How to balance my budget and my social life?
July 13, 2008 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I will be starting graduate school in the fall (thanks for the great advice on my previous question!), and going from a quite comfortable salary to a typical grad student's pay. Obviously, in order to keep my budget balanced I will have to cut back considerably on eating out and other costly entertainments. How can I maintain some kind of social life without going broke, and without offending my friends?

In the past, when I was worried about my finances, I've turned down invitations to eat out on that basis. I realized, though, that it could look to my friends as though spending time with them was worth less than the ten bucks for lunch. Situations like this, where I feel like I have to choose between spending money I can't afford or offending people I care about, tend to make me very stressed and anxious--which just exacerbates the problem.

Things are going to be particularly difficult because I won't just be socializing with fellow penniless grad students; I already have quite a few good friends in the city where I'll be attending school. This is great, of course, but most of them have Real Jobs and are used to eating at nice restaurants. Am I just going to have to find polite excuses to turn down most of their invitations (I'm sure I'll be busy enough to excuse myself without mentioning money) or is there some other solution?
posted by cortisol to Human Relations (28 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Credit cards.

As to whether that is an acceptable solution for you...
posted by mr_roboto at 9:43 PM on July 13, 2008

Eat before you go, and just have a salad or appetizer. Or, alternatively, show up near the end of the meal and just order a drink.

Also, I'm sure you could explain to these friends that you are on a tight budget because of being in school and so that bars you from doing certain more expensive things but that you would love to see them and will be glad to join them for inexpensive activities. They'll tailor their invitations to you accordingly.
posted by orange swan at 9:46 PM on July 13, 2008

"I'd love to make dinner but grad school is kicking my ass. I have to stay late in the lab to process x samples. I should be done by about 11 and I'll join you guys for drinks."
posted by special-k at 9:49 PM on July 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Eat before you go, and just have a salad or appetizer. Or, alternatively, show up near the end of the meal and just order a drink.

Terrible idea. Last thing you want to to be part of a split check and pay $60 for food/drink you didn't even have.
posted by special-k at 9:50 PM on July 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

to to = is to
posted by special-k at 9:52 PM on July 13, 2008

Best answer: Host potluck dinner parties! The reason people get together for food is (hopefully) the people, not the plate. Even if it's just a little thing - homemade casserole, a salad, and a board game - you're fulfilling your social obligations while letting everyone relax. Put yourself in the role of host and you'll find that people will love the lack of hassle, the absence of pretense, and the lower costs; your fridge will also be a little more full.

Also, do you physically budget your money or track your expenses in any way? There are a bunch of different online tools for doing this that are pretty easy to manage; I use PearBudget (free 30-day trial, then $3/month) and really like it, because it gives me confidence to know how much I have, and how it's apportioned, all the time.
posted by mdonley at 9:54 PM on July 13, 2008

When I started my MBA, I sent an email to all my friends and explained the effect this would have on my finances and time. 99% of them were understanding. They still did their "expensive" things, but they were more inclusive and accommodating of me when we got together. Nobody minded cutting back so that I could still go out. They knew how important it was to me to graduate without any debt.

As for the ones who didn't understand...those friendships weren't the greatest anyway and now they have so much debt that they're the ones with lifestyles that must be accommodated!
posted by acoutu at 10:03 PM on July 13, 2008

Response by poster: Eat before you go, and just have a salad or appetizer. Or, alternatively, show up near the end of the meal and just order a drink.

This is certainly a possible solution, but when I've tried it previously it seems to make people a bit worried ("Is that all you're eating? Really? Are you sure you're going to be OK with just that?") And as special-k points out, the issue of money may still arise when the check comes around.
posted by cortisol at 10:04 PM on July 13, 2008

I second the potluck. That was the main way we socialized in grad school. The bonus to this is that if your department is anything like mine was, there will be a bunch of international students bringing their wonderful international foods to the party. The extra bonus is when worlds collide-- our Costa Rican friend and her German partner, who were both obsessed with mayonnaise before they met, together created the delicious grilled German sausage with Costa Rican slaw and some kind of fancy mayo, all wrapped up in a tortilla. Hot Dog Internationale.

Also, save all your money for the booze meet-ups.
posted by oflinkey at 10:08 PM on July 13, 2008

Best answer: Since I've fixed up my home and made it into a place where I like being, I've found that my going-out expenses have gone down considerably. I now feel comfortable having friends over, and they actually enjoy being at my place, because it's a good place to hang out and talk. Be the first to suggest a weekly meet-up at your place, have a different person bring wine every week, and structure your social life outside of bars and restaurants. Even your more affluent friends with Real Jobs will be able to appreciate being comfortable in someone's home.
posted by OLechat at 10:11 PM on July 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you mostly accept or reject invitations. Why not learn to (better) extend them yourself? If you get more comfortable doing that then doing the potlucks and inviting people to eat in (as in making your lunch) will be easier.

