OWhen Beth thinks back to her pre-pandemic life, she looks almost unrecognizable. Between dinner parties, cinema outings, Sunday brunches and takeout with friends, the 28-year-old NHS nurse from the East Midlands usually had a calendar full of projects. That changed drastically with Covid-19 but, just as restrictions eased, the cost of living crisis started to bite. Beth’s finances are so tight that she only sees friends once or twice a month.
This is partly due to the extra shifts Beth has taken to cover her skyrocketing energy bills and the £530-a-month mortgage on her one-bedroom flat, where she lives alone. But even when she’s not working, she’s often forced to turn down invitations, as socializing becomes increasingly unaffordable.
As a result, friendships have become difficult to manage, as she has to be much more selective about who she spends time and money with. “I try to see those friends who would understand if I’m just ordering entree or canceling at the last minute for financial reasons, because it’s embarrassing,” she says. She fears that less sympathetic friends will think she is just making up an excuse to abandon her plans. “Eventually, the more you say no, the more people stop inviting you to things.
“The only thing that helps in a job like ours is to let off steam, but I now stop socializing where it’s needed, whether it’s to meet a friend because I have to save my fuel to going to work or not being able to go out for dinner,” she says. “I had to make sacrifices to own my apartment and now it’s getting harder and harder to keep.”
Beth adds that her work has suffered. “If I felt like I was more valued at work and it allowed me to rest and have fun, I would work more efficiently.”
The real value of workers’ compensation in the UK has fallen at the fastest rate in 20 years, with pay rises being outpaced by inflation, which reached a staggering 9.9%. In August, it was reported that the average household’s disposable income fell by 16.5%. As a result, two in five say they are cutting back on eating out, commuting and socializing outside the home.
Rising fuel prices are making it harder to travel to visit friends, especially for those living outside cities, who may not have access to frequent public transport. Additionally, pubs and restaurants have increased their prices, with the average price of a pint rising by more than 7% since 2020.
Beth isn’t the only one whose once vibrant social life has evaporated. “I had to stop going to my pub quiz every week because I can’t afford the rounds,” says Anna, 33. “I started a new job last September and I couldn’t once go out for a drink on a Friday…I definitely distanced myself from my wider circle of friendship.
Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and co-author of The Spirit Level, says the fact that people cannot afford to socialize should be cause for serious concern. “Our connections to each other are a huge part of our mental and physical health,” she says. “There are long-term studies showing that having no friends is as bad for your health as smoking.”
Major holidays, such as birthdays and weddings, have also become more difficult to budget. Beth couldn’t go to her niece’s birthday party because she couldn’t afford the fuel for the trip, and she had to miss the rehearsal dinner before her sister’s wedding because that she didn’t have the funds for the hotel. According to a recent poll, almost a third of Britons have turned down wedding invitations due to the cost of living crisis. “My sister was really mad at me,” Beth says. “She didn’t understand why I said I couldn’t go but, ultimately, it wasn’t affordable.”
For Connor Pope, a 23-year-old freelance photographer, rising costs meant missing out on graduation celebrations this year. “I don’t get any money from my parents, unlike some of my friends, so I had to refuse,” he says. “I was more selective [with going out] – especially if I know someone will want to spend more money than me. Between going through much of the university in lockdown and staying indoors to avoid expensive nights out, many young people have seen their social lives drastically curtailed.
“We should be really concerned about teenagers and young adults, who have gone through a period of isolation during the pandemic and a very different socializing experience,” Pickett says. “The normal transition to adulthood will either be delayed for them or it won’t happen.”
Dating is another expensive activity that people have been forced to cut back on as inflation takes its toll. “A date can blow a huge hole in the budget and then they turn out completely unsuitable,” says Rachel, a 31-year-old civil servant from Exeter. Plus, “it’s hard to make a connection when you’re doing mental math,” she says. Having recently ‘wasted’ £40 on a date buying a few drinks and snacks from the bar, Rachel is much more cautious. “Guys now have to pass a series of warning questions just to get on the first date.” This includes asking how they lean politically and their stance on LGBTQ+ — with a focus on T-rights.
