I can't afford these office lunches
August 23, 2017 11:44 AM   Subscribe

How can I decline work celebration lunches?

A colleague has put in her two weeks notice and the office (about 5 women) has decided to go out to lunch on Friday to say goodbye.

I am really strapped for cash. Im in two friend's weddings and need about $2000 worth of dental work done. I don't go out to meals on my own (other than a free Sunday brunch at a bar where I buy a beer for $3.50). We would be covering the cost of our own meals (and potentially the colleague who is leaving). In the past when similar situations have come up I've been able to decline due to claim scheduling issues. I dont make much money- just enough to live on. One other time an older colleague offered to cover my meal. It was offered in generosity but I stuck to my claim of scheduling issue and did not attend. It would have made me very uncomfortable to accept the offer.

The colleague who is leaving wouldn't mind my absence. We've been friendly and have discussed the low paying nature of the job so I think she gets it.

Lunch would probably be about $15 but I really don't want to set the precedent that I'm ok with these meals. This money is honestly a big deal in my budget.

We work in a regional office of a non-profit and there's no supervisors locally. There's also no allowance for work to cover the cost of the meal. I wouldn't lose anything in terms of hourly pay by attending.

Here's the real issue: one coworker keeps pushing me (the one who offered to pay previously) to attend. I've said no in all the polite ways I can think of. I'm about ready to just work from home Friday and email everyone to say I can't make it just to avoid it all. However, this will come up again in the future. What can I say to make her stop asking (or accept my "no").
posted by raccoon409 to Work & Money (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
“I’m sorry, that won’t be possible.” And repeat. Explanations don’t work on these people.
posted by tooloudinhere at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2017 [17 favorites]

What can I say to make her stop asking (or accept my "no").

"You've asked and I've answered. I cannot attend. What can I say to you to make you accept my no?" with a pointed stare.

I would be thoroughly unimpressed with this coworker who doesn't seem to have the social graces to know to drop it.
posted by phunniemee at 11:49 AM on August 23, 2017 [26 favorites]

“I’m sorry, that won’t be possible.” And repeat. Explanations don’t work on these people.

Seriously think about how this will play in the politics of your workplace before being so blunt. If you need this job, $15 is a small investment to avoid being the odd person out who doesn't fit in/get along with everyone else.
posted by paulcole at 11:51 AM on August 23, 2017 [44 favorites]

This comes up from time to time on MeFi favourite Ask A Manager, though I can't find a great example quickly. Here's one about people collecting for retirement gifts and here are some about office gifts/celebrations. Anyhow, she suggests something along the lines of, "Unfortunately my budget won’t allow me to chip in." You're probably not alone.
posted by kendrak at 12:06 PM on August 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

When it comes up again in the future, would it be possible to get in before another lunch is arranged and suggest something else be done to mark the event? In my previous job, we did in-house potlucks. They had the advantages of allowing people to cook or shop to fit their budgets and come and go from the event to suit their schedules. Also, it was a lot of fun to see what other people brought.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 12:11 PM on August 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

In the short term you can have an "appointment" or "other plans" at that time, and then just go for a walk at lunchtime.

As for setting a precedent, that can be difficult. Work lunches can be a major part of office culture in some workplaces, and to refuse can be a major faux pas and have consequences. Having existing and un-rescheduleable noontime plans is the easiest way to avoid them without coming off as rude, so long as you DO attend the work lunches periodically. I agree with paulcole that just being blunt and saying "I'm sorry, that won't be possible" over and over can be a damaging move.

As for the one pushy person, telling her you're busy for personal reasons may shut her up. I would send her an email that reads "*Deborah,
First, you're awesome for trying to rally all the troops for the lunch for [other coworker], and I actually really appreciate that you'd like me to attend. And the times I have attended have been fun! :)

However, I really need you to take my "No" at face value. I have personal (and private) reasons for why I cannot attend work lunches for a while. When my situation changes I will absolutely let you know, but for a while I'm going to have to decline.


posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:12 PM on August 23, 2017 [22 favorites]

So, I am totally probably (not actually, but in general) that coworker who offers to pay for your lunch and then tries to get you to go. It is usually because I can tell that the person doesn't have the money to go, and I don't want them to have to be left out from these important socialization functions that often affect promotions and reviews just because they don't have the money.

