12/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How To Live On $0 A Day: Etiquette Advice For Those Who've Lost Everything But Their Manners

Judging by the letters from my readers, the new financial reality is creating a lot of social questions and issues that didn't exist the last time we heard from Miss Manners. I thought it might be helpful to answer some of the most common dilemmas here so everyone can benefit.

Dear Lesley,
I usually try to avoid all social occasions because going out is just too expensive. But I've recently been invited to a lavish dinner buffet that I really want to attend. Last year they served lamb chop lollipops, shrimp, satays and an amazing array of finger food that fit neatly in the pocket and purse...I'm drooling just thinking about it. I figure if I play my cards right, this one dinner, could be a month's worth of meals. My problem is, if I don't bring a house gift, people will talk. But there's no way I can afford a bus ticket to the party AND a decent house gift. Help! --Anti-Socialite

Dear Anti-Socialite,
When I'm in your predicament, I always bring a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers gathered from the finest weeds in the neighborhood. My only words of warning are to read up on wild plants a little, so you don't make the same mistake I did. Last year for Bev Dwight's Labor Day clambake and barbecue, I inadvertently added some poison sumac to her bouquet (it was a nice contrast with the dandelions). I didn't get an invitation this year, and believe me, I could have used the protein. I found this helpful: Guide to recognizing poisonous plants. This guide can also be a lifesaver when foraging for food in the park.


Dear Lesley,
I made the mistake of browsing in a Madison Avenue hardware store with impaired vision (I need new glasses, but can't afford them). I saw this really cute dish scrubber and put it on my card because I thought the price tag said $2.19 -- a total bargain. But then I got home and looked at the price with a magnifying glass and saw that it was $21.95!!!!! I don't need to tell you, that would buy a lot of Ramen. I'm just sick about it, but I'm embarrassed to return it. What if the sales ladies judge me? -- Sad Housewife

Dear Sad Housewife,
The way I see it you have two options. You can eat the expense (which is probably all you'll be eating for the next month). Keep the dish scrubber and use it as a make up brush ($21 for a good make up brush is a bargain) and avoid a confrontation. Your other choice is to bite the bullet, return the brush and risk an altercation with the sales ladies. If it were me, I'd probably keep the brush to avoid calling attention to myself at the hardware store. You never know when you'll need to shoplift there in the future.

Dear Lesley,
What's the etiquette on stealing toiletries from the homes of friends, family and acquaintances? I'm going to my boyfriend's parents' house for dinner and they seem like the kind of family that would have nice toilet paper, possibly even quilted. We've only been dating a month, and I'm totally crazy about him. but I also know that any minute he could rip my heart out. If it's going to go bad, I'd hate to look back and think I missed out on free toilet paper and soap. But just in case he's the one, I've decided not to go through their medicine cabinets. But I'm really conflicted about the toilet paper and soap thing. What would you do?
Thanks! --Practically in Love

Dear Practically in Love,
I think you already know the answer. Sooner or later he will rip your heart out. Take everything that isn't nailed down so you don't have any regrets.

Dear Lesley,
I'm one of the lucky ones who still has a job. Unfortunately, with expenses, I'm barely breaking even. I'm hearing murmurings around the office that Shelly in human resources is pregnant again and they're going to be collecting for her baby shower. Again. Back in the days when my income actually exceeded my expenses, I chipped in to all those things gladly, even though I'm single and childless. But now it just pisses me off. That ten bucks is worth a whole 1/5th tank of gas or five bus tickets or half a prozac prescription co-payment, forgodsakes. When I think about all the gifts I bought or chipped in for over the years it drives me crazy. Heck, I've already shelled out 30 bucks on Shelly alone for her wedding and two baby showers. Aren't hand me downs good enough for her kid? That's what I've been wearing.

These are tough times and I resent having to continually shell out for her life choices. I didn't ask her for a gift when my first, second and third cats had kittens. She didn't even congratulate me! I don't really KNOW Shelly, but I seriously doubt I'd like her. Clearly, she's selfish, self-centered and irresponsible. If she can't take care of her kids without asking us for a handout, maybe she shouldn't be breeding so prolifically. JEEEZ!

Sorry for venting. Anyhow, my question is, how do I gracefully get out of donating when the time comes? I've considered tendering my resignation. It know that seems a little extreme, but that extra $10 could mean the difference between working at a profit or a loss. Not only that, but Trish in accounting is displaying signs of morning sickness. I can't take much more of this. --Barren, broke and bitter

Dear Barren,
Now might be a good time to get married and start your own family. Not a real marriage or family, mind you. The kind of marriage where you elope and take a nice honeymoon (right around the time of the upcoming baby showers). Then, after you receive all your wedding gifts and checks, but before he can meet your friends and family, your husband mysteriously dies. After his tragic "death" you'll be receiving a lot of casseroles and condolence gifts. It won't get you out of chipping in for the baby showers at the office, but you won't mind as much.
Or you could just call in sick.


Dear Lesley,
I finally broke down and went out on a couple of dates with this guy because I was dying for a decent meal. I've agreed to a third date and I'm a little worried. My
friend tells me that by accepting a third date with him, I've implicitly promised to sleep with him. The thought is almost enough to make me lose my appetite. What if I only order a burger? --Dinner Companion

Dear Dinner Companion, Your friend is right. Whether it's a hamburger or oysters and Kristal, good manners dictate you'll have to sleep with him. You might as well order the oysters and Kristal (LOTS of Kristal -- it'll make the rest of the evening more palatable). Never cheapen yourself by sleeping with a guy for a hamburger.

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