Why, yes, I'd love a free meal!
August 25, 2009 4:08 AM   Subscribe

When someone invites you to dinner or a party at their house, is there a tactful way to indicate that you can't bring anything, or to prevent them from asking?

I've recently moved to a new town (in northern England) for about 9 months in order to finish up the field work for my dissertation. The people here have been incredibly kind and really "taken me in," particularly since I didn't know a soul when I moved here. They're constantly inviting me over for tea, dinners, parties on the weekends, etc., and all my fears about having no social life pretty much vanished by the end of the second week.

The problem, however, is that I'm absolutely, utterly broke -- fellowships and grants pay my rent and bills and leave me with only $60 a month for food (yes, that's dollars, not pounds, alas) if I'm lucky. I feel very uneasy, not to mention rude, that I can't reciprocate for these people. It's also extremely embarrassing to go to a party and watch everyone file in, dutifully handing over their flowers and bottles of wine, while knowing that I'm the only person in the room who hasn't done the same. So far, I've settled the issue by writing thank-you notes/cards afterwards, and this has worked well. Many have said what a joy it is to get a real, handwritten thank-you note in this day and age.

The problem now, however, is that when people invite me over, sometimes they will casually ask me to bring drinks or dessert or an appetizer. I'm sure it's never occurred to them (most are quite well off) that doing so would force me to blow 20% of my food budget on one evening, and that I'd have to skip meals at the end of the month to make up for it. I don't want to be vulgar by discussing money with people who are, in effect, no more than acquaintances -- and unfortunately I don't have a close friend here that I could use to spread the word on my behalf. But the situation now isn't working, and I get the strong feeling from several people that my constantly showing up empty-handed is coming off a bit rude. Which, really, it is.

A friend this weekend planned a big, lavish dinner for Saturday night and off-handedly said over the phone, "Can you bring over some Ben & Jerry's?" and after a pause I simply said, "No, I'm sorry. I can't." Extremely awkward silence ensued, of course. But isn't that far less awkward than telling these people (who, after all, barely know me) that I really am this broke? I don't know a tactful way to say, "I really appreciate everything you're doing for me, but if you're going to give a starving student a free meal, it really has to be completely and totally free, because otherwise I'm going to have to start lying and saying I'm busy."

I've mentioned to most of them, in other contexts, that I'm living on a very tight budget, and I'm sure this is why so many people are inviting me over. They're very kind people and I'm grateful. But they clearly don't understand the intensity of graduate student poverty, and it's getting awkward.
posted by venividivici to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that 'I'm skint' works. Really, your average Northern Brit appreciates directness.

"Sorry, I'm absolutely skint this month, but believe me I'll repay you a thousand times over when you come and visit me ."

That'll work fine.

Also, if you're in the UK on a study visa, you can normally get a part-time job. I know graduate studies are tough, but living on what amounts to £38 a month for food is probably doing more harm to your concentration and energy than 10 hours a week stacking shelves or whatever.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:13 AM on August 25, 2009

And having re-read your question again, this line sticks out:

"I don't want to be vulgar by discussing money with people who are, in effect, no more than acquaintances -- and unfortunately I don't have a close friend here that I could use to spread the word on my behalf."

It's not 'discussing money', in the way that talking about salaries or whatever would be. Just say "Sorry, I'm on a stupidly tight budget of £38 a month for food, and I genuinely can't afford to contribute without skipping meals at the end of the month. Please don't think I'm trying to sponge off you, but I'm really enjoying your company and the food is definitely a plus on my budget. Come to visit me in the US and I shall repay you one day with lavish mountains of food."

Anyone who takes offence at that is a wally.

And yes, just bluntly saying 'No I can't' will come off as stingy, odd and rude, a lot more so than just being honest.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:18 AM on August 25, 2009 [18 favorites]

Thirding being straightforward and honest. Saying you're skint isn't vulgar. Far weirder to my mind is the "No, I'm sorry. I can't." with no explanation.

