What am I supposed to do when a friend insists on paying for my meal?
September 21, 2022 4:00 AM   Subscribe

I’m at a restaurant with a friend. At the end of the meal, he pulls out his wallet and says, "It's on me." If I argue, I feel rude for rejecting a gift. If I don’t argue, I feel rude for freeloading. What am I supposed to do?

Possibly relevant facts:

• I’m a cishet man and the friends who do this are usually but not always men. Whatever the friend’s gender, this is happening in a clearly platonic context. I’ve been married for 25 years and none of my friends are going to mistake our meal for a date.

• It might be just me and a friend, or it could be us and our spouses and/or kids.

• My friends will sometimes cite the fact that I’m visiting from out of town as the reason they should pay. However, I visit my friends’ hometowns more often than they visit mine, so I’m unlikely to have a chance to reciprocate this logic.

• I usually say “I’m happy to split it” and then if they insist, I say, “Are you sure?” If they continue after those two objections, I let them pay. But this (plus the visiting-from-out-of-town issue) means they pretty much always end up paying. This feels wrong to me.

• If a friend has significantly more money than I do, I don’t mind letting them pay. If a friend has significantly less money than I do (but I know I won’t hurt their pride by offering), I’ll pre-emptively offer to treat them. Most of the friends who insist on treating me are at roughly my level of income.

I’m generally pretty good at reading the room and being polite but this specific situation wrongfoots me every time. Any and all advice would be appreciated!
posted by yankeefog to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Traveling can be a lot (time tickets/gas, hotel) so them paying for the meal is thanking you for the effort of seeing them. Like you said, they may not be able to return the favor of visiting where you live. In those instances, graciously accept
posted by raccoon409 at 4:12 AM on September 21, 2022 [24 favorites]

"No way! You got me last time, it's my turn!"

"Thanks, next time it's my treat."

Or, you could excuse yourself prior to the end of the meal (fake bathroom visit) and find a way to pay for the meal by asking someone who works there how you can pay prior to the bill being brought and circumvent all the social nonsense. Should work every time until your friends catch on then you gotta be sneaky about it.

When you first sit down and someone comes to take your drink order, you can start off by saying 'separate checks' and that usually preempts as well.
posted by VyanSelei at 4:13 AM on September 21, 2022 [21 favorites]

Cover the tip and tip generously.
posted by entropone at 4:19 AM on September 21, 2022 [10 favorites]

Eh… It’s just a nice gesture. I’m guessing we’re not talking about a lot of money here in the context of your respective finances. And if you’ve traveled from out of town, you’ve already spent more time, effort and money on the meetup so maybe they’re trying to balance that out. I assume the amounts don’t represent a financial hardship.

Doesn’t sound like you’re in this situation, but I have some friends who are around 20 years younger and working as actors. I remember my own lean times as a performing artist at that age and always pay—just as others did for me 20 years ago.

Some people like to pay because it reaffirms and displays their own financial well being.

And so on. Point is that people do this for all kinds of reasons. You can always try to preemptively offer more often yourself. If you really feel like it’s happened excessively with a person, next time you can just say, “You’re always paying. I’ve got it this time.” Maybe the person will say okay, maybe they’ll say it’s because you’re the one who traveled, maybe they’ll say they just like paying. Who knows?
posted by slkinsey at 4:24 AM on September 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

My friend does this (and I do it to various people). They do back down if I claim that they paid last time and it's now my turn. I don't actually keep track of whether it is my turn or not but I try to make sure that I am paying at least half the time.

Sometimes people do it as a status thing, but more often it's wanting to be generous and do something conspicuously nice but not an enormous favour. Trying to get it to be reciprocal-ish is probably the key to continuing to feel like equals.
posted by plonkee at 4:37 AM on September 21, 2022 [6 favorites]

Do you feel uncomfortable with gifts in general? Do you doubt that these offers to pay are genuine expressions from your friends that they love you and love spending time with you?

In highschool, I used to treat my friends when we were out all the time - I bought the icecream, I bought the popcorn, etc. I had a job! I grew up poor, and was proud of being able to pay - I loved giving that gift to friends, giving them something my family could not give to me. One day, a dear friend finally got fed up with me and said, You know, sometimes I want to treat YOU, too!

Is your friend crushing you with their generosity, like I was? Maybe they aren’t good at accepting gifts - I wasn’t, and it sounds like maybe you aren’t. When I stepped back, I could see that I was bringing power dynamics into my generosity that don’t reflect my values - when I treat, it’s because I WANT to, never because I HAVE to, and it certainly isn’t because I CAN and they CAN’T. When someone wants to treat me, I try to give the reciprocal gifts of gratitude and trust that they’re paying because they genuinely enjoyed my company and wanted to treat.

