Money Etiquette Dilemmas, Solved

How to finesse sticky financial situations involving friends and family.
by Teri Cettina


Greg ClarkeGreg ClarkeResponding to Nosy Questions
Problem: A nosy friend asks how much you spent on your car, your clothes, or your house, and you think it's none of her business.

Solution: When someone asks an invasive question, you're never obligated to answer, says Laurie Puhn, a relationship expert in New York City. "If she asked about your favorite sexual positions, would you feel you had to tell her? Probably not," Puhn says. The next time this friend asks the price of a new leather handbag, Puhn suggests saying something like: "I have a new policy that I'm not going to share prices or salaries. It's nothing personal. I've just found it's easier not to discuss finances with friends." Or try what etiquette expert Anna Post, author of Emily Post's Wedding Parties ($23, amazon.com), calls the "gently evasive" approach. "If your friend asks what you paid for your new house, say, 'Well, probably a little more than I should have, but I am so happy with it.' Then immediately change the subject: 'Can I give you a tour?'" suggests Post. "Your answer indicates that the issue is not open for discussion."

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Greg ClarkeGreg ClarkeSplitting the Bill
Problem: The check arrives, and while you had a salad, everyone else had steak.

Solution: If there's just a few dollars' difference, consider splitting the bill evenly. If you're really in a money crunch―or the house wine you had doesn't exactly compare with the three $100 bottles the rest of the group shared―just say up front, "We're all paying for our own meals and drinks, right?" Make it plain and simple. If it's a large group, you can also ask your server for a separate check when you order. Most restaurants have software systems that can easily print multiple checks. If you don't get a separate check and one of the pricey wine drinkers moves to split the bill evenly, it's OK to be pleasantly assertive, says Post: "Try, 'Hey, guys, I figure $30 will cover my meal, glass of wine, tax, and tip. Can I throw that in and let you split the rest?'" Your message is clear ("I owe less"), but it's not the least bit confrontational.

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Greg ClarkeGreg ClarkeSoliciting Donations
Problem: You're passionate about raising money for several charities. How many times can you hit up the same people?

Solution: You can approach immediate family for pretty much every fund-raiser you support, from cookie sales to charity races. However, if you solicit distant relatives more than twice a year, e-mail them annually and ask which causes interest them most, suggests Allison Blanton, the senior development adviser of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "That way, you don't inundate them with requests unless they've said it's OK," she says. With friends and acquaintances, limit yourself to two or three requests a year. Group e-mails (with recipients' addresses hidden, to protect privacy) asking for contributions are fine. It's always a good idea to send a thank-you note or e-mail when a fund-raising project is over, to communicate your gratitude and to let donors know their generosity made an impact. But remember: You'll get better results―and keep more friends―by targeting your solicitations, rather than blasting your entire address book. "If it's the symphony, contact friends you know are passionate about the arts," suggests Caroline Tiger, author of How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged ($13, amazon.com). "But save the call to dog lover Aunt Eileen until you're raising money for the animal shelter."

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Greg ClarkeGreg ClarkeLending Money to Friends
Problem: You lent a hefty sum to a friend. After she misses a payment or two, she shows up with an expensive new handbag. Do you say anything?

Solution: Yes, but don't make assumptions. She may have received the purse as a gift, or perhaps she just got a raise and is ready to pay you off. It's tempting to confront her angrily, but express concern instead. "Say, 'This is bothering me, and I don't want it to come between us. But you missed a payment to me, and now I see you with a $300 purse. I'm wondering what's going on. Could we talk about it?'" suggests Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness ($25, amazon.com). That might be enough to persuade your friend to get back on track with payments. If not, you may have just learned an expensive lesson: Never lend money to friends. "You're better off making it a gift and not expecting it back. That's much less awkward," says Ramsey. If you ever play banker again, treat it like a financial transaction and use a promissory note ($9, nolo.com) so you're both clear about payment dates, interest rates, and other loan details.

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Paying for Advice
Problem: An acquaintance is an interior designer―or an accountant, an attorney, or another type of professional―and you want her expert opinion. Should you pay her?

Solution: You should. "Many people seem to think their friends and acquaintances go into particular professions because, all money aside, they just love their work," says Nancy Barsotti, an interior designer in New York City and Pittsburgh. "They assume that justifies asking for free help." It doesn't. Definitely plan to pay for your friend's professional time and advice, even if she's enthusiastic about her job. "If she doesn't bring it up first, say, 'How are we going to take care of the business side of this? Will you draw up a contract that outlines what you'll do and how much you'll charge?'" suggests Barsotti. That way, you won't be surprised when the bill comes. If your pal offers a little decorating advice, helps with your taxes, or draws up a will for you for free, a gracious way to show your thanks is with a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant or an invitation to your house for dinner.

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