Birthday party planning advice needed
May 1, 2012 4:04 PM   Subscribe

As host, should I pay? Should I even I bring it up?

I'm organizing a surprise party my boyfriend for his 30th birthday. We already have a dinner planned with his family later on, so this party is friends only. I've decided to have it at a Chinese dumpling place in for Sunday brunch. I've eaten there before and its cheap (like $10-$15 a person w/out booze). I'm also thinking of inviting everyone back to our place after for drinks and birthday cake (we live together) but that comes with other keeping it a surprise while stocking the house with booze and getting a cake.
So heres my question..since I'm doing the inviting, am I supposed to pay for the whole thing? I would prefer to just pay for one phase of the party. I don't mind covering the bill at the chinese place as long as people just order food, because beer & wine could double the bill. I also don't mind paying for cake and booze for after, if everyone splits the chinese.
I don't want to be tacky bringing up $ but I also don't like when I'm invited to parties where its vague if the host is paying or if everyone is expected to pitch in.

I guess my options are:
a) play it by ear. Don't mention $ and don't mention cake and booze in the invite and just see if people offer $ at bill time..people may very well expect to pay their own way. If I do end up footing the whole bill, then don't invite them over for cake/booze..
b) explain in the invite that I'll cover the meal (but not drinks) and request byob for coming back to the house. Get a small cake on the way home.
c) explain in the invite that I'll pay for myself and bf's share of chinese and ask that everyone else split the rest, but tell them I'll be buying dessert and drinks for everyone after.

Other info:
-his friends are all 27-30 and not in high income brackets (most are either grad students or struggling artists or musicians)
-I've hung out with all his friends many times but don't have a real close relationship with any, so I feel a bit awkward here.
-I already sent a pre-invite asking 16 of his friends if they would be around that day. 10 people said yes, 2 said no and 2 haven't responded, so +bf and I it'll be a party of 12 or so
-I hope to only spend $200 or less for this, because I am also taking my boyfriend to Portland as his present which will cost around $1000, so its not like I'm being hella cheap here.
-the party invitation will just be an email, nothing fancy.

K thanks ahead of time for advice!
posted by hellameangirl to Human Relations (75 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
c) explain in the invite that I'll pay for myself and bf's share of chinese and ask that everyone else split the rest, but tell them I'll be buying dessert and drinks for everyone after.

I think this is a good idea.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:08 PM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

a) play it by ear. Don't mention $ and don't mention cake and booze in the invite and just see if people offer $ at bill time..people may very well expect to pay their own way. If I do end up footing the whole bill, then don't invite them over for cake/booze..

This is the least organized and most passive-aggressive option, so I recommend you try something else.

I don't think you're obligated to pay, and being up front about not wishing to will help people decide if they can swing it. Send out a note saying that you tried to find a place that would fit everyone's budget, that the meals will probably be $10-$15 plus any booze, and that's a good time to also mention that it would be helpful if people brought extra booze for the party afterward.

Being as clear as possible at the outset is the surest way to make sure you're not on the hook at the end. Bring some extra cash in case everyone's cash doesn't quite add up to the total (funny how this always happens with big groups...).
posted by hermitosis at 4:08 PM on May 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

as a guest, i've always preferred option C. by far the least awkward, easiest, and most expected
posted by sarahnicolesays at 4:10 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Traditional etiquette states that if you invite people to a restaurant party, you pay the bill. Reality tells me that most people in the bracket you describe expect to pay their share whenever they go to a restaurant with a group, but yet, somehow, the bill-splitting is almost always a huge cluster-fuck. I say skip the restaurant and host the whole thing at your apartment. Have brunch foods, cake, booze. Guaranteed to not cost big bucks since you're in charge!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:11 PM on May 1, 2012 [41 favorites]

Have them split the brunch. There's no need for you to buy everyone brunch. They may be struggling artists, but if they're struggling artists who want to eat brunch in a restaurant, that'll cost them money (unless you want to be even more generous than you're already being). Everything happening in your home would customarily by paid for by you.
posted by John Cohen at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oooh, now I kinda agree with TPS.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2012

…or, be paid for by you.
posted by John Cohen at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2012

As a person in a lower income bracket, let me just say that i HATE it when the bill comes and everyone is just supposed to split it so that everyone pays the same amount. I order only what I can afford, I don't want to help someone else pay for their lobster and wine. Also I REALLY want to know in advance if I'm going to be chipping in to pay for the birthday girl/guy's meal.
posted by hermitosis at 4:15 PM on May 1, 2012 [26 favorites]

If I was a guest at this party, then I'd prefer option B. I think saying "PYOB/BYOB (Pay for Your Own Beer/Bring Your Own Beer)" would be a great way to get the message across.

Option C is great for you (the host), but the concern is that your SO's friends don't make that much money whereas you seem to make more and can cover this without having to worry as much as a grad student or artist.

