a month of need and then try to distance myself from again.
I think a lot of us are living in some amount of debt. It's a necessary evil as we graduate from college with no savings to start our independent life. (Not to mention student loans that haunt us for decades.) Or we lose our job, or we need major dental work, or our water heater breaks and we depend on credit cards for what we plan to be a temporary period.
The problem with having debt in your life as a necessary evil is that it very quickly spirals into an unnecessary evil. It's so easy to think, "Well, I already put $125 on my credit card to pay the electric bill, what's another $30 for dinner?"
I think we all know where that kind of mind set gets us--drowning in debt.
I was drowning in debt once. I know how it feels. In addition to the personal pressure of being in debt, there's social pressure. In fact, the social pressure may very well be the reason we turn to debt to begin with.
[TWEET "It's not so much about keeping up with the Joneses--it's wanting to hang out with them."]
It's not so much that we want to keep up with the Joneses, it's that we want to hang out with the Joneses. We don't want to be alone in our apartment eating tuna from a can and thinking about how much money we don't have. We want to spend time with our friends and that usually means spending money on dinners, drinks, Uber rides, and birthday presents.
So, how can you help a friend who is struggling with finances?
Here are 10 ways to be a good friend to a friend in debt.
1. Don't be Jiminy Cricket. It's not your job to be your friend's conscience. Married couples have a hard time talking about money and they can have sex afterwards. What are you and your buddy gonna do after your awkward conversation about finances?
That being said, it's like watching a friend drink too much or suffer through a bad romantic relationship--sometimes you need to have a difficult conversation. So express your concern once and then let it go. No one wants big brother hanging over her shoulder, counting every penny and making a judgment face at every credit card transaction.
2. Don't lend money to a friend. I made this mistake in college. I loaned a friend $100 to float him until financial aid came through, and then I resented every $5 beer and $10 lunch he bought himself before paying me back.
I knew better than to think of it this way. My father taught me to never lend money to family or friends. Gift the money if you so choose. If it comes back to you, fine. But don't ask for it, don't expect it, and most certainly don't let it affect your relationship.
3. If you gift money to a friend, expect your friendship to get weird. Even if you are certain that you can give money to a friend and let it go completely on every level, you can't be certain that the receiving friend can. Say you invite a friend to be in your wedding and you pay for her dress, plane trip and hotel. Now she feels like she has to be at your beck and call. Even though she's exhausted at midnight, she feels she has to stay at the rehearsal dinner party because you are paying her to be there. She feels like your paid wedding servant. It's unpleasant to feel beholden to your friend.
4. Think really long and hard before you hire or help your friend get a job. You don't want to end up keeping tabs on your friend's work habits. You don't want to take it personally when your friend is late to work or can't nanny for you today because her ex-boyfriend is in town. And having to negotiate pay and friendship can get very, very icky.
5. Don't be generous. When I had no money to spare, I did not like receiving gifts for my birthday or holidays because I felt like I needed to reciprocate. Even if you want to give a gift and don't care if you get one in return, it's likely that the receiver doesn't feel good about that situation. Buy them a reasonable lunch or give a nice card. And listen when your friend says, "Can we please not do gifts this year?"
6. Don't be selfish. Don't put your friend in a spending situation just because you want company. Don't ask her to go shopping or beg him to go to a Rush concert with you because no one else will go. On the other hand, don't exclude your friend from a group event because you decide she shouldn't spend her money that way. This isn't junior high, so don't leave her out. She's an adult and can decide for herself if she wants a spa day with your mutual friends.
7. Think about other people on your birthday. Don't have a birthday dinner at an expensive restaurant unless you are paying for everyone who joins you. (Or unless every one of your friends is wealthy and enjoys spending money on that particular type of food while sitting next to someone they hardly know as you sit at the other end of the table.) Don't host your party anywhere that won't do separate checks. Don't let anyone suggest you all "just split the bill" when your friend drank water and everyone else had wine. Don't go to a tapas place, order for the table and then expect everyone to pay equally for the one bite they had of each dish.
Give friends the option to stop by just for a drink after dinner or, better yet, invite them to meet at your house after dinner for pizza (because no one's going to get enough to eat at the restaurant where they pay $60 a piece for a few bites of tuna tartar).
8. Don't have multiple celebrations for any event in your life and expect the same friends to attend. I can't afford to be your friend if I have to attend the engagement party, the wedding shower, the bachelorette weekend, the destination wedding, and the local reception. If you expect five different gifts, then we weren't meant to be friends anyway.
If your budget minded friend is hosting a baby or wedding shower for you, please don't put her in a situation where she's co-hosting with three of your wealthy friends who think the cupcakes need to be imported from England.
9. Be a good example. It wouldn't hurt your budget to bring lunch to work instead of going out with your co-worker friends. Or invite a friend over for coffee instead of dinner out.
10. Be supportive. Just be supportive. Finances are hard. We've all been there or could easily be there. Money is so linked to our emotional state. Cheer your friend up for free. Remind her that she has power over her money, not the other way around.
Yes, there was a time in my life where $10 was a lot of money. And I still remember a friend who forgot his wallet when we went to a movie and so I paid for his ticket. And he never paid me back. It's been at least fifteen years. I still remember.
I'm not there anymore. Heck, you might even have borrowed $15 recently and I wouldn't remember!
But still, I live on a budget and occasionally have to remind friends with a more dependable income that I don't want to spend a hundred bucks on a fancy dinner, especially while I'm paying a babysitter another hundred bucks at home.
It's frustrating, honestly, to have to tell friends, "I can't afford that." Not because I'm frustrated that I can't afford it (I wouldn't change my chosen profession for a more steady income), but because I'm frustrated that my friends don't consider my finances when they make plans that involve me.
Can't we all just come over to your house for a pot luck birthday dinner please? That way I can tell that one friend to pick up dessert for me because he still owes me ten bucks.
Photo credit: Valerie Everett