Also, my personal very-warm take on the issue of friends with less money - my dad lives in literal poverty. When he wants to take me to dinner when I visit, I can’t think of anything more degrading than if I pulled the waiter aside and paid the bill for him. If someone makes less money than you and they say they want to treat, trust their judgment. Help to pick delightful but reasonably-priced restaurants in advance, sure. But it’s not fair or respectful to tell a friend that we know better than they do how they should spend their money.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:40 AM on September 21, 2022 [12 favorites]

tl;dr: say, “Thank you, friend - that is so kind of you. Spending time with you means so much to me.”
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:42 AM on September 21, 2022 [18 favorites]

Since this is a recurring problem, you could deal with it ahead of time - if they do the inviting, you can say "hey, I think you paid last time, this will be my treat" or "let's split the bill." If you're doing the inviting, specify up-front "my treat." If they try to pay at the end of the meal you can just refer back to the agreement.

But I do agree with racoon409 - if you're traveling, you've already shelled out some money to come see them. Offering to pay for dinner or a meal is just what the "host" does.

And there's always the option of just addressing it head on. "You know, so much has changed in the last few decades I'm never sure what's good etiquette anymore. Would it be terrible if I split the bill with you / picked up the tab? I really enjoy our time together and don't want who pays for dinner to be a thing, but it's important to me to do the right thing."
posted by jzb at 4:46 AM on September 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

(Final word: you said above that these are obviously NOT dates, but your brain is making the analogy. So: what does it mean when someone pays for a meal on a date? Do you feel as though the person who is paid for is in a position of obligation? Lower power? Lower status? Does this kind of situation make you feel emasculated? Food for thought.)
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:46 AM on September 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

You're doing it right/ethically/politely in my book, carry on.

If you really wan this to change, you could start clearly stating a preference to split at the beginning. But some people may find that a bit off-putting too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:47 AM on September 21, 2022

When someone wants to spend their money on you, graciously accept. Don't argue, it'll spoil the evening/day.
posted by james33 at 4:55 AM on September 21, 2022 [11 favorites]

Freeloaders do not offer to split or remind their friends that it is their (the FL's) turn to pay because the friend paid last time. If your friends insist on paying after you have said these things you can just accept graciously.

Don't underestimate the fact that your friends appreciate that you are making an effort to meet when you are in town. Busy adults with a range of commitments can find it difficult to stay in touch and meet up, especially if one of them does not live locally. These friends clearly enjoy meeting you. The fact that you're taking time to connect when you're visiting makes it a lot easier for your friends to stay in touch with you. I'd absolutely treat you to dinner for that.

I have a friend in my hometown who always insists on treating me on those grounds. We are both comfortable financially. But if I travel for a personal visit I still have to take time away from family to meet her or plan a longer visit/stay an extra night to meet everybody. If I travel for work, I will typically have to stay an extra night unless I want to drive home in the early hrs. And on occasion, I've made the trip just to meet her. So it is objectively more onerous both in terms of time and money for me to meet her for dinner.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:20 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Providing food to your fellow humans is one of the most fundamental types of generosity that strengthens relationships. Doing so reciprocally, trading back and forth who pays the check, makes no particular sense economically; if each of you pay the check half the time, it's equivalent to splitting the check every time. But it's such a deep, nurturing thing to give food to another person that we have this urge to do it.

By trading off, we each get the chance to show generosity and to respond with gratitude, and it makes our friendship deeper.

So, going through the dance of, "I've got the check," "Oh, you don't have to do that," "No, I insist," "Well, then, thank you so much! Next time it's my treat," is doing the right thing to strengthen your relationship.

When you are visiting from out of town, your friends are acknowledging, as others said, that you were generous in taking on the labor and expense of traveling, so they are reciprocating by paying for the meal, with the added element that they are playing host and making you feel welcome in their hometown. Accept graciously, and maybe bring them a small "hostess" gift from your town, even if they're not hosting you in their home.
posted by BrashTech at 5:21 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

I see this so often. The back-and-forth is part of the social contract. I just try to snag the check next time prior to it being placed on the table (call the waiter over and give them my credit card).
posted by heathrowga at 5:24 AM on September 21, 2022

Unless either of you has a cultural background where an elaborate display of who lets who pay is part of the Experience, I would just assume that they are making a good faith offer, would like to pay for you, and let them do it. If you feel like the scales are getting too unbalanced and making you uncomfortable, next time around you can get in early with a "I'd really like to treat you for a change!" and pick that tab up.