As long as you don't do option A then it will be fine. Option A is far too passive-aggressive is too awkward and disorganized.
posted by livinglearning at 4:15 PM on May 1, 2012

What about option D, get light tapas takeout from the Chinese place, and have that with drinks & cake at the apartment with everyone?
posted by kellyblah at 4:16 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, don't have a party at a place you're not paying for. You're the host, you're supposed to pay according to the rules of etiquette. If you want to have a potluck, have a potluck. Save the dumplings for a smaller, more intimate gathering after the surprise part somewhere else that you can pay for.
posted by inturnaround at 4:18 PM on May 1, 2012

Either (b) or (c) would be fine. I think (b) seems nicer -- you are hosting a party, you'll pay for their food, they pay for their own alcohol, then they're invited back for cake and they can again bring their own alcohol. But (c) works too. Just let people know in advance if they're expected to pay for anything.
posted by jeather at 4:25 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you set the party in the restaurant and ask people to pay for themselves, friends who can't pay won't be able to go. They can't really go and not eat, it's super awkward (I've tried it). Try doing the party all at home, maybe with some take out/catering and asking people if they want to kick in a few bucks help pay for the food or something. Or do a potluck. Or don't provide food besides cake. That way you don't pay more than you want to, and no one is economically uninvited.
posted by Garm at 4:27 PM on May 1, 2012

Doing a house party is not an option because I won't be able to surprise my boyfriend that way since we live together+he works from home. The "come over after" works because the surprise element has already happened. Thanks though!
posted by hellameangirl at 4:27 PM on May 1, 2012

I would say the party at your house is the "real" party (and you pay for it), but you'd love it if people would want to join you for brunch beforehand.

If it's a surprise, you could use brunch as the "party," and have the folks who don't want to go/can't afford to go help out with the surprise by bringing in the cake/drinks/etc., and helping to set up a bit as you guys are out at brunch.
posted by xingcat at 4:29 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Definitely not A. You need to be explicit about what is being covered and what is not, and what if everyone doesn't want Chinese, or what if someone really wants a beer? As a guest B or C would be fine for me - I think B is more generous and more sensitive to everyone's financial situation, but C would be fine.
posted by sm1tten at 4:30 PM on May 1, 2012

Yes, as the host, you pay. If you are not paying, you are the organizer and not the host.

If you want to organize and not pay, be sure to only invite people whose birthday parties you've paid to attend in the past.

Also, don't send out "invitations" or use the word "invite", it will be "we are going to $VENUE for $BIRTHDAY and why don't you join us, and here's a link to their menu so you can have an idea of variety and pricing".

If you want to be a host, you could either a) have the whole thing at your place, and b) pay for everything.

Datapoint: once a year I have a party that I totally pay for. I make all the food and drink myself, and I buy group tickets into a local historic site for a picnic. Last year I had 16 guests, for a total of 18 people. It cost me the same as dinner at an average restaurant for four people.

Datapoint: I'm never thrilled when people "invite" me to pay money to celebrate their birthday. I think if I tried to pull something like that, nobody would turn up. Not that I'd ever know, I guess, because I wouldn't turn up. I would be so pissed off at me that I'd take myself somewhere else to show me a good time on my own terms. I guess if I ran into myself coming back the other way it would be awkward though, and I would have to make excuses and small talk. YMMV.
posted by tel3path at 4:31 PM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

As a (still, I think) young professional living in a city where people have birthday gatherings at bars and restaurants, I think I am qualified to answer what expected etiquette is: when you invite people for a birthday gathering at a restaurant, there is the expectation that people will be paying for their own food and drinks. I think it would be a nice gesture for the OP to buy cupcakes or a cake or some other shared celebratory dessert for everyone to share, but if it wasn't there, I wouldn't think anything bad about it.
posted by deanc at 4:31 PM on May 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

I realize that there is a "host pays" etiquette in general, but in cities where people don't have a lot of personal apartment space to throw a house party and where people aren't wealthy enough to reserve a dinner room at a restaurant and pay for a catered dinner party, the "birthday dinner/drinks at restaurant/bar X" is a pretty standard thing (at least here in DC, but this is the city of Northern Charm and Southern Effficiency).
posted by deanc at 4:35 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Hi friends, we're going to celebrate Boyfriend's 30th birthday on xx/yy! The actual party will be at our place at 2pm, but we're also going to have a no-host brunch at his favorite Chinese dumpling place at 11:00am if anyone wants to join us. Oh, and this whole thing is a surprise, so no one say anything to Boyfriend. We hope you can make some or all of the festivities!"
posted by mosk at 4:36 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

You could make a deal with the Chinese place and let people have a smaller selection from which to chose and pay for it all. Or order a set menu and people can buy their own beer and wine.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:37 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have friends from various income brackets.

