In 2018, the idea that a guy automatically picks up the bill for a first date sounds woefully outdated, like DVDs or flip phones. Yet in a poll conducted by Money and SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of respondents said they believe the man should pay on a first date in a straight relationship. When it comes to cash, why do such old-fashioned traditions stubbornly persist?
I consider myself a feminist. Yet throughout years of dating, I didn’t bat an eye or protest too much when my date slid his credit card onto the table. Why this is, and why am I in such good company? (Even my mom was surprised by the assumption that a man should pay. “What is this, 1950?” she asked me, incredulous, when I told her about this story.)
There’s another rule that stipulates that whoever asks, pays. But because men often ask, that’s another way of invoking the status quo. And in the age of swiping, a conversation about meeting IRL is often two-sided — there’s no one clear asker.
I asked Lux Alptraum, a writer who covers sex and feminism, for her take; her book “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell about Sex—And the Truths They Reveal“ comes out in November. I was worried that Alptraum would condemn my letting-the-guy-pay ways, but that wasn’t her response at all. “Historically I’ve been someone who splits bills when I’m out on a date,” Alptraum explains. “To be honest, it never really occurred to me that this was somehow taking a stand or a wildly feminist act. But there have been times in my life when I’ve been fine with men paying my share. Perhaps counterintuitively, they’ve been times when I was really angry at the patriarchy and men and figured that a free drink was something that I was owed for my trouble of dealing with sexism.” Consider it a sort of male privilege tax.
“I think if a man approaches it from a perspective of, ‘The world is shitty for women, this is a form of reparations,’ then yeah, I’m fine with that,” adds Alptraum.
The pay gap persists.
Although women receive more college and graduate degrees than men and make up almost half of our country’s workforce, they continue to make substantially less money than their male counterparts. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, female full-time, year-round workers make 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent. And it’s far worse for black and Hispanic women. On average, women earn less than men in nearly every single occupation, from teaching to accounting to management.
“If change continues at the same slow pace as it has done for the past 50 years, it will take 41 years — or until 2059 — for women to finally reach pay parity,” the report states. “For women of color, the rate of change is even slower.” Women also carry nearly two-thirds of our national outstanding student loan debt.
But whatever the macro realities, each couple arrives to their first date with their own personal financial baggage. Since it’s a first date, it’s nearly impossible to know the whole story. Your date may be broke, rolling it in, or anywhere in between. Either person may out-earn the other.
“I usually try to go places where I’m going to be capable of paying my own way if need be, since I never want to assume that I’m going to be taken care of,” says Alptraum. Better to have a potentially awkward conversation before the date (that restaurant’s not really in my price range) than a misunderstanding at the end of a meal.
“I went out with this girl who, during dinner, was talking about woke-ness and socialism and anti-capitalism and all that, to which I agreed,” says Brian Abrams, writer and author of “Obama: An Oral History.” “And then when the bill came, she didn’t even offer to split! I’m totally prepared every time to pay for the check. I don’t know how much of it is ‘a man thing’ or ‘how I was raised’ or if it’s simply just, ‘look, I asked you out, so I’m paying.’ Whatever. It just feels like the thing to do. But I do appreciate the gesture of offering to split it. Even if it’s an insincere gesture.”
I’ve always offered to split the bill, and I’ve always meant it. Yet I’ve never fought too hard when a guy has insisted. Pro tip: say thank you for a meal or a drink, even if there will be no date number two.
“I’ve been just loafing around my neighborhood in shorts and cooking chicken and greens for myself,” says Abrams. “So for me, going on a date and dropping $75 for a meal adds up.”
What kind of date is this going to be anyway?
The idea that a first date must take place at a nice restaurant seems to be falling by the wayside. Marketwatch wrote that “dinner has become a highly taboo first date” among millennials. Sitting with a stranger over a long meal takes an investment of time and money that many aren’t eager to shell out before getting to know someone better. It’s easier to bow out early from an un-fun pint at a bar than a multi-course affair.
“It’s unusual for me to suggest dinner as the main part of a first date,” says Gavin Peters, a regulatory relationship manager at an investment bank who lives and dates in Brooklyn. “This isn’t to avoid the pressure of who pays, more to avoid the pressure of a more formal setting for a first date.”
