Paying friends

Back in my protoblogging days, in March 2000, I posted an item

on the old, low-tech disagreeing with a certain piece

of advice given by Slate’s agony aunt, Dear Prudence. I don’t know what

it is about Prudence which makes me want to respond to her columns, but she’s

gone and done it again today, with an answer to a question about a couple who

are starting up a B&B. They want their friends and family to come and stay

– and pay; Prudie responds

by saying that

As for what Prudie would do, she would try to arrive at an honest answer

to the question of whether or not she wanted to help her friends, financially,

without any ambivalent feelings. And if the answer turns out to be "no,"

they might catch on that the invitation didn’t seem very friendly.

I’m not entirely sure I understand this, but the gist is clear: friends don’t

ask friends to pay for lodging. I disagree.

If you’re going to spend money, say I, better you spend it on your friends.

Let’s say you need to buy a wedding present. You can bring up the wedding list

online and order a china plate from a department store, or you can commission

a painting from your talented artist friend Joanna Fox. No competition. One’s

personal, and the money stays within your circle of friends; the other is antiseptic

and a little too close to simply writing out a cheque. (The dirty secret of

wedding lists, of course, is that much of the time the gifts can be returned,

unopened, for store credit or even cash.) To try to get out of paying for the

painting would be cheap and nasty behaviour.

Similarly, if you’re going to stay in a B&B, surely it’s better to stay

in your friends’ new house than to give your money to someone you don’t know

and will never see again. Refurbishing old houses and operating them as B&Bs

is an expensive and risky business, and it’s good to support your friends when

they embark upon such a venture.

People like getting things for free. If their friend writes a book, they expect

a free copy; if they open a bar, they expect free drinks. It’s as though they

value the things their friend sells less than they value similar items from

complete strangers. Why is that? People should actively seek out opportunities

to spend money on their friends’ products and services, not feel aggrieved at

having to do so.

Moreover, in the case of a B&B, there’s a real opportunity cost to putting

your friends up for the night: if you’re not charging them for their room, then

you might be foregoing income from a paying guest. If your friends ask to stay

over a certain weekend and they offer to pay the going rate, then you can accept

them with open arms and have a great time together. But if they expect you to

comp their visit, and then someone else asks to book the room for those dates,

you’re out some very useful cash.

In general, if someone makes money from a certain activity, it’s verging on

the rude to expect them to give it to you for free just because you’re a friend.

Some people get this more than others, of course: lawyers and computer technicians

are always being asked for free advice, while court stenographers are very rarely

asked if they’ll do their friends a favour and sit down and take some dictation.

At least in these cases, however, the person concerned isn’t giving up income

to help out a friend.

The fact is that when you turn your house into a B&B, the old rules of

having people over to stay no longer apply. If a friend stays with me in New

York, the cost to me is marginal; if a friend stays in my B&B, they’re availing

themselves of a valuable service for which I normally charge money.

But maybe some people feel uncomfortable paying their friends money: they think

it might cheapen or commercialise the friendship. In that case, I would advise

Mary, the person who asked the question, to see if the owners of the B&B

have a favourite charity to which she could donate the cost of the room. That

way, there’s no implication that the hosts are being paid to simply do what

friends normally do, but there’s also an acknowledgement that a valuable service

is being provided, and that the guest is supportive of the way in which her

friends have chosen to try to make ends meet.

In any case, I think it’s definitely stretching to accuse these B&B owners

of not being good friends, just because they want to run their new business

as a business. Especially considering that at the beginning, at least, most

of their visitors will be friends and friends-of-friends, it could be financial

lunacy to start giving away rooms which they need to pay the mortgage.

That said, there’s a limit to spending money on friends. If the room rates at the B&B are exorbitant, and Mary would never normally spend that much on such a service, then she shouldn’t do so just because it’s her friends offering it. And if Joanna Fox started selling her paintings at prices I could no longer reasonably afford, then it would be perfectly reasonable of me to stop buying her paintings. But I don’t get the impression that there’s such a disconnect here: what we’re talking about is the principle at stake, not the cash.

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5 Responses to Paying friends

  1. Michelle says:

    There is no doubt in my mind, I would much rather give money to my talented friends than the Bloomingdale’s registry, eek. However, I could see myself giving the “friends and family” discount for things I create or services I provide. I think that’s acceptable on my behalf, but what I can’t understand is people out there who expect those kinds of discounts or “free” items from their friends. If I go to have drinks and a friend is bartending, he or she might give me a free drink here or there, but I give them a whopping big tip in return (even if they gave me no free drinks) – as I want my pals to make the rent and I support what they do. It’s pretty simple.

    I could see why the warning was made to this couple opening a B&B though, as there are lots of people who would take advantage and want to sleep for free – but this is really the minority… and the couple needs to make a commitment in the beginning to being firm about a price range for their B&B. I would also ask those getting any kind of discount to keep it quiet – just like my hairdresser asks me not to tell my friends and colleagues what she charges me (I can never remember anyway). New clients pay more, old clients pay less – this kind of thing has been going on in the service industry forever. There comes a time though, when the older clients need to start paying the current prices (like if Joanna’s art fees become higher and we can’t afford it, then we can’t afford it). But I’d much rather give my cash to my circle of friends than to anyone else – shouldn’t prosperity start with your immediate community and branch out from there?

  2. Natasha says:

    Your theory is rather quaint, but I respectfully disagree with your analysis of the letter to Dear Prudence. The couple that opened the bed and breakfast in their home invited the person who wrote the letter to come and stay, this is a simple hospitable invitation. It is contrary to the definition of hosting an event to require one’s guests to pay for their stay. The owner of the bed and breakfast does need to draw a line between her houseguests and her clients, and inviting one’s friends to stay usually falls under the heading of houseguests. It would have been nice if the writer had been thoughtful enough to schedule a weekend at the bed and breakfast in order to help her friends, but is not a necessity of friendship and is understandable if the writer had not done so. The owner of the bed and breakfast is assuming her friends want to share the financial burden of her business, which is not exactly a friendly thought, either. While she may simply be assuming that her friends subscribe to your theory, she is still simply inviting friends to visit and presenting them with a bill on the way out.

  3. Felix says:

    I think the difference between Natasha and myself is that we read the letter in different ways. The letter-writer says that the friends in question “are asking friends and relatives to be their B&B customers,” which is different, in my mind, to Natasha’s “simple hospitable invitation to come and stay”. I completely agree that inviting friends to visit and presenting them with a bill on the way out is wrong.

  4. wale williams says:

    i am wale williams from from nigeria,i need a letter invitation to visit uk.please anybody that can help,i will really appreciate it.

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