My Dinner’s on Me, and Here’s Why

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Dear Sara,

In online dating, who pays for dinner when you finally meet?

First, let’s define what a date is and is not.

Ours is a culture in which many a 20-something will admit to never having been out on a single traditional date. Meeting someone in a bar, where one might express interest in buying you a drink, is both an act of old fashioned gentility, and new-fashioned, crude efficiency, depending on the manner in which the gift is offered. Dinner might not come into the picture until you’ve already become lovers. Or perhaps you’ve met a friend of a friend at a party and are hitting it off with them, ending the party with a kiss or more. That’s not a date either.

One of the appeals of online dating is that it feels ironically old fashioned once the laptops have been left at home and you find yourself sitting across a table, peering into the pupils of a would-be beautiful stranger. The most common phrase on the average online dating profile is “I’m tired of the bar scene.” Without the internet, it’s really difficult to date traditionally. It requires the right environment; it requires both men and women to ditch the unwritten social systems we have established for ourselves by default, and actively approach someone with the intent of asking them to dinner, a movie, or on a walk around town. In other words, a date is a formal expression, the enactment of a specific activity bound by a specific time and place, involving just the two of you.

That said, dating culture is so very much all over the map, there are no official rules as to who pays for dinner. I have met a few girls who insist that men should pay because “it’s how they were raised.” When they describe it as such, they insist on adopting the sense of it being a class issue, not a patriarchal one (which is the same thing if you think about it). A few men of the same breed have also stated that they could “never let a woman pay for dinner.” But I find this attitude hardly complimentary to the female sex: It stinks of the utterly average, princess-laden, Disney Store consumerist, little-girl upbringing, rather than those of American would-be debutantes. Real ladies have something in their purses other than lipstick.

I went on a date once with a man who insisted that the woman “at least blow smoke up his ass,” explaining he prefers that she offer to pay though he has no intention of allowing it. I replied that when I offer to pay, it is because I intend to pay. It was our first date, and we nearly fought about it. I didn’t like the image he was painting, of the girl who disingenuously offers to pay merely because she is expected to offer. Feminism is about, among other things, not raising little girls to say “yes” when they mean “no” or vice versa. This starts at the dinner table.

Oh, a relevant side note: The link between established couples fighting about money, and divorce rates, is well documented. In certain cases, these people no doubt got married under certain assumptions about money that didn’t pan out for either party. If a man pays for a woman’s dinner, on a primitive, evolutionary level, she’s more likely to assume that he’ll continue paying for anything else she might need, and in the worst case, build the entire relationship on that foundation. So the next time you split the check on an awesome first date, you’re not only adding to the health of the overall relationship at that time, but to the health of the relationship, potentially 10 years down the line.

Personally, I always offer to pay precisely my share, and I always mean it when I do, except under certain circumstances. When a man makes a thousand times what I make to the effect that it would make me feel ridiculous to offer, I let him pay. When a man ordered so many more drinks than I, and the check cannot be split evenly, I let him pay if he offers. If he declares he is paying for dinner in a respectful, nonthreatening way that doesn’t make the quills on my feminist crest flare up, I will let him. This doesn’t mean that I expect men to figure out how I want them to ask. I am merely confessing that I can be seduced into it by the right attitude. These men have powers of gentility which are the same whether they are offering to pay for a male friend or a female friend. In this case, the man has made me so comfortable with his presence in general, and treated me as his guest so genuinely throughout the entire dinner, that he manages to convey the sense that paying really is his pleasure. It doesn’t happen very often. (And again, that’s quite all right — among other reasons: I think men ought to be able to date without having to double their dining out budget to accommodate it.)

In closing, splitting the bill down the middle is a safe, comfortable and democratic dating method, and if and when it comes to it, if he gets a bit pushy later that night outside your door, you’ll have that extra bit of self-respect leftover. Incidentally, I’ve never heard of a man who felt pressured to have sex with a woman because she bought him a bowl of pho two hours prior. Anyway, please be aware of the culture you live in and how easy it is to fall into unpleasant role-playing. I know too many girls with a fragile sense of self-respect. The fact sometimes is, when he pays, there is an expectation-elephant in the room that wasn’t there when the date began. If you don’t have the Princess Power to remain fixed to your post-date evening plans regardless of who pays, you’d best pay for your own dinner.

That said, I have read about many women who are using dating as a way to eat in this economy, which blows my mind. If you have the cheek to do this regularly, I suspect you also have the cheek to make sure it has no effect upon your sex life. Otherwise, please go fetch yourself a package of ramen noodles while I donate another $15 to Planned Parenthood.

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  1. Hi Donald,

    Could you clarify the problem you have with this? There are exceptions to every rule, which doesn’t mean that I am going to start saying no when I mean yes, it means I am going to say yes when I mean yes 🙂

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