When I threw myself a restaurant party, I offered to pay for everyone. Some took me up on it; some insisted on chipping in, so I let them.

My reasoning was:
a) It was my choice to go to this nice restaurant, not theirs.
b) The ones who don't make that much would probably choose not to come at all if they thought I couldn't afford it. I consider my friends coming to my party a favor to me, and they shouldn't have to pay for the privilege.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:38 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

edit: if they thought *they* couldn't afford it
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:39 PM on May 1, 2012

I've done the brunch-out-for-breakfast birthday thing many times and not once has the host been remotely expected to pay for everyone. The birthday boy/gal's partner has paid for a nice bottle of champagne to share for a toast. Chinese restaurant, brunch etc signal that big drinking bills are unlikely. And the brunch might be presented as a meet-up before the 'real' party is back at your house after brunch.

On preview, I'd go with mosk's message.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:40 PM on May 1, 2012

As someone just going into their 40's, throughout my 20's and 30's, it was expected everyone would split such a bill.

A fairly non-crass way to go about it would be;

"Hey - so I thought place x would be good, as it should fit everyone's budget. After, we can head back to our place where I'll have drinks and cake for everyone."

It's fairly clear everyone pays their way - but - you will be entertaining with drinks and desert as a kicker.

Going out with friends, we always went out to dinner and split the bill, excluding the birthday person - so everyone paid for their dinner and takes a piece of the birthday boy/girl's meal.

Just recently, as we've become more established and extravagant, people have begun to pick up the tab in whole when we go out for their spouse's dinner. BUT - we all ask when the bill comes out to split it, and the host says yeah or waves us off in a flourish of being insulted about taking our money. But this is a new development after YEARS and YEARS of everyone splitting.

And this splitting has gone on across a few different social circles, new and old.
posted by rich at 4:41 PM on May 1, 2012 [12 favorites]

I think you could finesse the "buy your own brunch" thing by a carefully worded email, with the "invitation" being for the cake and drinks afterwards. I think it would be more problematic to ask people to buy their own brunch and drinks, then invite them back for cake and ask them to buy MORE booze for that. Instead could you serve a less expensive drink option, like sangria or some other boozy punch?
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 4:43 PM on May 1, 2012

Part of the excitement of throwing a surprise birthday party for someone is figuring out how to work around those pesky obstacles like "we live together" and "he works at home." I think you're just not thinking far enough outside the box here. Also, "how to get a cake to your place" without alerting him to the fact that you're stocking up for a party? That's simple: have an accomplice, a guest who will bring the cake and the booze with them when they arrive.

ThePinkSuperhero is right about what etiquette demands in terms of inviting people to a restaurant. If you invite, you should pay.
posted by jph at 4:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

I like (c) and think it's pretty typical. Also, you could make it clear that if someone is unable to pay for dinner, that they are still welcome to attend the celebration at your apartment.
posted by decathexis at 4:51 PM on May 1, 2012

Whatever you do allow yourself some wiggle room in terms of someone possibly not coming up with enough cash at the restaurant. Some of this will depend on the group but many times when I've gone to group events we've ended up short on cash. If you make the reservation they'll be bringing you the bill anyway and you'll have to decide how to deal with it.

I vote for C as possibly the least messy way - using some of the suggestions above.
posted by oneear at 4:51 PM on May 1, 2012

I also think C sounds good.

And just as a data point, in my (mid-20's to mid-30's) group of friends, the expectation is that everyone chips in except the birthday person. I hope someday we can take turns as rich describes above, but til then, we all bring cash to birthday meals.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:57 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Option "b" makes it easiest for you in terms of surprise afterwards, but option "c" is what most people expect. But you can do whatever you want as long as you're clear about it. Does he have a best guy friend that you could get to make plans with him to get him out of the house that morning? Because I think the best surprises are when you walk into your house and BAM -- everyone's there.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:58 PM on May 1, 2012

Assuming it's a modest restaurant and that you honestly feel that it is within the budget of your guests, the done thing in my experience is that everyone goes dutch. Especially where drinks are concerned. That said, if there are guests where attending a party at a casual restaurant might be a financial reach, or if you have the sort of circle where people start ordering apps or rounds of drinks "for the table" (i.e. things quickly get out of control), it would be best to either foot the bill entirely or just not do that kind of party.

I once went to a birthday party for an adult's non-milestone birthday, at a rather spendy restaurant with a prix fixe menu, to which people started adding bottles of wine and "desserts to share" and the like. Oh, and of course the birthday girl wasn't paying, her meal was to be split between all the other guests. I could just barely afford to attend the party, and imagine my surprise when an evening that was pitched as $50/person ballooned to over $100...

