The Final Word On Who Pays For Birthday Dinners

There are a lot of advice columns out there, a lot of people to turn to depending on whether you want your answers doled out with some sugar or some sass, but my enduring favorite remains the somewhat-under-the-radar Carolyn Hax, who, since the 90s, has combined practicality with compassion, sagacity with concision. On Friday, during her weekly Washington Post live chat, she was asked a perennial question: when you’re invited to a birthday dinner out, who pays?

She has now issued the equivalent of a Supreme Court ruling.

I received an Evite from the birthday girl to join the her at a restaurant with a hipster bar, and because I love her and want to celebrate, I RSVP’d yes. Because I am short of money, I planned to buy the bday girl (and myself) a drink, stay for an hour, give her a little gift, and head out. My short-circut-the-money-converstation-plan was quashed, though.

The party was not in the bar, but a seated, multi-course dinner, at which the birthday girl ordered lavishly (small plates) for the table, including bottle after bottle of wine. When the check came, she was silent, albeit gracious, as the rest of us split it. I was a loss, so I tossed in my faded-from-use credit card, and chalked it up to life lessons. Budgets get blown.

We are old enough (early 40s) and far enough down our career paths that it isn’t unusual for a host to pick up the check for the table; things have changed since our twenties when it was unfathomable that anyone had $500 or $1000 bucks to spend on a birthday dinner. The challenge is knowing what kind of night you are attending: are you being hosted? Are you able to swing by for a drink? Have you been summoned to fund the guest of honor’s vision of a lovely night? Can you help me script a way to have my expectations set ahead of time on these events?

In short, Birthday Girl (BG) sent out an ambiguous invitation; BG “ordered lavishly”; BG did not offer to pick up the check and, indeed, did not. SHAME.

Hax agrees:

I think a person who arranges the event and orders the food also picks up the check — even the birthday person, even when people at the table insist on paying for the birthday person. It’s so easy for host to pull off by arranging in advance with the restaurant that host and host alone will be receiving the check. What you describe puts too many people in a terrible spot — not just the ones who don’t have the money for a full share and were planning to order only what they could afford, but those who don’t drink or aren’t hungry. They all get hosed by this arrangement.

Because it’s a chat, various readers contribute their experiences, such as:

Unfortunately, I think the expectation is that birthday girls don’t pay. I agree with you Carolyn that if you want lavish for your bday you should pay for it — but that just doesn’t seem to be the way it works. I also think a compromise position (since I like lavish) is for the host to order appetizers for the table and then folks can get their own drink + additional appetizers if they desire.

A consensus develops:

Q: The Eviter needs to pay

If someone is going to the formality of sending an Evite to their birthday party, they need to be Johnny on the spot re paying the bill. Because what’s the alternative — they invited you to come co-host their dinner? No. The birthday girl is sorely lacking in social graces. Also, if the plan for the event is a multi-course sit down dinner, then the invitation needs to specify “join us for dinner at Hipster Fantasia” so that people understand what they’re taking on, time-wise.

A: Carolyn Hax

Agreed, thanks. I think Hipster Fantasia closed last year, though.

And, lo, it becomes the law of the land:

Q: Who pays the bill? The answer is not a FWIW statement

Take this as a PSA chatters — The person who invites pays, period. (*) That’s good manners. If the guests want to pay then the person who would normally be obligated can allow them, but that agreement acknowledges that the initial responsibility was on the host (the one who did the inviting). It’s simple manners, and anyone who makes you think otherwise is just plain wrong.

*NOTE: if you’re invited and want to order something that seems outside the normal course of what would be ordered for the occasion, you should ask the host if it’s okay. That’s part of being a considerate guest.

A: Carolyn Hax

A P.S. to your PSA: If the guests want to wrest the check away from the host, because the host is also the guest of honor, then the guest who volunteers has to cover the whole thing. A guest can’t volunteer -all- of the guests to pay for the host/honoree.

So it shall be written. So it shall be done.

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