Awkward Obligations: Weddings, Births and Social Gifts

Wedding Gifts

Why is it that our friends’ life events cost us so much money?

If you’ve made it to your mid-20s, you undoubtedly know what I’m talking about. Your friends have begun to get married, and you’ve discovered that their weddings are expensive affairs… for you! And if you’ve hit 30, you probably know that as those same friends have children, social giving pressure is going to cost you even more.

Whether it’s the $25-$50 you might spend on a gift, the hundreds of dollars it will cost you to participate in a wedding or the innumerable expenses and hassles of hosting a bridal or baby shower, you’re going to find yourself shelling out a lot of cash to celebrate with people. Sometimes, these events and their expenses come with social obligations that put us in awkward situations, especially if money is tight.

Your friends and their life events could wreck your budget if you let them… but you don’t have to. Here are five ways to guard yourself against runaway costs of social obligations.

1) Budget for giving.

Your budget is your best tool for keeping your finances in good order, and the more detailed your budget is, the better it will work. Your first defense against runaway gift expenses, then, is to put gift-giving in your annual budget.

A good budget plan should have a line-item for gifts. This can include birthday gifts and other regular gifts for friends and family members that come up every year. But in addition to this, you need to budget a lot of extra money for the wedding and baby gifts that you’ll be giving in the next year or so, even if you’re not sure exactly what they will be or when.

How much should you budget for gifts? That’s going to depend a lot on your income and your social circumstances. But if you have an active social life and a lot of friends, $300 is probably a good place to start.

2) Budget for travel.

If you have moved away from your hometown — or if you have close friends or family members that now live far away — there’s a good chance that you may need to travel to attend weddings, showers, births and other special occasions. In order to do this well, you need to budget for it ahead of time, just like you budget for gift-giving.

Everyone should have some amount of money budgeted for travel every year, whether that’s to attend a church conference or retreat, go home for the holidays or take your family on a nice vacation. But if you anticipate making trips to be part of special life events, you need to allocate more money in this area of your budget than normal — maybe a lot more.

Having a robust travel budget available to you will help take the sting out of making trips to be there for your friends and their happy occasions.

3) Anticipate and prepare.

If you’re close enough to someone that you feel obligated to attend their important events, you’re probably close enough to them to see these events coming before they actually happen. Anticipating weddings, births and other celebrations ahead of time will help you prepare for their associated costs.

If you have a friend whose dating relationship has taken a serious turn, you can probably anticipate that an engagement or marriage may be coming up in the next year or so. And if you think you may be asked to be part of the wedding party, you should start saving money now for your dress, tuxedo or other wedding expenses. This is especially important for expenses that aren’t in your regular budget.

The same thing holds true for babies: If you know that your friends are trying to have children, you should consider saving now for the money you’ll need to host a shower, buy a gift or travel to meet the new children.

4) Be honest.

No matter how strategic you are in budgeting your money and planning ahead for special occasions, there’s likely to be a time when a friend takes you by surprise and brings up something that you genuinely can’t afford. These can be some of the most awkward and difficult social situations you ever encounter. When they do come up, honesty is the best policy.

When your friend is throwing a celebration that you just can’t afford to participate in, the best and most loving thing you can do is to honestly explain to them why you won’t be able to make it. You’re sorry, but you just don’t have the money to travel to Mexico for their destination wedding. You’d love to be in the wedding party, but money is tight and you can’t afford the tuxedo rental. You wish you could celebrate the bachelor or bachelorette party with them, but you don’t have the funds for a night on the town.

Granted, a sensitive friend probably shouldn’t be putting you in this situation anyway, but sometimes they do. It will be a tough conversation when you explain why you can’t afford to participate. But it will be much better than mysteriously avoiding the occasion because you’re tight on cash, or wrecking your budget to attend and then feeling stressed and guilty about it the whole time.

5) Find creative alternatives.

When you do have to bow out of an event for financial reasons, one of the ways to do it gracefully is to find a creative, alternative way to celebrate with your friend. This tells them that you still care about them and are committed to sharing in their joy.

If you can’t afford to play a big role in someone’s wedding, perhaps you can afford to have the couple over for a dinner after they return from their honeymoon. If you can’t afford to buy a baby gift, you could arrange to take dinner to the couple once they’re back from the hospital, or volunteer to come over and help with household chores in those early weeks of parenthood. If store-bought gifts are too expensive, find a way to give thoughtful, homemade items instead.

Social obligations are never a good excuse for making poor financial choices. Good budgeting, strategic planning, honest conversations and creative thinking will help you maintain important relationships while also maintaining your financial health.


Photo by Julian Wylegly. Used under Creative Commons License.

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