11 Money-Etiquette Issues, Solved
Responding to Nosy Questions
Problem: A nosy friend asks how much you spent on your car, your clothes, or your house, and you think it's none of her business.
Solution: When someone asks an invasive question, you're never obligated to answer, says Laurie Puhn, a relationship expert in New York City. "If she asked about your favorite sexual positions, would you feel you had to tell her? Probably not," Puhn says. The next time this friend asks the price of a new leather handbag, Puhn suggests saying something like: "I have a new policy that I'm not going to share prices or salaries. It's nothing personal. I've just found it's easier not to discuss finances with friends." Or try what etiquette expert Anna Post, author of Emily Post's Wedding Parties ($23, amazon.com), calls the "gently evasive" approach. "If your friend asks what you paid for your new house, say, 'Well, probably a little more than I should have, but I am so happy with it.' Then immediately change the subject: 'Can I give you a tour?'" suggests Post. "Your answer indicates that the issue is not open for discussion."
Splitting the Bill
Problem: The check arrives, and while you had a salad, everyone else had steak.
Solution: If there's just a few dollars' difference, consider splitting the bill evenly. If you're really in a money crunch―or the house wine you had doesn't exactly compare with the three $100 bottles the rest of the group shared―just say up front, "We're all paying for our own meals and drinks, right?" Make it plain and simple. If it's a large group, you can also ask your server for a separate check when you order. Most restaurants have software systems that can easily print multiple checks. If you don't get a separate check and one of the pricey wine drinkers moves to split the bill evenly, it's OK to be pleasantly assertive, says Post: "Try, 'Hey, guys, I figure $30 will cover my meal, glass of wine, tax, and tip. Can I throw that in and let you split the rest?'" Your message is clear ("I owe less"), but it's not the least bit confrontational.
Problem: You're passionate about raising money for several charities. How many times can you hit up the same people?
Solution: You can approach immediate family for pretty much every fund-raiser you support, from cookie sales to charity races. However, if you solicit distant relatives more than twice a year, e-mail them annually and ask which causes interest them most, suggests Allison Blanton, the senior development adviser of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "That way, you don't inundate them with requests unless they've said it's OK," she says. With friends and acquaintances, limit yourself to two or three requests a year. Group e-mails (with recipients' addresses hidden, to protect privacy) asking for contributions are fine. It's always a good idea to send a thank-you note or e-mail when a fund-raising project is over, to communicate your gratitude and to let donors know their generosity made an impact. But remember: You'll get better results―and keep more friends―by targeting your solicitations, rather than blasting your entire address book. "If it's the symphony, contact friends you know are passionate about the arts," suggests Caroline Tiger, author of How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged ($13, amazon.com). "But save the call to dog lover Aunt Eileen until you're raising money for the animal shelter."
Lending Money to Friends
Problem: You lent a hefty sum to a friend. After she misses a payment or two, she shows up with an expensive new handbag. Do you say anything?
Solution: Yes, but don't make assumptions. She may have received the purse as a gift, or perhaps she just got a raise and is ready to pay you off. It's tempting to confront her angrily, but express concern instead. "Say, 'This is bothering me, and I don't want it to come between us. But you missed a payment to me, and now I see you with a $300 purse. I'm wondering what's going on. Could we talk about it?'" suggests Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness ($25, amazon.com). That might be enough to persuade your friend to get back on track with payments. If not, you may have just learned an expensive lesson: Never lend money to friends. "You're better off making it a gift and not expecting it back. That's much less awkward," says Ramsey. If you ever play banker again, treat it like a financial transaction and use a promissory note ($9, nolo.com) so you're both clear about payment dates, interest rates, and other loan details.
Paying for Advice
Problem: An acquaintance is an interior designer―or an accountant, an attorney, or another type of professional―and you want her expert opinion. Should you pay her?
Solution: You should. "Many people seem to think their friends and acquaintances go into particular professions because, all money aside, they just love their work," says Nancy Barsotti, an interior designer in New York City and Pittsburgh. "They assume that justifies asking for free help." It doesn't. Definitely plan to pay for your friend's professional time and advice, even if she's enthusiastic about her job. "If she doesn't bring it up first, say, 'How are we going to take care of the business side of this? Will you draw up a contract that outlines what you'll do and how much you'll charge?'" suggests Barsotti. That way, you won't be surprised when the bill comes. If your pal offers a little decorating advice, helps with your taxes, or draws up a will for you for free, a gracious way to show your thanks is with a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant or an invitation to your house for dinner.
Contributing to Group Gifts
Problem: Some of the other parents want to get an expensive group gift for the class's teacher, and it's more than you want to spend. Speak up or pay up?
