In January, we began Money Diaries, a series that looks at how millennial women around the world spend their money. As we hoped, it inspired many conversations about salaries and spending habits. But we also noticed commenters had strong opinions on one particular topic: men picking up the tab.
The criticism of these women surprised me, because I’ve always thought that in long-term relationships, there's a little give and take when it comes to money. My boyfriend and I developed a system that allows us to contribute proportionally, since he makes more than I do. When we dine out, he pays; when we cook at home, I pick up the groceries. Of course, there are exceptions: I pay for film tickets; he buys all the fancy cheese. I usually pay for the wine; he gets the beer. Birthdays, holidays, and random presents are exceptions, not to mention the times when one of us is feeling particularly generous.
But the mixed signals from readers made me think twice. When one commenter accused a diarist of “mooching off her boyfriend,” another told her to “absolutely never feel guilty about letting the bf pay, when he makes 3X your salary!” A different diarist was told that her boyfriend was a “loser” because she paid for their hotel on holiday, while also being called out for “lean[ing] on her boyfriend” since he bought her groceries. It began to seem like women, regardless of how they split things up with their partners, couldn’t win. People were even emailing us to request diarists who weren’t coupled off.
It was an interesting development. While there are endless conversations about gender equality and sexism in the workplace, and in the presidential election, the realm of dating seems murkier. So we decided to poll 656 millennial women who describe themselves as either straight or bisexual, examining all the ways in which gender plays into dating expectations. What is expected of men and women on a first date? And does it still matter who pays the bill?
If we split the bill, it’s like, what are we, buddies?
Romance Or Coercion? The First-Date Conundrum
When I started asking my friends about who pays for dates, they typically responded with another question: “Is this a first date?” They weren’t the only ones to consider the first date an anomaly. Of the women we polled, 59% agreed that a man should always offer to pay for the first date. “If we split the bill, it’s like, what are we, buddies?” my friend Jasmin said.
The first date, then, is seen as a complete package: One party does all the asking, planning, and paying. The phrase “taking someone out on a date” pretty much implies that someone will be taken care of, and 51% of women surveyed agree that whoever initiated the date should pay. It’s almost as if paying the bill is the final step in saying, “Yes, this is a date, and I am interested in you.”
But when men and women go off-script, it is occasionally construed as a sign that something went wrong: “If I thought [the date] was going well and he doesn't offer to pay, then I feel weird, like maybe it wasn't going as well as I thought,” one respondent wrote.
A woman paying for her portion of the date signals her disinterest, many of my friends and the survey respondents argued. “On a first date, paying for myself indicates I'm not interested in another date," one wrote. And I get that — when I was single, I always made sure to pay for my half while with platonic male friends to ensure we never strayed into “date” territory. “I feel like I’m getting friend-zoned if a girl pays for the date,” one 26-year-old man in Los Angeles told me.
Many of the women surveyed had fairly traditional views. “Splitting the bill for me is an old-fashioned, chivalrous gesture. Gentlemen should offer to pay the bill,” one woman wrote. “I think splitting the bill is a total romance kill,” said another. “I always offer to split the bill because it is polite, but ultimately I think he should refuse and pay, especially if the date was his idea,” a third echoed.
This isn't just a female thing either; there are men who agree with this sentiment — and oftentimes not just on the first date. “My boyfriend won't even let me reach for the check. He always pays,” one respondent noted. “On his birthday, he told me it was degrading to him for me to pay and has paid for everything ever since.” She was not the only one who cited her boyfriend as the lead decision maker on the issue (although only 6% of women think it is emasculating for women to pay for men).
Despite all the back and forth about whether this expectation is sexist, 48% of women surveyed said they would let their date pay for them if offered. “It's not about gender or politics, it's about appreciation and love languages,” one respondent said.
Still, there is a consequence to this first-date expectation. For all the talk of romance and caring, paying for a meal is still a transactional situation — and treating someone can infer an expectation of something else. “I don't like men to pay for me, as I am afraid they will feel that I ‘owe’ them something in return (sex, another date, etc.),” one woman wrote.
I don't like men to pay for me, as I am afraid they will feel that I ‘owe’ them something in return (sex, another date, etc.)
Anonymous survey respondent
This expectation can go both ways. One female respondent, who is now married, wrote, “I used to always insist on paying for the entire first date (if it was going well) and then say they owe me so I know I'd get a second date.” Tricky? A few male friends of mine have fessed up to the same technique if they really enjoy a date. “If a girl pulls out her wallet, and I want to treat her, I just say, 'Oh, you’ll get the next one,'” one guy friend said.
Context & Location Matters
Here’s an interesting contradiction: Even though 48% of the women surveyed said they would let their dates pay for them, and 54% of women said they “sometimes” or “always” expect their date to pay for them, 46% report feeling guilty when they don't pay.
There is an unfortunate stereotype of a woman who goes out on dates just for free meals — Master of None fans will remember Dev’s particularly dull date during which the woman orders two entrees, spends the entire time on her phone, and takes the sea bass, chicken and crepes, and short ribs to-go. This stereotype is probably why 36% of women we surveyed confessed to the “wallet reach.” Many of our respondents noted that they always double-check, asking their dates, “Are you sure?” once or twice if their card is being waved off.