Also, instead of just rejecting an invitation to go out with a flat "no", make a joke about how your a poor grad student now, and they should get the hint.
posted by symbollocks at 10:27 PM on July 13, 2008

It doesn't even have to be at a place for a gathering; in the warmer parts of the fall, suggest a picnic for Labor Day; everyone brings something. Cheaper than going out, by far. nthing hanging out at people's houses, or having people at yours. I've been hanging out at my friend's house a lot lately, and we all went out for the first time last night, barhopping. I spent $30 last night, versus the $15 I usually spend for a 12-pack of Sam Adam's (which lasts me several visits to my friend's place, heh). Huge savings.
posted by Verdandi at 10:35 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Depending upon your program you may find that socializing and graduate studies are mutually exclusive. Further, the fact that you're even worrying about this is in and of itself worrying... graduate study requires a helluva lot of commitment. Your social outings or lack thereof should probably be pretty low on your list.

Anyway, I've experienced first hand what you're going through. I have a few friends who I simply can't hang out with without dropping $50 on drinks and dinner. Sadly, I don't get to see those guys much anymore and when I do it's usually strictly in the context of a stay-in event like a BBQ or watching a game at someone's house. You may find yourself in similar straights.

In the end you have to worthy excuses: 1.) I can't hang out, sorry, I have too much studying to do, and 2.) Dude, don't you realize I'm living on a grad student salary now? I can't hang like I used to. Either should be acceptable to all but the most shallow and self-centered of "friends."

Lastly, use your new status to leverage your friends into doing low cost outings or get togethers. Invite them over for drinks, etc.
posted by wfrgms at 10:51 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's nothing wrong with declining an invitation. The key is to make sure people know you are not declining their friendship. One of the best ways to do this, is to immediately follow up with an alternate plan,

"I'm sorry, I won't be able to come to the dinner, but I'd love together as soon as possible. Can we get together for (coffee, pot luck, dessert, pizza and a DVD next week sometime?"

No need to get into the reasons. No one likes to hear about another's poverty, and most of us don't like talking about our own. After some time, they will get used to the idea that you are prioritizing your education, and you will need more flexibility in how you socialize. That's how your friends can support your pursuits.

The recommendation to just get appetizers or drinks might work, but in my experience it's very hit-or-miss. It depends on your friends' customs. No one I know presently splits a check by dividing the total by the guests. Either one person will pay it all, or people pitch in for what they actually ordered. If you know you won't get stuck paying for things you didn't order, then you can certainly just have drinks or a salad, or come a bit late (with previous warning) and just order dessert. If anyone does the "is that all your having?" routine (which is in my opinion innocently rude*), then just have a deflection ready. Answer and immediately change the subject. "Yeah, I just wanted the salad, thanks, how are your vacation plans coming along?"

*Rant about the rudeness of asking "Is that all you're having?" There is no answer to that question that should be pursued in polite company. It's either financial, or because you are on a diet, or maybe you are sick and can't stomach more. None of these are comfortable subjects for discussion over dinner.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:00 PM on July 13, 2008

Best answer: I am a grad student and I live in Manhattan, and all my friends are rich yuppies making lots of money, so I feel completely qualified to answer this. First, ignore wfrgms and everyone who's saying you shouldn't have a social life (and it's not at all worrying that you're thinking about this- it's good and smart and shows foresight). Graduate school shouldn't be your entire life; while it definitely will take up all of your time if you let it, it's not healthy to do nothing but study. I'm going into my sixth year (eek) and by now I think I've gotten work-life balance down. I definitely still have to turn a lot of invitations down so I can study, but you absolutely must go out on the weekends at least or you'll go crazy.

My friends know I'm broke and they don't pressure me to do things I can't afford. I'm in the unique position of having a boyfriend who covers my slack on a lot of things, and I don't drink, which saves me tons of money (I recommend this tactic if at all realistic for you), but we also do a lot of low cost/free things, like movies in the park, cheap Thai dinners, book club meetings, hanging out at people's houses, etc. If your friends care about you, you should set expectations with them and they'll understand - and if they don't, other graduate students, broke artists, freelancers etc. definitely will. Be realistic about your limitations, but also don't get resentful of their ability to drop oodles of cash left and right.