Rachel Russo, dating coach and author of “How To Get Over Your Ex,” has noticed that many women prefer low-key coffee or drink first dates — as opposed to dinner — “to avoid wasting time with a guy they may not have chemistry or compatibility with.” Men seem to feel similarly. “With all the serial dating people do today, dating does get expensive and time-consuming,” says Russo.
There are plenty of budget-friendly first dates for the cash conscious, from going on a hike to browsing a flea market, although at some point money is usually exchanged. I’ve had a first date at Central Park and one at a museum’s free night, and both led to second dates. Russo points out that especially in big cities like New York, some younger or less flush men choose not to date because they lack the means to wine and dine women the way some high rollers might. But the best dates don’t correspond with the most expensive ones.
Some eschew the formality of dates altogether and opt for more casual “hanging out.” Match’s study of more than 5,000 American singles found that 40 percent prefer to build a friendship first, skipping an official first date altogether and, well, just hanging out instead. Hanging out involves a laxer set of expectations. Forty-eight percent approve of splitting the bill while hanging out, versus only 29 percent who approve of this on a more formal first date. It’s a way to take off some of that first date pressure, too.
Is chivalry dead?
There’s a sort of mythical creature: the woman who eats and drinks her way through life for free by scheduling a series of dates. She’s in it for the eats, not the romance. The New York Post ran a story: “Beware of ‘Foodie Call’ Dates Who Are Just in It for a Free Meal.” But company you’re not interested in seems a high price for a freebie, even for the young and broke. A free meal may be a nice bonus, though, or a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing evening.
The inverse stereotype is the guy who sees shelling out for a fancy date as a way of guaranteeing a hookup later on, hoping his date will feel obligated. (Ew.) Fortunately, none of the women or men I spoke with said they personally observed this behavior. A good date never feels transactional.
Yet paying for a date can potentially set up a power dynamic that continues as the relationship unfolds. Even if there’s not an actual quid quo pro, the payer holds the cards. A man paying is not just a person paying for some cocktails or Pad Thai — it potentially carries with it the weight of men’s historical domination and reinforces the gender idea of men as provider.
Russo doesn’t mind the tradition of men footing the bill. “Personally, as a woman who has pretty much always dated men who pay throughout early stages of dating and beyond, I would feel uncomfortable dating someone who expected me to split bills,” she reflects. “I think a part of me would feel that I was not taken care of if I had to pay.”
Forty-eight percent approve of splitting the bill while hanging out, versus only 29 percent who approve of this on a more formal first date. It’s a way to take off some of that first date pressure, too.
The taking care of seems to be at the very crux of the matter — what is either so nice or so problematic. It’s amazing that in a world where women are more likely than ever to be breadwinners, to have badass careers, to run for office, this old-school gesture that involves the man stepping up and making financial moves persists.
Peters doesn’t equate paying for a first date with chivalry “any more than holding a door open for someone regardless of their gender,” he says. “It’s a common decency to offer but not insist to pay and isn’t connected to a presumption of the other person’s ability or willingness to pay.”
Back to being taken care of. In any relationship, I hope to both be taken care of and do the caretaking in different moments and situations. That feels like true equality. I am a freelance writer and my fiancé works in financial technology. He makes a lot more money than I do right now, and in turn he pays for significantly more of our shared expenses. If I, say, sell the film rights for my book and start bringing in the big bucks, that equation will change. We’re a team.
By the way, I invited him to a wine tasting for our first date, but he paid for the bubbly and snacks we had after. He paid for our second date, too.
How do same-sex couples decide who pays?
These assumptions change when a date involves a same-sex couple. “One of my favorite parts about being queer is that, because there are no default dating rules, we can make it up as we go along,” Anna Pulley wrote in the Chicago Tribune.
“I think queer relationships are generally more egalitarian, or, if they’re not, there’s a discussion of who should pay and why,” says Alptraum. “If someone’s much wealthier, for instance, that might come into play.”
Another reason we’re all so used to men paying on heterosexual dates: habit. I was so accustomed to my date covering the bill that I’d be taken aback if they didn’t.
Marisa T. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab, told the Washington Post that scripts help us feel in control. Gendered expectations — that a man does the asking out, the paying the bill, and the following up — give boundaries to what can be a nerve-wracking situation. The downside is that these gender roles are antiquated and limiting.
When a date is awesome, figuring out who pays doesn’t feel like a big deal. But sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, whoever’s covering the bill.