NEW YORK (MainStreet) — No one wants to miss out on the latest parties or weekend getaways with friends, but how much is it costing you to keep up with your social circle? Here's a look at the top five ways your friends may be driving you into debt, because fun times often don't come cheap.
1. The last-minute invite
Spontaneity can be fun, but it can also be expensive, cautions Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and external affairs for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
"A night out with friends can come together faster than you can say 'flash mob,' and there isn't much time to think about spending limits," he says. "Feel confident about taking a pass when it looks like you'll break the bank or pile on unwanted debt, and follow up by suggesting a time and place where you may be more likely to join the fun."
Everyone knows a spur-of-the moment, over-the-top celebrator, says Erin Ellis, financial educator at Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, but you don't have to join in every time they suggest a celebration.
"These friends find an excuse to celebrate any and every life event — engagements, new jobs, old jobs, pets' birthdays," she says. "While it's all fun and games, the financial element of celebrating so often — and in such high fashion — can add up quickly."
The larger your circle of friends, the more celebrations you share, McClary says. Unfortunately, the cost for birthdays and other special occasions can get fairly expensive if the spending is not part of a clearly defined plan.
"Find ways to keep this budget category affordable, and communicate among your group of friends so everyone agrees on an acceptable way to acknowledge special occasions that is more inclusive and cost effective," he suggests.
Oftentimes people feel pressure to give expensive gifts to friends who are accustomed to a more lavish lifestyle. This just isn't necessary, Ellis says.
"For the friend that just keeps on giving, it's often hard to keep up, especially if you're in a lower income bracket that they are," she says. "People worry that they'll come off as uncaring or cold if they don't reciprocate a gift that is of a similar value than the one which they received, but it's important to acknowledge the financial disparity between you and your friends. Remind yourself that while you may be living similar lifestyles, you are doing so on massively diverging budgets."
When a big gift-giving event such as a baby shower approaches, try to pool funds for a group gift, suggests Kathleen M. Hastings, a certified financial planner and portfolio manager at FBB Capital Partners.
"Go together with friends and get a special gift that is really needed rather than another 'one of many' toys, receiving blankets or set of socks," she says.
3. Happy Hour
Happy hour may seem like a money-saving opportunity, but if your friends always encourage "one more drink," it's probably best if you head home early.
"One more drink inevitably turns into two or three more drinks, and you may end up getting stuck with the tab," Ellis says. "The trouble comes in when you linger even after happy hour ends, when the drinks become full-price again. A bar tab here and there may not seem like a lot at the time, but eventually it will add up."
The same word of caution applies when going out to eat, she says. Restaurant bills can add up quickly and aren't always evenly split.
"If it's a large group dining out … everyone may agree to split the bill evenly, despite the fact that you only ordered the salad."
4. Dining out and birthday parties
One of the most common ways to catch up with friends is over a meal. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to save money when dining out, especially if your friends are foodies, says Jordan Page, of Savings.com and founder of the blog FunCheapOrFree.
"To combat the problem, we started hosting dinner parties at our house," Page says. "Every couple was asked to contribute one part of the meal, and we provided the main dish. It allowed everyone to bring something they felt proud of, and gave us a great time out with good food … without the expensive price tag."
For birthday parties, which tend to be a "nightmare" on your budget thanks to drinks, presents and dinners, try to plan an inexpensive night out by splitting the cost of an affordable concert or other event, Page says.
"I try to plan a girl's night out. All of us split the birthday girl's ticket or tab so we're all contributing to a great night out without having to buy her a designer gift that we can't afford," she says.
Although wedding are supposed to be joyous, love-filled celebrations, they're often budget-busters for members of the wedding party and guests alike, Hastings says. Thankfully, most couples would rather spend the day surrounded by loved ones than haul home a new pasta maker.
"I will bet if you asked, nearly every couple would rather you be there than buy them a gift," she says.
If you're looking to cut back on wedding expenses, try having the newlyweds over for dinner after the wedding, or look to donate to a charity or nonprofit in the couple's name, she suggests.
If you're traveling with a group of friends for a destination wedding, be mindful that your companions may have more expensive tastes than you, Page cautions.
"One way to avoid overspending when traveling with friends is to each take turn planning activities," she says. "When we did this, ours were much more affordable, so it ended up averaging out and we all got to do everything we wanted to do and still do it together as a group."
— Written by Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet
Follow Kathryn on Twitter @KathrynTuggle