One thing to consider might be if you are helping them in other ways and this is part of how they are evening their own scales. I'm thinking of a particular friend I often see at her house, and she orders delivery for us and then drives me home (I get there by bus.) We split the delivery costs but I still appreciate that she does that organizing, shares her space, and then gives me a lift back, and one of the ways I express that is by picking up the bill if we stop off for coffee or ice cream on our way back to my place. If she were to start wanting to take turns paying for the ice cream I'd let her, of course, but I like doing it and I'm glad she lets me.
posted by Stacey at 5:43 AM on September 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have friends who I will accept the offer accept the gift and move on (maybe with an are you sure?), I have other friends who I keep general track in my head and pay for lunches later, and then I have friends for cultural reasons wish to give all the foods to me, and that I have given up completely on, and now understand it is how they express they care.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:50 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Take the payer exactly at his/her word.
If they’re *expecting* you to give them an argument, this will teach them to stop being passive-aggressive.
I hate the “are you sure?” game.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:59 AM on September 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

This straightforward question dives deep into cultural traditions on gift giving and food taking detours into personal relationships with gift giving and food and friendship along the way. But here's my experience, coming from someone whose relevant facts were very similar to yours.

I used to argue because my parents taught me to always reject a gift 3 times before accepting it. That was not satisfactory for me or the person paying.

I started gracefully accepting. That was better, but honestly "Not putting up a fight" is still a bad way to accept a gift.

Now I try to gratefully accept and reciprocate when I can, maybe not in kind, just do stuff for friends. No need to keep an accounting in anyone's head. Make kind offers honestly and assume others are doing the same. Kind and thoughtful gestures are good. No need to complicate it beyond that.
posted by Ookseer at 6:01 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

You need to discuss it between visits.

I have a friend who has done this for 40 years and it drives everyone he knows crazy.

About 15 years ago, I finally said, "Let me be clear. If you insist on paying the bill again, it will be the last time I dine with you." That worked and we now split the bill. However, it was crucial that I tell him when the invitation was made, not when the check arrived.
posted by dobbs at 6:29 AM on September 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

• I usually say “I’m happy to split it” and then if they insist, I say, “Are you sure?”

these both feel to me like the kind of pro forma objections that don't allow the other person to give in gracefully even if they actually want to (what are they going to say - "no, I'm not sure"?) whether they're offering for politeness or generosity, they have to stick to it unless you object with at least as much vehemence as they offered with. this is my understanding of 'the rules'.

I would never insist on splitting it (let alone just offer) unless I was on a date, probably a date that wasn't a thrill. what I would do and do do, no matter who I'm with, is counter with "No no, let ME get it!"
not because I don't want someone to buy me dinner (I do!) but because this is again my understanding of the rule. however, I only persist past a second go-around if the person is someone I know keeps silent score. otherwise, when they wave me off, I say Well, all right, that's very kind of you but you have to let me get it next time. (and then I do.)

also if you're just in town for one day/one evening, no problem letting them get it without protest just thanks. but if you are actually staying with them in their home overnight & they're making you breakfast or whatever, you have to take them out for at least one meal which you pay for, and you are morally bound to override their own objections or attempts to pay by any means necessary. otherwise you go to hell. this is what I was taught and still believe, anyhow.

I am a woman & my dining companions who cause this trouble are usually women older than me who are related to me, so if I do it "wrong" everyone will hear about it. so I take it more seriously than you may need to. but rules are rules
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:32 AM on September 21, 2022 [7 favorites]

Follow Mitch Hedburg's advice: "When a friend offers to pay for my meal, I reach into my wallet and pull out a card that says 'Remember to say thank you'".

I mean, let this person do a nice thing for you. If you like, do a nice thing for them later.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2022 [10 favorites]

also if you're just in town for one day/one evening, no problem letting them get it without protest just thanks. but if you are actually staying with them in their home overnight & they're making you breakfast or whatever, you have to take them out for at least one meal which you pay for

I think this is right (minus the going to hell bit), to thank them for their hospitality.

Otherwise, just go with it. I used to be a lot more uncomfortable about accepting offers like this, but now that my friends and I are mostly no longer actually in economically precarious situations, I assume that they are making the offer because they want to and are able to. It's a gift. Unless there's some reason to think it's beyond their means, accept it.
posted by praemunire at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2022

I’m generally pretty good at reading the room and being polite but this specific situation wrongfoots me every time. Any and all advice would be appreciated!

Well this is one of those situations where some of the etiquette advice can clash with some of the lizard brain feelings about gifts and, especially, status type things.

So like someone offering to pay for a meal for you AND your family could, if they were a jerk, be implying that maybe you are having trouble supporting your family on your own. I am NOT saying this is what your friends are doing, they are pretty much not, but depending on your social conditioning, this could be a thing that you grew up with (i.e. the "big man" paid and everyone else was somehow grateful to them but also emasculated by them, it's stupid but there it is). I'm a cishet woman so my social conditioning is more "Make 100% sure this is not a date" but there are a lot of deep stereotypes which, even if we do not believe in them, may push a button in our brains.

