Do you feel as though your social life is out of control? Maybe you (or your kids) have events every evening, when all you want to do is spend a quiet night at home. Maybe you feel like you're spending too much time "touching base" and "picking brains" with people you aren't close to, and not enough time with your friends. Maybe your in-laws want you to spend every Sunday having dinner with them, and you... don't.
If that sounds like your life, then you need a social budget. Like a financial budget, a social budget allocates your available time towards both pre-determined commitments and "discretionary experiences", and helps you determine how to spend your time in accordance with your values. Even if you're pretty happy with the way your social life is going, a social budget can help you make more time for the people you want in your life, while spending less time on social events that leave you feeling bored or drained.
It's awfully easy to get in touch with prominent people these days, isn't it? A few clicks through social media or company bios and you can fire off a message to your field's newest rock star, the guy or gal who is creating and disrupting and re-inventing everything from buses to bodegas.
Build your social budget the way you'd build a financial budget
Although you can build your social budget several months in advance, we'll keep things simple by just looking at the next full month of activities. Once you have the social budget basics down, you can start building your budget into the future.
First, you need to block off all of your pre-determined, recurring social commitments. These are the social events and obligations that you've already said yes to: Your spin class, your kids' soccer league, church, improv, the weekly dinner with the in-laws, and so on. If you've committed to being there on a recurring, regular basis, put it on the calendar. (You probably already have most of these events on the calendar, which will help you get started.)
Since we're comparing social and financial budgets, these pre-determined, recurring commitments are the equivalent of your monthly overhead cost: Your rent/mortgage, bills, car payments and so on. They're the items you've already agreed to pay for with your time, and once you see them all in one place you might realise just how much time they take up.
However, you'll also see how much time you have left over, which means it's time to start dealing with your discretionary experiences. Like discretionary expenses, these experiences are the social events that you say yes to on a case-by-case basis: Office happy hours, brunches with friends, your kids' playdates, going shopping with your mother, and so on. Chances are you've already said yes to a handful of discretionary experiences over the next month, so add them to the calendar if they aren't already there.
Now take a look at your calendar. How do you feel about where your time is going? How many free evenings/weekends do you actually have? Do these social events make you feel excited, or overwhelmed?
Financial budgets work best if you start by getting all of your spending in one place, and social budgets work the same way. Before you decide what you want to cut - or where you want to spend more - you need to track where your money is going. Same goes for your time.
In fact, before you start making changes to your social budget, it's worth it to spend a full month just tracking where your time goes, just as you'd track your money. If someone invites your family out to dinner on the one free night you have that month, do you say yes? If an old friend emails to let you know they're in town, do you have enough free time in your schedule to grab a coffee? Do you ever cancel - or ghost - on a commitment because you desperately need an evening to yourself?
Once you know how you're really spending your time, you can start making adjustments - just as you would with your financial budget.
Allocate your social spending towards your values and goals
Budgeting is about commitments, values and goals. Sometimes you spend money because you've made a commitment (to your landlord, to your credit card provider, to feeding yourself and/or your family). Sometimes you spend money because of your values; maybe you value your weekly Date Night or supporting your local bookstore. Sometimes you spend money because of your goals: Dressing for the job you want, taking a course, and so on.
Social budgets work the same way.
Cutting out (or reducing) a recurring social commitment is one of the best ways to get some free time back - and also one of the hardest. You're going to have to tell your D&D group that you can't do six-hour campaigns every weekend... or you're going to have to tell your kids that they need to choose one extracurricular each... or you're going to have to tell your mother-in-law that your family will only be able to come over for dinner twice a month.
It isn't going to be easy, and you're probably going to procrastinate on this - but just like calling your mobile phone provider and negotiating a lower bill, you'll feel a lot better if you get it over with.
Once you've made some adjustments to your commitments, you can start spending your social time so it matches your values and your goals. How often do you want to visit your parents? Schedule those times on the calendar. What about your close friendships? Do you want to do a biweekly phone call with a long-distance friend, or a bimonthly brunch with the friends who live in town? (Yes, this will take some communication and planning, but that's kind of required with adult friendships. We're all busy!)
Don't forget about your long-term goals, whether they involve building new work skills, writing a novel, finding a partner, or learning a new language - because you'll need to set aside time for those activities, too.
If you're scheduling social time for your family, you might need to have a conversation about family values and goals. Maybe you're the kind of family who wants to set up a game night every week or a hiking trip every month. Maybe you want to encourage your kids to be more proactive with their homework by limiting parental help to scheduled "consulting hours". Discuss what your ideal family calendar might look like - and then try to get your real calendar to match up.
The homework wars seem to be a hallmark of weekday evenings with school-age kids, and parents are always the ones defeated. As my daughter heads to kindergarten this year, I am dreading this fight. Because there will be a fight ... right? There will be times when she won't want to do her homework, and we'll have to figure out some way to make her do her homework, and everything will be hard. I have been bracing myself.
You'll also want to leave some unscheduled time on your calendar. A good financial budget includes a line item for savings, so make sure you save yourself some free time, too. You might end up needing to spend that time, the same way we sometimes have to dip into our savings, or you might get to enjoy a night off.
Be prepared to adjust your social spending in real time
We all know how easy it is to overspend our budgets; all it takes is one friend inviting us to a dinner that will put us over our restaurant spending for the month. Once you have your social budget in place, that same invite might put you over your social spending for the month as well.
This means you'll need to be ready to evaluate and adjust. Do you want to say yes to this invitation/opportunity? Does it match your values and goals? Will you cut back on another social event to "balance the budget" or pay for the event out of your free time?
Ahh, an empty calendar. All that free time and possibility, all the things you're going to get done - until, that is, your coworkers see that free time and fill it jam-packed with meetings and obligations. Before that happens again, you have to get on the defensive.
It's relatively easy to swap social events; if you usually have lunch with a friend and they suggest getting a pedicure instead, it's cool to say "that sounds great, let's do that instead of lunch this week." If you have dinner with the in-laws twice a month, it's OK for your kid's birthday party to take the place of one of the dinners. (No, seriously. It's OK.) Life is about balance, and it's your job to keep your social budget balanced so you have the energy to maintain and grow all of your important relationships.
So take the changes to your social budget as they come, but be aware of how you're spending your time. Just like a financial budget, knowing where you'd like to be spending your time will help you make informed decisions in the moment - and, over time, will bring your social spending more in line with your values.
Which should make you a little less stressed when you look at the calendar, because your social commitments will look a little more like the life you want to have.