Usually, Rachel’s budget takes into account visits from friends during the week or a date – doing both is no longer an option. “I’m at the age where I want to settle down pretty quickly,” she says. “Finances have a big impact on that and it limits your options. I’m sure there are a lot of lovely people with backgrounds and interests similar to mine stuck at home because they too are broke. It is a concern. I’ve joked with friends that I should just hide in my local library and ask anyone for an interesting book.
The cost of living crisis has led more and more people to talk candidly about finances with romantic partners. “I was dating a lawyer and she kept suggesting dining out and cocktail bars,” says Amit, a 30-year-old teacher from London. “I just had to come clean and say I couldn’t afford it. We will now take a walk in the park for our next appointment. Amit isn’t alone in feeling this, with research showing nearly half of people would prefer modest venues to avoid money pressure or stress.
For others who find it difficult to talk about money, the cost of living crisis has led them to abandon dating altogether. Anna deleted all dating apps from her phone in January after an unsuccessful date cost her more than £100 in drinks alone. “I could never tell someone I’m a little skinny until I meet them,” she says. “I would be terrified if they thought I was a gold digger.”
For many, the warmer weather over the summer months eased the pressure. “I used to meet friends once or twice a month for a movie or a play or some other activity, dinner and the occasional drink,” says Mohammad, a 38-year-old IT consultant. “It turned into picnics in a park, where we each bring home-cooked food and contribute to buy a cheap bottle of wine.” He says he’s also had to adjust the way he spends time with his friends. Now he will arrange to see people in groups to save on the cost of one-on-one meetings.
But he is concerned about the coming winter – and not just because inflation is likely to rise. “We all live in small places, so it’s hard to get people,” he says. “I fear the impact this will have on those who are more isolated and introverted.”
With people naturally prioritizing food and heating their homes over socializing, loneliness – which was already at epidemic levels before the crisis – is set to worsen. “It’s important to remember that loneliness is not the same as feeling lonely,” says Pickett. “A lot of young people may not be able to leave their family home at this stage, and they are not the only ones. But they may still lack the kind of contact that is important to their growth.
Feeling unable to discuss financial difficulties with friends can also add to this loneliness. Connor, like many people, usually makes up an excuse if he can’t afford to do something. “I would say that I’m only honest with my friends who are in similar situations,” he explains. “Otherwise, it’s quite awkward.”
Natasha Portman, a psychologist at Relate, agrees. “It’s notoriously difficult for people to talk openly about money,” she says. “That’s because worrying about money is tied to a lot of complicated feelings and emotions, such as guilt, shame and embarrassment, and feeling like you don’t measure up. For some people, it goes to the root of their identity.
As the crisis continues, she says, some people may see their social circles change. “A lot of people talk about having ‘fun’ friends they can have a good time with on a night out, which maybe doesn’t really have a lot of depth,” Portman says. “And it could be that those relationships are more susceptible to falling apart.”
Natalie Giles, a 28-year-old woman from Oxford who claims Universal Credit, says that instead of going to the pub once a month as she used to, she and her friends are each cooking a take-out meal at each other, which also means they can split hosting costs. “I definitely think we’re closer as friends being as open as we are about money,” she says. Maya, a 24-year-old graduate, goes to garage sales with friends to earn extra money. “We can earn money for things we don’t use while we spend the day together,” she says.
Others, however, will still struggle with peer pressure and social expectations. “We’re under tremendous pressure to show we’re having fun on social media,” says Pickett. “People are ashamed that they can’t participate in the kind of social life that their friends have… their self-esteem could be threatened by feeling less comfortable.”
As the cost of living crisis continues to be felt, going out will increasingly be seen as a luxury. But it shouldn’t be like that. As Pickett says, “Socialization isn’t a frivolous addition to life – it’s how we function and thrive as human beings.”