Just don't be that birthday girl's S.O. and you're probably fine.
posted by Sara C. at 4:59 PM on May 1, 2012

"Part of the excitement of throwing a surprise birthday party for someone is figuring out how to work around those pesky obstacles. I think you're just not thinking far enough outside the box here."
Sorry, but no. Just reading that nearly put me in a panic attack. Last month I asked BF if he wanted a birthday party and he told me he doesn't want the stress of another party (we just through a big housewarming bbq--yes we bought tons of food and booze) and I don't either. I'm more introverted than he is, especially since these are his friends and not mine, plus all the planning that is going into his Portland trip, I just cannot handle the "excitement". I'd rather just buy everyone dumplings somewhere.
posted by hellameangirl at 5:00 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a person in a lower income bracket, let me just say that i HATE it when the bill comes and everyone is just supposed to split it so that everyone pays the same amount. I order only what I can afford, I don't want to help someone else pay for their lobster and wine. Also I REALLY want to know in advance if I'm going to be chipping in to pay for the birthday girl/guy's meal.

This this this this. Ugh. I'm a vegetarian, and these situations always slam me. Not to be cheap-- well, ok, I am cheap-- but I like to know what's up going in. If I know we're going to be splitting it down the middle, maybe I'll live a little and get an appetizer, but otherwise I tend to order cheap because I'm poor.

I will say that it would never ever occur to me that an invite to a restaurant dinner by peers meant that they were paying, though maybe that's due to the low-income mid-20s circle I travel in.
posted by threeants at 5:02 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

(Not that it would be unwelcome for the inviter to pay...I would just never ever assume that.)
posted by threeants at 5:03 PM on May 1, 2012

The beef I have with every occasion always being a pay-your-own-way thing, is that the concept of what hospitality is supposed to be, has all but disappeared. No-one even seems to understand why anyone would do it, but here is my pitch:

Hospitality is where you give food to your friends to show them you love them. In many societies, most of them very poor, showing hospitality to strangers out of one's limited resources is a pillar of good character.

It is not just about the food and the restaurant and the prices, what you can get away with because everyone else does it, and the comparison of my income and my house with everyone else's income and house.

As has been said, if my friends choose to celebrate my birthday with me it's a kindness to me. Who cares that someone is born! Well, they do, apparently. The thought of asking them to pay to do it actually hurts a little.

I'm not arguing that every occasion has to be hosted, of course not, but it is kind of arduous to have to find money or schlep a casserole dish to absolutely everything. I haven't been to a hosted occasion in years, but I can't imagine I'm so rolling in money as to be totally out of touch with everyone else's economic reality.
posted by tel3path at 5:04 PM on May 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

I agree that the traditional / most proper thing would be for you to pay, but I think that it is 100% fine and great and fantastic and acceptable for everyone to split the bill instead if a) you pick a modestly priced place and b) you tell people in advance that they will be splitting the bill.

Then, people can join you later for cake if they can't afford it, tell the waiter they'd like to be on a separate check, etc, etc. And it will all be fine.

Tell the guests they will be paying for their own food. Don't stress about it. Almost no one cares about traditional etiquette as long as you are mindful of other's financial situations and polite.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:04 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait, your boyfriend explicitly said he didn't want a party, and so you've decided to throw him a surprise party? And you're stressed out by people and excitement? I'm thinking you might be better off scrapping the surprise party idea altogether.

If you do decide that you want to go out to dinner with a group of friends, you need to find a way to handle the payment in which everyone knows ahead of time whether they'll be expected to pay and for what, and in which everyone can pay for their own orders without having to subsidize anyone else. that means that either you pay (and let everyone know ahead of time that you'll be paying), or you make sure that the restaurant you choose can do separate checks for each person. Because based on this thread, it's clear that I'm not the only one who avoids situations in which I'm likely to end up splitting the check evenly with 12 other people, some of whom have ordered much more expensively than I would.
posted by decathecting at 5:06 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Just for the record, about 20 for "c" - as is, absolutely fine to let people know you expect them to all chip in and you'll have drinks later and only 3 MeFites are for you paying, based on the outdated rules of etiquette.

Would it be nice of you to pay? SURE! Is it a socially accepted norm for friends to all split a dinner/brunch/meal bill and pay for the birthday person in the process? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Just because people want to stop the disintegration of American society isn't a good reason to pick up the check.

(of course if this was a party at your house, my answer would be completely different, as you are hosting it. As a guest, of course, I would bring a bottle of wine or a twelve pack of beer, or a nice bottle of Scotch. I do NOT understand the whole 'bring a part of the meal to my party at my house' thing, however.)
posted by rich at 5:13 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

What decathecting said. Based on your update, the answer is "don't have a party at all."

