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Birthday Dinners... who pays? what is the etiquette?

I have seen alot of diversity regarding the etiquette of who pays if a group of people go out to a restaurant to celebrate someone's birthday. It looks like people expect one of three things:
- the birthday boy/gal is considered to be the host and pays for everyone
- it is considered to be a gift to the birthday boy/gal so everyone pays for their own plus covers the meal of the guest of honor
- everyone just goes dutch, including the guest of honor

I typically follow the last option and expect everyone to go dutch unless the dinner invite is phrased as an invitation to a party (then I expect the party host to pay) or the friends all decide ahead of time the dinner will be a gift to the birthday boy girl (then we chip in for their diner too).

I know this has been debated alot, particularly in the context of the bill being split unfairly (which always happens) but I wanted to get the concensus of what everyone expects when invited to these dinners.

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  1. I think a lot of it depends on who is inviting them out and how the invitation goes- we just did a combined birthday celebration where we took 20 of our friends to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in DC (Dino, where they did an amazing job). The invitations said "We would love to have you for dinner" or something like that- indicating we were taking them.

    If people invite the birthday person to lunch for their birthday I think it's expected that they are taking the birthday person to lunch.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jpschust

      I truly do not believe that there is a standard etiquette. For example, when I am invited out for someone's birthday, I come to it with the intention that I will chip in for the birthday person's meal and cocktails. I never go to a function (even my own birthday or party) and expect that people will pay for me. If they offer, I graciously accept and end up buying friends a drink or two, but I never assume anything. If I am say, planning my best friend's birthday dinner, I go into it thinking that I will pick up hers and mine, and potentially a round of drinks or some apps, but unless I specifically state that I am paying for everything - I don't expect my guests to think that I'm covering the bill. And normally, they don't...and they offer to split it up.

      If I am aware that some friends are financially strapped, then I tend to go a different route, either having a cocktail party at my house where my guests are not obligated to pay for anything, and simply show up and have a good time, then I am considerate of that.

      But in all my years of going out and celebrating with various circles of friends and family, I think that the benefit of never assuming that others will pay unless specifically stated, usually ends up an advantage where people's generosity is never overlooked (say splitting a bill, or at least the offer), as opposed to people assuming their meal is paid for, the host will pay, etc.

    2. Your three options seem about right - I'm not sure there's any concensus about this. My experience is the younger the people are the more likely the whole group goes dutch. The most common I've seen is everyone except the birthday guy/gal pays and they cover the cost of birthday guy/gal's meal. I think having the birthday g/g pay the whole bill only happens when the b g/g has explicitly invited everyone out in their own homor (which is kind of weird when you think about it). When it's more casual, especially a work group ("Hey - it's Fred's birthday - let's go to lunch!") I expect to pay my own and my part of Fred's meal.

      1. Ah yes the old birthday dinner split discussion, or more appropriately titled, "let's not talk about the bill til it arrives." Hence the issue.

        Invited to the party are the following people:

        Not Me - This person assumes that someone else is paying since (s)he was invited.
        The Over-orderer - Doesn;t get out much and sees that the bill will be split 20 ways, so looks for things that (s)he normally won't order if paying for. So what the heck, the foie gras with the truffle supplement and the 3 lb. lobster sound good. And the $30 glass of port will go nice with the souffle and creme brule. Take out a $20 and throw it on the tabel.
        The Birthday Person - The only one who might expect to eat for free. But that depends on whether (s)he was the invitor as in, "I'd like to take all of my friends out for...". Then the B'day persdon becomes the payor.
        The Cheapo Out-o - Amazing when the bill arrives, this person either has a bladder attack, a "mysterious" cell phone call (noone heard it ring or vibrate) and suddenly disappears simultaneously to the bill arriving. Nowhere to be found until the group is outside saying goodbyes.
        The Accountant - Grabs the bill and starts telling everyone what they owe. A reall gifted Accountant actually watched how many glasses of wine Tom drank versus Jane and has split the cost of the bottle of wine pro-rata
        The Splitter - Grabs the bill, divides by the number of guests and proclaims the amount.
        The AMEX Tossers - Bill arrives and everyone throws their AMEX (or Visa) cards unto the bill. Waiter takes them away and splits evenly amongst the cards.
        The Mensch - Grabs the bill and says (s)he'll pay for the whole thing
        The Semi-Mensch - Grabs the bill, tells everyone to pay what they thought they owed and the rounds up to the correct amount including tip
        The Mom - Oh how many time the argument ensues about whether the Mom of the Birthday person has an automatic free pass to not pay. If the table is badly split on this topic one of two things happen. The tip is less than it should be or the Mensch throws in the extra money to bring the tip to standard.
        The OMG'er - Jfood feels the most sympathy for this person because he was this person at a dinner 30 years ago. Someone invites this person and the OMG'er says that money is very tight and really can't afford it. Is convinced to attend. Orders water and a small salad while everyone else sucks down porterhouses. At the end of the meal, the Splitter divides the bill evenly and the OMG'er is faced with loosing face or succumbing to pressure and paying $50+ for a $7 meal (several other threads on this topic)

        How to lessen the attendance by any of these folks. It's called COMMUNICATION. The person who sets it up, sets the pricing policy and this policy is totally and completely communicated to all invitees at the time of the invite. If Bday person is treated, tell them, Mom is a guest, likewise tell them, everyone will contribute what they ate (better make sure a Semi-Mensch attends) then tell them. Pretty basic in addition to time & place.