The best ways to economize in grad school are not buying things (CDs, magazines, books, DVDs, new clothes) and making all your own food (this includes coffee!). Honestly, it will take you a few years to adjust from working stiff to poverty-level academic. During my MA I worked part-time and still took out student loans because the shift was too much. Don't beat yourself up if it takes you a while to adjust. It's a big shift, but you can do it. And there's something somewhat comforting about knowing you can survive on very little if you have to.
posted by alicetiara at 11:06 PM on July 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Two words: Hip Flask
posted by low affect at 11:28 PM on July 13, 2008

Response by poster: Sounds like it's time to embrace the power of potluck (and learn to cook--I would have had to do that anyway, of course, but this provides even more motivation.) mdonley, you make a great point about hosting. A lot of my friends are on the introverted side, and they are usually grateful when someone else is willing to do social logistics legwork, so that will be a good way to make a tangible contribution without spending money.
posted by cortisol at 11:29 PM on July 13, 2008

1. You're going to be super busy. Social life decreases significantly with grad school.

2. Hopefully you'll have it better than I did, but I found that efforts to get friends to do cheaper things (picnics, cooking at home, watching DVDs, etc.) was not well received.
And, efforts to go 'cheap' at dinner (no drinks, salad rather than entree) inevitably resulted in a "hey, let's just split this 6 ways!," even though I had been quite frank with my closest friends about what a financial struggle it was (is) to go out to dinner.

My partial solution: once per term I go out and spend like they do. I cringe the whole time. My bigger solution: make new grad student friends who will also enjoy cheap eats and cheap fun.
posted by k8t at 12:46 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a graduate student (4th year) who also used to have a well-paying job, so I know exactly what you're going through. There was no way I could continue the lifestyle I had before going back to school, and it was a big adjustment.

First of all, realize (if your friends are anything like mine) that they probably don't understand quite how broke you're going to be. Yes, they're sympathetic, and of course they're trying to be accomodating, but when you make six figures you really can't comprehend what it's like for someone to skip a night out because they don't want to spend $3 on transport, or what it's like to eat PB & J the last week of the month because you hit the 22nd and don't have a penny left. Sorry, am I making it sound awful? It's not, and you're going to be happier than most of your friends because you'll love (for the most part) what you're doing.

The solutions I've found:

1) As others have said, meet people at the end of expensive nights out. Say, "I'll catch up with you for a drink/Starbucks/dessert/a walk in the park/whatever." Beware of bars; if you show up late, you can often be expected to pick up a round that you can't afford, and people are less clued in when they're tipsy.

2) Give up on eating out unless it's a (very) special occasion. Yeah, sounds awful, but it's really just not worth the stress to show up and eat a bowl of soup; everyone else twitches, acts uncomfortable, gets all weird, and you always leave with the distinct feeling that you've ruined everyone's nice dinner out. Not that that's fair, of course, but trust me: this is how it will go down. Skip restaurants.

3) Be brutally honest. It took me a while to get to this point, but 2 years ago I made a New Year's resolution not to lie about money anymore. The problem with most of the advice usually given for rich friend/poor friend is that it assumes things are temporary, not that you're going to be broke for five years or so. I couldn't stand the lying anymore (mostly white lies, but still), or the constant coming up with excuses, or people's guilt when they realized I worked harder than they did and yet had one-fifth the money, blah blah blah. So I decided to violate all the social taboos and just tell people I was broke. It is tremendously, gloriously liberating. It's impossible to describe. You'll get a few wild reactions/horrified looks at first, but it's the best solution because a) people will start understanding how little money you really have, b) they will stop inviting you to things you can't afford, c) they will respect your honesty, and d) if they really want you to come to an event, they'll offer to pay.

But it took me a while to feel secure enough to do that; like I said, after a couple years of making excuses, you'll just want to tell people you're broke and won't give a shit what they think.
posted by venividivici at 1:41 AM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

PS, not sure on your gender or if this matters to you, but one (silly) issue for me is that since I can't afford good haircuts as frequently any more (although a good haircut is TOTALLY worth the splurge) and only wear clothing from Target now, I really feel dumpy when I go out.
posted by k8t at 2:03 AM on July 14, 2008

PPS, not to be a major downer, but I found that I was no longer capable of communicating with non-academics. This comic explains it all.
posted by k8t at 2:11 AM on July 14, 2008

1. Hip flask. Already mentioned by low affect. But you've got to find some way to make a night out drinking cheaper for you. This means probably that you can't buy rounds (and if you do, buy a cheap round (beers), early in the night (when people might remember it)), so you always need to have a drink. But you can't afford $100 of drinking / night. So start nursing those beers, drinking club soda, and, if you're game, splashing a nip into your drinks on the sly. Also, you will have to find the student bars and bars with "happy hours," learning to eat wings and celery and beer for dinner. Seriously, all towns have cheap places to drink and you'll have to find some. Older students will know.

