Who should pay when you go to dinner?


Pursuant to our last blog post where we talked about how to host a business dinner, we’ve decided to talk about a sensitive etiquette topic – who should pay when you go to dinner? We’re not just talking about a business dinner, and not just about a date, or an outing with friends… We’ll try to state a number of scenarios and address this question in each one. We’ll do our best to be thorough – but feel free to chime in with any comments if you know of a situation that we’ve missed :)

1) Guy and Girl on a date:
If you’re on your first date, and you want to be on the safe side, guys, you should really pay. The world is rapidly changing and even though many women find it completely acceptable that the bill should be split (or even that the female should pay), it is still a social norm for men to pay. There are always caveats to every situation but if you are looking for one generic answer, then men should pay. Now, as you get to know your date well enough, then you can get to a point where you alternate in paying the bill or split it. In the beginning, though, you really be the one that makes the gesture.

2) Business dinner:
As mentioned in our last blog post, the onus is usually upon the person who is organizing the dinner. If you were called to a dinner, your host will be responsible for the bill unless there is an otherwise accepted protocol that both parties are familiar with.

3) Group of friends:
When a number of friends go out to dinner, it is usually accepted that everyone will cover their own tab. This makes things a lot more simple. In most restaurants, if there is a large group of guests, the waiter/waitress will know to just hand out separate bills. If, however, the group is smaller (3-4 people), then the group will be asked if they require one bill or separate bills. When there are less people attending the dinner, if someone is feeling generous, they may opt to handle the bill for everyone as a kind gesture. This favor is usually then matched by the other friends at a gathering in the future, but not necessarily so. The common etiquette is to split the bill but someone can also volunteer to grab the will if they wish to do so.
If you do decide to grab the bill, the others at the table may prevent you from doing so. If they insist that the bill should be split, then you should generally succumb to their wishes since it will make them feel uncomfortable otherwise. The general point here is to take kind action as long as it doesn’t make others uncomfortable.

4) Double Date:
If one couple is clearly hosting the other couple, then the hosting couple, as long as they are comfortable in doing so, should pay the bill. This is roughly similar to having the guest couple coming to your house for dinner. If, however, there is no clear host and both couples decide to go to dinner together, then it is most common for the bill to be split. In some cases, such as with the “group of friends”, one couple may decide to pick up the bill. If another double date does ensue with the same couple, then the other couple should then pick up the bill (i.e. alternating the bill paying role).

5) Elders and Youngsters:
Just as it is more customary for men to pick up the bill than women, it is also more of a social norm for the elder person to pick up the bill. Now, by this, we don’t mean that if you’re 38 and your friend is 35, that you should pay. With age, we are really referring to a wider gap. For example, if your friend is a generation older than you, then it is more socially accepted for him to cover the bill. Now, if going out to dinner with your friend is a common occurrence, then it is not fair for him to cover the bill every time. In such a case, you should alternate in taking the responsibility.

6) Co-workers:
This situation is very similar to the “group of friends” scenario. The most appropriate scenario is for everyone to pay separately – especially if the group you are going to dinner with is a large one. One of the more interesting things to do is to split the bill amongst everyone after having one individual put up their credit card. This is a good solution if you are amongst a larger group of people since it will take a long time for 10+ credit cards to be processed. Having one person pay in such a scenario is very efficient. Everyone can then pay back their portion at a later time.

7) Birthday dinners:
If you are invited to a birthday dinner at a restaurant, the usual etiquette is to have everyone pay their own bill. The bill for the birthday boy/girl is usually split amongst the guests. In some cases, if the person’s spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend is there, they will usually cover the bill – then their bill will not be split amongst the rest.

8) Dinner with the boss:
In most cases, if you are going out with the boss, you will let them lead the way. 9/10 times, they will pay. It’s quite alright for them to do so because they will likely charge it to the company. In some cases, the boss may decide that everyone should get their own bill. He may do so if the expenses are not being covered by the company and your dinners are more than just a once in a while occurrence.

9) Dinner with Opposite Sex (Non-Date)
Even though you’re not on a date, it is still more socially acceptable for the guy to cover the bill – specifically if this is the first time that you are going for dinner. The next time around, it will be the female’s turn. If you offer to pay and the female insists that you split the bill, then you should split the bill. If you know this person well enough, then splitting the bill the first time around is just as acceptable. This case, specifically, really revolves around how old-fashioned you are in some ways. If you want to be on the safe side, you should pay the first time around.

10) Dinner with One Friend
This is again very similar to
the “Group of Friends” scenario. The only difference is that in this case, the “alternating” scenario is most common. Even if this dinner is a one-off event, it is still more common for one person to cover the bill.

11) More means & Less means
This last part is tricky and really isn’t meant to patronize any party. Sometimes, if you feel that you have more means, you should cover the bill for good karma rather than etiquette per se (even though it is still good etiquette). For example, let’s say you’re having dinner with a friend who is a student with very little to no income and you’ve got a great job with good pay – you should probably volunteer to take the bill. We’re not saying that this should happen all the time but if it’s a once-every-now-and-then type of event, then it is
good idea for you to pick up the tab.

As a summary, etiquette rules will tell you who should take the lead in paying. With that said, the person who takes the lead may ask the waiter/waitress for separate bills (take for example going to dinner with the boss where by etiquette standards, he should take the lead). If this does happen, then you should go with the flow. If the person who is taking the lead offers to pay the bill, you do have the ability to counter the offer or even insist that the bill be split if you feel that is the way to go. What etiquette really accomplishes is the evasion of a scenario, in which, no one knows who should take the lead in paying – an awkward scenario indeed.

1 Comment

  1. 1

    Lisa Richards Hone

    November 2, 2010

    9:36 am

    The person who did the inviting should plan to pay for the entire outing — if you were inviting a guest to dinner at your house, you wouldn’t expect them to show up with a fully cooked entree, would you? Sales persons and other professionals host their clients and prospective clients. If your lawyer invites you to dinner, you may offer to pay, but it is rarely expected unless you are also friends. You reciprocate big when s/he wins your case or otherwise delivers big on her/his end of the professional relationship.

    Dating scenarios and budding friendships call for more sensitivity. Ladies do not always appreciate having their evening fully paid for by a man because for many it implies that “favors” are expected in reciprocation. So, gentlemen, be sensitive, and if you are bent on paying for the whole sushi dinner, don’t come on too strong after the second bottle of sake.

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