And yeah, get a job really. If David Lynch made Eraserhead while doing a paper round you can write your dissertation and wash a few dishes on the side especially when 5 or 6 hours work a month will double your food budget!
posted by merocet at 4:29 AM on August 25, 2009

Obviously, these people like you, are of a kind and generous heart, and want to see you doing well. Just be honest with them and, based on how nice they've been in the past, they'll likely continue to be nice and understanding about your financial situation. There's a really good chance that they keep inviting you to dinner because they've already assumed you're a starving student.
If you really, really feel bad about it, you could always make something. Cooking or baking is always cheaper than buying pre-made.
posted by Jon-o at 4:33 AM on August 25, 2009

Another vote for being honest -- although, if you want to soften the blow, maybe you could offer to bring a CD from your collection to play during dinner?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:43 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"No, I'm sorry. I can't. My budget is really tight right now." Leave it at that. Brownie points for providing an alternative though, like, "But I can give you a great disc of music we could play at the party!" or "You like gummy bears right? Can I bring a packet of those instead?"

Being on a tight budget is perfectly understandable, but you kind of have to say so, although you don't have to elaborate. Most people are more understanding than you give them credit for, if they know the rationale behind your actions. They will appreciate your honesty.

Hosting other people is not easy, and it isn't cheap, and that these people have so kindly taken you in and include you in their gatherings is wonderful. However, they may not understand your situation, which isn't helped by your reluctance to talk about it, and you don't have to bring it up unless it does come up. And while it's not entirely out of line for them to ask you to bring something, it's not entirely out of line for you to say you can't because you're on a tight budget either.

That said, I would suggest bringing something really inexpensive or homemade to the more-lavish-than-usual dinners rather than show up empty handed, just as a token of appreciation. A mix CD, a copy of a movie they like, a packet of everyone's favorite candy, or an amusing homemade, handwritten collection of passages they can hang on their wall -- it doesn't have to be expensive, just creative. They will appreciate your thoughfulness, and you don't have to feel guilty about being the perpetual guest.
posted by Lush at 4:44 AM on August 25, 2009

Perhaps the OP cannot work due to visa issues?

I think if you were to mention to people that you were surviving on such a small amount of money, they would probably invite you over a lot more. Which may or may not be embarrassing. But that's tough trying to live off 2 pounds per day. Could you talk to a local social welfare officer to see if you are entitled to help?
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 4:51 AM on August 25, 2009

You could also be very gracious and stay late to help with cleanup/dishes or, if it's a big party, offer to help with setup or play DJ or be a designated driver. In other words, your contribution can be your time rather than your money.
posted by bluefly at 4:53 AM on August 25, 2009 [16 favorites]

Maybe upon receipt of the invitation you could try "I really appreciate the invitation. I'm over-budget this month, I am however excellent at doing dishes". (Or helping set up , cleaning up, taking out trash, taking coats, etc). I guess the depends on the size of the gathering.
posted by syntheticfaith at 4:59 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the North of England approach - I would call the guy and say, 'I'm sorry about the Ben and Jerrys thing, I didn't explain because I was a bit embarrassed. I'm a bit broke at the moment because of my grant, but can I do anything practical to help, like be official washer upper.'

There is no shame in being hard up. People appreciate knowing the truth, that way no one jumps to conclusions. As for the job front - could you talk to someone at your college and ask for help and advice. Don't be alone in your situation, whether that is food poverty or lack of advice. We Northerners like to help out, since as we know 'shy bairns get nowt'
posted by Augenblick at 5:31 AM on August 25, 2009 [13 favorites]

You're a student, I think people should realise that you aren't being rude, but like many students, you have no money. I think just saying 'Sorry, I'm broke, but is there anything else I can do?' might help. I remember being a student and being around non- and more affluent students who thought 'no money' meant 'down to your last £10' rather than 'the cash machine might eat my card'. Northerners are pretty blunt and friendly and everyone will remember being a student or being unemployed etc.
posted by mippy at 6:08 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe upon receipt of the invitation you could try "I really appreciate the invitation. I'm over-budget this month, I am however excellent at doing dishes". (Or helping set up , cleaning up, taking out trash, taking coats, etc). I guess the depends on the size of the gathering.

