Monday, May 25, 2009

Who pays?

I go out with couple friends all the time since my best friends in San Diego are all couples (and by that I mean I am equally good friends with both people). Usually, it's just me and the couple and when the check comes, I pay my share and the guy pays the share for the couple (most of the time, we just figure out what 1/3 of the total is and I pay that). I'm not making any editorial comment about the fact that the guy usually pays, I'm just stating what happens - when people are married, I sort of assume the money is basically coming from the same pot so it doesn't really matter who pays but my impression is that most couples follow the social convention of the man paying. Sometimes someone will pick up the tab for all of us (either me paying for the couple, or them paying for me), especially if it's just drinks. I've never really thought much about the dynamics of paying for stuff in these situations, since when I'm with any of these couples, I feel like we're just three friends hanging out together and the fact that they are a couple is sort of irrelevant.

But a few months ago, I went out to dinner with two couples. I'm friends with both the women and friendly enough with the husbands that it made sense for them to be there (but unlike my San Diego couple friends, I am definitely friends with the women and the guys are 'just' their husbands). These two couples live in the same town and hang out often as a foursome; I was visiting from out of town. When the check came after dinner, the two guys pulled out their wallets and were discussing the check, and I pulled out my wallet and asked what I owed. What struck me was how aware I suddenly was that I was the odd person out. I'm not sure if it was because there were now two women sitting there, each letting her guy take care of the check for her, or because splitting a check five ways is more confusing than splitting it three ways so one of the guys was actually looking at the specific items to figure out what I owed, or simply because I'm not really friends with the two guys I was having the money discussion with. But whatever the reason, it felt odd. And it felt even odder when we then went to a nearby bar and while my two female friends grabbed a table, I went to the bar with the two husbands to get drinks - that is, I got a drink for myself and each of the guys got a drink for himself and his wife. This time, I knew exactly what was odd - with my friends at home, one person would have just bought drinks for everyone.

I'm thinking about this now because this weekend my significant other* and I went on a double date with a friend of his and that friend's wife. Before dinner, my guy bought a round of drinks for everyone; when the dinner check came, my guy and his friend dealt with it; then we went to a club and his friend bought a round for everyone. When it came time to buy another round, I was going to pay but the friend beat me to it. It wasn't a big deal - it was loud in the club, he was closer to the server who brought the drinks and I think he didn't realize I was trying to pay until he had already given money to the server. But the whole evening got me thinking about how the dynamics of paying for stuff is different when you're part of a couple versus when you're single. When it's just me and my guy, he pays a lot of the time; I also pick up the check quite often but when we went out this weekend, I felt like it would have seemed weird if I had tried to pay for my own dinner. But what if we had been out with a single friend, instead of a married couple? In that case, I'm pretty sure I would feel just as weird if I didn't pay for myself.

I'm not sure I really have a point about all this, it's just something I've been thinking about. I've had many conversations with people about paying on a first date (and Zandria has a recent Blogher post that pretty much sums up how I feel about that issue) but I haven't talked with too many people about the dynamics of paying for things once you're in a steady relationship, or when you are out with other people. So I'm curious, for any single readers: when you go out with couples, does paying the bill ever seem awkward? For coupled readers: who pays, and does it matter if you're out with other couples or singles?

* We've been dating for almost four months but I'm still having issues with using the word 'boyfriend' so I don't really know what to call him...


The Singlutionary said...

A lot of times when I go out with couples, they just pay for me. This is usually the first time (I don't go out to eat with couples very often so there is rarely a 2nd time--this only happens when I am visiting or they are visiting or its a special occasion). I try and pay but they go ahead a pay for me and I say thank you. Usually, their paying for the meal is part of a greater context, like they crashed at my house or I bought something earlier in the day, etc. And it feels OK.

I think that I prefer to not hang out with couples a lot (especially couples where I am friends with one person-usually the female--and the other person is just there as part of the couple not as my friend) for this very reason. I always feel a little off. Where is my man?

But on the same token. Why didn't one of the husbands ask you what you wanted to drink and offer to get your drink for you? That has happened to me before in situations like that. The friend's husband gets a drink for his wife and for me as well so that the "girls" can sit and chat.

Sigh. This whole who pays thing is super confusing and frustrating and so riddled with sexism while at the same time being a basic social grace which I appreciate and respect.

Its always awkward to be thrown in with opposite gender group of the couple (like when you, a female, find yourself discussing the bill with the men). Its also weird going to the bachelorette party when you're actually friends with the groom.

Singles tend to buck gender divisions out of necessity because they perform both male and female roles in their lives.

Sylvia said...

Hmm. I think that that when B and I go out with another couple, it's the individuals who are the better friends who deal with paying because they can negotiate between themselves in a way that say, I could not if it were B's friend.

But when it's mutual friends, if we are going out with a singleton, we usually try to treat (and it's either of us who actually does the paying). Or with couple friends where all of us are friends, I don't pay attention with who actually does the paying within the couple but usually we either split evenly or one treats (and we have that "polite standoff" business where you try to remember for next time so you can dig your heels in).

So, your situation was weird b/c usually we do it on who-has-the-closer-personal-relationship basis. When my family goes out to eat, my brother and I split the check (not my brother and B). When it's B's family, he deals with it (and negotiates over it).

With the double couples, I suspect that they didn't think about you being there, and just did their normal doubles thing, which involves the men paying. I agree that I would expect that one of the husbands would ask you what you wanted to drink (or do it for everyone). But I would have thought that someone would have thought about you, like one of your women friends and stepped in and said "honey, could you" and given a nudge.

I mean, it is sexist or whatever, but given the social convention that they chose to use, it would have been more polite (maybe not polite, gracious?).

Anonymous said...

