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Response to "Pathologically Cheap Friend"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  July 31, 2009 06:39 AM

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Well that was a fun one, don't you think? I thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone's responses to the question about the cheap friend (CF). In fact, before we get started, may I just say how much I enjoy what this blog has turned into since I've gotten into the new format? I originally started doing this as a way of keeping the blogs separate, of making sure that Robin Abrahams wouldn't get pigeonholed entirely, as a writer, as Miss Conduct. But I'm really loving it. I hope you are, too!

One of my favorite digressions this question brought up is the deep philosophical question: what is a leftover? One of the CF's transgressions was to bring leftovers to potlucks. This was fairly universally decried; in heartseek's words:

However, the leftovers thing is disgusting, and she should be called out on that. As in: "Yeah, no, this has fork marks in it - see, if you can't wait to eat what you're going to bring, then feel free to bring a bag of chips that we know hasn't been opened next time. But I can't put this out for general consumption."

local, who in my opinion won the internets on this thread, was even more eloquent:

As others have noted, leftovers are fine in your own home. But I highly doubt people who are cheap and possibly mentally ill are rigidly correct in following safe food handling practices, including noting how long food has been "out of temperature" before refrigerating it. There is a potential to sicken your guests when you transport food that has been out of temperature on multiple occasions. Besides the scientific objections I have with it, the practice hits a nerve because it is sickening on a social level. There is no defense. I've traveled in extremely poor countries, and I've been offered a small amount of freshly cooked food that was clearly intended as a large family's dinner. "Just take it, we have more," they said, when it wasn't true. Generosity comes back to you, people, don't you get that?! Anyone in your social group, I don't care who it is, can afford an unopened, unexpired package of something. Money is never about money. It's about how you treat other people.

But then Veronica wanted to, as it were, dig deeper into those leftovers:

As an added thought, what defines leftovers? To me leftovers are the uneaten portions of a meal, the chicken breasts that are still in the bakeware after the meal ends, the half tray of lasagna that was never served, etc. I mean, we have leftover night at our house. There's nothing WRONG with leftovers. They haven't been touched by people, usually it's caused by a miscalculation of food, or by someone not coming home for dinner as planned. Now if this friend is scraping food from her plate to be served elsewhere, then that's icky. But I see nothing wrong with serving last night's meal that wasn't eaten.

Alyson mentioned something I'm sure plenty of us do:

I will contribute something to a party that I have made previously – for example, I currently have a 100% homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie in my freezer that I would have no problem bringing somewhere – but it is also 100% intact, I happened to be making pie and thought, “Hey, I’ll make 2.”

Veronica's talking about eating at home, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. But I'm not comfortable with those chicken breasts she mentioned being shoveled onto a plate and brought to my house.

Technically, the ConductMom is a great offender when it comes to bringing "leftovers." She is a gourmet-quality baker and confectioner, you see, and she maintains strict quality control. So no one ever gets a pan of brownies from the ConductMom. You get a plate of brownies, usually nicely arranged on a doily, because she ate one herself to make sure it was up to her standards before bringing it to you. Believe me, though, she doesn't get complaints. And I suppose I myself could be accused of serving leftover food to guests, as I have been known to make two pots of chili and have small (one-pot-sized) dinner parties on two consecutive nights. I really do make two separate pots, though, so the second-night crowd aren't getting the germs of the first-nighters. (It's the first-nighters who get the short stick; chili is much better after the flavors have more chance to marry.)

Several people pointed out that although the LW claimed that the CF is in decent financial shape, you never really know another person's circumstances unless you're their financial planner. This is a good point, but my Spidey sense tells me that the CF's behavior isn't the result of some change in circumstance. That's just not how suddenly-poor people act. I agreed with Linda:

This is probably a deep-seated emotional problem. I've seen this in my own family, especially those who lived through the depression. I see it along the same lines a "hoarder," the kind of person who can't let go of their stacks of newspapers even though they know it would improve their life.

(I answered a question about rich cheap friends once in the column, here.)

I loved beyond loving Alyson's comment:

There should be a rule with these questions that the letter writer MUST included at least two reasons why she/he wants to remain friends with said person with glaring personality flaws because, frankly, WHY, PEOPLE, WHY?

... although I don't appreciate your hacking my inbox and reading all my e-mails, Alyson. Because I swear this applies to about 50% of the questions I get!

Bishky offers nice practical advice:

I skimmed over the other responses and have to agree with most of the posters. The only thing I can think to add is that, if you truly value this friendship and would rather continue it than let it fizzle, one option may be to limit your outings with the cheap friend to free activities or those that are both inexpensive and completely free of opportunities to exercise cheap behavior. Of course, the options are limited, but if this person is driving you nuts, fewer get-togethers and/or less variety may be a small price to pay. Some examples that come to mind are neighborhood or Esplanade walks, afternoons in the park (perhaps with a picnic option in which you each bring your own food so only she is subject to her leftovers), coffee dates (in a take-out setting w/o waitstaff to eliminate tipping disputes) and Free Friday Flicks by the Hatch Shell.

And Sharon does not:

Personally, I think restaurants should be paying their servers enough that the customers don't have to pay for the meal and then pay more to have it served to you. It's the same when staying at a hotel. We pay a ridiculous price for a hotel room and then are expected to tip the maid for cleaning up the room. Shouldn't this be covered in the cost of the hotel?

Don't "should" all over the wait staff, Sharon. We live in the world as it is.

A lot of the best posts got to the distinction between cheapness toward self and toward others. As bah humbug put it:

Heh, I'm married to one of those types. He recycles unwanted (NOT used) gifts - but wraps them really pretty - because he'd rather they don't end up in a landfill. He brings home leftovers all the time, and yeah, has been known to bring them to get-togethers (but he pretties up the presentation and puts it on a clean plate, so nobody would be the wiser) - because he can't stand to see perfectly good food go to waste. I see no problems with these behaviors - not in this economy and with the state of the world as it is. We all need to waste less.

BUT - my husband will ALWAYS pay at least 20% on a tip. Because he's been a server and he knows what it entails. He can't stand people who are stingy on the tip. He is the one who, if out with friends who insist on paying only 15% or worse, will make an excuse to run back in and discretely give the server a wad of extra bills. Then we never go out with those cheapskates again.

And, as I said, it's local for the win:

I'm a resale shop shopper for me and my own children. I believe in delayed gratification. But I'm generous with OTHERS. Generous people are not necessarily gratuitous shoppers. It's a spirit that, as I've said before, is unconnected to financial state. Is it more acceptable in the majority culture (white, middle class) to be cheap with others (tips, food brought at gatherings) than in so called "ethnic" communities (of which I'm part)? In minority communities, where more people may have struggled at some point, it's seen as correct and appropriate to share what you have (not to bring recycled gifts or old food to a gathering, for example, announcing that YOU are saving for a house, and complaining that "everyone else is materialistic" who doesn't see it your way). You can be ecofriendly, frugal, AND generous. Or you can be selfish in deed and spirit.

Good job, everyone!

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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