Is there any possibility you could have an honest conversation with the woman? And just be like, "you're right, it's because of the money, but I cannot for cultural reasons accept you paying for me, though I really appreciate your offer"? I feel like that would go pretty far.
posted by corb at 12:16 PM on August 23, 2017 [42 favorites]

You basically have three options:
1) continue to refuse to go without a convincing explanation, and risk looking curmudgeonly
2) acknowledge that the reason you can't go is financial with potential sub-options:
a) accept generous coworker's offer to pay, if she makes it
b) graciously refuse coworker's offer to pay
3) dredge up $15 somehow every couple of months (like, maybe you can go to every other or every third lunch?) for the sake of saving face and maintaining your relationships with your coworkers

None of these options are wrong! Some things to consider as you decide are your personal values around privacy and accepting help, your workplace atmosphere, and how important this job and the relationships you make here are to your overall career path.
posted by mskyle at 12:20 PM on August 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

Perhaps there is a compromise here....Is it possible to have an 'urgent errand' to run over most of the lunch, but 'drop by for a coffee' at the end of the meal to still participate? While I appreciate the cost of a coffee and/or dessert is not zero, it might be worth that cost to participate.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 12:22 PM on August 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

"You've asked and I've answered. I cannot attend. What can I say to you to make you accept my no?" with a pointed stare.

This would be really satisfying to say, but it's also really unprofessional and isn't going to do your career any favors. What you can say is, "Hey, thanks for asking again, but unfortunately I really can't go due to some personal stuff. Have fun!"
posted by schroedingersgirl at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2017 [35 favorites]

What you can do is suggest that everyone pays their own bill instead of just splitting it five ways. This is not so strange. Then order something very small and cheap, and if you're still hungry eat whatever you were planning at your desk before or after. People will probably not put you into the "pay for the colleague" extra part of it. Even if they decide to split it five ways, someone will probably say "Oh raccoon just had the cup of soup, they should only put in a couple of dollars" because they'll understand you're strapped and it's a polite way to include you even with your financial boundaries.
Unfortunately, as paulcole suggests, these things are another part of the job, often: participating in the culture of the place.
posted by flourpot at 12:30 PM on August 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ha, this is me. While I'm fortunate to have a job that pays me well, I hate going to lunches for work and feel a lot of pressure to do so. I usually go with a "no, sorry, I've got a meeting/pile of work". Unless it's socially important to attend keep repeating the script and don't go.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 12:30 PM on August 23, 2017

So I think one root of this issue is that your co-workers think you make about what they make, and they can afford to go; so what is your problem? So while you totally have the right to just tell them bluntly to drop it, I'd elaborate, since after all you have nothing to be ashamed of. I would tell them the truth. "I would love to go, but I'm sticking to a strict budget right now because of the weddings and dental stuff I'm saving for. You are so sweet to want me to come and I'd love to, but it's like being on a diet: I can't cheat."

edit: don't rely on the possibility that they'll be ok with everyone paying their own. Even if they do, these things never quite work out, and they'll surely be covering the departing lady's cost anyway, and I would bet anything they will wind up just splitting evenly.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:32 PM on August 23, 2017 [29 favorites]

Write the departing colleague a nice note. That's them taken care of.

The pushy fussbudget should probably be quietly asked, "What's it going to take for you to accept my no here?" These people need to be stopped. At a previous job, I finally had to quietly escalate to management because one of these people was being (probably truly ignorantly but that's no excuse) extremely insensitive to employees who observed religious restrictions on food and alcohol. This doesn't have to be your battle to take on, but if you wanted to say to her, "hey, there's always going to be people who cannot participate in this stuff, and don't need to be singled out or aggressively campaigned, this isn't okay" you could.

Honestly, the company lunch out is culturally problematic in a bunch of ways. Lunch out should be for work friends rather than the official team. If you want to have a team going-away thingy, it should be on-premises, brief, and optional. If the company wants to buy cupcakes or popsicles or whatever that's fine, or if everyone just gathers in the conference room to sign a card and chat for a moment, whatever. Again, you're not obligated to start that cultural shift but if you have an opportunity, or maybe you can help that person direct their energy towards helping with that change.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:33 PM on August 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

So, I think you are within your rights not to attend (though, please, choose one of the more tactful options here; this is not the hill to nuke your office relationships on). But I'd like to suggest considering unpacking this, just a bit:

It would have made me very uncomfortable to accept the offer.

I'm guessing this colleague would value your presence at the going-away lunch. In the past, when I've sometimes had a significantly higher income than friends--or even more junior colleagues, at work events--I've had no problem paying their share of something, just for the pleasure of their company at whatever. Not hundreds and hundreds of dollars, of course! But $15? I wouldn't think twice. For your colleague, having the whole team at the departure lunch might easily be worth that.

I don't know the root of your discomfort; it may be very legitimate. But if it's more of a kneejerk "I can't accept any money from anyone, anytime"...does it have to be that way? A departure lunch is a bigger, more sentimental occasion than someone's birthday or whatever else is the occasion for the other lunches (there are only five of you, so I hope these are not constant departure lunches!) and can be treated as more of a special occasion to be handled specially, while still dodging the more minor social events. I mean, would you let her take you out to lunch if you were leaving? Probably, right?
posted by praemunire at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2017 [22 favorites]

This pushy person. Is she well-liked in your office? Do your other coworkers respect her, and is she pushy all the time, or an otherwise generally decent person? Is she a gossipy old biddy?

