Ask Swan: the final word on splitting the bill

Dear Swan,

On dates I always offer to split the bill, but I also secretly prefer it when men insist on paying. A friend said this makes me a bad feminist. Am I in the wrong for not being firmer about going Dutch?




Dear Rachel,

Thank you very much for cracking open this can of worms – we’ve been eyeing it for a while.

It's worth starting with a bit of history. "Dating" began in the early 20th century, as a way for women who couldn't afford to host gentlemen at their family home to find suitable partners. Men would pay as a matter of course – after all, women had no income of their own – and as such it was regarded as somewhat shameful, and akin to prostitution.

Thankfully, today norms have changed. Men and women can both earn money, and not dating is more the exception than the rule.

But not all pseudo-chivalric norms are dead, and that leaves prospective daters in a tricky position when it comes to splitting the bill. What's the done thing?

Very sadly, the answer we’re obliged to give is going to make nobody happy.

Here you go: how you split the bill is fundamentally a question of vibes.

To be clear, this does not mean there aren’t rules. There are absolutely rules. But the rules are so byzantine and require so many caveats that it’s almost invariably easier to read the situation in person.

Here are some basic norms, for example. None of these are stuck to by everyone – in fact, you might disagree with all of them – but a sizeable faction will rally behind each one.

These principles put you in a difficult position if, say, you’re a high-earning woman who’s set up on a date by mutual agreement. Or a man on a low salary who’s been asked out! 

There are still further nuances. For example, we could make a case that if you’re on a date with someone who’s super into you and you know that, sadly, you’re going to turn them down, it’s kind to offer to pay. But wait – what if they ate most of your meal? And ordered the really expensive wine?

Countless variables mean that situational judgement is the only reliable answer.

Fortunately, however, there are some guiding principles on which to lean. If you’re clearly holding more cards than your partner (e.g. you’re older, richer, more confident, more powerful, more established in life, or any of the other things that we often try to pin down with demographic markers) then footing the bill is a thoughtful and generous gesture that will doubtless be appreciated.

If you’re none of those things, it’s still polite to offer your half, except in exceptional circumstances (e.g. they’ve insisted on taking you somewhere you made it clear you couldn’t afford – which, we should note, is poor form for a first date, because it entrenches just the kind of imbalance we’re trying to avoid).

And if you’re the one paying the bill, do so discreetly and without fuss, or your partner will quickly wish they’d covered it themselves (and then left). Don’t keep score, don’t bring it up again, and definitely don’t assume it entitles you to anything from your date.

If you’re being paid for, say thank you and aim to return the favour in future. If that’s not possible, make sure your date knows that paying for you isn’t something you demand, and that you’re just as happy to do cheaper or free dates. Your feminist credentials will remain spotless.

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