I read through the thread intending to suggest just this, either that you offer to come by early and assist with prep or as bluefly and syntheticfaith suggest, offer to assist with cleanup or some other aspect.

If someone is making pointed, specific but small suggestions, IMO there is definitely some gossip going around about your repeated "etiquette breach" in bringing nothing. At that point, I think it is appropriate to gently spread the word that you simply cannot bring anything other than yourself willing and able to help.
posted by bunnycup at 6:27 AM on August 25, 2009

You save a bit by not having that meal. Can you spend that money to make pie, bread, or soup? There are a lot of nice things that can be made very inexpensively.

I'd make sure I told people "I so appreciate your hospitality and I'm so distraught that I can't reciprocate, but my student budget is awfully tight. I hope someday I can show kindness to a student as you have shown it to me."
posted by theora55 at 6:30 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm going to give a bit of a contrarian answer here, which is that it sounds like your financial situation is getting in the way of the social basis you need to create for your research and to simply be a happy person. A few times of "I can't reciprocate" is fine; when it becomes normal people get itchy. In other words, slightly augmenting your financial situation may pay huge dividends in your research.

A student loan of one or two thousand dollars, for example, would give you enough wiggle room to be able to go out for a beer with a friend, bring a cheap bottle of wine to a party, or even just feed yourself adequately. If for some reason student loans are not an option (perhaps you are already maxed out, or getting one would negatively impact your fellowships), you need to send an email to your director of graduate studies, the dean of students, and/or your adviser, telling them how much you appreciate the help they have already given you, but also asking about the possibility of more departmental support, detailing your limited food budget. Most graduate students have other sources of funds -- personal savings, loans, working spouses, extended families, etc -- and they may not be aware that you apparently do not have those same resources.

Failing all else, a little bit of under the table work, washing dishes or whatever, could tip the balance between being able to make it and not. One way or another, though, I really do think you need to find a way to be able to reciprocate -- whether with money to buy wine, or money to buy ingredients to make cookies, or by helping wash dishes afterwards.

But they clearly don't understand the intensity of graduate student poverty, and it's getting awkward.

They correctly understand that most graduate students from rich countries are not intensely poor and almost always have layers of support. Your situation may be different (eg less university support, no loans, no family, etc), but those stark limitations are not representative. The people around you are (correctly, from a class point of view, if not economically) seeing you as a middle class person; your inability to reciprocate is creating dissonance because of this.

In addition to ideally finding a way to get some more money coming in, you are going to need to be honest with people about your situation, because they are making assumptions (based on your class, your nationality, your level of education, etc) that imply an ability to reciprocate, and your situation appears to be precluding it. Without explaining things honestly, they will assume you are rude.
posted by Forktine at 6:52 AM on August 25, 2009 [10 favorites]

A student loan of one or two thousand dollars, for example, would give you enough wiggle room to be able to go out for a beer with a friend, bring a cheap bottle of wine to a party, or even just feed yourself adequately.

My student loan as a first year undergrad - no grants for me in 2000) was £1800 a term. My rent was £200 a month. My tuition fees were £150 a term. My prescription charges were £10 a month (no freebies for me), and then I had to pay for food, books (one book alone for one module was £30) and other bits and pieces. I had no part-time job - my course was very intensive and illness prevented me from working during summer vacations as I needed time to catch up on work - and very very little help from parents (as I felt should be the way). I very rarely drank. I had to take a hardship grant to replace my winter coat the year after. It all adds up, and sometimes there isn't the spare cash for extras. Loans, also, are not available to everyone - getting credit in the UK isn't easy as a citizen, never mind an overseas student. Grad students get, I believe, a sort of grant from the university but unless they want to take out a bank loan - as in, the kind one would take to buy a new kitchen - they're on their own otherwise. I did not do an MA as I couldn't afford £3k a year tuition plus living expenses and I could not study from home. Also, getting work as an overseas student can be hard - if OP lives in a small northern town, it may well be impossible to find part-time work easily, particularly once they find OP is a student (I speak from experience)

