“How Can We Ask If We’re Expected to Pay For Our Dinner?”

I found your post, “Can I Ask My Party Guests to Pay for Their Own Dinners?”, while trying to research etiquette from the party-goers perspective.

Recently, my boyfriend and I were invited by a new friend of his to attend his wife’s birthday dinner at an upscale restaurant (over $150 per person) but were not explicitly told whether we would be expected to pay for ourselves or not. Unlike the other three couples invited, we are not wealthy and this would be a HUGE expense for us. Is there a proper way of asking whether we will be expected to pay? If we aren’t expected to pay, I would like to get the birthday girl a gift or a bottle of wine for the table… but I am hesitant to buy a gift if it turns out that we will need to pay for our dinner!

We have tried to indirectly ask the other couples whether they know if we will need to pay, but we have had no luck with getting an answer. Any suggestions? — Anonymous

Have you already accepted the invitation? If not, I would say something along the lines of: “We so appreciate being included in your wife’s birthday festivities and would love to help celebrate her, but I’m afraid that particular restaurant is out of our budget. Do you have plans following dinner that we may be able to join?” This gives the the host the opportunity to tell you directly whether or not he’s paying for the entire meal (and if he is, you thank him, and let him know you’d like to buy the birthday girl a bottle of wine that she would love), and it doesn’t put you in a position of incurring a huge expense for someone whom you’re just getting to know. It also sets a precedent going forward that when including you in group activities, your budget should be a consideration and that, if someone else is covering the tab, it should be explicitly expressed.

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39 Comments

  1. Juliecatharine says:

    LW2 please please please listen to Wendy. Abusers are very very skilled at sniffing out vulnerable people and I am very afraid that Mr X could absolutely be one of those. Rushing to intensify a relationship is a classic warning sign. If he’s on the up and up he wants what is best for you and that is NOT moving in with someone you don’t know.

  2. Avatar photo Cleopatra Jones says:

    #1: WWS. We had a friend that invited us to his girlfriend’s surprise birthday party at an upscale restaurant. He chose the wine cellar, and picked the limited menu. Then we were all expected to pay our own tab. It was more pricey than we had anticipated. I wish I had Wendy’s script .

    #2: LW, Mr. X only seems that great because he’s appearing to be the opposite of your current husband. After he gets you into his house, he may be the same or worse than your current spouse. I’m always leery of any man willing to rush in and ‘rescue’ a woman from another relationship. You don’t need rescuing, you need to leave your current husband, get some therapy to help you cope with domestic violence, and start to rebuild your family and friendship circles. Then if Mr. X is still around, maybe y’all can have a relationship. It’s not as ‘romantic’ as his rescuing you from your situation but this way, you won’t end up the victim of another domestic violence situation!

    1. SpaceySteph says:

      Re#1: It’s really common in many friend groups for people to pay their own way at group dinners, but if you book a private room with a limited menu then it goes from “let’s eat dinner at the same place at the same table’ to “come to this party I’m hosting” and then the host should, you know, host.

      1. Avatar photo Cleopatra Jones says:

        Right, that’s why I was so confused when they brought the check. I mean if I’m paying then I want to be able to pick what I want to eat from the menu.
        .
        But apparently, the only way he could book the private room was as a party with a limited menu. Obviously, he couldn’t afford it so he foisted the cost off on the guests.
        .
        I did not even know the girlfriend. If I had known we were going to pay, I would have opted out.

    2. That has happened to me, too. Invited to a surprise birthday dinner for a good friend by friend’s spouse, asked to help by getting cake and balloons, etc, and then when the tab came in… “each couple throw in $200, that should cover it!”

      I’m still annoyed 15 years later. If you’re going to make a big deal about hosting a special party in the private room of a restaurant, and take all of the credit, for Pete’s sake, HOST.

      1. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

        A friend’s husband once invited me to a brunch he was “hosting” for his wife at their home (which had just had bedbugs) where he was hiring a private chef to cook said brunch and he was asking each guest to pitch in $30 to cover the cost. I made up an excuse and declined. Enough others must have declined, too, bc the party was canceled. I ended up having her and a couple other mutual friends over for dinner at my place to celebrate her birthday.

  3. Northern Star says:

    LW 2, how about you focus on what’s important (or should be): re-establishing some sort of relationship with your children! You breezed right by them in your letter. Yes, your husband is an a-hole. But you KNOW that, and apparently have no problem leaving him now, as your question is about “fearing” the love of another man. It’s really, really sad that another man is the reason you want to leave, and your destroyed relationship with your own children apparently wasn’t enough.

