How to navigate socialising on a budget

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I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was a student completing postgraduate study.

A friend who had been in the workplace for several years wanted to catch up - over dinner. When we arrived, someone said, "let's order the banquet - it will be easier."  The only problem was that money was, as Simply Red sings, too tight to mention. And ordering a large banquet was not in my budget.

We've all been there. Someone says, "let's catch up", and before you know it, an expensive night out at a restaurant is booked. Then they order wine. And that's fine if it's what you want and can afford, but it's not fine if you can't - or if you don't want to.

how to split bills with friends restaurants

When people are on a budget - out of necessity or as part of a goal - socialising is one of the things that becomes hard.

In my Nana's age, we would have caught up over a cup of tea and scones at someone's home, but now catching up involves going out.

And there are good reasons for that. Being in a public venue is often safer, especially if it is with people we don't yet know well (like on a first date).

It also means we don't have to clean up our home or worry about being judged for having a home that is too small/too clean/too dirty. And when we want to leave, we can - no need to hint and throw people out. Plus, no dishes.

The problem is that "let's catch up" has now become synonymous with spending money.

And when you can't, or don't, want to spend money, it means you can become socially isolated. Some people in the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) movement, for instance, have shared how their saving journey led to depression. Unsurprisingly, many have cited the lack of fun as a reason for giving up on FIRE plans.

As a joyful frugalista, I find this sad. Since when did you need money to have friends? I believe you can socialise economically. We need and value connection more than ever and doing so frugally makes catching up more inclusive - you are not excluding people who can't afford it.

Here are some of my tips for catching up with friends on a budget.

1. Make frugal friends

Feel like your friends always suggest expensive restaurants? Make new friends who share similar money values.

I met one of my close friends, Trish, in 1995 on the Simple Savings forum. She is my frugalista mentor and guru - we are both involved in the Buy Nothing movement, share books, and enjoy home cooking. I often leave her place with herb cuttings, books and home-sewn items.

Joining Facebook Groups such as Aussie F.I.R.E., Financial Independence & Retire Early, Moustachians Australia, The Joyful Frugalista and Aussies Living Simply is a good place to start. Watch out for meetups, attend, and connect with people who share frugalista values.

2. Go for a walk

Who said you need to pay for anything? I love walking and talking with friends.

Apart from the physical health benefits, walking is often used for mentoring, mental health therapy and even meditation. An added benefit is that it's also sustainable, especially if you go for a walk close to home or work.

For years, I suggested 'going for a walk' to save money on lunch or coffee dates. And I found most people appreciated the opportunity to get out into the fresh air.

For some reason, I find it easier to share while walking; it's much less confronting than sitting opposite someone and thinking about what to say, and it's also usually more private.

3. Games night

Every Sunday, my family and I play Rummy. I love it - my kids a bit less so - I tend to be competitive (well, very).

But they do love playing the quirky Exploding Kittens game, and we're now getting them into Scrabble (aka Squabble, nicknamed by my husband for the obvious reason).

The great thing about playing games is that it brings groups together without the need to worry about conversation starters.

People often declutter games, and you can pick up second-hand ones at garage sales or in sharing groups such as Buy Nothing. Or you could buy a pack of cards. And as a host, it does not require much money beyond providing a table, some drinks and snacks.

4. Splitting bills

Ever been to a restaurant and clashed over splitting the bill? People tell me horror stories of cheapskates (note: I don't endorse trying to get ahead at the expense of your friends).

But you can dine out together as a group, split the bill fairly and remain friends.

Ideally, discuss before you order whether you will commit to a banquet or individual meals. For example, you could state, "I think I will just have the salad as I'm not hungry."  Or "since we're eating Chinese, shall we order a range of dishes and put them in the middle so we can all share?"

And if someone is clearly ordering a light meal, perhaps to save money, be mindful of this when settling the bill: it's not fair for them to have to pay for you.

The good thing is that there are tech solutions to help navigate bill splitting. My Chinese friends regularly use WeChat to transfer money; it's been a massive cultural shift as previously splitting bills was not acceptable.

Within a friendship group, you can transfer money to each other using your bank's PayID or PayPal. Or you could use an app such as Plates by Splitwise, which allows you to split meals with up to 10 people - including both shared items (like appetisers) and individual items (like main meals).

And if you are the one collecting the cash at the end, be fair and don't pocket a windfall. Return money to people who have put in too much, or leave a generous tip.

5. Vouchers, Groupons and special deals

Would you go on a date with someone who used a coupon? In my single days, I would.

And these days, I have no problem at all dining out with a special deal, especially if with friends.

Some popular platforms for special deals include Groupon (pre-paid deals), EatClub (last-minute deals), Shop-a-Docket (no longer just found on the back of receipts), and First Table (great for early meals before the cinema or theatre).

An added advantage of dining with others using one of these services is that it allows you have early conversations with your friends about the likely cost of the meal. Note that drinks are not always included in special deals and can increase the overall cost.

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed more than a million dollars through frugal living. She is the author of The Joyful Frugalista and The Joyful Startup Guide. Serina blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She is also the founder of the The Joyful Business Club.