Your Friends' Money Woes: What Can You Say?

Last Updated May 20, 2011 7:15 AM EDT

Maybe it's the conspicuous consumer who constantly complains about how expensive things are. Or the freeloading friend. Or the profligate sibling. These folks have never heard about frugality, let alone frugality fatigue. When do their behaviors force you to speak up, and when do you bite your tongue? Friends passed along their sticky social situations, and I asked Lizzie Post (below), author of How Do You Work This Life Thing? and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, to share some strategies for gracefully handling others' poor money manners.

Q: There's this mom I know, and she's always complaining about how expensive things are, but she drives a BMW and wears designer clothing. Next time she starts moaning about shelling out $12 for her son's school field trip, can I let her know how ridiculous she sounds?

A: Acknowledge her, briefly, and quickly change the subject. "You can always redirect the conversation," Post says. "Try something like 'Yeah, I know, it's tough for everybody,' then switch it up. Maybe something like, 'I've been running a lot lately, it's free, and I feel so good.'" That doesn't quiet her? Step away to the other side of the jungle gym. Says Post: "If people are whining and complaining, it doesn't matter what the subject matter is, no one wants to listen."

Q: Close friends of ours were getting married, and they let everyone know they couldn't afford a big wedding, so they made it a picnic and all the guests chipped in. My husband and I spent hundreds buying alcohol for the party. Later that evening, the bride and groom were raving about a few pieces of art they recently purchased. What gives?

A: Potluck weddings, Post says, are totally acceptable. "There's nothing wrong with doing that, even if it's not for financial reasons, as long as it has been explained to the guests that it's a potluck wedding," she says. "If the bride and groom are walking around telling everyone their poor finances are the reason, that's bad form on their part."

So your reaction to the art-purchase bombshell depends on your history with the couple. If this is a pattern with them, ask yourself: Why are you still friends? If it's out of character for them, maybe you need to let this one go.

Should you decide to speak up, prepare for the worst-case scenario: They could get angry and you could lose the friendship over it. Play out how the conversation might go ahead of time, Post advises. "If you say, 'Kate, it really upset me that you asked everybody to chip in for the wedding because you guys didn't have the money and then we hear that you're off buying art,' be ready for her to say, 'Well, you don't know what kind of art I bought.' Or 'My finances are none of your business,'" Post says. "When you try it out, all of the sudden it sounds like you are being judgmental about her personal finance life. And that's not OK." Remember, you might not be seeing the whole picture.

Q: My sister admitted to me that she's in debt. So it drives me crazy when she invites me to go shopping with her or takes cabs everywhere. What can I say?

A: You might feel like lecturing your sib, but unless she has specifically asked you for financial advice or to help her out of a jam, you can't say much. "If you feel like you'll feel better if she knows what you think about [her spending], that's just you giving her your opinion on her life and her choices," Post says. "It's not exactly a good place, etiquette-wise, to be."

As with the complaining mom, get ready to redirect. When sis proposes shopping, counter by inviting her and her boyfriend over for dinner. Or taking a power walk. In the park, that is -- not in front of any storefront windows. "Find an activity that doesn't make you an enabler of what she's going through," Post says.

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