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4 ways to avoid the office spending trap

By Holly Johnson

4 ways to avoid the office spending trap

A couple of years ago, my husband and I worked together at a local funeral home. Unbeknownst to me, an unexceptional weekday turned out to be "Administrative Professionals Day." I had never heard of this "holiday," but when I arrived that morning I found a large vase of fresh-cut flowers at my desk. The card read "Happy Administrative Professionals Day" and was signed by a few co-workers, including my husband. "What a nice gesture," I thought as I started the day's work.

Then I got the bill.

Apparently, another co-worker had arranged the surprise for the three administrative workers in our office. And although my husband thought it was strange that he should have to buy his wife flowers for this seemingly contrived holiday, he agreed to participate. After all, he didn't want to be the only person who didn't take part.

But after realizing that I had effectively bought my own flowers, I no longer felt very appreciated at all. "Some people love to spend other people's money," I later said to my husband, shaking my head.

Resisting office spending

The pressure to spend on workplace functions is common in many offices. In these settings, well-meaning coworkers may appear to hunt for situations that separate you from your hard-earned cash. Whether it's presents for every co-workers birthday, pushy lunch invitations to expensive restaurants or Secret Santa gift exchanges every Christmas, some colleagues can turn spending other people's money into an art form.

Unfortunately, this can create awkward situations for employees who can't afford to participate or simply don't want to. If you're sick of the office spending trap, try these strategies for an easy exit:

1. Brown-bag your lunch

Bringing your own lunch provides the perfect excuse to skip out on costly lunch dates. Let co-workers know that you've brought your own meal and you don't want to let it go to waste. Better yet, eat lunch before the rest of the crowd heads out. Then you can just say you've already eaten. Bummer.

2. Make the first move

If you're constantly asked to "pitch in" for gifts for co-workers, use that knowledge to create a pre-emptive strike. For instance, you could send out birthday cards to all of your co-workers a week before it's on their radar. If your co-workers know that you've already sent a card, they may not pressure you to participate in any additional gifting.

3. Brainstorm cheaper alternatives

If you're expected to participate in gift-giving against your will, take some time to brainstorm cheaper alternatives. Instead of pitching in for expensive gifts, you could always bake cookies or browse Pinterest for craft ideas that are easy to make. No one has the right to tell you what to give, so it's OK to do your own thing.

4. Say you can't afford it

Whether it's true or not, telling people you can't afford to participate is probably one of the most effective ways to get co-workers off your back. If you want a softer way to break the news, you can tell your colleagues that the costs they propose aren't in your budget this month or that you're building a emergency fund. Your co-workers may appreciate your honesty, and using this strategy could lead to healthier gift-giving boundaries in the future as well.

No matter how good your co-workers intentions may be, there's nothing wrong with stepping out of the office spending trap. Employing these strategies can help you steer clear from some of it, but there may still be times when you simply need to gather your courage and stand your ground. If you're like most people, you're at work to make money -- not spend it. You should never be forced into feeling bad about that.

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