  4. ele4phant says:

    LW1, I would assume you are supposed to pay. Maybe it’s a generational or regional thing, but in my social circles, an invite like this (invited to a dinner at a restaurant) means you pay your own way (and cost the split of the bday girl/boy’s meal) unless it is explicitly stated otherwise.

    That said, Wendy has a good script to softly get at it.

    1. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

      Yeah – I think it’s a generational thing. For example, when drew and his brother hosted 90th and a 95th birthday dinners for their dad, I don’t think they even needed to specify that they were paying. Like, of course they were — no one needed to be told that (most of the guests being a generation older than us expect that!). Same when my mom and her siblings hosting a 60th wedding anniversary dinner for their parents a few years back. Of course the siblings were paying for it — it did not need to be specified. Now, for my birthday last month what I really wanted was to get a few friends together and enjoy a kid-free night out. I knew that just paying for a babysitter would be expensive enough for the friends I wanted to invite, so drew and I took care of the dinner portion and, since in our generation that isn’t as expected, we said in the invite: “you take care of the sitters, dinner and transportation is on us.” And maybe we started a trend — one of the friends has already invited us to a birthday dinner where she’s made the same offer.

      1. Juliecatharine says:

        I think that’s a really gracious way to handle things.

      2. Agree that it might be a generational thing, because in my circle I would also assume that I have to pay my own way. If someone invited me out, I would never ever expect that they would be planning to pay for me, even if it’s a fancy place.

        My circle is the same as ele4phant. We all pay our own meal and we all split the cost of the birthday person’s meal & drinks.

      3. Ele4phant says:

        I do wonder if standards will change as I get older.

        Right now I am most of my friends don’t have kids, and while we are starting to experience differences in our income, generally our salaries are all in the same ballpark.

        As our lives diverge more and some people have children and all the expenses that come along, and as incomes really start to separate, I do wonder if we’ll organically switch to a different model that is more accommodating of people’s different budgets.

      4. Avatar photo MaterialsGirl says:

        yeah I like that wendy. When my mother turned 60, my sister and I hosted a tea at the Drake for our gramma and aunts and everyone. Obviously we paid. I hate the question the LW is facing now, so when we throw parties, we pay or have it in house to keep costs down. Hopefully it starts a trend!

      5. I’m starting to move in that direction too, if I want a party, I pay. Well, at least for most of it!

      6. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

        It makes sense as you get older and people’s budgets and incomes change that so would the sort of code of organizing social events (specifically celebratory outings). When people have kids and have to pay for an evening of babysitting, I think it’s just good etiquette to consider that and offer something in return for that expense (and not expect them to drop even more cash to celebrate your birthday or whatever). Here in nyc, babysitters range from $15-$25 an hour (with about $20 an hour for two kids being pretty average). You could easily spend $75-$100 just on babysitting. Then for a couple to spend another $100 on dinner and drinks… well, you better be pretty good friends if they’re dropping $200 to celebrate you, you know?

      7. Ele4phant, all my friends use to do what you and yours do. The birthday person picked a place, we’d all go and then split the check while paying for the birthday recipient.

        We’re all in our upper 30s and most are coupled up. So now, birthday dinners have gone by the wayside and if someone does do something, they’ll pick up the tab. Last year, I bought comedy show tickets for friends to celebrate my birthday. Another wanted a happy hour and picked up the tab.

        If I do go out one on one with a friend for her birthday, I’ll pick up the tab.

        Anyway, I do think it will change as lifestyles change.

        My sister, cousin and I all get together for our birthday’s. Really, it’s a excuse to get together and try a new restaurant. So the birthday person doesn’t pay. But we take turns for that and it’s our little tradition!

  5. Really wonder if this is an American thing, like the constant splitting-of-the-bill issue. Up here (Canada), if there is an invite to eat out for someone’s birthday, everyone pays for their own meal. I have never run into this issue in my life, with the expectation that the inviter would foot the bill for all the invitees. Fascinating. (No judgment; just find it weird/cool how culturally different eating out seems toe be.)

    1. ele4phant says:

      Yeah, that’s always been my experience. I’m in the PNW, so I’m like sort of Canadian, maybe?

      Okay, no I’m not.

      But Wendy’s point about childcare did raise an interesting point for me. Right now, none of my friends have kids, but as they start to have them maybe they’ll sttart declining invitations they would’ve accepted in the past because childcare + dinner =/= affordable.

      I do wonder if I’ll start changing my party parameters to make sure friends I want to see will come. Maybe I’ll preemptively start offering to pay the bill, or hosting parties at my home, as I know my friends would decline if they have to pay themselves. IDK, we’ll see once it happens.

