Who Pays For Dinner?

You’ve reached the end of a delicious meal shared with a group of close companions. The waiter glides by and drops the bill for dinner right in the middle of the table. At that moment, everyone glances around and makes gestures towards reaching for the check. Who should pay? You? Is someone else responsible?

Going out to eat, whether for simple socializing or to celebrate a special occasion, can be an enjoyable experience and tradition. But there’s often a tad of anxiety built in when people in a party aren’t sure who should be paying for what.

In truth, there are no absolute hard and fast rules on this question; much depends on the dynamics of the group breaking bread, the Essential Manners for ... Post, Peter Best Price: $0.39 Buy New $4.32 (as of 12:45 EST - Details) occasion that’s brought you together, and subtle factors of status and relationship. There are good etiquette guidelines to follow to help inform your decisions, however, and we’ve laid them out below in regards to various situations.

The Most Useful Guideline to Follow

While we’ll get into the nuances of various scenarios below, one of the most useful and universal rules to remember is that if you do the inviting, or are responsible for getting a dinner party together, you’re acting as the host, and you usually should be the one to pay. If on the other hand, you have been invited to dinner, then you are the guest, and it’s much less likely that you’ll be responsible for picking up the bill. And if an event was got up by mutual assent, then in all likelihood everyone will be going Dutch.

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Dining With Friends

Group of Friends

When a large, mixed group of friends is out for dinner — that is, couples, singles, etc. — the best way to handle the bill is to let each party pay for themselves. Singles will pay individually; couples will pay for their two meals. Traditionally, etiquette says to split the bill equally amongst all parties. However, in my experience, especially in younger circles of friends, it’s perfectly fine for everyone to simply pay for what they respectively ate and drank, and then split anything that was shared. This way someone on a budget can order a sandwich, while someone who wants to splurge can go ahead and order their steak and wine, and there won’t be any feelings of worry or resentment. To save the waiter/waitress from having to separate out the entire bill after you finish your meal, let him or her know from the outset that each person/couple will need a separate check, and where the dividing lines will fall. Emily Post’s The... Post, Peter Best Price: $1.25 Buy New $6.45 (as of 03:25 EST - Details)

One exception here is if a friend has invited a whole group to dinner with language along the lines of “I’d like to take you all out to eat,” or which includes a “my treat” in the invitation.

Two or Three Couples/Parties 

I include this as an example because it’s a common enough occurrence, especially as folks get older and paired off, and smaller friend groups become established. If you have a circle of good friends, you may regularly get together with them for dinner and establish a rhythm of how you handle the bill.

One common option, for friends who are very close and regularly dine out together, is for one couple/party to pick up the tab, knowing that the other will pick it up next time.

Another option is for each party to simply pay their own way. Or, if you’re all at relatively similar income levels, splitting evenly tends to work out just fine, especially if you dine out regularly so that any inconsistencies — like someone ordering more expensive food on occasion — work themselves out.

If you’re in a couple and dining with someone(s) single, or if you know your friends are on a budget, you obviously don’t want to split it down the middle. Here, you can ask for separate checks at the outset or split it up when the bill comes. If you’ve made the invitation, and it’s a sit-down restaurant rather than a fast food-type joint, it’s okay to offer to pay sometimes too. It’s not patronizing unless you offer every time and assume they’ll never be able to pay their share. (If that friend, however, comes to be the one assuming you’ll pay, it’s okay to set boundaries and note you won’t pay for them every time, just occasionally when you’ve made the invite.) The Art of Manliness: ... Brett McKay, Kate McKay Best Price: $1.99 Buy New $7.70 (as of 12:35 EST - Details)

One-on-One

When two guys are getting together for a meal, the “rules” are pretty easy. Either just pay your own way, or one friend can pick up the tab along with a friendly “You can get the bill next time!”

When it’s a guy and a girl, it becomes slightly more complicated. If on a true date, the gentleman should always pay (unless the gal really fights it; in that case, split it).

If you’re out just as friends, and it’s clear to both of you there’s nothing more than that, splitting the bill is totally fine, as is trading off who foots the tab.

If the relationship is a little unclear, you’ll probably both know it and feel it, and there are a couple ways to approach the situation. One, you can ask the waiter at the outset for separate checks. This will signal your interest in the relationship remaining friendly only. If you’re more interested than that, offer to pay the bill at the end as a sort of clue about your intentions. And if she insists on splitting, take it as a hint yourself that perhaps she’s not interested in being anything more than friends.

Birthday Celebration

One exception to all these rules is when one of the parties is celebrating a birthday (or other celebratory occasions — anniversary, new job, promotion, etc.). Many groups will elect to have the birthday celebrator not pay for their meal, particularly when his or her friends arranged for the dinner out; in this case, they’re acting as the “hosts.” It’s especially common for friends to treat the birthday guy/gal when he or she Man Up!: 367 Classic S... Paul O'Donnell Best Price: $1.25 Buy New $2.99 (as of 09:25 EST - Details) is single, as it’s easy for their tab to get split amongst the group.

If the birthday person is part of a couple, it’s a little murkier, but what is typically done is that the meals of both members of the couple are picked up by their friends, rather than trying to split them up into individual bills, and only treating the birthday person.

Of course, some folks on their birthday gregariously insist on treating their entire group. If you’re celebrating your birthday with a dinner out with friends, you might consider offering to pay for the group, especially as you get older and everyone has established careers. If this is your intention, invite them with wording that makes it clear — something like, “I’d love to take our friends out to eat,” or “Let’s go out for my birthday — my treat!”

A third option is that everyone goes Dutch and pays their own way.

As with most of these situations, you just have to have the awareness to read the room and to know the dynamics of your friend group.

Finally, if your income doesn’t afford you the option to buy or chip in on a friend’s birthday meal, don’t worry about it. They surely understand and appreciate your company for their celebration.

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