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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
One exception to all these rules is when one of the parties is celebrating a birthday (or other celebratory occasion — 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 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.
Dining With Family
When out to eat with your parents, whoever handles the bill will largely be a matter of age and family dynamics.
When you’re younger, in college or earlier, it’s probably not necessary to offer to pay, unless there’s some special occasion or you simply want to treat your parents. Once you land a job, you might find that even then your parents insist on picking up the tab. But it’s a nice milestone once you’ve become financially stable, to finally turn the table and pay for your parents’ dinner. Most won’t mind; in fact, they’ll be quite proud that all their work raising you has finally paid off, and now you’re an independent adult who can take care of them a little.
When everyone is a little older — you’re married and possibly have kids — your parents will likely be okay letting you take your family’s share of the bill, and perhaps treating them as well, and you should certainly offer to do so. On the other hand, your parents may always insist on paying for you when dining out.
The geography of dining out also plays a role. If you live in separate towns, and are home visiting, they might pay the bill since you’re on their turf. But when they’re in your town visiting you, it’s nice to offer to pay for them.
In most cases you simply have to read the situation, know your parent/family dynamics, and do the best you can to navigate.
While some of the guidelines for dining with your in-laws are the same as above, there are a couple of different scenarios/dynamics to be aware of. For gals, dining with the in-laws doesn’t carry much pressure when it comes to the bill. A future or current daughter-in-law will never be expected to pick up the tab, or even deal with paying the bill, unless she happens to be dining with her in-laws without her significant other. (In that case, she should offer to pay her share — or theirs too if she’s feeling generous — but she shouldn’t be surprised or fight back too much if her in-laws insist on paying the whole bill.)
For the fella though, when dining out with his wife’s (or even girlfriend’s) parents, it can be a little more awkward. In many scenarios, as with your own parents, the in-laws will just pay for the dinner and it won’t be a problem. Especially once this becomes an established rhythm, you don’t necessarily need to offer to pay your portion every time, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
But early on in the relationship, before norms are established, you may want to offer to pay your share, or even the entire bill, to establish the fact that you are a responsible adult, and can provide for their daughter. If you are turned down in your offer, don’t worry about it or fight it too much. If your offer is accepted, continue to offer to pay your share for future gatherings, unless other norms are established.
When dining out with siblings who are all adults with jobs (this generally includes college students too), everyone can pay their own way. Unless there’s a special occasion, or one of you is feeling generous, there’s no etiquette rule saying the tab should be picked up by a certain party.
This is entirely dependent on your specific aunts and uncles. If you have a close relationship, maybe they’re a godfather or just a special relative, they’ll likely offer to pay. Don’t expect it though, and always offer to pay your share.
Dining With Coworkers
For company functions, you’re almost guaranteed to be paid for, or at the least reimbursed for your meal. But sometimes what qualifies as a “work” meal can be blurry. Does lunch out with coworkers count? Likely not. How about lunch out with your supervisor? Possibly.
When dining out with coworkers who are on the same hierarchical level as you, everyone pays their own way. That’s pretty cut and dry.
When dining with a supervisor, even if it’s just out for lunch and not related to business, they often pick up the tab as a company expense. This isn’t always the case, but in asking around the business folks I know, this is pretty common. That said, certainly don’t expect it, and always offer to pay your share. (The exception is if it’s clearly business related — out with a client, doing an annual review, that sort of thing. In those cases, you don’t need to offer.)
How Much to Fight to Pay the Bill
If two of more dining companions each believe it their duty or privilege to pay the check, a good-natured but awkward back-and-forth may emerge, as each insists on giving the waiter their credit card. Don’t let this showdown become a spectacle or struggle. If someone reaches for the check, but you wish to pay it yourself, make your desire known warmly, sincerely, and firmly. If the other party insists on paying with equal sincerity and firmness, ask “Are you sure?” out of politeness. Then, when they invariably affirm that they are indeed sure, simply accede to their wishes, offering appreciation for their generosity and kind gesture, and maintaining your mastery of the art of poise.