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Q: A friend asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, but I'm afraid I won't be able to afford it. How do I say no and keep our friendship intact?
A: You don't need to go into debt to celebrate a friend. This might sound blasphemous when your social media feeds are drenched in destination bachelor parties and designer bridesmaid dresses. But the truth is that many 20- and 30-somethings are just getting by, and bridesmaids in particular are asked to drop a lot of cash.
The average bridesmaid spends $1,200 per wedding, including attire, travel to the event, accessories and gifts, according to a May 2017 study from wedding-planning website WeddingWire. But that average climbs to over $1,800 when accounting for bachelorette parties and bridal showers. You'll want to know precisely what you're signing up for as a bridesmaid.
A true friend will understand if your finances keep you from participating, and that declining her request isn't reflective of the friendship. Here's how to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR BUDGET
First, know what you truly can and can't afford.
"These types of unscheduled expenses are really what blow up people's budgets, and also what get people into credit card debt," says Krista Smith, an Atlanta-based certified financial planner and founder of Planning in Motion LLC.
—Do you have more weddings coming up?
—Might you be asked to be in other wedding parties?
—Will any of them require significant travel?
—Are there financial goals you're prioritizing, like paying off credit card debt?
Try to build up at least some emergency savings, even $500, before agreeing to any wedding-related spending, and be realistic about when you could pay off items charged to a credit card. Ideally, you'd do so within a month, Smith says.
Few people would advise you to pass up supporting your best friend so you can avoid carrying a credit card balance. But if you see no way to get out of the debt you'd take on to be a bridesmaid, doing everything your friend wants might not be feasible right now.
It's OK to ask what you'll be expected to pay for, says Anne Chertoff, wedding trends expert at WeddingWire; your friend might even be open to your opting out of certain events.
Consider saying, "Thank you so much for including me in your wedding. I'm on a really tight budget, and I want to make sure I can participate in the way that you deserve. How are you hoping your bridesmaids will be involved in the wedding?" Get a sense of whether you'll have to buy a specific dress, say, or co-host a bridal shower.
TELL THE TRUTH
You might know from the get-go that there's no way you can make it work. Or maybe you come to that conclusion after learning how elaborate the wedding and associated events will be.
Either way, don't put off the conversation or come up with half-baked excuses for why you can't participate. That could "leave an ocean of room" for the bride to misinterpret and worry you don't value her, says Mariana Bockarova, a researcher in psychology at the University of Toronto.
Break the news in person, or over Skype or FaceTime if that's not possible. "Seeing each other's facial expression is really, really important in terms of eliciting empathy," Bockarova says.
Clearly explain that you care deeply about your friend but that you can't be in the wedding party, and end the news on a high note. Bockarova suggests saying something like this: "Thank you so much for thinking of me. I'm in a really difficult financial place right now. But you mean so much to me — I'm so happy we have this friendship — and I would love to attend as a guest. I can't wait to share in your special day."
Showing gratitude and a heartfelt desire to celebrate your friend is crucial. Bridesmaid life can feel like an expensive chore, but being asked is still meaningful and flattering — more flattering, most likely, than the dress you'd have to wear.