Solution: If one of the moms or dads in your child's class has already purchased the lavish gift and is announcing what each family owes, you can "thank the person for making such a nice choice but tell her, 'We already had another gift in mind, so we won't be able to contribute,'" suggests Robyn Spizman, author of The Giftionary: An A-Z Reference Guide for Solving Your Gift-Giving Dilemmas...
Forever! ($14, amazon.com). "Then go buy something in your own price range." The other option: If the present is still being decided upon and you'd like to make the case for something more modest, send a friendly group e-mail to all the parents. Make a specific suggestion, such as a gift certificate to the teacher's favorite coffee shop, with a suggested per-person contribution. If they all agree, offer to pick up the gift yourself.
Paying Your Way
Problem: A few friends make more money than you do, and they brush aside your sincere efforts to pay your way. You feel like a charity case. How do you handle it?
Solution: "Let people be generous, and find creative, inexpensive ways to reciprocate," says Amy Dickinson, author of the Chicago Tribune's syndicated advice column, Ask Amy. People who have money to spare are often thrilled to share their good fortune with friends. And if your wealthy patrons had leaner days, someone may have done the same for them. Be gracious and say "thank you." How? A simple photo album of your trip together or an inexpensive basket of homemade goodies is a lovely gesture. And don't shy away from inviting these friends to do things that are cheaper, says Dickinson. (Think hikes with your dogs or potlucks.) "Real friends just want to spend time with you. Cost is not the issue," she says.
Backing Out of a Financial Commitment
Problem: You committed to a weekend with friends, but the cost is over your budget.
Solution: Anytime you're going to split the cost of something with friends, be clear about expectations from the outset: "I can afford economy airline seats but not first class." Or "Can we agree to keep the room under $100 per person per night?" suggests Charles Purdy, author of Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis ($15, amazon.com). If a friend makes expensive reservations before you've discussed it, be up-front. Say, "I misunderstood how much you were planning to spend. I can't afford a trip like that right now." If you agreed initially and are backing out, you could offer to pay a portion of the cost, such as the room-cancellation fee. "That's cheaper than paying for an entire trip you can't afford," says Purdy. But what if she says she'll lend you the money and you can pay her later? "Don't do it," says Dickinson. "That's how ex-friends end up confronting each other on the Judge Judy show."
Dealing With Friends Who Complain About Money
Problem: A friend complains that she has no money, then spends extravagantly. How do you deal?
Solution: Is your pal really a cash-strapped shopaholic or just someone who habitually whines about money? It's time to force her into the open. "Say something like 'Last week you said you didn't have any money, then you bought those fancy designer shoes. I'm worried about you. Are you having financial trouble?'" says Jodi Smith, author of From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Woman ($10, amazon.com). "If she is, help her find a financial counselor or look for a good advice book on budgets." But don't get overly involved in her problems, and don't lend her money. Remember―some perfectly well-off people routinely complain about money the same way some thin people gripe about how fat they are while eating a double-fudge brownie, says Dickinson: "If you call your friend's bluff and tell her you're worried about her, she may become more conscious of the money whining and stop doing it."
Answering Questions About Bargains
Problem: A friend asks, "Where did you get that adorable top? I love it!" You don't want to reveal that it's from an inexpensive chain store, so what do you say?
Solution: There's no shame in finding steals at bargain stores, but you don't have to be entirely forthcoming about how much you spent or where you bought the top, says Clinton Kelly, a host on the Learning Channel's What Not to Wear. A simple retort like "Oh, this old thing? I can't remember" usually suffices. If the top is obviously on the new side, try something like "I did so much shopping that day, I don't recall," suggests Kelly. Keep in mind that your fashion fan is probably not trying to figure out how much you paid. "Comments like this usually mean 'You look fabulous! How can I look that great?'" says Kelly. "Take it as a compliment." Probably the best thing to do, says Kelly, is to "throw out a suggestion and say, 'I bought this one in a little boutique in Chicago, but I think I saw some tops like it at Bloomingdale's or Macy's last week.'"
Collecting for Group Gifts
Problem: Friends or coworkers who need to reimburse you for a group gift keep saying, "Yeah, I'll get that to you," and never do. What should you do?
Solution: Send an e-mail reminding everyone that you're collecting and would appreciate it if they'd get their share to you by a specific date, suggests Susan Hackley, the managing director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. "If people still haven't paid within a week, another pleasant e-mail―appreciatively noting the names of those who have paid―is perfectly appropriate," says Hackley. If only one or two people haven't chipped in yet, talk to them privately, says Spizman. "Ask if they sent it and by chance you didn't receive it―don't be accusatory. They really might have forgotten," she says. It's also possible that they're short of money. In that case, you could compromise and say you'd be willing to accept whatever they can manage. If this puts you in a bind, you might ask some other group members (without revealing intimate details) if they'd consider chipping in a few extra bucks, since the group ran short.