If the answer is yes, then please reconsider a blunt approach to turning her offer down. While I agree that her obstinate manner is unpleasant and unacceptable, being straightforward could ultimately result in you being ostracized.

I have no better solutions than the ones offered here already. The suggestion that perhaps you could go to every third lunch out or something like that is a good one.
posted by Everydayville at 12:50 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

You think of it as budgeting for future expenses and current bills because you are smart. Some people just load up credit cards and don't worry about it. If you are pushed, you can make a face and say My credit's maxed out or My car payment/ rent/ school loan is due which is true-ish because your personal credit line for lunch entertainment is 0. When well-meaning co-worker offers to pay My budget is very tight and I don't want to set a precedent. When pushed, use distraction, Chris has been great to work with; I'll miss her. Oh, the lunch? I thought I told you I wouldn't be attending. There's usually a card shop with ok cards for cheap. Pick up generic cards, then be the person who passes around a farewell, birthday or get well card.
posted by theora55 at 1:10 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, one important part of saying No to stuff like this - gift wrap and candy sales, lunches, etc. - is to be so cheerful and positive about the opportunity, but, sorry, just won't be participating. That gift wrap sure is pretty. Me? no, I have tons of it. So sweet of you to plan lunch. No, I won't be there.
posted by theora55 at 1:17 PM on August 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am totally probably (not actually, but in general) that coworker who offers to pay for your lunch and then tries to get you to go. It is usually because I can tell that the person doesn't have the money to go, and I don't want them to have to be left out from these important socialization functions that often affect promotions and reviews just because they don't have the money.

Me too, although I would have dropped it by this point (and I never would have pushed booze on people, or food they couldn't have eaten for religious reasons, jeez). Having said that: If this person is otherwise nice, and not just a bossy boots, I suspect what's happening is that you're not telling her you can't afford it, and she's not telling you she's willing to cover you even though she suspects that the issue is the money. So you're both...talking in circles around this issue instead of discussing what's going on. Just cheerfully and very lightly say, "oh, I hate to miss it, but I have to go to TWO WEDDINGS this month, so my budget is super tight. Have an extra dessert for me!" And then she'll either offer to cover you, or she'll drop it. And you can either take her up or say, "no, I truly wouldn't feel comfortable." Just..be honest instead of consistently coming up with excuses. Almost everyone knows what it's like to be on a budget.

FWIW, whenever I've been Your Coworker, it's because I want your company and I think it's valuable for you to attend this function, AND because I remember being broke and how much it sucked and this is a way to help.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 1:30 PM on August 23, 2017 [15 favorites]

Re: your insistent co-worker, the fact she offered to cover your cost in the past makes me think that she's just got her "put yourself in the other person's shoes" gear stuck in overdrive and really just doesn't want you to feel left out.

I would suggest something more like "Look, I know you mean well and I appreciate it, but could we please just drop it?"
posted by desuetude at 1:42 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think your best bet is to fib a little and soften the edges. The suggestion upthread about dropping in for coffee is brilliant--you'll still get points for participating, and you'll be out only $1-4ish instead of $15. Plus, coffee! (or whatever!)

A hard no is a bad idea. It is important to maintain boundaries, but this is an area where I would tread lightly. Your coworker sounds like they don't want you to feel left out, and like they really want a convivial office-social situation, and neither of those is a bad goal. You can make it work for your situation by bringing your lunch, saying you've got a dietary restriction (which is the truth: you can't eat $15 lunches), or something similar, but showing up anyway to be part of the team.
posted by witchen at 1:58 PM on August 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I might just order an appetizer, or just flat out tell people "I'm broke, but uncomfortable with other people paying. What am I gonna do?" Maybe it's me, but I've been broke, and I wasn't embarrassed then and I'm not embarrassed now. Especially when working for a non-profit, where I'm doing a social good and that doesn't pay much money. Consider making a little gift or getting a card for your coworker if the group hasn't already done that.
posted by cnc at 2:31 PM on August 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Could you offer to man the phones and the office, while everyone else goes out to lunch, as your contribution to the festivities?
posted by DrGail at 2:45 PM on August 23, 2017

Say you can't afford it, in a nice way. "I love X, and am bummed to miss her send-off, but my budget is just too tight right now." Please don't go into the "why" of your budget, especially about being in weddings -- a lot of people would struggle to understand why $$$$ to be a bridesmaid ought to trump $15 for a colleague's lunch.

