Help, My Friend Says I'm Cheap!
I hosted her kids. Shouldn't she pay me back?
Dear Friend or Foe,
My husband and I are child-free, and, to be honest, don't really like children. But we tend to get along well with teenagers. We also make a concerted effort to be friendly to our friends' kids, including those of my friend of 36 years, "Sue." She was the maid of honor at my wedding, as I was at hers. So when she and her husband decided to take a 16-day cruise with their extended family during the school semester, we agreed to let their two teens (now ages 13 and 16) live with us. Before their parents left, we tried to discuss money and responsibilities. But all of our conversation attempts were met with incredulity (e.g., "Do you really think we wouldn't pay for something that our kids did while we were gone?"). We finally let it go after warning them several times that it might cost as much as $500 to house and entertain the two kids. I also expressed concerns that I didn't want this situation to affect our long-standing friendship. We received still more assurances on both fronts. The parents left each child with $40 spending money, and left us $70. Naturally, the $70 did not last long. We shuttled the kids to school in another town and back, brought them to swimming lessons, choir concerts, band tryouts, and snowmobile classes. I cooked a full, well-balanced meal every night and provided breakfasts and snacks on the weekends. (During the week, the parents had provided toaster strudels and the school provided lunch.) We ran the dishwasher daily instead of twice a week. We did three times as much laundry, had more people shower, etc. Meanwhile, the kids were lazy and useless and did not help with any household chores. They didn't even take care of their own dog, which we were also watching. And the boy, who had just gotten off probation for making "terroristic threats" against school officials, bought drugs, stole a car, and arranged for his own parents' house to be robbed. We spent countless hours in the police station dealing with the aftereffects of this, while his parents were unreachable at sea. When the parents returned, we asked for $500 in compensation, citing actual expenses, including the additional utilities, for which we have receipts. They wrote out a check. But the next day, Sue sent me a bitter and scathing e-mail questioning whether or not our friendship was "ever truly genuine" and accusing us of attempting to defraud them. She believes we are owed nothing beyond the gas money. She also pointed out that her kids once took care of our cat for a week, and her husband helped us install shelves. (Never mind that my husband helped paint their bedroom and that we took care of their dog.) She also implied that we should have been happy to live out our fantasy of being parents—a fantasy we don't have—and that we'd "invited [her] kids as guests."I understand that Sue has some money issues because of the way she grew up; her parents were notorious cheapskates who used to padlock the refrigerator. But I'm appalled, hurt, and angry. Is there any way of resolving this and preserving our friendship? I've asked Sue for an apology, but I'd apologize myself if I could figure out what I did wrong. For the record, all of our mutual friends think that my husband and I were crazy to watch the kids in the first place.
Burned but Freezing in North Dakota
Your mutual friends are right, of course. Only a brave soul volunteers to house two out-of-control teenagers for more than two weeks, never mind ones making terrorist threats. But since it's too late for that, let's back up. First, I'm getting the distinct impression that Sue and her husband aren't going to be winning any parenting awards any time soon. (And if the boy's arrest for buying dope and organizing the robbery of his own home is any indication, it sounds like his next guest residency might be in the Big House.) Second, your friends' failure to have raised upstanding citizens does not in any way excuse your pettiness. So the kids proved to be lazy, criminal pains in the asses. Fine. But you're charging them for using the shower—really? Gas money, I can see—sort of. And, OK, groceries. And definitely any class fees or tickets (or bail money for the son). But Sue was the maid of honor at your wedding: Please don't tell me you included a portion of the heating bill in your assessment!
If you don't mind me saying so, you and Sue, each with her own distinct brand of parsimoniousness (hers: not wanting to pay up; yours: charging for every butter patty), deserve each other. Which is also why you should make up. If you want to be the bigger person, you should apologize first—for not limiting the bill to groceries, gas, and incidentals. Say you were feeling cheap because, although you agreed to take her kids in, the fortnight proved to be far more stressful (see: the police drama) and time-consuming (see: the kids not helping at all, not even with the dog) than you ever imagined—and you ultimately felt a little taken advantage of. Though you now wish you'd handled it differently.
You might then ask Sue to apologize to you—for a) not leaving enough money for the kids; b) being unreachable during a crisis; and c) accusing you of trying to defraud her. You might also want to point out that your sole impetus for taking in her kids was your desire to be a good friend. In case she never noticed, you never wanted any of your own (and still don't). And for her to imply that her children's visit allowed you to indulge some kind of secret fantasy struck you as really unfair.
There's no more explosive subject than money (with the possible exception of sex), and it may be some time before you two recover. But a friendship that has lasted 35 years should be able to withstand a few blows (and angrily scribbled checks). Good luck!
Friend or Foe
Dear Friend or Foe,
My childhood friend "Sadie" and I were both misfits raised in single-parent homes in a small town; as a result, we kind of raised each other. She was the class clown, and everyone loved her. Through college and later years, our friendship has waxed and waned, as friendships do. There were no hard feelings, no fights—life just sometimes got in the way.
Now we're in our early 40s. Five years ago, I quit my part-time job because my husband agreed to support me while I wrote and tried to get published—a lifelong dream. About a year in, I started to notice that, every time I saw her, Sadie had more than one snide remark for me. She's always been sarcastic, but her wit has turned mean-spirited. Then, one day, another friend of ours called her with news that had nothing to do with me. Her response, before she heard the news, was: "Don't tell me [my name] is published already."
Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.
Illustration by Jason Raish.