In these inflationary times, the price of friendship has gone up. As your social calendar fills up this summer, you may be looking at the brunches and parties and group trips and wondering how on Earth you can afford all of it.

And if you find yourself with a smaller budget than those in your social circle, things can get awkward, either because you feel pressured to overspend to maintain a connection with your richer friends or because you’re unsure how to handle or repay their generosity.

Etiquette experts say there’s more than one way to navigate these dynamics, but generally agree on one thing: Whether it’s a destination wedding or just a fancy dinner, you are under no obligation to go if it will hurt your budget. And you don’t have to make excuses either.

“If I don’t want to attend an event, I just say, ‘I appreciate the invitation, but I’ll have to pass,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “I might say I have an early morning tomorrow. But it could be an early morning because I have to brush my teeth.”

If an invitation is too expensive, offer alternatives

Etiquette and financial experts alike approve of a social trend that emerged on TikTok known as “loud budgeting.” The gist is that, as budgets tighten, more and more people are feeling comfortable setting boundaries with the people in their life about what they can and can’t afford.

A loud budgeter might turn down an invitation to a fancy restaurant by saying, “Sorry, I only have $30 left in my food budget for the month.”

While that kind of communication may be appropriate between close friends, you needn’t even go that far, says Thomas Farley, an etiquette expert and keynote speaker known as Mister Manners. “You don’t need to give some hard-driving rationale for why you can’t make it, whether that’s money or some sort of conflict,” he says.

If it’s an opulent destination wedding that’s out of your price range, you’re fine sending your regrets along with a gift off the registry, Gottsman says. If it’s a luxury trip, you may say you can’t swing it this year, that you just made another major purchase or that you simply don’t have room in your schedule. No need to go into specifics.

“You simply don’t have to take every invitation that’s offered to you,” she says.

That said, if you’re constantly turning down plans to the point where you’re not seeing certain people, you’re not going to remain friends for long. If you’re declining invitations because they’d stretch your budget, suggest alternative plans that you can afford and that will be fun for everyone, says Farley.

“Take the initiative,” he says. “Maybe you go hiking for a day or to the beach. There are so many things you can do that don’t involve spending a ton of money.”

Picking up a check: ‘It’s not dollar-for-dollar’

Traditional etiquette rules dictate that whoever invited the other person out for dinner covers the cost of the meal and the tip, says Gottsman.

By modern standards, however, you should go into any dining out scenario prepared to pay at least your share of the bill and the tip — even if it’s adding up to more than you want to pay, she says.

“You shouldn’t go if you know it’s going to be too expensive for you,” she says. “But if you’re going there, that part is on you.”

But a wealthier friend, knowing they have a little more cash at their disposal, may offer to pick up the check. If they do, make it clear that you are willing to cover your part. If they insist, you’re within the boundaries of good etiquette to let them pay, Gottsman says, “because at that point, they’re being sincerely emphatic.”

The proper way to respond, she says, is to thank them and tell them the next one is on you. And you should really mean it — but don’t keep a running score, says Gottsman.

If they took you out for a fancy dinner, you might respond by having them over for a meal at your home. If they got you the most expensive item on your wedding registry, you can still make your standard cash contribution to their honeymoon fund.

“It’s not dollar-for-dollar,” Gottsman says.

Accepting a generous offer: Let things ‘blossom’ first

Say a well-off friend tells you they’ll be spending a chunk of their summer in Nantucket. You’ve heard it’s lovely, you tell them, but you’ve never been.

“We have a place up there,” they say. “Come any time!”

That sounds fabulous, you think. But can you actually go? The last thing you want to do is show up and feel like you’re mooching off someone who was just being friendly.

Gauging whether that’s a serious invitation comes down to two factors. One is how good of a friend this is.

“If you’re still in the acquaintance level of friendship, I’d be very wary of accepting an invitation, however well-intended it might be,” says Farley. “I might give the friendship more of a chance to blossom.”

If this is someone whose home you’ve been to, who you’ve been on trips with before, who you hang out with regularly — it might be a serious offer, Farley says.

Another sign that a generous offer is genuine is a firm date, says Gottsman.

“If I have a lake house or beach house, I might say come anytime you want. But if I really want them to come, I’d say, ‘Let’s plan for the Fourth of July. Or let’s plan for the end of August — let’s look at our calendars,'” she says.

If someone has seemingly made a sincere offer, but you’re still not sure, you’re well within the bounds of good etiquette to follow up.

“You could call and say, ‘I know you’ve offered us your beach house several times, and we appreciate it. We’d love to take you up on it. If you don’t have anybody for the weekend of such and such, we’d love to go for the weekend,'” Gottsman says.

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