Money is more about mind than it is about math.” — That’s one of the fifteen tenets of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy. By this I mean that psychology and emotion and relationships play a bigger part in our financial choices than the pure mathematics of any given situation.

This manifests itself in lots of ways. Sometimes, it even crops up in the workplace. A reader we’ll call Erin wrote recently with the following dilemma:

I bought a house right after I graduated college, at the peak of the housing bubble. I didn’t give a rip about my spending because I believed $40,000 was a comfortable salary and I should be able to enjoy it as I pleased. Well, I couldn’t stand the job and quit after one year. Four years later, I’ve yet to make it close to a $40,000 salary again and I’m still saddled with my mortgage.

Here’s my dilemma: Now that I’m carefully tracking every penny I spend (and saving too!), I find it increasingly difficult and annoying to participate in office parties. I’m talking about birthday parties, going-away parties, bridal showers, baby showers, etc. where I’m asked to either buy a gift or food, or pitch in money for same.

I feel like I’ve made it clear to co-workers, past and present, that I’m watching what I spend very closely by bringing my lunch everyday and telling them “no” every time they ask if I want to go out to lunch. I’ve also asked if there’s anything else I can do (for free) to participate, but I feel like they resent me for my frugalness. I’m not trying to be a jackass during celebrations, but I simply don’t agree with spending money on every co-worker’s life events.

I’d appreciate feedback on how to handle this delicate situation. I love everyone I work with, but I work hard for my money and don’t want to spend it on cake! What should I do?

I’ve never worked in this sort of environment — all of the offices I’ve worked in have been small — but I’ve talked with people who have. Like my wife. They’ve expressed similar frustrations.

Peer pressure is a real and powerful force. It can be tough to make smart financial choices when everyone around you is spending — and urging you to do the same. You feel pressured to spend in order to belong.

From my experience, the key to coping with peer pressure is to recognize that it’s mostly internal. It comes from a desire to fit in. When you realize you don’t have to impress your friends and colleagues, most of the pressure goes away. Most of it.

It sounds like Erin knows she doesn’t have to impress her co-workers, but still struggles with the pressure. What then should she do. I have a couple of suggestions, though again, these are purely theoretical since I don’t have practical experience dealing with peer pressure in the workplace.

  • Be explicit. From her story, I can’t tell if Erin is simply hinting at her frugality, hoping her co-workers will pick up on subtle signals (“I’m sorry, Gabe, I can’t go out to lunch today”), or whether she’s actually saying, “I appreciate the offer, Kelly and Ryan, but I can’t afford to; I’m working to pay off my debt.” If Erin’s clear about her motives, it may help her co-workers understand where she’s coming from.
  • Find alternate ways to give. My wife, who says “required” spending is an issue at her workplace too, sometimes elects not to chip in money. Instead, Kris will find another way to contribute. She might bake cookies, for instance, or bring flowers from her garden.
  • Budget for social spending. Since Erin knows her office has a tendency to spend money on parties and gifts and lunches out, she could (if she wanted) actually budget for these activities. Then she could pick and choose which activities to join: buying a gift for baby Cece, attending Andy’s community theater production, or whatever.
  • Find other co-workers with similar sentiments. If enough people feel the same way as Erin, they could potentially change the office norms. They don’t even have to share the same reasons for wanting to opt out. Erin may not want to go out to lunch or pitch in for parties because of the money, but maybe Phyllis and Stanley are trying to diet. Seek solidarity among co-workers.
  • Talk to a supervisor about the problem. I don’t think Erin wants to squash everyone else’s fun, so she should make that clear. At the same time, though, it’s entirely appropriate to let her boss know that she feels pressured to participate but is unable to do so. [Update: Most commenters agree this is poor advice.]

If Erin didn’t care what her co-workers thought of her, the problem would be easier. When Michael and Dwight asked her to lunch, she could say no without worrying about their response. But Erin likes her co-workers. She just doesn’t like spending money with them. What should she do?

Note: Long term, of course, Erin should try to shed the mortgage. As long as she has that, it’s going to be a weight around her neck. That’s a separate problem, though, and I’m sure she’s aware of it.

Ultimately, some people just won’t understand. To them, frugality will be a foreign concept, or social pressures will simply trump smart financial choices. I’m not sure there’s anything Erin can do to make these folks appreciate where she’s coming from. If she’s explained her situation once or twice or thrice before, will doing it a fourth time really make a difference?

What do you think? Is Erin simply being a party-pooper? Is there a way she can gracefully bow out of spending pressures at the office? What have you done in situations like this? Do you simply suck it up and go along with everyone else? Or have you found an effective way to help people accept your frugal choices? Help Erin solve her dilemma!

Postscript: “Ohmygosh,” Kris said when she proofed this piece for me. “You’re missing the biggest problem of all: kids’ fund raisers. Read-a-thons, jog-a-thons, art-a-thons. Selling cookie dough, selling wrapping paper, selling junk you don’t need. Ugh. It never ends.” Her solution to the constant onslaught? She’s adopted a first-come, first-served policy. Plus, she only contributes to parents of grade-schoolers. “Older kids have to ask me themselves,” she says. “And really, younger kids should be doing that too.”

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