Saturday, September 16, 2006

Free Lunch Advice

A letter from Thursday’s Ask Amy column:
DEAR AMY: There is a situation I am not good at handling that involves my 12-year-old son and his friends.

Often, they arrange to come to my house and then they head to the deli or pizza place for lunch. They enjoy this activity, as it makes them feel a little independent.

These children know beforehand that this is the plan. However, they arrive with no money, or with only a dollar or two. My son is then left to pay for their food, often after they have ordered it.

I have asked my son to tell his friends before they arrive to be sure they bring money, but he feels uncomfortable doing so.

I have even mentioned to one mother that they are planning to go up to the shopping center for lunch, but the child arrives with empty pockets. I don't know why the parents don't make sure their children have enough money to cover their own expenses when they eat out by themselves.

I usually reimburse my son for the extra expense, as he doesn't get much allowance, but this annoys me and puts a dent in my budget. How would you handle this? – Debbie
Amy advises Debbie to talk to the other kids’ mothers, despite this approach already having failed with at least one mother. Talk is cheap. Here’s what I would have said:

Neither your son, nor his friends, nor their parents have any incentive to change their behavior. They’re all getting a free ride at your expense – including your son, who gets to look generous in front of his buddies. And you’re doing them all a disservice by letting them think there really is such a thing as a free lunch.

Stop reimbursing your son when he treats his friends to lunch. Give him a fixed allowance (or one that varies with his chores or grades or what have you), and then let him decide how to spend it – on his friends or other things he wants. You can increase his allowance if you like, but under no circumstances should you make the amount contingent on how often he pays for his friends’ meals. Let your son deal with the trade-offs necessitated by living within a budget. He might choose to eat out less often, and he’ll probably choose to treat his friends less often. This will force his friends to learn the same lesson – unless, of course, their parents make the same mistake you did. Either way, it won’t be your problem anymore.


Anonymous said...

I say tell the boy to dump those friends that are mooching off him all the time. He and his parents are being walked all over. He needs to associate only with rich kids that will pay for HIS meals. Good luck finding friends like that! The pool of people that are either cheap moochers or poor moochers is much larger than pool of people who will pay their own way. Smaller still is the set of people who can easily afford to pay your check and will gladly do so. Economics and set theory combine nicely here to explain what is going on.

There's a game that people frequently play when it comes time to pay the check. One says, "I'll pay the check'" and the other says, "Oh no I'LL pick up the check." I've seen cases where the check gets torn in two by the two jerks as they tussle over who's going to feign more generosity. Or, they agree to alternate who picks up the lunch tab. Or they agree to split the check no matter who's ordered what. Problems also arise when one person is a big tipper and the other is a cheapsake. Why should I leave a big tip only to subsidize the cheap son-of-a-gun? The solution of course is to get a separate check when possible and leave your own tip in a separate pile on the table. Cheap people need to be flushed out in the open, anyway. For some psychological reason, separate checks are not a popular solution.

Until now, I haven't resorted to the cliche that you can't buy friendship, because I doubt it's true. People are bought and sold all the time. What makes friendship so immune to economic factors? But then again, you're the keen economist who can answer those type of questions better than I.

Glen Whitman said...

I recognize you, Trumpit.