I can't afford to attend my friends' destination wedding

I'm in grad school and not exactly rich. How do I tell them I can't make it to Hawaii?

Published February 10, 2006 11:43AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have a dilemma that's stressing the hell out of me and I'm hoping you can help. Two good friends of mine are getting married this summer in Hawaii. I'm extremely happy for them and when they initially shared the news I said, "Of course I'll be there." However, as reality has set in, I've realized that it is completely insane and unrealistic of me to think that I can afford to go. I recently moved across the country and began graduate school at a private university, and with this, have taken on more debt and loans. I'm not currently working for pay, so I'm dependent on my loan money. Also, I'm not receiving loan money in the summer, so I don't know how I will be paying rent this summer. I'm hoping for and expecting a job, but it's too soon to know.

Now, these friends of mine are well off in the finance department and don't always understand my broke state of affairs. I understand this was my choice, and I don't need sympathy, but how do I tell them that I cannot afford to attend their wedding? I know that people who choose destination weddings should be prepared for some people to decline, but not these friends. They don't really comprehend the amount of work I have and the amount of money I owe.

I love my friends, but I cannot afford to accrue another $1,000 of debt for a four-day weekend, especially since I don't even know how I'll be affording life at that point. How do I make them and our other friends understand this? It's been keeping me awake at night.

Sleepless in Grad School

Dear Sleepless,

Money is such a powerful force in American life that I can understand why you find it difficult to tell these friends that you can't afford to attend their wedding. It is often difficult to speak honestly about money, even with close friends. Yet I very much hope you do tell them. I hope you tell them not only because it's the sensible thing to do, but because every time someone tells the truth about money in America it makes me happy.

It makes me happy because I know the power of money to shame us into distorting the truth and abandoning our values. We might become artists or musicians or study arcane and little-understood phenomena, we might live more simply, we might dedicate ourselves to what we love, we might take time off from work to improve our lives and our relationships, we might spend more time with our children, if it weren't for the fear of not having enough money, or appearing to not have enough money.

And we might indeed have enough actual money to do what we need to do if we were realistic and honest about what we need, and did not spend money to avoid being shamed or excluded or misunderstood or thought poorly of.

Rather than say, "I'm sorry, your destination wedding in Hawaii does not fit my budgetary plans for fiscal year 2006," we say, "I'm so happy for you, I'll be there!" We pretend to have money that we do not have. And then we create for ourselves a set of unreasonable expectations. We attend a wedding we cannot afford to attend and give gifts we cannot afford to buy. And then we pay later. We pay with our time. We pay with our dreams.

Not only that, but we regress politically and spiritually. As progressive people, we want to ask of every significant action we take, What will be the effect of this, not only practically but symbolically? What is the meaning of this destination wedding in Hawaii? Is it in keeping with my goals and values? Or is it an upper-middle-class fantasy that reveals a lack of commitment to progressive values? If I attend this wedding in Hawaii, does that mean that I endorse the idea of expensive destination weddings and the class-based fantasies they embody? What is my relationship with these people? Is it reciprocal? Would they respect my values in the same way? If I decided to, say, have a destination graduation party in the mountains of Peru, would they trek up the mountain and live in huts and eat simple food with me for four days to honor my commitment to simplicity and solidarity with the poor?

I don't know. Maybe that's stretching it a little. Maybe that's being pretty hard on your friends. But your values count. Think about it in terms of who you are and what it means; find the courage to act according to your conscience and your pocketbook.

There is one more point worth making here, if I may detain you just a moment longer. I know you probably have studying to do, but this won't take long. You have a chance now, right now, with this decision, to set for yourself some good money habits.

This is important because bad money habits grow out of not really thinking it through and thus failing to understand money.

For instance, the hippie-ish notion I had when I was young was to ignore money in pursuit of something pure, and hope that money would just come along anyway. I thereby created a dysfunctional relationship with money. I saw it as a symbol rather than an actual thing. I do not think I was alone in this. That may be why later as hippies matured, they seemed to become obsessed with money, selfish, hedonistic, as if this thing they had disregarded for so long would now be the answer to all their problems.

And of course it wasn't. Money is neither your problem nor the solution to your problem. It's more like air: It's all around us and we just need to get enough of it to stay healthy.

So that's a rather long way of saying I hope you tell your friends that a trip to Hawaii doesn't fit with your budget right now. Don't be ashamed. You're doing the right thing. You can avoid getting in financial trouble right now and begin to set some good habits for yourself for the future.

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