2. Mooch. You might not like this answer, but, as a grad student, I sometimes don't say no when people offer to buy me food / drinks. This makes me feel bad. But sometimes I'm really poor. I don't make a habit of this, and I think it mostly comes out in the wash (I pay it forward and take friends out to a dinner or a whatnot when I'm flush / working in the summers).

3. Lunches not dinners. Lunches are better for grad students for a couple of reasons. They're cheaper. Nobody wants to spend $50 on lunch, so your desire to connect with a friend over a $5 burrito is totally normal. Even "nice" lunches are cheaper than nice dinners. And much less likely to lead to expensive drinking. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, lunches are better for actually talking. In my experience, dinners are louder, at bigger tables, and more flashy, but some of the best conversations that I've had are over lunches.

4. Borrow?. I don't necessarily recommend this, but lots of grad students wind up getting cheap money via student loans. You can get $6000 / yr really easily and this, combined with your stipend, makes for a decent existence in many US cities. Not great, mind you. But as it's worked out for me, the stipend covers ONLY necessities. Rent, groceries, phone bill, transportation, the first beer + movie of the month. If you want a second beer (in a month) or, to say, take a lady out to dinner, or buy a shirt, you are immediately in the red. The loan is a good $500 / month cushion. Plus, find out how many of your school expenses you will be responsible for. This varies and is a huge drain when you are poor. Schools have found that raising tuition is very hard (for a variety of political reasons), but it's easy to raise fees. And grad students, though their tuition is covered, fees aren't (in my state they can't be). So you're on the hook for $600 / semester of fees. Before parking. And health insurance (that you can't opt out of).

Have fun in grad school! Rice & beans are good for you.
posted by zpousman at 4:31 AM on July 14, 2008

k8t's advice is good, especially if you're going to be in an expensive area. Certainly, befriending other grad students is a good thing, anyway. For your other friends, you can tell them you can't do expensive things, but if you say it in a semi-joking way, it's less likely to make them uncomfortable.

"Oh, I would love to see you, but that trendy new restaurant is probably out of my budget. I'm not sure if you know this, but as part of my PhD program, I am taking an involuntary vow of poverty. Want to come over for pizza later this week?"
posted by JMOZ at 6:26 AM on July 14, 2008

On the problem with going out to restaurants and bars with groups: the solution is simple - carry cash. The "hey, let's all split it, it's easier" argument doesn't fly when you simply plop your $9 (or whatever) on the table, in exact change, as soon as the check arrives, and say "that should cover my drink, tax and tip." Be sure to round up so no one can think you're skimping. That precludes a lot of the "divvy up" conversation right there, since you clearly know what the cost of what you've ordered was and are only going to pay your share.
posted by Miko at 7:45 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you are, but minor league baseball games are cheap, fun, and often have $1 beer and 25¢ hot dogs -- You can have a full evening of fun for $10, and it's a great way to hang out with your friends.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:44 AM on July 14, 2008

Seconding k8t's comment about not getting haircuts as often and wearing exclusively Targeet clothing. I cut my own hair these days (though it's quickly approaching a length where I'm not going to be able to fudge it myself any longer) and am wearing clothes that are at least two years old. No trendy clothes for me, and my "adult" clothes -- dress pants, high heels, etc. -- haven't really seen the light since I've started school again. Most days I don't care about all of this, but sometimes I miss feeling like a "real" adult.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:23 PM on July 14, 2008

If you need to make an excuse to avoid getting together because you don´t have enough money, base your excuse (whether via humor, frankness, etc) on not having enough money. Don´t tell people you are ¨too busy¨ to meet them for dinner, they may well hear about the picnic, hike, or free event you went to with another friend and note that you aren´t ¨too busy¨ to visit with others.
posted by yohko at 12:42 PM on July 14, 2008

I second the idea of organizing outings yourself. Then you have control over what kind of activity you're taking on and how bad it will be financially. Depending on where you are, lots of cities have free museum nights, free movie nights, free concerts, and more. You might also be able to host movie nights with DVDs borrowed from your library (and check that library for free tickets to other activities).
posted by cadge at 1:19 PM on July 14, 2008

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