        12 Replies
        1. re: jfood

          jfood - your accuracy in naming the type of people for outings is SO uncanny it is scary! And yes, I believe communication is the answer. Period. Because I have been the OMG'er, and I have 1 specific friend that is the over-orderer. Those OO's suck. :)

          1. re: snoboardbabe77

            Having watched not an OMG'er but just a non-drinker get roped into splitting the bill equally, which she always graciously did, I have become the Voice of Reason - piping up (loudly) that no way should this person pay an equal share when she didn't have a drink.

            Now it doesn't even get suggested with this particular group of friends.

            The scenario does make me chuckle because there's an early episode of Friends when the 3 friends with no money (Rachel, Joey and Phoebe) complain about the bill splitting with the other 3. Rachel says she'll have a side salad and thank you. The waiter asks what it will be beside and she says you can put it right next to my water!

          2. re: jfood

            This is hilarious. I'm always glad to have an accountant at the table because it's totally unfair for an OMG'ers fork out cash they don't have. That being said, I couldn't be an accountant because I can't do any math without a calculator.

            In the past, my friends and I have split the bill differently. The alcohol drinkers pay a certain amouont and the non-drinkers pay a lot less. Somehow, alcohol always seems to double the tab.

            1. re: jfood

              So what happens when the organizer makes it clear the dinner will be dutch, w/ everyone chipping in to cover bday person's meal, and attempts to pick a resto that OMG'er will not feel too strapped at? Been there done that, DISASTER:

              OMG'er nixes practically every suggested resto, until we finally settle on one place. Then OMG'er proceeds to moan & mutter about pricing when everyone's looking at their menus. Organizer (me) offers to split an entree w/ OMG'er so the final bill won't hurt OMG'er's wallet too much. OMG'er nixes that suggestion, then proceeds to order the most expensive entree on the list. (at this point, most of the group if not all of us are puzzled and confused about all the moaning).

              OMG'er mutters about the inedibleness & lack of quality of the food (OMG'er is not a CHer at all by the way... Applebee's is a quality resto to this person), and makes halfhearted attempts to make this known to the entire table as well as wait staff. At the end of the meal, OMG'er states there is not enough $ in his/her wallet to cover his/her share -- morphing OMG'er into Cheapo-outo & Overorderer... the others will of course have to cover the difference (which is about $30).

              Upon leaving the resto, OMG'er pulls out a $100 bill and announces that he/she is treating everyone to the movies. But most of the group did not have the time for movies & had to leave.

              I have since become wary of inviting this person to a similar gathering ever again.

              1. re: S U

                Did anyone ask OMG'er to use the $100 to cover his/her portion of the dinner?

                1. re: heathermb

                  we didn't know about the $100 in OMG'er's wallet until after tab had been paid and we all headed out the door onto the sidewalk... and OMG'er knew most ppl would not have time to "watch a movie", due to extensive scheduling negotiations for the dinner.

                  I didn't ask for the $, since the tab had already been paid and I felt it would have been bad form to demand repayment to all the folks who chipped in more than their share... but it was probably even more rude to claim they didn't have the money when they do.

                  1. re: S U

                    In my youth, I would have bitten my tongue with this particular OMG'er.

                    At my age now, I have zero tolerance. I would waste no time calling that OMG'er out on having that hundred bucks and suggest that we go back into the resto to make change so s/he can pay back the benefactor(s) of his/her meal.

                    The nerve!

                2. re: S U

                  >morphing OMG'er into Cheapo-outo & Overorderer
                  >
                  I think treating the individual in your story as an OMG/Cheepo/OO in
                  some kind of quantum superposition is the wrong approach.
                  The person is apparently a liar and seems to be kind of a shabby
                  individual. And coping with that is beyond the problem of Fair Bill Splitting.

                  They say "hard cases make bad law" ... and most norms for dealing
                  with normal people may not smoothly stretch to deal with sociopaths.
                  e.g. How to deal with stuff like this can turn on very situational factors
                  like "is the sociopath a relative/SO of somebody you value" etc ... in which
                  case cutting them loose might not be a simple option, until you hear
                  about the divorce.

                  attempting to deal in a OMGer isnt doomed to disaster. what
                  led to the disaster was this person being a reprobate. to me
                  this is an easier case to deal with than the OMG who is just a
                  downer ... by making comments about finances and being
                  somewhat "ostentatiously" cheep.

                  ok tnx.

