Who Should Pay When Eating Out?

I just enjoyed a delightful lunch with an old friend. I drove to her office and we walked to a nearby seafood restaurant where we were able to relax and catch up. It was quite a pleasure and I had a completely and thoroughly entertaining meal with her.

After we had finished our lunch, the server brought the bill over to our booth and presented it directly and undeniably to me. The server let there be no doubt as to who she expected to pay and it was clearly the male in attendance. On the one hand, I did not mind receiving the bill because I had fully intended to buy lunch since my friend had paid the last time we got together (and I don’t forget these things). On the other hand, I really felt that the server’s implied sexism was a bit out of date.

After my friend and I negotiated for a moment over who would pay — my friend arguing that the employed person should pay and me arguing that the person with custody of the tab should pay — I paid the bill (since possession always wins), and we strolled back to my friend’s office. As I drove home, I recalled a few amusing anecdotes that my friend had shared but my thoughts kept drifting back to the restaurant bill.

As a person who is supposed to be thinking about ways to save money, was I foolish to turn down my friend’s offer to pay? No — I did the right thing, but there are plenty of scenarios in which I would have allowed a friend to buy me lunch. If you have never thought through your strategy of “who pays?” here is how I break down payment obligations when two or more people dine out.

The Business Lunch

This is an easy scenario. Each party should pay his or her own way unless one party expresses otherwise. A service provider trying to court a potential client should certainly offer to pay and can probably justify the cost as a client development expense. A client who wants to reward a service provider for a job well done might also offer to buy lunch (or dinner) as a reward for a job well done. The assumption going into any business meal, however, should be that both parties pay their own way.

The Date

This is another easy one. Whoever asks another person to dine out as part of an established or desired romance should also bear the cost of paying. Personally, I understand that philosophy but I have never lived by it. I am perhaps a bit old-fashioned (and some would say sexist) in that regard but any time I went out on a date, I always insisted on paying. Fortunately, it has been twenty years since I was in the dating world so my attitude in this regard, even if it is old fashioned, can only get me into trouble on these pages.

Friends Getting Together

When friends get together for dinner or drinks or whatever, they need to find the payment model that works best for them. When I was in school, I ate at the same diner every night. My room-mate and I got the same meal every night and we took turns paying. If some nights one of us ordered a little more or a little less (appetizers, drinks or whatever), it did not matter, as we knew it would wash out in the end. At the same time, I had a famously cheap friend who (despite being wealthier than any of my other friends) always found a way to avoid paying when it came time to pay a bill. After about three months of his payment avoidance, I learned that we needed to ask for separate checks or I was going to be feeding him for the rest of his life.

Parents and their Children

Parents should pay for their kids until the kids can support themselves and then they should treat the meal as they would treat it among friends. I love to be able to buy things for my Dad but I know that he also likes to pay my way, too. When we golf — about 8 times per year — we alternate payment. Of course, he would like to pay every time, but at 82 years of age, he can’t beat me up the hill to the pro shop anymore.

What other scenarios do you encounter when you dine out? Have you ever been “stung” by friends and forced to pay for a bill that you had not expected — or wanted — to pay? When do you expect someone else to pick up the tab and when should you pay?

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16 Responses to Who Should Pay When Eating Out?

  1. I am always willing to let the most well-off person pay for the meal. Usually if this came up it was me paying for the meal because i could afford it more than the other person. But when a friend made the claim and pointed out i always used it to insist on paying when i made more i had no retort. Always go in expecting and ready to pay for your portion.

  2. whitestripe says:

    i think its odd you found the server was being sexist by giving you the bill – but then you go on to say that you always paid when on a date.

  3. Ann says:

    I have to agree with what you say, David.

    The one that gets me these days is the “dating” scenario. I’ve actually had a date expect me to pick up the tab or split it when he asked me out. I definitely won’t pick it up and I can guarantee that he also won’t be seeing me again! Guess I’m a bit old-fashioned, too, but, if a guy asks me out, he’d best expect to pick up the tab.

    With friends, it’s generally split or alternating. No matter how well off a friend is, I don’t expect them to pick up the tab all the time… unless they insist on going to a restaurant that I can’t afford and then I let them know up-front.

    In this day and age, I do agree that the server should place the tab in neutral territory — you really never know for sure what the situation is! Just because it’s a man and a woman doesn’t mean that it’s a date.

  4. Caoineag says:

    I always tended to go dutch on dates. Once I am in a relationship, it tends to be whoever can get the check first pays, lol. Poor hubby, back before we were married, you could tell the female sales clerks thought it was his job to pay for everything I bought (why on earth I don’t know, but they used to give him that look when I would buy things).

    With that kind of peer pressure going on from women, is it any wonder that guys still internalize the need to pay for everything.

