In Spanish, there's a general way of conveying who foots the bill in social situations: El que invita, paga — the person who invites pays.
Unfortunately, in English, an "invitation" might mean anything from treating to going halfsies on a tab that's higher than you dreamed of racking up in one night.
For some friends, an easy solution to deciding who pays for what is consistently splitting and expecting it to come out even in the long run. For others, treating and then requesting money back on their app of choice reduces friction. But when an invite morphs into an unexpected Venmo request 12 hours later, it can be hard not to feel like a friend is asking for a mail-in rebate after spending time, and sometimes money, on you.
Party etiquette was a little more straightforward before apps. If a friend invited me and a group of people over to their place for a birthday bash or just a movie night, I'd likely bring a bottle or two of something to share — even if they didn't ask me to. (I never want to look like I'm taking advantage of someone's hospitality.) But say a friend invited me to an Oscars party they were throwing, declared they were taking care of everything, and then billed me later, I'd raise at least one eyebrow.
Eleny Ramirez, a 31-year old woman in Brooklyn, NY, says surprise cost-sharing is a frequent trend among people she knows. In her view, how considerate the request is depends on how upfront the requester was from the beginning — whether they asked friends to pitch in from the get-go, or want a few bucks thrown their way in hindsight.
"I've been asked [to chip in], which is totally okay if there was a previous discussion, like: 'Hey, we're having a pretty big party. Can you throw in for X on Venmo instead of bringing stuff?'" Ramirez says. "But this has happened in a situation where it was more of an intimate dinner party so it definitely felt like an afterthought. I know things can get expensive, but be upfront about what kind of situation is going on."
She says that surprise charges most often arise on nights when people go out for drinks as a group and someone has offered to buy. "Maybe the alcohol makes them more giving," she jokes, adding that it is hard not to feel exasperated the next day when someone's drunk generosity turns into a Venmo charge.
Andy Won, 34, has been on both ends of these requests, but he says all parties were clear about the money exchanging hands.
"A few months before our barbecue, a friend hosted a taco night with some of the best slow-cooked meat we've ever had. Quality meat being so pricey, the host made a signup sheet asking people to bring beer, snacks, or money," Won says. "When planning our barbecue, we thought to do the same so we could splurge on Angus beef burgers. Without having people chip in, we'd likely go with $3/lb. supermarket ground beef instead of the $7/lb. grass fed version."
Even after paying for higher-quality meat, the majority of guests brought additional food or cash when they arrived. Won speculates that his guests were partly "appeased by seeing where the money went."
"Taco Night is a known pro, and I'll gladly pay cover to get into the next one," he says. "But if I know the person is going to just fire up some Hamburger Helper, I'm bringing beer I want to drink or might feel weird about giving $10."
That sounds like a fair rule: Unless something was broken, borrowed, or stolen, don't send a bill. If you want to party it up in style or en masse, a smalls heads up never hurts. By some accounts, a popular way of doing so is on social media. Caitlin Tran, a senior at the University of Southern California tweeted that a familiar Facebook invite line includes: "BYOB/W or Venmo $5____ to pitch in!"
Inevitably, there will be guests and hosts who will find the practice rude and think it wisest (and most mature) to factor in your own generosity if you are throwing a party. Aside from the fact that it's gauche to split pennies through your phone, part of being a host involves assuming certain costs and not sending invoices later.
The real problem is when neither side is forthcoming about expectations — if a guest doesn't want to or know they'll be on the hook for costs, or a host says that's fine, though "it would be nice..." If you are going to ask, ask early. If you ask after the fact, don’t expect the money to come flowing in.