If your pushy colleague offers to pay, accept! Allowing people to be generous to you is generous of you, and $15 for lunch is very small potatoes in the list of favors that you should be happy to accept.
posted by MattD at 3:33 PM on August 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'd probably skip the $3.50 beers at your free brunches for the next month and put it toward lunch with your co-workers if refusing to go is going to make things awkward or tense around your co-workers. I'd also probably say you aren't feeling well and just order a soda or something. Or a small cup of soup with free tap water. Just get something super cheap. Otherwise, if you think they will want everyone to chip in the same, I'd go and order something cheap, but tell the co-worker urging you to come that you can't afford to spend much so you need to order something cheap and only spend a few dollars. If she wants to pick up the other few dollars, let her or let it being split by everyone else.

Maintaining boundaries is fine and it sounds like you've done a good job of avoiding these lunches in the past, but this time will be a much tougher fight if you insist upon it. I'd cave this time, knowing you've been successful in the past and showing up this time will buy you an easier out next time.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:01 PM on August 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Speaking from the perspective of being highly (HIGHLY) introverted and having waved off from work-related social events, both for "can't deal" and for "way too broke" reasons, I'd encourage you to find a way to make it work. $15 is not a huge amount to pay if it will solidify work relationships and build a sense of being a team.
posted by Lexica at 4:33 PM on August 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would deflect with humor and disarming candor. "Dude, I would love to go, but I'm broke as a joke right now. Would it be super weird to just sit and chill with you guys without ordering anything? I'll eat beforehand so I promise I won't pass out or be staring at your food like a hungry dog." Just own it in a jokey way. That way you can still participate in the social side of the event, on your own terms. Nothing wrong with that!
posted by delight at 5:16 PM on August 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nothing wrong with that!

This creates enormous social awkwardness for everyone else at the table. Please don't do this.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:53 PM on August 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

This creates enormous social awkwardness for everyone else at the table. Please don't do this.

100%, and doing so will leave you in the exact same awkward position where someone takes pity and insists on buying you lunch or sharing theirs.
posted by lalex at 6:01 PM on August 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is there an office budget for a going away cake and that sort of thing? If yes, then saying your budget won't allow it but you'd be glad to gather at work to say goodbye (and have a slice of hypothetical cake) might help?
posted by stoneandstar at 8:35 PM on August 23, 2017

I would deflect with humor and disarming candor. "Dude, I would love to go, but I'm broke as a joke right now. Would it be super weird to just sit and chill with you guys without ordering anything? I'll eat beforehand so I promise I won't pass out or be staring at your food like a hungry dog."

Just eat beforehand, then go out and just order a drink ("Oh, I already ate" if anyone brings it up). No need for the pre-explanation. Alternatively if the lunch is too early for you to eat beforehand, can you get away with "Oh, I had a huge breakfast, I'm not hungry yet!" and then eat at your desk later?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:05 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came in to say the same thing as corb – I'm that older colleague who would be more than happy to pay for your lunch. If you mention it's outside your budget, and a colleague offers to cover it for you, please do accept and feel no guilt whatsoever. There are those of us who have been in your shoes, and had someone give us a hand. This is our way of paying it forward. Someday you'll be able to do the same.

With that in mind (having been there), I always said it was out of my budget when that happened. There's no shame in that, and it has the advantage of having nothing to do with the person involved, so it doesn't hurt feelings.
posted by fraula at 5:31 AM on August 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

In your situation I would probably call in sick that day (if I had paid sick days and enough of them to handle it), schedule a meeting across the time of the lunch, or tell a polite social lie like "Oh, I'd love to come, but I have a doctor's appt I scheduled for my lunch break that day".

Note that the social lie path can have pitfalls; they could offer to reschedule, or push you for details about your appointment, etc.

For future planning, I'd prioritize a small budget for work expenses like this over agreeing to be in weddings that would cost money; your friends will still love you if you can't be a bridesmaid, but your coworkers have less incentive to forgive your non-participation.
posted by invincible summer at 1:09 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey all, thank you for your input. I spoke with another colleague who is in a similar financial position and she said that older-generous-coworker has always picked up the entire check when they've all gone out.

I've decided to attend and roll the dice on whether or not I'll have to pay.

I understand what everyone said about office culture and environment. There is zero upward mobility and while I want to get along with all my coworkers (and I think I do) there's not necessarily a consequence to my career by declining these invites. I've also managed to stay out of the office secret Santa (as did departing coworker. We secretly arranged for us to have each other and then said we had exchanged gifts earlier when everyone did at office party).

These events come up fairly often as we've had a lot of turn over here.

I've marked some "best answers" which will serve as scripts when this comes up again in the future.
posted by raccoon409 at 1:27 PM on August 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

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