Interesting question indeed. I usually don't feel out of place/put off by the fact that I am paying for myself in the midst of men paying for shit. I have one very close coupled set of friends (I would call them both my friends, though I'm closest friends with the woman in the equation) who often buy my drinks when I'm out with them, but otherwise it's always me paying for my self. I don't mind. In fact, I usually insist that I pay, because otherwise that would feel really strange to me.

-- Lisa

Jenn said...

@Singlutionary: I had never thought about the fact that being single, I often take on both male and female roles but you're right! And I think that's probably compounded because I have a lot of guy friends (I've totally done the bachelorette party when you're friends with the groom thing - it's just weird).
@Sylvia: Interesting point about the closer friends dealing with paying - I DO think that was part of the issue when I went out with the two couples, since I was better friends with the women. And it's something I don't think about when I go out with my couple friends at home because I was actually friends with the guys first.
@Lisa: I agree that it would feel strange not to pay for myself most of the time, and I certainly wouldn't want someone to offer just because I'm single. But with my couple friends at home, we go out often enough that it's no big deal for someone to pick up the tab (which is often easier than figuring out who owes what) because we know that next time, someone else will get it. But I think that's kind of unusual, especially for a couple to do with a single friend.

Lauri said...

On dates or in a relationship, it can any way for me. I've picked up the check on the first date, I've accepted the guy paying, I've split checks in relationships...recently with the economic downturn, I've noticed that guys don't argue with me when I hand them money for my share. This makes me feel more comfortable!

As for going out with couples as a single person, I guess I just pay for what I ate. I have to say though, if *I* am in the couple and I'm out with friends single or no, I still pay for my share. Even if you subscribe to the idea that a guy pays on a date, going out with other friends is NOT a date. Especially if the person you are out with is single, I think it might make them feel a little weird if the check came and I just sat there, expecting my boyfriend to pick it up.

To be honest, I'm not comfortable with the idea of married couples spending each other's money in any way. To me, the traditional marriage thing where you live together and share finances is no different than having a roommate- you pay your half of the rent, utilities, food, whatever on the salary that you earn. The two of you chose to live in a place that allows you to do this. I would just never feel comfortable living off someone else's money that they worked for.

I was at a restaurant with my parents last weekend, and I considered paying because my dad ALWAYS pays. My whole life, my dad has paid for every family dinner I have ever been to. But when the check came, the waitress just handed it to my dad. She didn't just plop it in the middle of the table as they do even when people are on dates. I just found it odd that they couldn't assume that this adult woman was treating her parents, or that perhaps my parents were treating me but my mom was carrying the cash? It didn't make sense.

Clever Elsie said...

Maybe I've just been lucky, but there never seems to be much confusion when I go out with couples. As a rule, I don't go out with groups in which everyone else is coupled because that makes me uncomfortable. So when I go out in mixed groups, generally there are some couples and some singles. When it comes time to pay up, we pass the check around the table, and everyone pitches in what they owe. Couples figure out amongst themselves how they will pay, whether it's the guy or girl or both. Once we've all thrown in our share, someone counts to make sure we're even. If we're short or over, we're asked who might've contributed too much or too little. If we can't figure it out, we split the difference between us.

I don't have an issue with the male paying for the female half of a couple since I don't know what goes on behind the scenes. In most relationships I know of, if both people are working, both contribute financially, but the divvying up of the money occurs at home, not out in public. I think men are often the ones to carry the money on them and pay the bill because of both traditional gender roles and because a number of women don't like calculating. I don't mean to sound sexist, and I'm well aware that many women are great at calculating, but my observation is that most of the women I know (including myself) aren't big fans of it, while most of the men I know don't mind it.

When I'm dating someone, I like to pay my own way until we're an established couple because I don't think it's right for a man to have to fork over money for someone he might never see again after a few dates. In addition, I don't want a guy I'm dating casually to get the idea that he's entitled to anything from me, if you know what I mean, because he paid for my dinner!

As a relationship evolves, though, I think both members of the couple tend to settle into different roles. If I'm with someone who earns a lot more than I do and wants to pay most of the time, fine. Chances are that I'm the one doing the majority of the cooking and cleaning when we're at home, so I don't think it's unfair. Another couple might split the work and bills evenly, while another might reverse the traditional roles if the woman is the major breadwinner and the man is more domestic. I think any arrangement is fine as long as the couple in question is happy with it.

Simone Grant said...

I am good friends with several couples and I find that without fail, they insist on picking up my part of the bill pretty often. And then, every once in a while, I'll grab the check and insist on paying the whole thing. We almost never split the bill, but rather take turns paying (which is how I am in relationships, too, never going dutch but rather taking turns paying). I can't recall the last time I was out with two couples. Hmm, I wonder what would happen then?

Jenn said...

@Lauri: you've hit on one of my biggest pet peeves: wait staff who ASSUME the man at the table must be paying. I haven't seen that as much when I'm on dates (by now, I think most servers know to put the check in a neutral place - when they don't, I definitely reduce their tip) but I've had the same experience of going out with my parents and having the check handed to my dad and it's so annoying!
@CleverElsie: I think you're actually right that in many cases, men are more OK with the calculating aspect than women - ironically, since I'm an economist, I'm usually the one at the table everyone looks at to deal with the bill! I do think that couples, over time, work these things out. I haven't gone out with any single friends AND my boyfriend yet so it will be interesting to see how I feel about things when I'm part of the couple instead of on the other side of the table.
@Simone: I prefer taking turns as well. Once I get to a certain point of friendship with people, it almost feels weird to sit there and figure out who owes what. I think part of the issue with my particular situation with the two couples was that I'm not actually very close to the husbands (it also gets more complicated the more people there are at the table).