It's not fair for you to transfer your social anxiety onto other people because it's easier for you that way. Which is what it is when you have a party where everyone is expected to pay their own way and you carry no obligations.
posted by Sara C. at 5:13 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would go with option C, and it wouldn't be a HUGE faux pas in my group, or wouldn't have at that age. However, I do want to point out that you are setting a lot of parameters to do with you and your boyfriend's comfort - you don't want the hassle of a party, you want it to be a surprise, etc. That might be an indication this isn't the way to go.
posted by Zen_warrior at 5:14 PM on May 1, 2012

You know, a surprise party is a really sweet idea. I don't want to diminish for a second the love behind your idea to see your honey confronted in an unexpected way by the true love of his friends and loved ones. That said, I'm a now-curmudgeonly 30-something who has been to an uncountable number of such parties that have been planned by significant others, and I honestly cannot think of a SINGLE ONE where the surprise element has actually generated surplus joy for the birthday person. Especially when you account for all the awkwardness/uncertainty on the parts of their friends, which never really tally fully in the joy of the birthday person.

I sincerely recommend saying to your honey, "I'm so excited for your 30th birthday, and I know tons of your friends are excited to celebrate it with you too. I was thinking that maybe we'd do dinner at Chinese restaurant A, then invite people back here for cake and dancing and whatever? Then after than you KNOW I'm going to give you one minute of activity X for each year of your birthday, so you better hold onto your birthday hat!"

Then just tell people that you're planning to host a party with cake at your place at 9pm or whatever, but if anyone wants to go to dinner beforehand, too, it'll be BYOB and BYOD (=dumplings) at Chinese Restaurant of Choice at 7pm, estimated cost of $x per person, and they should RSVP here!

You should provide cake and a selection of beverages that will last the night at your place, and anyone who comes out to dinner should feel comfortable paying an approximate share. (The only key exception, in my experience, is not making sober people pay for booze in a group party).

Hope you have a great celebration.
posted by argonauta at 5:15 PM on May 1, 2012

I am going to go along with the consensus and say that this sounds like not a well thought out plan in general, and that either the surprise part of it or the restaurant part of things is going to have to change.
posted by empath at 5:17 PM on May 1, 2012

Based on the alignment of Mars, and Jupiter rising, there may be a black cat in the alley that may steer you into walking under a ladder...

Why do answerers always have to try and look inside a person's psyche when they're just asking a simple question?

It's not complex, people.

"Hey, I picked "x" place because it's in everyone's budget. If you plan to go, let me know so I can make reservations. Be there by x time so we can surprise dumbass. After, I'll have drinks and cake at our place. Hope you can make it."

It doesn't have to be well thought out. 10 people are around that day. Based on the invite, indicating payment, x people will respond yes. For those who respond "no" reply that you'll probably be back at home by time x if they want to stop by.

This isn't a Debutante Ball. It's friends getting together for another friend's birthday. And excuse to eat and drink.
posted by rich at 5:23 PM on May 1, 2012 [28 favorites]

decathecting , Sara, No, he didn't say explicitly that he didn't want a party, he just didn't want to host one for himself. We have the biggest place out of these friends so I don't expect anyone else to offer to throw him a party, so I thought I'd be nice and organize a chinese brunch. Its called being a nice girlfriend despite social anxiety! And have you people never had dumplings?! This ain't steak and lobster, its like, cheaper than going to a pizza place! And where did I same I wanted to carry no obligations?? Did you not see where I said this is a $10-$15 per person place? I said I plan to spend $200 here anywy. Maybe you are transfering on to me what your friend did.
Thanks to the rest of you for being helpful.
posted by hellameangirl at 5:25 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Honestly the first time i'd ever heard of the host paying in a situation of a large group dinner was on metafilter.

C is what's usually assumed in my circle of east coast big city early twenties to mid thirties friends. I've never been to a party at a restaurant where its been otherwise.

I think you should go with C so long as its not a huge break from what is normal between you and your friends because they're the ones who matter not us and certainly not ideas of propriety who will not be helping to pay for the meal.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:27 PM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Hospitality is where you give food to your friends to show them you love them.

For the record, I agree with this sentiment, but that is just me, and the reality of where I live is that few people have apartments with enough space to host a gathering, even fewer have the resources to pay for everyone's dinner and/or drinks, and the prevailing culture disagrees with me.

In general I would say that the most preferable option is to throw a party at your place with your own food and drinks, but if you invite everyone to join you for brunch they will not even blink twice about paying for their share. (c) is absolutely standard among urban young professionals. My only shock here is that the OP and the rest of you haven't been through this merry-go-round of celebratory-restaurant-get-togethers with friends enough times that this is even a discussion.
posted by deanc at 5:30 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think C is fine, but then tell people in the invite what time cake and drinks at your place is happening, and that it's fine to just come for that if they don't want to join you at the restaurant. That way no one HAS to pay in order to celebrate your bf's birthday with you.