TL/DR: Sometimes 'no money' is really no money.
posted by mippy at 8:31 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

They obviously think it's strange that you've been going and eating their food without even mentioning why. You are going to have to be extremely honest and laugh it off, or start getting creative. I am not sure if you even have access to an oven, but home cooked baked goods are extremely cheap. Get some fake cinnamon, get some brown sugar, get some flour, and bring snickerdoodles. Make sugar cookies. Make biscuits. All of these cost around $1 to make or less, and will definitely be appreciated even if you can't afford jam, chocolate, or fresh fruit to jazz up your recipes. Heck, you could probably even borrow a pan and a bowl if you needed to! Or you could try making some hummus out of dried chickpeas. Those are pretty much as cheap as dirt and involve a lot of effort up front, but take little time to mix together with some lemon and olive oil if you can spare it.

I have known lots of graduate students, and nobody was a) supported by their parents or b) too hard up to buy a beer once in a while (although generally they did more mooching than buying). I understand you might be a lot poorer than all that, but it's hard to relate to for most people, even if they have been there.
posted by shownomercy at 8:55 AM on August 25, 2009

Yeah, what you're doing now is really not okay. If a host asks you to bring something, saying "I can't" just isn't sufficient and is appallingly rude. Choose one or more of the following options:

1. Explain why you can't, in as much or as little detail as you like. It's much less impolite than a simple refusal. The least amount of detail should be, "I'm completely broke".
2. You could potentially follow this up with an offer to bring something cheaper. As others have mentioned, things like home-baked biscuits are very, very cheap, and probably possible to do with the money you're saving by getting all these free meals.
3. Stop accepting invitations.
4. Get a job.
5. Take out a small student loan.
6. Offer to come early to help prepare/set-up or stay late to help clean-up. No one begrudges the person who doesn't/can't bring anything if they're pleasant, helpful, and send a thank-you later, particularly if they're aware of your financial situation.

Also, it's worth noting that "they clearly don't understand the intensity of graduate student poverty" isn't really an accurate way of looking at things, from your point of view. I'm know a lot of graduate students, and none of them are in your situation, financially. You are an outlier, so don't expect people to just know your budget if you don't tell them.
posted by booknerd at 11:27 AM on August 25, 2009

Dude, just tell the truth. People love being offered the opportunity to be good people. Who doesn't love feeling kind, generous, and relatively well-off?

If you give people the option of feeling that, or feeling like a standoffish prick, they will always pick option one. Be straight, be pathetic, be grateful. You'll be the toast of the town.
posted by smoke at 7:41 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for all your replies. Yeah, I'll just be completely honest from now on; this is always what I've done in the past, but with new acquaintances it just seems a little awkward to jump in there like that. But I'm only using that to cover my own embarrassment, so from now on I'll be completely candid.

I should have mentioned that I'm not eligible for student loans this year, otherwise I would have taken out a few thousand bucks to tide me over. And yes, a part-time job would do wonders for me, but I haven't had any luck so far. I'm not on a student visa (didn't qualify since my PhD program is in the States), so I'm here on a 10-month tourist waiver. Unfortunately, this means employment is prohibited. I've looked high and low for jobs that would pay under the table, but so far haven't had any luck with tutoring, moving companies, road work, dish-washing, etc. I'd clean toilets or pick up trash one day a week if I could, but so far nothing has come up. I used to do demolition work part-time for a construction company, but their waiting list is now full of laid-off contractors from all over the area. (And they, obviously, are far more qualified for those kinds of jobs than I am).

booknerd, you're not in a position to tell me that my point of view is inaccurate. Every single graduate student I know in England (and I know at least 35 of them) is in precisely the same financial boat that I am, or worse. Without exception.
posted by venividivici at 2:47 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

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