A small part of my reticence in initiating a hang-out recently has been in part due to just how much my heart gets constricted whenever I start a conversation like the one above.
I need to build the fortitude to tell people the truth, “No, I don’t want to spend money eating out, but would love to see you, can we do something else?”
Three years ago at a well-paying job I could have cared less. But for the last three years, I’ve been trying to grow my own business. I’ve paid myself nothing even as money continues to funnel into this venture. My business is my drug (or baby, really there are many appropriate analogies here).
Because I didn’t want to spend money eating out and I didn’t want to admit it, there were friends whom I could only let myself see once every few weeks, which is terribly unfair, and I deeply apologize. Moreover, except for a brief “foodie phase**,” I don’t actually care that much about eating out. Of course, the context is that I am a good cook, am a bit picky about ingredients (e.g., organic, not so much salt and sugar, etc.).
So why can’t I tell people the real reason why I don’t want to go out for dinner?
Well, for some people, social interactions have to take place with some kind of “going out.” If it’s not food, it’s drink. If it’s not drink, it’s a movie, etc.***
But the deeper truth reveals itself in three-layers:
1. I lie because saying “I don’t want to spend money” = saying “I don’t have money.”
2. I lie because saying “I don’t have money” is shameful.
3. I lie because saying “I don’t have money” isn’t believable, and therefore doubly shameful. (this one’s the tricky one)
How do I know that saying “I don’t want to spend money” = saying “I don’t have money”? The tell is in the follow-up. When I say that “I don’t want to spend money,” I don’t get asked, “what are you saving up for?” — a question that is apropos to the meaning that I have made a personal choice to prioritize my money on something else — nearly as often as I get asked “what happened?” in a tone that suggests a grave accident, and often with that same sympathetic head tilt. And, yes, I could qualify the statement myself, but then it starts to sound like an excuse that no one wants to hear (more on this below).
This is why there’s a whole concept around liquidity of money. People can be materially poor — living in spartan, barely-furnished, tiny apartments — but cash rich, preferring to spend their money on experiences. People can be materially rich — living with jewels and cars in a fancy apartment in the best part of town — but cash poor, having spent it all on objects. Between these spectrums there is every combination. Unfortunately, I’m living at one of the spectrum (I feel like entrepreneurs always deal in extremes) — the cash poor one. Except that my money isn’t locked in belongings. It’s locked in a retirement account called my business. And the penalty for early withdrawal is to lose everything.
The shame of admitting you don’t have money is a no-brainer. We live in a hyper-individualistic, capitalistic society. There are enough exposés into the depths to which people will lie to cover up their impoverished reality or failure to live up to society’s standards, that I won’t expound on that further. Yes, this is a real concern for me.
But the meta-potential for shame when you don’t believe me is much worse. This is the tricky part.
In college, everyone is broke. It’s such a pervasive culture that even students who have money commiserate about being broke; it wouldn’t be college otherwise. But although the present is moneyless, the future doesn’t have to be. Your future is being shaped by your college career, and everyone’s watching.
Think about the jokes they make after your internship at a hot tech company — “hey, lunch is on you now, right?”; “hey, don’t forget to give back to us little people!” Or, alternatively, think about the statements after a summer doing volunteer work at local shelters — “hey, if you’re looking for some cheap housing I found this warehouse co-op you might be interested in”; “hey, I found an easy part-time job that might help pay some bills!” (I sometimes wonder what the pitch is for giving back to the alma mater for students who graduated with “low earnings potential” degrees.)
But what if the person who worked hard for a coveted spot at Google did so to help pay down a lifetime of family debt accumulated to get them into college? And what if the person who does volunteer work can afford to do so because of a nice trust fund? These nuances don’t factor into our considerations very easily.
A friend recently related a story to me from Chinese social media. A man’s daughter was suffering from leukemia and he raised money for her on the popular social media platform WeChat. Until it was discovered that he was largely profiteering off sympathy. I’m afraid people will think I’m crying wolf, too.
My college and post-college resume have set a lifetime of expectations that I should never not have money.
And if you expect that, to hear me say otherwise triggers skepticism, it’s the cognitive dissonance effect — am I lying or are you lying, and of course no one wants to believe they’re lying. Especially if you are less well-off, the skepticism — how could I possibly not have saved more? — starts to combine with furor — how dare you squander the opportunity you had?
That you might potentially think I’m lying about my finances to garner sympathy scares me much more than outright admitting to you that I actually don’t have money. Especially because I am personally very vocal about pointing out pity parties or first-world problems.
Maybe this all reads a little crazy… Would anyone really make the jumps and draw the conclusions I described? Honestly, I wouldn’t be writing this if it hasn’t happened in the past.
Look, I’m not asking for sympathy. Neither sympathy for the reactions I get, nor sympathy about the fact of the matter. I wrote this because to be this honest is cathartic; this blog has always been a way for me to do that, and grow.
So I want to be better about this. I want to bring this level of candor in person as well, so that you’ll hear me say, “hey actually eating out isn’t in my budget right now, but will you come over if I cook?”
I blog about life & work on my entrepreneurial journey. My business gets you outdoors gear & aims to reduce waste/over-consumption — check out Last Minute Gear!
**In case you’re curious, younger me felt eating out served as both novelty and inspiration. But the year before I quit my job, even that perspective changed. I realized that not only was I not born with the palate of M.K. Fisher, but I didn’t care to develop one either. I taste the subtle notes of marash pepper in a full-bodied dish, and I think in monosyllabic adjectives like “cool” or “good”, I don’t think to pen novels and am not inspired to travel to Turkey. (If you think that’s sacrilegious, you definitely don’t want to hear about me at a wine-tasting.) I can actually pinpoint when my foodie phase ended. I had gone to New Orleans where friends and I ate our way through all the foodie hotspots. After brunch one morning as we lazily window-shopped, this beautiful mask caught my eye. For $400, it was a work of art! My friends convinced me to not buy it. Of course, it makes sense since I’m so anti-over-consumption. And wouldn’t the money be better spent on experiences, like more feasting? Except I realized when I came home that I spent about $400 on food (no drink included), and a week later, had forgotten every delectable bite. Now, the lesson here isn’t that I should have bought the mask instead of eating so well, the lesson is that neither form of consumption really matters to me
***Personally, I get pleasure purely from engaging conversations with people — regardless of setting. I literally meet up with friends in hotel lobbies just to have a chat. (This probably makes me sound incredibly boring, and I do admittedly struggle when new acquaintances ask what I do for fun [“like what do you do when you hang out?”]. Luckily the activities that I do really enjoy, outdoorsy stuff, are usually free.)