So other people have solidly answered the other questions. I used to be a terrible "Let me pay for this" recipient because I felt my father would try to play the Big Man card and I found it tiresome. But my partner is a gracious and generous guy and likes to pay for things because it makes him happy (even though I have 10x the resources he does, and we both know this) and I've learned to untangle my weird lizard brain feelings about these things and just learn to say "That is so nice of you thank you" and do something else nice for them. And also very much nthing that you showing up in their city is itself an "expenditure" of a sort, it means they get to see you without travel and uprooting their lives and that is a gift, of a sort, for a friend.
posted by jessamyn at 7:50 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think the key to thinking about this is that yes, accepting the meal creates an obligation. You are indeed obligated to your friend. But this is actually ok. You don't have to settle everything up immediately because you intend to see them again in the future. That's why, I think, turn taking can feel like a closer relationship than simply splitting the bill every time - it builds the expectation that the relationship will continue into the future.
posted by plonkee at 7:58 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

You just say "thank you, this was so nice." As someone who sometimes treats and sometimes splits, if I treat there's a reason why, and it gets weird if you start arguing.

A lot of suggestions here are very talky, and in the context of how this goes in real life would come off as nervous chatter that would ruin the mood of a convivial meal. You can't really argue with someone when they've picked up the check, because they can't change their mind at that point. Plus it is rude to refuse to accept a gift. You can say "thank you! I'm leaving the tip then" and leave a good one, though.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:00 AM on September 21, 2022

For me, this has been a way to offset some of the guilt I felt that someone is always visiting me and I am never visiting them. You mention that you are the person doing most of the travel, so that immediately pops to mind for me. I am not able to come to you and I want you to feel appreciated for doing the work of coming to me! I would feel bad if someone went to elaborate lengths to circumvent this (seeking out the waiter while going to the bathroom), but would not take it amiss if someone said something while making plans that they wanted it to be their treat this time or to split the bill. Resorting to subterfuge rather than graciously accepting someone’s gift just feels like a power move from the 80s business book of how to be the most Alpha.
posted by Bottlecap at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2022

plonkee's and Bottlecap's answers are the ones I would give you. I also have the cultural (Korean) mandate of never splitting the bill (with a dollop of hierarchical flexing). But mostly it's the idea that of course I'll have a meal again with you in the future and you can treat me then.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:42 AM on September 21, 2022

Eh, just let ‘em pay. When I had lots of money I enjoyed picking up meals, now that I have less I’m fine if someone else pays. I never assume it and I always say thank you, but I take it as the freely given sign of affection it is.

Keeping a running tab of who "owes" who in a friendship is exhausting. Just be kind and generous with your friends and let them be the same with you. If you get to thinking that things are out of balance have a conversation about the larger context of your friendship — getting bogged down every time you have a meal is no fun for anyone.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:49 AM on September 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid I witnessed too many fights over the check between my dad and his friends. Sometimes it got embarrassingly loud. As a result I don't fight over checks at all. If I go out with somebody and I've noticed that they cover more checks than I do, I'll push back with a single "let me get this. You got the last one," and if they still insist then I'll just say thank you. I'm not going to do the performative Midwesterner song and dance, and anybody who judges me for not pushing back more forcefully (like my dad and his friends) is maybe not the sort of friend I want to have anyway.
posted by fedward at 11:16 AM on September 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

I used to engage in more back and forth but now I mostly just say thank you and I'll get it next time. Sometimes I offer to pay a few times and if I'm rebuffed enough that it gets tedious I say wow, I feel like such a grown-up, when I was a kid I always used to be confused why the adults would argue about who gets to pay and now I'm one of them, I guess I'll let you win this time, thank you.
posted by ferret branca at 2:56 PM on September 21, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers, everybody!

Just to be clear, I'm never offended by somebody offering to pay. Instead, I'm worried about giving offense in my response. Basically, I was worried that the other person was expecting some specific degree of ritualized (or sincere) refusal on my part. I didn't want to end up like the last two scenarios in this video.

Based on your responses, it sounds like I can genuinely trust "You are from out of town so I want to pay" as a sincere offer requiring no ritualized refusal. It also sounds like, in other contexts, I can accept but just offer to pay next time. And I like the suggestion that, if I do feel like they're not letting me pay my fair share, I can preemptively announce that I'm paying when I propose the meal.

Thanks again! I really appreciate the helpful answers and next time, it'll be my turn to answer you. No, I insist. No, really, the knowledge is on me...
posted by yankeefog at 6:06 AM on September 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

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