Back in my protoblogging days, in March 2000, I posted an item
on the old, low-tech felixsalmon.com 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.