When Beth thinks back to her pre-pandemic life, it feels almost unrecognisable. Between dinner parties, cinema trips, Sunday brunches and takeaways at friends’ houses, the 28-year-old NHS nurse from the east Midlands usually had a calendar brimming with plans. That changed starkly with Covid-19 but, just as restrictions eased up, the cost of living crisis began to bite. Beth’s finances have been so squeezed, she sees friends only once or twice a month.
Partly, this is down to the extra shifts Beth has taken to cover her rocketing energy bills and the £530-a-month mortgage on her one-bedroom flat, where she lives alone. But even when she isn’t working, she is often forced to turn down invitations, as socialising becomes increasingly unaffordable.
Consequently, friendships have become difficult to navigate, as she has to be a lot more selective about whom she spends time – and money – with. “I try to see those friends that would understand if I just order a starter or cancel last minute due to finances, as it’s embarrassing,” she says. She worries that less sympathetic friends think she’s just making up an excuse for dropping out of plans. “Eventually, the more you say no, the more people stop inviting you to things.
“The one thing that helps in a job like ours is blowing off steam, but I’m now stopping socialising where necessary, whether it be meeting a friend because I have to save my fuel for getting to work or not being able to go out for dinner,” she says. “I had to make sacrifices to own my flat and now it’s getting harder to keep.”
Beth adds that her work has been suffering. “If I felt like I was valued more at work, and that it was allowing me to have proper rest and fun, then I would work more effectively.”
The real value of workers’ pay in the UK has been falling at the fastest rate for 20 years as wage increases are outstripped by inflation, which has reached a staggering 9.9%. In August, it was reported that the average household’s disposable income had dropped by 16.5%. As a result, two in five say they are cutting down on eating out, travelling and socialising outside the home.
Rising fuel costs make it difficult to travel to see friends, particularly for those living outside cities, who may not have access to frequent public transport. On top of this, pubs and restaurants have been increasing their prices, with the average price of a pint rising by more than 7% since 2020.
Beth is not the only one whose once vibrant social life has evaporated. “I’ve 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’ve not once been able to go for Friday drinks … I’ve definitely fallen away from my wider friendship circle.”
Kate Pickett, an epidemiologist and the co-author of The Spirit Level, says the fact that people cannot afford to socialise should be a serious cause for concern. “Our connections to one another are an enormous part of our mental and physical health,” she says. “There are long-term studies that show not having friends is as bad for your health as smoking.”
Big celebrations, such as birthdays and weddings, have also become harder to budget for. Beth couldn’t go to her niece’s birthday party because she couldn’t afford the fuel for the journey, and she had to miss the rehearsal dinner before her sister’s wedding because she didn’t have the funds for the hotel. According to a recent survey, almost one-third of Britons have declined wedding invitations because of the cost of living crisis. “My sister was really mad at me,” says Beth. “She couldn’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 receive any money from my parents, unlike some of my friends, so I had to decline,” he says. “I have been more selective [with going out] – especially if I know someone will want to spend more money than myself.” Between going through a large part of university in lockdown and staying in to avoid pricey nights out, many young people have had their social lives drastically curtailed.
“We should be really concerned about teenagers and young adults, who had an isolating time through the pandemic and a very different experience of socialisation,” says Pickett. “The normal transition into adulthood is either going to be delayed for them, or it’s not going to happen.”
Dating is another expensive activity that people have been forced to cut back on as inflation takes a toll. “One date can blow a huge hole in the budget, and then they turn out to be completely unsuitable,” says Rachel, a 31-year-old civil servant from Exeter. On top of this, “it’s hard to make a connection when you are doing mental maths”, she says. Having recently “wasted” £40 on a date buying a couple of rounds of drinks and bar snacks, Rachel is being far more careful. “Guys now have to pass a series of red-flag questions just to get to the first date.” This includes asking which way they lean politically, and their stance on LGBTQ+ – with an emphasis on the T – rights. “It narrows contenders and my spending considerably,” she says.
Usually, Rachel’s budget will account for seeing friends in the week or going on a date – doing both is no longer an option. “I’m at the age where I want to settle down fairly soon,” she says. “Finances do have a big impact on that and it does limit your options. I’m sure there are plenty of lovely people with similar backgrounds and interests to me stuck at home because they too are broke. It is a worry. I have joked with friends that I should just lurk in my local library and ask out whoever picks up an interesting book.”
The cost of living crisis has led to more people speaking candidly about finances with date partners. “I’ve been dating a lawyer and she kept suggesting meals out and cocktail bars,” says Amit, a 30-year-old teacher from London. “I just had to come clean and say I can’t afford it. We’re now going for a walk in the park for our next date.” Amit isn’t alone in feeling this way, with research showing that nearly half of people would prefer modest date locations to avoid any pressure or stress about money.
For others who struggle to talk about money, the cost of living crisis has led them to abandon dating altogether. Anna deleted all the 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 bit skint before I met them,” she says. “I’d be terrified they’d think I was a gold-digger.”
For many, warmer weather over the summer months eased the strain. “Previously, I’d meet friends once or twice a month for a film or theatre, or some other activity, and dinner and the odd drink,” says Mohammad, a 38-year-old IT consultant. “That has changed to picnics in a park, where we each bring home-cooked food, and chip in to buy a cheap bottle of wine.” He says he has also had to adjust how he spends time with friends. Now, he’ll organise to see people as a group to save on the cost of meeting up one-to-one.
But he is concerned about the winter ahead – and not just because inflation is likely to rise. “We all live in small places so it’s hard to have people over,” he says. “I dread the impact it will have on those who are more isolated and introverted.”
With people understandably prioritising food and heating their homes over socialising, loneliness – which was already at epidemic levels before the crisis – is set to get much worse. “It’s important to remember that loneliness is not the same as feeling on your own,” says Pickett. “There might be quite a lot of young people who are unable to leave their family home at this point, and they’re not alone. But they might still be lacking the kind of contact that’s important for them to flourish.”
Feeling unable to speak about financial struggles with friends can also add to this loneliness. Connor, like many people, will usually make up an excuse if he can’t afford to do something. “I would say I’m only upfront with my friends who are in similar situations,” he explains. “Otherwise, it is quite awkward.”
Natasha Portman, a psychologist with Relate, agrees. “Money is notoriously difficult for people to speak about openly,” she says. “That’s because money worries are connected to lots of complicated feelings and emotions, such as guilt, shame and embarrassment, and feelings of not being good enough. For some people, it goes right to the root of their identity.”
As the crisis continues, she says, some people may find their social circles changing. “A lot of people talk about having ‘fun’ friends that they can have a good time with on an evening out, that might not really have much depth,” says Portman. “And it might be that those relationships are more likely to fall away.”
Natalie Giles, a 28-year-old from Oxford who claims universal credit, says that instead of going to the pub once a month like she used to, she and her friends each bake a dish to take to each other’s house, which also means they can share the costs of hosting. “I definitely think we’re closer as friends being as open as we are about money,” she says. Maya, a 24-year-old graduate, has been doing car boot sales with friends to make extra cash. “We can earn some money for stuff we don’t use while we spend the day together,” she says.
Others, however, will still struggle with peer pressure and social expectations. “There’s a huge pressure on us to show we’re having fun lives on social media,” says Pickett. “People feel ashamed to not be able to join in with the kind of social life friends are having … their self-worth might be threatened by feeling less well off.”
As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, going out will increasingly be seen as a luxury. But it shouldn’t be this way. As Pickett puts it: “Socialising is not a frivolous add-on in life – it’s how we function and thrive as human beings.”
Some names have been changed.