And I don't think you should let people cover the birthday boy's brunch, as other people say is normal, because that would look very tacky, since it equates to you inviting people and then (collectively) paying less than your guests.
posted by lollusc at 5:32 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I am 27 and I cannot imagine anyone in my circles paying for a whole group of us to go out to eat - it would be completely unaffordable for most of us and would come off as unbearably showoff-y from the few who could do it. The only times I've ever been in a situation where this was done were when my parents or another old person was hosting. It is definitely, definitely normal for young people to split the bill for a celebration. Option C is the least complicated, and the wording rich proposes is the just right, although I think lollusc's addendum is useful too.
posted by naoko at 5:36 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Do you want it to be a surprise because you think he likes surprises, or because you don't want any of the pressure of holding a party to be on him and if he knows about it, it'll pressure him? I ask only because if the consequence of losing the surprise element is that he's actually unhappy, then you've got an unmanageable plan, here. Otherwise, yeah, Rich's plan, with lollusc's modification, is the way to go.

Assuming his friends aren't bad about group checks, of course. (I have some friends who just never seem to remember tax and tip, and OMG once I went to a birthday dinner out where we all volunteered to pay for the birthday girl, but somehow the collected money came to more than that, so her boyfriend just decided that he didn't need to put in any money at all. And she went along with it. And none of us wanted to ruin the night by calling them on that bullshit.)
posted by gingerest at 5:36 PM on May 1, 2012

I'd assume I would be paying for myself AND chipping into the birthday boy's meal, AND would probably bring something to drop off at your place for the surprise party.

I would not be unusual in my circle of friends for doing that, either. But then, we're all awesome.

That's why we're friends.
posted by spunweb at 5:39 PM on May 1, 2012

My husband and I just celebrated a milestone birthday of his with some friends at a restaurant and picked up the tab, which deeply surprised everyone, even though we are all at an age/income where none of us go Dutch by necessity. So I think that particular element of etiquette is in the realm of "nice but definitely not necessary".

I think that having everyone pay for their own meals and having the "hosted" part be cake & drinks at your house is totally fine, since it offers an easy option to folks who would like to celebrate but might not be able to pay. I would spend a little time thinking about the logistics of getting money from 15 people without it turning into a big Thing, because that is my absolute least favorite part of group meals.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:40 PM on May 1, 2012

Okay, thirties-ish lower income person here. Not only is it always understood that folks pay for their own food at parties like this one, but I would be aghast if one of my friends felt she had to pay several hundred dollars to take all of us to a restaurant. I might accept that kind of hospitality from a friend who was actually rich, but from anyone else it would feel excessive.

I don't like appeals to "you have to do this because the rules of etiquette say so". The rules of etiquette are not the same as the laws of physics; they're a set of conventions intended to put people at ease with strangers or to smooth the way in situations where it is impossible to ask and communicate about stuff. If you live in a social world where people do ask and communicate and where there isn't a lot of status competition (which sounds to be the case), just say that folks are picking up their own tabs at the restaurant. Only someone who was more interested in being correct than being friendly would get bent out of shape about this. (And if any of these folks are out of work, etc, you can discreetly offer to cover their share if you know them well enough that they wouldn't be embarrassed.)
posted by Frowner at 5:46 PM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

I agree with rich, but please do specify that you will be paying for yourself and bf. I think it's expected (at least it has been at the birthday dinners I've attended) that everyone will pitch in for the birthday person, so it would be nice to be clear about that beforehand, as it may alleviate some anxiety for those with lower incomes.
posted by koselig at 5:53 PM on May 1, 2012

"We are having brunch at dumpling place for BF's birthday (but it's a surprise, so keep it on the down low) - please feel free to join us - we will also be having cake + booze at our place afterwards."

There will be an expectation then that everyone is paying for their own at the dumpling place but that you'll be supplying stuff at your home. Some people will bring their own booze to your place anyway.
posted by mleigh at 6:01 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Based on the responses here and my own experiences, this seems like a hugely generational weird etiquette sea change. I'm in my late 20's, have lived in a big west coast city my whole life, and my group of friends range in age from mid 20's to mid 30's, with a similarly wide range of income brackets. NEVER EVER has anyone ever picked up the whole tab at a restaurant when dining out as a large group. If someone sends around an invite for a birthday dinner, we all assume we'll be picking up our own share and chipping in for the birthday boy/girl. Most of the time servers will even split the bill individually and do it without asking, because it's so much the norm.

The only time I've ever seen one person pick up the entire tab is when I'm having dinner with my parents and their friends. I don't think this is a custom that my friends and I will "grow into" as we get older/richer either, I think it's something that just isn't really done anymore.
posted by keep it under cover at 6:07 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm 50. A few years ago, we went to a fancy-ish restaurant for a friend's milestone birthday. All couples paid for their own meals, separate checks. That's totally expected in my MN circles. As it happened, at that party there were a couple people who Really Cared About the Wine. They did all the wine ordering and the two of them picked up the wine tab (several hundred $) for the table because they could afford it and they realized that forcing everybody at the table to buy their favorite $40 bottles of wine would be unfair.
posted by chazlarson at 6:14 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the etiquette gap here is because some people are from large cities and some are not.