      But for now, yeah, if I get invited to a restaurant for a friend’s birthday or celebration, my automatic assumption is that I will pay my own way.

      1. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

        Yes, you can absolutely count on your friends declining invitations after they have kids that they otherwise would have accepted before having to pay a babysitter $50-$100 for an evening out. Or spouses just won’t go out as much together — they’ll take turns staying in with the kids while the other goes out.

    2. @java82 I’m just as baffled as you, and I live in the US in the south. If someone invited me to a restaurant or bar for an “occasion” (birthday, whatever), it would never even occur to me that they might be “hosting” and paying for it – I would assume it was Dutch treat. It’s weird to me that someone would assume an “inviter” would pay unless they specifically stated it.

    3. Canadian here too. I think you assume you’re paying for yourself, and then if the dinner is covered, you’re pleasantly surprised. I liked Wendy’s response here, as pricey places would be out of line for us too. A work friend had that happen this summer where visitors chose a place that was very out of their budget. It left a bad taste, I think.

      1. Emily Elliott says:

        A college friend of my ex-husband plus his wife visited us. We were living on a shoestring so we planned dinner at home, but no, they wanted to dine at a new $$$ restaurant. Although they ordered expensive wine and ordered appetizers, salads and desserts with their entrees, we just had the main dish and shared a dessert. When the check came, he grabbed it and said “let’s just split this and would we give him cash for our half so he could put it on his credit card and then have it reimbursed as a business expense. My then husband meekly agreed. Our half was a months groceries. An example of why he’s my “ex.”

  6. LW1: you are not obligated to go if the costs exceed your budget. Don’t do for a new friend what you wouldn’t do for your own couple or family. Even if you accepted already the invitation, you can simply say that after reflexion, the restaurant out of your budget, but… then follow the very good script by Wendy, so they are not offended and you can perhaps join at lower cost, or not join. No drama here, everybody can understand budget limits.
    LW2: is it even real? Your love story sounds like a Harlequin book, except that there are children at stake here.

    1. GertietheDino says:

      I thought the same thing about LW2.

  7. LW#2-
    The big take-away from this is that you need to leave your husband. Don’t wait for another man to be your safety net. Find a way to support yourself. You may have to start by living at a womens’ shelter. Your husband certainly seems to qualify as abusive.

  8. P,S. — Your husband is very controlling and it wouldn’t surprise me if he checks your internet use. I hope you know how to erase your internet/phone history.

  9. Stillrunning says:

    LW1- This has happened to me a couple of times.
    The first time, at a friend’s birthday dinner, the waiter announced before we ordered that our hosts would pay for our first round of drinks and left it at that, so we knew beforehand that we were paying for dinner.
    The second time we weren’t told at all and found out when the bill came around that we were expected to pay the total.
    I like to know ahead of time if this is something I can afford and Wendy’s script is a friendly way to find out.

  10. Stillrunning says:

    Aside from a celebration dinner, my friends and I always split the check according to what we’ve ordered.

  11. LW#1: Dear Abby would have touted the “no host” concept. To be clear, it is tacky.

    1. ele4phant says:

      Meh, it’s only tacky if there are differing expectations.

      I’m not a big fan of universal blanket, dear abby etiquette. In my social circles it’s totally fine to invite people to dinner and not host it. At least right now, as stated above, perhaps that will change.

      It’s also very acceptable to decline because you just don’t want to spend money. Invites in my group are not summons, it’s totally not an affront if a friend says, thanks for inviting me, but I’m gonna turn it down. Grab coffee instead later?

      1. dinoceros says:

        Yeah, I think the issue is that typically Dear Abby and others like that operate off of rules that were created during a different time. Some hold up, and some don’t. It’s not that they are inherently good or bad things to do, but at the time, they were norms. Norms do change, and vary by region and culture too.

      2. ele4phant says:

        Yep exactly. I think Dear Abby’s rules of etiquette are a good rule of thumb if things are ambiguous and you want to ere on the side of caution. Or, you’re not sure if someone you are dealing with is going to be super conservative in their social moors, you can defer to the most rigorous modes of conduct to be safe.

        But if somebody tells me “Well Dear Abby says it’s tacky so that’s that”, I have a knee jerk reaction to not respect that. You have to tell me *why* Dear Abby says it’s tacky, not just that she does. And if her reasons for why something is tacky aren’t applicable to my life and my social world, I will feel free to disregard them.

  12. dinoceros says:

    LW1: Unless the couple is massively rich, then I think it’s a safe bet that you have to pay. Otherwise, they’d be spending thousands of dollars on this dinner, which seems unlikely for most people.

