‘How to travel for free’: I spent $500 hosting my friend for a week. Should she have paid for food and utilities?

Dear Quentin,

My close friend of over 20 years recently lost a child under tragic circumstances, and in recent years has fallen on hard times. She announced she would be coming to visit, and since she hasn’t visited in years I was excited. My friend is 20 years older than me. She stayed a week, and I paid for everything. I suppose it could be summed up as “how to travel for free and get your friends to foot the bill.”

She binged on food, mainly junk food, and I had to foot the cost. She gave me $10 the entire time she stayed and continued to promise to reimburse me. It was my child’s birthday and I had tons of appointments. She was becoming overbearing, and I started to ignore her. She announced — without checking with me first — that another friend would take her back home. I literally had a few hours to prepare for her departure, and missed my child’s birthday. 

I spent probably $500 the entire time she was here, including gas and food, plus the extra cost for utilities. She didn’t even give me the gift she bought for my child, which I insisted wasn’t necessary. The friend she met seemed aggravated to have her back, but I was glad to get this problem over with. Now I feel guilt over missing my child’s birthday, and feel stupid that I was taken advantage of by a longtime friend. 

Should I tell her? She mentioned that a friend paid for both of them on an expensive trip and how she “paid her back in other ways like doing chores.” She was very helpful in my home, but threw away family mementos without my knowledge and raided my pantries. Should I cut ties with this friend for causing all this trouble? Should I mention that I am not OK with this? Part of me feels like it would be trying to get blood out of a turnip.

What would you do?

Feeling Used

Dear Feeling,

Normally, pitching in for grocery bills and taking you out for at least one meal would be good form. But it seems like your friend could not afford the latter, so leave space in your laundry list for her to miss some big-ticket items. And, no, you don’t charge a friend for extra gas or electricity while they are staying at your house. Ten cents for boiling your kettle? Nor would you charge them for air conditioning if they visited in the dead of summer! You’re hosting a friend — not running a boarding house.

Her world has been turned upside and inside out. She has buried a child. It does not mean she should not have been a better house guest and it doesn’t give your friend a free pass to act in a way that leaves hurt feelings and unpaid bills in their wake, but it gives you the opportunity to give her a free pass, and chalk it up to experience. Whatever point you wish to make and whatever anger you need to express, it’s not worth $500. But there are other actions you can take.

‘No, you don’t charge a friend for extra gas or electricity while they are staying at your house. Ten cents for boiling your kettle?’

The other part of this story — that is missing from your letter — is your own role or lack thereof in setting boundaries and expectations during her visit. That includes taking sole responsibility for missing your child’s birthday. That was your job, and yours alone, and no one else should be given the tab for that. Similarly, responding with silence and ignoring your friend is a decision, whether you like it or not, not to speak up, and she clearly got the message.

So where do you go from here? Put the money aside. Have you always had a good relationship? Was this out of character? If you were looking forward to seeing her on this trip, it would suggest that there was warmth and affection and history in this friendship. Given what your friend has been through, she may need old friends more than ever. I’m sorry she did not contribute more than $10. I’m also sorry that you both allowed bad feelings to fester.

Respect is important in a friendship, and how people treat each other — and how money is handled — is a reflection of that respect. But something else got lost here aside from $500. It may be that the friendship has run its course, but don’t leave this friendship with a question mark. Money, and how we handle it, can impact friendships. In fact, some research has even shown that more than one third of friendships break up over different lifestyles and money. 

Pick up the phone. At least be willing to make amends for your part. Tell her that you felt things didn’t go quite as planned, and see if you can both shed light on that week. Making this all about unpaid bills is not the best way to approach it.  Everyone lives in their own movie, with their own script writer and director. We all see and record things differently. A “360 review” of your friendship and how the breakdown in communication occurred may be worth $500.

“The other part of this story — that is missing from your letter — is your own role or lack thereof in setting boundaries and expectations during her visit.”

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