                3. re: jfood

                  I'm generally the OMG'er. At least now I've learned to order something to drink (non-alcoholic). Money isn't tight and I can afford it, but darn it, it's not fair that my large salad, iced tea, and tips came to $15, but I have to pay $45 because of the two bottles of wine I didn't drink and so-and-so and their blind date ordered the lobster dinner with appetizers, dessert, and after dinner drink!

                  I've now seen more aggressive, frustrated former OMG'ers, who take the bill and make some statement like, "let's see how much my food was" or something like that to set the tone that we are paying for our portion in general, and you who ordered everything need to put in your $75, while we put in our $20. No one minds putting in another $3 to cover the tips when the calculations didn't come out right (even cheapo me) or when the $75'er is short.

                  1. re: jfood

                    >The Mensch - Grabs the bill and says (s)he'll pay for the whole thing
                    >
                    the Potlatch Move is nice, as long as there is some reciprocity.
                    otherwise at some point, Mensch may cease to be the best description.
                    (the only place i frequently saw the Potlatch Move was in NYC, where
                    the parties were inevitably well-larded with corporate credit cards)

                    >(better make sure a Semi-Mensch attends)
                    >
                    a semi-mensch who will voluntarily step up is good to have,
                    but i wonder if it is a good idea for the host to tap somebody
                    for this role ... call it a demi-semi-mensch or sub-semi-mensch
                    or undermensch, who will assume the mantle if asked, but
                    perhaps not spontaneously do so.

                    i agree on the communication, but it's a little weird to announce
                    whether you are itemizing or going with "standard deduction" for
                    a particular dinner.

                    BTW, i also think The Menschs have a role before the
                    the bill comes ... to be the CADMIUM ROD.
                    i.e. to slow things down if the bill is going north a little too fast ..
                    "Er, how about a California red instead of the Guigal Cote
                    Rotie la Turque" ... helpful if the SM knows the crowd well enough
                    to know if he need to restrain a "strategic orderer" or lookout
                    for an OMG aka Humanities Grad Student.

                    boy who would have though math skills would be part of Menschlichkeit.

                    1. re: psb

                      Jfood would add that given the derivation of the term Mensch, the person designated to this mop-up role should be named The Chosen Mensch.

                      1. re: jfood

                        And if the Chosen gets sick of the job ...

                        I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my host for
                        another term as your Mensch.

                        But let diners everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a
                        vigilant SubMensch stands ready tonight to seek dining peace--and
                        stands ready tonight to defend a fair division--whatever the price,
                        whatever the bill, making change for however many $20s bills that duty
                        may require.

                        --Johnny B. Mensch

                  2. I think after jfood's post, no other commentary is necessary.

                    However, I order what I'm going to order (somewhere in the middle - neither over- nor under-ordering) and expect that I'm going to pay more than my food actually cost. Because there's always the stingy one, the evasive one, the lobster orderer, the complainer, etc.
                    And I would rather pay $5, $10, however much more to keep peace with my friends.

                    Why? Because they are my friends - we will break bread together again down the road, and it all evens out in the end.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: laurendlewis

                      What a hot topic this is.

                      One of my personal pet peeves in life is listening to people squabble over a bill. It seems juvenile and cheap to listen to adults whine and moan over a check.

                      If I have invited friends out to dinner, I will pick up the check. I also insist on doing so discreetly by handing the host my card upon arrival. Gracious guests will say thank you and leave it at that. That is my policy, whether the check turns out to be $100 or $1000.

                      1. re: OrganicLife

                        Ha! I love your style, when i am going out i take cash and cards in order to make sure i have no problems. However, the circle of friends, most of the time don't think this way. I was invited to a it's my birthday via group message. As soon as the bill comes , the birthday girl starts whinning about i don't have $230 to pay , well excuse me, but if you don't what makes you think we do? (I do btw) my point being if you can't afford to pay your birthday bill then don't invite the rest of us in on the joke! Btw i had a $50 cash envelope ready to give as a gift but since i had to pay for my own meal, i left with the envelope still inside my purse! I have no time for classless people, this should be a lesson not to go next time!

                        1. re: OrganicLife

                          In my circle of friends, We usually take cash or gift cards, and it baffles me to think that the birthday girl still had the nerve to make each party cover their own portion and still take the gifts!

                      2. If the birthday boy/girl is doing the inviting, I assume it's dutch split dutch, since that's how I plan mine.
                        If someone else is planning the party I would assume the entire party would cover the birthday meal, or the person planning is.