  5. simpleyme says:

    on a date the guy better at least assume he is paying

    with friends it does seem who ever is doing best pays

    with relatives I always pay,my kin is po’folk

    whenever we go out with either my parents or DH parents they always pay,we have attempted to pay for birthday dinners for them ,they wont have it;-)I think as parents they are just happy we want to go somewhere with them

  6. Junebaby says:

    I had a work-related experience a few years ago that I feel was handled the wrong way. One person in our department was moving away, so we all took her out to dinner. The organizer told us that we would each pay for our own dinner and an equal portion of the honoree’s dinner. Then she was invited to bring along her husband and children. I was on a very tight budget then, so I ordered a cheap dinner and no alcohol for myself. At the END of the meal, the organizer announced that we were all paying for the honoree AND HER FAMILY! My tab was $40.00 and I had only $20.00 with me!
    I thought I knew the rules of payment going in, but I was still caught by surprise. I have never been out to dinner with co-workers since.

  7. RB @ Richby30Retireby40 says:

    Great post! I have a friend, in the same line I’m in.. and whenever the bill comes for me or with clients, somehow he ALWAYS GOES TO THE BATHROOM right beforehand! That is so annoying.

    When we take out clients together for drinks, he never splits the bill either and always sticks me with it. He never offers to buy me anything, even though I always offer to pay. This injustice put a strain on our relationship, and I no longer want to do any client events together anymore.

    The server always gives the bill to the richer looking person, so you should feel complimented. Well, I guess the server generally pushes the bill towards the male too.

    Great topic. Something I will discuss on my blog as well.



  8. Jackie says:

    I’ve never been stung by friends, the opposite in fact. I have one friend who always tries to pay by always saying that I paid last time. I had to point out to her that her statement is nice, but entirely illogical. A lot of my friends offer to pay, a lot of the time. I do also do my share, well, maybe less than my share. They often say they want to treat me since I have a single income and they have two.

    Similarly, my parents pretty much always pay even though I am the youngest of the children at 31! The few times they let me treat them, my dad still insists on paying for the tip.

    So, mostly we don’t worry about it. All of my friends offer to pay or we just ask for individual tickets from the server. When we go out to celebrate a birthday, it’s usually not a hassle there either. Sometimes one person pays for the birthday woman, or we all pitch in. *shrug* We’re all pretty direct and close enough to talk frankly about money.

  9. Tightwad says:

    Yes, the females want liberation until it comes down to certain things and then they expect the man to forget all about their plight…. simply ridiculous!
    If your lunch companion paid last time, then it is only fair that you should pay this time around David, so you did the right thing.


  10. Jackie says:

    @tightwad & ann

    Some people do still hold to old fashioned ideals about the man always paying for dinner – funnily enough there are both women AND men holding to this ideal.

    As a woman who grew up with feminism, I have no problem going dutch on a date or paying for the whole thing if I was the one who did the invite. I won’t argue about it if the man insists on paying regardless, but I certainly have NO expectations on this front. Also, I do not feel that I owe a man anything beyond courtesy and pleasant, platonic company if he pays nor do I think he owes me anything more than that if I pay.

    Since money can be a hot button topic and since the first few dates are often about fumbling your way towards some understanding of each other – it’s sometimes more difficult to see social change as it relates to sexist “who pays” conventions. It’s also easy to step on toes.

  11. spicoli says:

    I am male but I do not have a lot of cash. Anyone who wants to buy me dinner is more than welcome to do so!

  12. Amy says:

    I don’t think the “whoever is doing best pays” argument makes any sense. Why complicate a friendship by bringing money issues into it? When two friends go out, they should agree on a place that both can easily afford.

  13. persephone says:

    Friends should pay their own way. Parents should buy for their kids. Whoever initiates a date should pay on a date. Couples should not think about who pays because they are a partnership.

  14. Gail says:

    When adults go out to eat, they should each pay for themselves. I don’t drink and during the time I was working and went out on the occassioanl meals with co-workers I didn’t see why I should be helping pay for their more expensive meals and drinks. I order what I can afford and am upfront from the beginning with the server that it will be seperate checks. Saying that when ordering allows the pigs to understand that they have to pay their own way and those of us on limited budgets can get what we can afford.

    If I invite someone out for a meal however, I fully intend to pay for the meal. It is those crazy get togethers with associates/coworkers/so called friends that makes no sense that you are being forced into paying for someone else to splurge while you drink water and eat the cheapest item on the menu.

  15. Maria says:

    Me and my husband went to stay with friends on a ‘free holiday’, as they described it, then were told, after agreeing to the visit, that they were booking a meal. This was not expected, since I always cook for guests unless they want to go out and the word ‘free’ implied that they would. The bill was expensive but we felt obliged to pay it as we were staying with them overnight, though we could not afford it, having had some heavy expenses recently. We could have had a bed and breakfast for the price of the meal, so ‘free holiday’ was misleading.

  16. whatodo says:

    What do you do when daughter visiting brings friend to family dining out. Shouldn’t friend pay?

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