Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hey, Carolyn: I completely understand that people have very different expectations about who will pay at a celebratory “let’s go out to XX restaurant” night. What I struggle with is how to know who will pay.
I received an Evite from the birthday girl to join her at a restaurant with a hipster bar, and because I love her and want to celebrate, I RSVP’d yes. Because I am short of money, I planned to buy the b’day girl a drink, stay for an hour, give her a little gift, and head out.
My plan was quashed, though. The party was not in the bar, but a seated, multi-course dinner, at which the birthday girl ordered lavishly for the table, including bottle after bottle of wine. When the check came, she was silent, albeit gracious, as the rest of us split it. I tossed in my faded-from-use credit card, and chalked it up to life lessons. Budgets get blown.
We are old enough (early 40s) and far enough down our career paths that it isn’t unusual for a host to pick up the check for the table; things have changed since our 20s when it was unfathomable that anyone had $500 or $1,000 bucks to spend on a birthday dinner. The challenge is knowing what kind of night you are attending: Are you being hosted? Are you able to swing by for a drink? Have you been summoned to fund the guest of honor’s vision of a lovely night?
Can you help me script a way to have my expectations set ahead of time on these events?
I say just ask the host directly: “Is this a sit-down-for-dinner thing, or a swing-by-the-bar-for-a-cocktail thing?” That has the benefit of sounding like a concern about the timing/schedule vs. cash.
For what it’s worth, I think a person who arranges the event and orders the food also picks up the check – even the birthday person, even when people at the table insist on paying for the birthday person. It’s so easy for hosts to pull off: They just arrange in advance with the restaurant that they alone will be receiving the check.
What you describe puts too many people in a terrible spot – not just the ones who don’t have the money for a full share and were planning to order only what they could afford, but those who don’t drink or aren’t hungry. They all get hosed by this arrangement. Bleah. Sorry you got sucked into it.
Re: Bill: The answer is not a FWIW statement, this is a PSA: The person who invites pays, period. That’s good manners. If the guests want to pay then the person who would normally be obligated can allow them, but that agreement acknowledges that the initial responsibility was on the host (the one who did the inviting).
It’s simple manners, and anyone who makes you think otherwise is just plain wrong.
A P.S. to your PSA: If the guests want to wrest the check away from the host, because the host is also the guest of honor, then the guest who volunteers has to cover the whole thing. A guest can’t volunteer all of the guests to pay for the host/honoree. That’s check abuse.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.