It’s easy to see why there’s guilt. If you’re going on dates once a week or more, and you pay the full tab, that adds up. Jeffrey, a 28-year-old in San Francisco, estimated that when he was dating the most (two or three dates a week, with friends of friends or women he met through various dating apps), he spent $300 to $400 a month.
Of course, the “quality” of dates does seem to differ based on context. “If it’s someone I met through a friend or at some kind of mutual activity, I think I’d be more inclined to pay for an activity or dinner, not just coffee,” Jeffrey said.
Brett, a 37-year-old in New York City, also chooses first-date spots wisely — “something very minimal and not expensive,” he said. If he’s into someone, he’s more likely to pick up the bill, or suggest something more involved. “Part of why I never date or go on apps is I don’t have the budget for [that many dates]. I’d rather spend money on other things.”
Part of why I never date or go on apps is I don’t have the budget for [that many dates]. I’d rather spend money on other things.
One friend told me that when she chooses date spots, she only picks places where she’d be comfortable paying, even if she knows the man will offer to cover her. “But if someone else is choosing, they often pick something more expensive,” she said.
Without an awkward conversation with the other party, however, it’s hard to know what to expect when the bill comes. “As a guy, you err on the side of caution,” Jeffrey said. “We grew up in a society where the expectation is that the guy pays. The cost of just paying for the date is worth avoiding the possibility of losing the person’s interest.”
Beyond the first date, however, respondents rarely had one standard rule for figuring out money issues. “It depends” was the general rule for most, while others decide who pays based on whoever has money on hand (“We usually just work it out to whoever is feeling rich at the time,” one woman wrote), or who has spent more recently (“If he has done a lot for me that week monetarily, then I will offer to pay for the whole bill,” wrote another). As one woman put it, the bill question comes down to: “How long you've been going out, who gets paid more, [and] who asked whom out.”
But these discussions only tend to occur after a few dates, or even a few months, when the possibility of a longer relationship becomes apparent.
“I am more inclined to split the bill, or even splurge, once we've had the relationship talk and are an official couple,” one woman wrote. “If I am just casually dating someone and he expects me to pay or split, I won't go out with him again.”
What’s Feminism Got To Do With It?
Throughout the reporting for this story, the issue of guilt has come up again and again — particularly, feminist guilt. “I know it’s not very feminist of me…” was a common phrase I heard when talking to my friends. “I consider myself a modern, feminist woman, but, in the dating world, I at least need a sign that the guy is putting in an effort/thinks I'm worth the effort, and money is the quickest way to do that,” one survey respondent wrote, noting that this only applies to first dates.
One coworker told me about her deal with her boyfriend — they take turns for normal, everyday expenses. “But if I say I want to go on a date night, like something romantic and nicer, he always pays,” she said. “And I want him to, but I also feel bad. As a feminist, I know it’s not what I should be doing, but I guess I am old-fashioned at heart.”
To be clear here, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying being treated. Who doesn’t like free things, especially with good company? But somehow, even in long-term situations in which couples agree and discuss the bill question, feminist guilt still creeps up.
“I thoroughly enjoy being treated to a night out,” my coworker said of her date nights. “But I think I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty, you know?”
Part of this might be women berating themselves for being “bad feminists.” But part of this might also be the potential for judgment from the “good” feminists — and the judgment is so real when it comes to women and money.
We were surprised, then, to see that only 18% of the women surveyed said they judge other women who always let their dates pay for them. This number drastically changes when you break down the respondents by their individual salaries. Turns out, the more money a woman makes, the more likely she is to judge another woman for letting her dates pay.
Still, the numbers themselves are fairly low; of the self-identified feminists, only 20% said they would judge other women for letting their dates pay. Which makes you start to wonder: Are you really a "bad feminist" if you don't insist on paying for your half?
When Do You Break The Rules?
There is, perhaps, a moment in a relationship when “romance” is no longer the reason men insist on paying, and “feminism” is no longer the reason women pull out their wallets.
Maybe this is the world that we should be operating in, where money is just one aspect out of five billion inexplicable factors that make a relationship work, or cause it to fail. There's never a one-size-fits-all solution, just as there's no one way to have a great relationship. It all depends on what you want.
One couple might adhere to traditional gender norms, while another might feel more comfortable dividing the bills based on income. But communication is key — and the first step is to start talking openly about money, how we spend it, and what exactly is feasible for every individual circumstance. Then, and only then, will the offer of treating someone come across less as a power play, and more as a gesture of goodwill, something not to be expected in every situation, but to be appreciated, always.
“It's a gesture of kindness if you offer to pay the tab, and likewise a gesture of kindness to counter-offer to pay half,” my friend Vincent, 26, reasoned. “I don’t think it should be associated with a guy or girl to be expected to behave in a particular manner.”
“But in the end, both parties have to know how they operate. And you do that by talking.” Sounds a lot like any other consensual, adult decision, doesn’t it?