NYC here. I have attended many, many, MANY restaurant birthdays, because none of us have the apartment space to host all of our friends. None of us. Unless you don't have many friends.

Here is the established etiquette. You say, "Hey, we're going to be having a birthday get-together at X restaurant (hyperlink here), followed by cake and wine at our place! Let me know if you plan on coming to the restaurant, so we can get reservations for a table big enough for all of us. Text me if you won't be able to make it to the dinner, but think you might be able to make it to cake." This (a) lets people know it's a restaurant birthday, and they will need to be paying for their own dinner, but also (b) lets people come to the afterparty-what-is-not-a-dinner if they really can't afford it.

That said: see if the restaurant will split the check NOW. Otherwise, I guarantee you what you will get, unless you have really nice friends, is people inaccurately estimating what they ate, and throwing in an inadequate amount of money, then spending an extra half hour figuring out how to squeeze blood from a stone. Another way to do it is to allow the check-splitting, then just in your head accept that you may have to cover the remainder of meal and tip that people inadequately plan for.
posted by corb at 6:20 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

My peers all always split the bill. Also people never chip in enough for tax and tip and it's generally stressful for everyone involved, including the server. Actually, as someone who has waited tables before, it's especially stressful for the server.

I wasn't even introduced to the concept of someone paying for a large group meal until I met my boyfriend's family. And the generosity of the gesture just kind of floored me. And since then, I've footed the bill for a bunch of meals myself. People are always sort of shocked by the gesture, but it feels loving to me. I like being generous. I like giving my friends one less thing to worry about. I also like setting precedent for that kind of thing. Paying the generosity I've received forward. Maybe it'll inspire someone else to be generous to their friends some day--that sort of deal.

I say that as soon as you get to the restaurant, go to the server and tell them that you want to cover everything but drinks so to put the meals on your tab. Let it be a surprise when the bills come and everyone is prepared to split. No, it's not something you have to do. But it's the best, most generous thing you can do. No one will mind paying for their own drinks when you're surprising them by paying for their meal.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:20 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Great! Looks like the majority says option c, but I'm actually leaning towards b for 2 reasons..
--like a lot of people are saying, bill splitting can get complicated, and having been to this place before the server mostly likely won't do the splitting for us. (they are know for delicious food but not great service)
--what if my bf doesn't want a party at our house that day? This way, the chinese is the real party and there I can ask him if he's in the mood to invite people over for a "spontaneous" bonus (and I don't think his friends would scoff at byob suggestion).

More background, most friend's restaurant parties I've gone too it is expected that everyone pay for themselves+guest of honor, but recently a 34 year old friend of mine threw himself a birthday party at a bar where he bought a bunch of pizzas for his guests, but we bought our own drinks. I thought this was nice! I guess part of me feels like, "Hey, we are entering our 30s, maybe this is how it should be done now" and thought I should take the opportunity in this case.

"You could make a deal with the Chinese place and let people have a smaller selection from which to chose and pay for it all. Or order a set menu and people can buy their own beer and wine."
This is something I hadn't thought of, and sounds like a good idea!

"Paying the generosity I've received forward. Maybe it'll inspire someone else to be generous to their friends some day--that sort of deal." Hopefully this is how it will feel if I pay for the meal.

"it would come off as unbearably showoff-y from the few who could do it"
hmmm, but then theres the risk of that :/

As for the surprise element, its more about handling the planning for him. I'm pretty sure he knows I'm up to something. And I honestly don't think he be upset about eating his favorite food with his favorite people! I think forcing a party at our house would be a lot different with a bigger chance of failure.
Thanks again everyone!
posted by hellameangirl at 7:19 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just for all of you who think "host pays" is nuts, it's what Miss Manners advises, as well as Emily Post. Dr. Dave and Dee.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:35 PM on May 1, 2012

Also the guests do not pay for the birthday boy. Unfortunately, since you wouldn’t charge guests to attend a party in your home, it wouldn’t be appropriate to charge them to attend a party in a restaurant and ask them to pay extra to cover the birthday girl’s meal.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:37 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

(and I don't think his friends would scoff at byob suggestion).

Wait, what? I thought you were going to provide the dessert and drinks if it was decided that splitting the restaurant bill was ok.
posted by naoko at 7:47 PM on May 1, 2012

Just for all of you who think "host pays" is nuts, it's what Miss Manners advises, as well as Emily Post. Dr. Dave and Dee.

