6 Common Money Woes, Solved

Your guide to buying and saving—without skimping. 

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Modern Manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) help you through those awkward conversations about money.

I am divorced and solely paying for my daughter's wedding. Must I include my ex-husband's name on the invitation? — W.R.

Alas, you must. The old-school etiquette rule was that the invitation should be issued by the host—who, in this case, is you and you only. But this edict is outdated, especially now that any combination of parents, in-laws, and bride and groom may pay for the nuptials. Besides, however maddening your ex may be, this is not an appropriate occasion to punish him, and the invitation should not be wielded in the interest of spite. As long as your daughter prefers that both her parents be identified, that's what you should do. Let her special day be an occasion for generosity and optimism, untainted by bitterness. Take the high road because it's the right thing to do and because it will make your daughter happy.

- Catherine Newman


I am a graphic designer, and I agreed to work on the logo, stationery, and website for a friend's company at a discount. Now she keeps asking me to update the site without offering to pay for the extra labor. I feel like she doesn't respect my time. How do I tell her that I need to charge her full price from now on without upsetting her? — J.M.

Good deeds can be rewarding. (Research shows that generosity is a massive happiness-booster.) But, alas, they don't pay the rent. It's wonderful that you did something nice for your friend, and it's also understandable that you can't keep doing favors for her indefinitely. She may need a reminder that this is how you make a living.

The next time that she asks for help, say, "I was happy to help you get this site up and running, but let's talk about what you envision for the future. If there's going to be continual maintenance, then I'll need to charge you for my time." If she agrees to your rates, great. If she balks, suggest some other designers she could work with, thereby preserving your valuable time and the friendship.


Three years ago, my dear friend invested in a pyramid-style business and lost all her savings before eventually figuring out that it was a scam. Ever since, she has struggled financially, and recently she applied for public assistance. Now I've learned that she has started pouring time and resources into yet another pyramid endeavor and is hoping to "go all in." I want to caution her about moving forward with this new business before she sinks any money into it. Should I? Or ought I stay out of it? Name withheld by request

If you had written "my acquaintance," I would say, "By all means, stay out of it." But a dear friend is a different matter, and if her current opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So, yes, you ought to speak up. But do so gently, and without referring to her difficult financial situation. You might remind her about what happened the last time she pursued a business scheme—framing it as bad luck rather than a lack of good judgment—and then offer concrete suggestions for making sure that this opportunity is legitimate.

Do you have a mutual friend with business savvy? Suggest that she discuss her new endeavor with that person. Or encourage her to search for the company's name on the Better Business Bureau's website to see if any previous wrongdoing has been reported. (Don't be tempted to do this for her yourself or you'll veer from supportive to meddlesome.)

Obviously your friend thinks that this is a solid idea or she wouldn't be pursuing it, so I would refrain from criticizing the business concept. And no matter how careful you are, be prepared for a negative reaction from her: Your friend might be offended by your questioning of an enterprise that she believes in, and you should be quick to apologize for offering unsolicited (though well-meaning) advice.

Still, if there's a chance that your intervention can keep someone you care about from enduring another financial catastrophe, I say it's well worth the risk.

How do you say no to a pal who requests donations for her favorite cause? I already give money to a number of other nonprofits and have to draw the line somewhere. — B.G.

Saying no to such pleas is often challenging—especially since it's coming from someone in your life, not an anonymous canvasser whom you can politely close the door on. Explain to your friend that your budget for charitable giving has already been accounted for but that the cause sounds like a worthy one (assuming that it does). Then wish her well with her fundraising.

Alternatively, if you're worried about seeming too Scroogey, you can choose to make a token contribution of, say, $10. Again, say that you would love to give more but that this is all your finances will currently allow. Even a small offering should appease your pal.

At bottom, charitable donations are a form of investment—investment in a better world, that is. As with any financial decision, it's important to allocate your funds as you see fit.


Coworkers are constantly asking for money ($5 to $20) for baby showers, holidays, weddings, birthdays, boss gifts, departure for new job, second baby shower, etc. It's too much! I get "the eye" when I don't contribute, and it makes me self-conscious. But can't I choose what I spend money on? If I don't give money, I don't eat the food or sign the card. I hate being put in this position. How do I nicely decline without causing a rift or being labeled a cheapskate? — J. P.

Ideally, you would be able to share in the festive sentiments without shelling out constantly or being shamed. Anonymous donations should be de rigueur. Alas, discretion does not seem to be part of your office's party-all-the-time policy. Of course, you are free to abstain, but you'll surely keep getting the eye, especially if you come to work Antigua-tanned or wearing new jewelry. (Oh, but she couldn't pitch in $5 for an ice cream cake?)

Try one of these options: Consider sending an e-mail to your colleagues in which you express your interest in being a team player and suggest some alternatives, like a joint monthly celebration of everyone's milestones. (Chances are good that you're not alone in your donation fatigue.) Another option—a kind of mental rejiggering—is to make "harmony at work" a line item in your personal budget. Think of this not as caving to compulsory gift giving but as a strategic investment in your own happiness. You spend a lot of time with your office mates; maybe it's worth 200 bucks over the course of the year to make the experience as pleasant as possible.

Whatever you decide, find some way to contribute when an event arises: a token dollar amount, a plate of brownies, or—at the very least—your heartfelt well wishes.


A friend of mine was holding my eight-month-old baby and letting her play with a necklace that she was wearing. Not surprisingly, the string of beads broke. I apologized and offered to repair or replace it. She said that she would get back to me with an estimate. Honestly, I offered to be nice—but I feel like she’s the one who let my infant play with the necklace in the first place, and it’s not really my responsibility to repair it. What should I do? — A. B.

It’s possible that something more than a necklace has been broken in this interaction. Because of her response to your offer, you have information about your friend that you didn’t want, and this might turn out to be a moment when you see that your priorities are diverging. That said, you did the right thing in offering to replace the necklace. Your friend should have said, “Please don’t worry! It’s just a necklace. Besides, I’m the one who was letting the baby play with it.” But she didn’t. So if she follows up, you will need to make good on your offer. (Mental note: Rhetorical offers can be taken literally, and doing the right thing can result in the wrong outcome.) Not to be a weird jewelry detective, but if the beads were something valuable, such as pearls, they would have been knotted, so it’s unlikely that a dozen rolled into an air vent, requiring you to drain the baby's college fund to replace them. But don’t pursue the matter unless your friend does. Ideally she will reconsider and conclude that people are more valuable than things and that she should let the issue drop.


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