Updated: May 24, 2024

Who Should Pay the Bill: Financial Etiquette

Scenario: You just had a lovely dinner with a friend. They ordered three glasses of wine, two appetizers and the 12 oz steak, while you weren't too hungry so you just had a soup. The bill was just ...
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Scenario: You just had a lovely dinner with a friend. They ordered three glasses of wine, two appetizers and the 12 oz steak, while you weren't too hungry so you just had a soup. The bill was just set on the table and your friend suggests you split it.

When it comes to footing the bill at a restaurant there are three things you have to take into account when trying to figure out who should pay and how much:

What message are you trying to get across?

Similar to cooking a meal, paying for dinner is a nice gesture that shows you care. If you are out for coffee, lunch or whatever else a bill can be split, different messages can be sent depending if the bill is covered by one person:

Thank you. Getting the bill can show your gratitude, whether it is for something as big as helping someone move or as small as just making time to meet with them. No matter what your relationship is with the person, if they are meeting with you as favor it is always a nice gesture to pay for them.

I like you. If you are out with someone you are interested in, covering the bill can show that. Men and women handle finances differently, some are more traditional when it comes to dating, whereas others don't consider sex as an indicator of who should pay. I believe it comes down to who is more forward, who asked whom out? If you are having a good time on the date and you asked the person out, then why not offer to pay.

Congrats/Happy Birthday etc. Taking someone out for meal in celebration of something usually means you should foot the bill. If you are going out for a birthday in a group environment the situation can get slightly trickier. To avoid an awkward end to the night pull some friends aside and discuss how you would like to pay for the birthday boy or girl.

Who is the breadwinner?

The economy has done a number on many individuals’ budgets, and going out a lot can put a strain on certain people. It’s important to consider the financial situation of the person you are out with. Whenever I go out with my older sister, she always offers to pay for me, no matter how much I try and do the no-I-got-it dance she always wins. My sister is 12 years older than me, married and in a higher position in her career—hence, why she usually wins. On the opposite end, when I am out with my 14-year old brother I often pay because I earn a full-time salary and he only works part-time after school.

Traditionally, men used to out-earn women and therefore paying was not only a sign of chivalry, but expected. In this day and age, women have made many strides in the workplace and it isn't as uncommon for women to chip in or cover bills. Although women's rights and equality are highly valued in our society, recent job report figures showed that women as a whole are lagging behind when it comes to getting back into the work force. For some women, it is still expected that the man pay on the first date.

If you are in a position to cover the bill when you are out with someone you are close with, why not? As mentioned before it is a very nice gesture.

What is your relationship?

This third part combines the message you are trying to get across, who is in a more secure financial position, with yet another fact to take into consideration.

Friendship: When it comes to friends going out, things are usually more laid back and it is completely acceptable to split the bill. I have been in situations where I am out with an older or more affluent friend who has offered to pay. If the friend ends up covering the bill (still always offer to pay your half), try to even out the stakes with a later lunch or coffee. In the before mentioned situation you should tell your friend that it'd be just easier to have the server split it up by who ordered what. You can even point out that since you didn't order drinks your half is probably less.

Business: Depending on the reason for the meeting, typically those who called to meet cover the bill. If you are going out for purely social reasons, like a happy hour or coffee, splitting the bill is more likely—especially among co-workers. If you are going out with your boss or supervisor, he or she may offer to cover the bill, but this is not something you should come to expect—it is polite to offer to cover your half.

Romantically Involved: Depending on the stage of the relationship, and individuals, there are different expectations. As mentioned before, covering the entire bill is a sign of interest. Whether the man or woman should pay is a hotly debated topic. Still, on the first few dates, it is good to offer to pay your half if you can’t pay the whole bill. Once you have started consistently dating it is good to switch off who pays. Even if you have starkly different incomes, there are still things that can be paid for. For example, if you are dating someone that earns much more than you, offer to cover coffee or dessert. If your date pays for dinner, then you can pay for the movie and so on.