How to Navigate Uncomfortable Money Situations

iVillage personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich weighs in!

At one time or another, we’ve all been in some (very!) uncomfortable situations that have to do with money. No matter how big our hearts, our bank accounts may just not be able to keep up with the demands or the inquiries. Here are some potentially budget-busting (or just plain annoying) situations where setting boundaries will not only save our money, but also our relationships:

Splitting the Bill
There are definitely more ways to squabble over a restaurant bill than there are wines by the glass. Two ways to tackle the tab-split: First, set expectations. If it’s a group gathering -- say in honor of someone’s promotion, baby or birthday -- appoint one of you to be in charge of the bill and collecting the funds. This is a lot easier to do these days with services like Venmo.com, Popmoney.com and Visa’s pal-to-pal payment program. Or, stick to cash.

Next, be realistic. Assume that the bill will be split evenly -- we’re grown-ups! If you can’t afford to have more than one glass of wine or one appetizer, bow out entirely or show up for dessert only. And as for the one-on-one with a friend who’s not flush with cash, be honest with yourself. If you know your friend can’t (or wouldn’t want to) split a check evenly, pick an inexpensive joint, or skip dinner and make it drinks so when you pay, it doesn’t pinch. And should you be on the receiving end of someone’s largess, be grateful with a handwritten card or an email in the morning. A gift acknowledged is a gift in itself.

Fundraising Fever
Facebook has made it even easier for our friends and family to ask us to pledge money in support of their next fundraising race for a cause. But even the deepest wallets have a limit after two cousins, three siblings, five co-workers and yo’ mama ask for $50.

Here, chutzpah wins again. Say to your co-workers that you’re already committed to a couple of causes, but you can help spread the word. Not all charity has to be financial. A Stanford and UCLA study found that asking for time first, rather than money, actually increased charitable donations. Offer help on the “time” front.

Your Child’s PTA
Many public schools need mega-bucks donations for basic needs, but some folks just don’t have the private school-sized pocketbooks that some PTAs want and need. Best bet: Ask around to parents in the neighborhood of older kids or call up the school administrator to get an idea of how much is expected of each parent before the school year starts. Does it fit your budget? If not, contact the PTA heads directly to let them know what you can afford and close the gap by offering up your time and your baking/programming/piano skills instead.

Group Gifts
Between office baby and wedding showers, not to mention family life events, any account for pop-up expenses can end up looking like a change purse.

It can be hard to get completely out of group gifts, but if you’re on a tight budget, the best approach is honesty. Tell the organizer, in private, that you’re short on funds but you’d like to give what you can, and then name your price. If it’s a group event, such as a family vacation that you can’t afford, don’t be ashamed to say so. Most organizers are sensitive to differing finances. And should you be the one asking for funds for a group gift, make sure to add a qualifier in the email or invite, “Requesting $20 each to meet our needs, but please give what you can (by this date).”

Deal-Diggers and The Joneses
At a birthday party for a friend’s son, a very stylish mom cornered me to ask, “Where did you get your daughter’s cute shoes?” Now, I’ve always been proud of my ability to mix high fashion with low fashion, but even I had to steel myself for a backlash when I said simply, “Target.” When folks ask the “where,” we know what they’re really asking: “How much?”

Digging into how we spend can get very uncomfortable, especially when in mixed crowds when it starts to seem competitive. A recent study in the journal Psychological Sciences found that having more money only makes us happy if we feel “richer” than our friends and neighbors.

The best answer to nosy money questions? The truth. But if answering makes you uncomfortable, give it the brush off, “Oh these old things?” White lies are permissible (“I forgot.”) Then, steer the subject in a different direction. Let them use someone else as a frame of “rich” reference.

This works, too, for those “How much did you pay for this house/that car?” questions. And salary. It’s none of folks’ business if you don’t want it to be. And if you’re the offender, just remember, not everybody’s as comfortable with deal-hunting as you are and may take it the wrong way. Compliment and make someone happy, rather than uncomfortable.

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