It really, really, really pains me to diverge from Miss Manners on anything, and I can't think of any other occasion where I have ever said this but...this advice just seems terribly outdated.
posted by naoko at 7:49 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Naoko, I said I was leaning towards b) paying for the chinese, with the option of inviting them over after for byob. That way I don't have to secretly stockpile booze at my house beforehand.
posted by hellameangirl at 7:55 PM on May 1, 2012

Ah, reading comprehension fail, gotcha.
posted by naoko at 7:58 PM on May 1, 2012

Just for all of you who think "host pays" is nuts, it's what Miss Manners advises, as well as Emily Post. Dr. Dave and Dee.

These people do not live in the real world. I'm in my forties and I have never ever ever been out to a big birthday meal where one person picked up the tab. Friends and I go out for dinner regularly in groups of 3-4 and then often someone will pick up the tab to celebrate something or as a surprise or a treat or whatever. If I intend to pay the tab I will say "Hey I'd like to take you out for dinner." And then still, pretty much invariably, the friend will at least make a reach for their wallet when the bill comes.

My parents are in their sixties and I think they would pass out if any of their friends expected them to pick up the tab for a table of 8 on someone's birthday.

When I host in my home, I provide the food and the booze. People usually bring their own booze anyway. I started this in my late 20s when I got my first no-roommate required apartment.

Of course offering to pick up the tab for the table is always appreciated, but I honestly cannot think of a single occasion, except something like a rehearsal dinner or casual restaurant wedding, where I would expect not to pay (and even then, I wouldn't be 100% sure I wasn't expected to pay my share until the bill did not arrive).
posted by looli at 8:01 PM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh, and if you decide to pay for everyone's food, I would let them know in the invitation in case there is someone who wouldn't otherwise come because of cash constraints.
posted by looli at 8:03 PM on May 1, 2012

Yeah, I plan to, looli! Now I'm trying to figure out how to word it without coming off like "hey, look at me: Ms. Lady Yuppie Moneybags!"
Maybe just "I'll cover the food, you cover the booze"?
posted by hellameangirl at 8:33 PM on May 1, 2012

I suggest a formal invitation à la Miss Manners that begins "Ms. Lady Yuppie Moneybags requests the honour of your presence to mark the 30th anniversary of the birth of Lord Moneybags."

Or, you know, what you said works, too.
posted by looli at 8:41 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

When forced to choose between etiquette and manners, go for manners every time, I'd say.

The goal is to make people feel welcome, celebrate BF, and have a good time.

So, you won't go wrong if you: make sure you are clear about anything people will have to pay, have a way for everyone to participate in a meaningful way, and then make them feel welcome when they are there, whether they chip in or not, bring gifts or not, stick to water or drink wine.

Make guests feel welcome in a way that celebrates the occasion: remind (or tell) everyone else a great story about each guest and BF. They'll all have a great time knowing you like them and think they are good friends, interesting people, and are appreciated. Then they can all leave thinking "I'm glad I have such awesome friends" rather than "should I have offered to pay?"
posted by chapps at 12:58 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

[No more arguing with each other about host-pay/guest-pay, please. OP has indicated she's settled on how to handle it, so further advice to help with that is fine. Other ideas are fine. Continued debating each others' answers or OP's decision -- not fine.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:32 AM on May 2, 2012

Keep in mind my answers were geared towards and American audience and my experience as an American young professional in a moderately expensive city.

My impression is that in a lot of foreign cities, London in particular, the expense of going out for meals at a restaurant (on top of what they're already paying for rent) is so high that it is done so only on occasion and that inviting someone out and then expecting them to pay is effectively forcing them to pay for something they wouldn't do otherwise. In comparison young professionals in an American city would go out for brunch on a regular basis, anyway, and combining a brunch out with friends with a birthday celebration doesn't really place an inappropriate burden on the invitees.

If I had enough disposable income that I could reserve a back room at a restaurant and pay for everyone's meal, sure, I'd do it, but I doubt that will happen until I'm about 50.
posted by deanc at 7:46 AM on May 2, 2012

Unless you're massively richer than the people you're inviting, c is the best option, and it's one I've had lots of experience with. Just tell people and give them a sense for how much it will cost so they can either plan ahead or not come if they don't have the money. A set menu is a great idea if you can swing it because then no one feels screwed because they got the cheap option (just make sure it's not all meat if there will be vegetarians). The best thing is to be open so people can decide for themselves. And if they can't afford the lunch, just let them know they can come to the party so they don't feel excluded.

I don't know about other countries but I've been to gatherings with payment structures like this in Canada, Ireland and the US. And no one got pissed unless the restaurant was extremely expensive and they felt pressurized into going.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:43 AM on May 2, 2012

It's your party, you can pay if you want to... :)

Consider talking to the restaurant manager in advance about bringing in cake - since it's not their speciality, and they'll potentially get a booze sale out of it by you being around longer, it's entirely possible they will agree.

That way, you don't have to clean up for an afternoon party of indeterminate length, which is the part I hate about hosting parties.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 11:06 AM on May 2, 2012

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