    LW2: You feel afraid because deep down you know that this is going to fast and that it’s naive to commit to some guy you barely know. But the fact that you have a bad marriage is making you want to ignore those warning bells because it’s a lot easier to follow someone else out of a marriage than to leave on your own. You have this fantasy of someone saving you from your husband and helping to support you and fulfill your live, because the idea of leaving on your own, being alone, and having to fend for yourself is super scary. Don’t walk out of one bad relationship into a relationship you know nothing about. Most people who rush into things like he is do it because they have bad intentions or because they themselves are bad at relationships.

    1. dinoceros says:

      I want to comment on the birthday thing, since a lot of people have differing opinions. I have been to birthday dinners for a few friends, and we all pay for ourselves. Most of the time, we split the birthday person’s bill among the guests, because we want to, not because we were told to. The one exception was when the person chose an expensive restaurant. A couple of people covered her drinks or appetizers for the group, but she paid for her own entree, which she was fine with (and was very appreciative that we covered a few other items). I don’t think it’s wrong to choose an expensive restaurant (though I wouldn’t do it) because it’s the guests choice whether to attend or not. Since the general consensus is that adult birthdays don’t matter much, then I feel like most people would agree that missing out on a friend’s birthday because of the cost is not that big a deal for most people. If I cared that much about seeing them, I’d just offer to buy them a drink some other night.

      I don’t think the comparison of a hosted party at a home (or other venue) and a restaurant meal is very equal. I think most people in the social circles we are referring to are fairly likely to go out to eat with friends on occasion, and when a friend suggests a group go out together, no one expects that person to pay for everyone. I guess I don’t know why if they are having a birthday, they would have to pay for everyone too. If they wanted something that was more special or me-centric than a dinner out (which, again, is not that unusual for most people), then they can throw a party, in which they pay for that extra attention to themselves.

      I think this is sort of an outdated custom that comes from the times when people who went out to eat were wealthy and it was a sign of status to pay for everyone who is eating with you.

  13. Here are my thoughts about parties and who pays: If it is in a private home or catered event, guests are not, obviously, expected to pay, or if it is in a restaurant and a room was rented and food is boufet style. However, if there is a bill given to the table, as in I am meeting a lot of people at a restaurant with reservations, I assume I would pay for my own meal. I have been both a host and guest at such occasions without it seeming strange. I wanted to gather everyone ot celebrate getting tenure and then a few years later, to celebrate turning 40. I could not afford to pay for 30 people’s meals so I chose a casual diner where a sandwich or omelet could be had for $12. everyone pitched in and it seemed OK to people. I have also gone to similar events and always threw in a $20. It is totally unfair to go to a place that cost $150 a plate and expect guests to pay.

    1. ele4phant says:

      Yeah I think the line is – do I have the choice to pick what I want to eat (and therefore how much is spent for me to eat) or is the meal pre-picked out and I have no (or minimal) choice?

      If it’s the former, I think you should assume you will be paying your own way.

      If it’s the latter – if the menu is being forced on you – then I think the expectation is you don’t pay.

      I guess a grey area is if you go to a restaurant, everybody orders what they want, and then you split the tab equally. But I think that’s a shitty way to do it, and would avoid putting my friends in that situation…but it does happen.

  14. LW 2 I am with juliecatherine there are abusive men that can smell a victim from a mile away. It has been my experience that a man will become whatever he thinks you want (or need) him to be to get you to fall for him.
    You will be sorry when his true personality comes out. This happened to me with my first husband.
    Your current husband may be awful, but you should still get divorced and get on your feet before moving on. Stop looking for anyone to “save” you, stop being the victim. I am sure I speak for many woman on here when I say that your situation is not unique, many of us have had abusive childhoods (I was severely abused and neglected as the child of drug addicted parents. I suffered more in foster care and even more as an adult… I decided not to be a victim anymore and learned how to depend on myself. As long as you are overly dependent on a man you make yourself vulnerable. Show yourself and your kids how strong you can be.
    And don’t cheat on your spouse, it is WRONG even if he is an asshole. If he is so bad LEAVE!

  15. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    LW1 This may be a friendship that you literally can’t afford. If this is how they celebrate a birthday I hate to think of what else they might invite you to go to that costs a fortune or that you can’t afford. If their lifestyle doesn’t fit your budget it would be good to keep some distance. This might be one where you need to remain acquaintances because being friends is literally unaffordable.

  16. That happened to me 15 years ago. A very wealthy couple held a decade birthday at a venue that ended up costing each person $200 per head that guests had to pay.
    Would have been courteous to specify in the invite anticipated contribution so that guests could decide within their budget or not!

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