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It's complicated: Who pays on dates

Most guys want gals to help with the bill after a few free meals, according to our exclusive Elle/ survey. But that’s tricky because gals are torn over tab sharing.
Duane Hoffmann /

Most first dates come straight out of the pages of a 1920s romance novel, and after a man generously treats a woman, he still expects something in return.

Namely, he expects her to return the favor of paying. (What were you thinking?)

An Elle/ survey of about 74,000 online readers found that most guys want gals to help with the check after a few free meals. But that’s tricky because gals are torn over tab sharing: Some are reluctant to pay while others are adamant about their ability to pay.

Our Money, Sex & Love survey illustrates that the question of who pays has gotten complicated.

  • Almost two-thirds of men, especially younger ones, said they want women to chip in after a few dates.
  • Forty-four percent of women are bothered if a man expects them to help pay.
  • Fifty-seven percent of women, especially younger ones, always offer to pay (even on the first date), but 34 percent of them are bothered if a man accepts — and 46 percent are bothered if he refuses.

“The rules of courtship are in the transitional period,” said Diane Mapes, a dating expert and author of “How to Date in a Post-Dating World.” “There is a lot of confusion and frustration — and expectation out there.”

That’s likely why guys tend to follow the trusted traditional etiquette — at first. But it’s becoming a courtesy for gals to offer after that. Those who don’t could offend many expectant guys. But tossing them an offer throws them into a fool’s game: If guys accept or refuse, they risk offending gals.

“There are many more pitfalls for males than females,” said Janet Lever, a sociologist at California State University in Los Angeles who helped write and interpret the study.

That’s because some gals who make the modern effort just do it to be polite.

‘He’s making me pay’
Judy McGuire, a dating expert and author of “How Not to Date,” has witnessed a phony offer gone awry. She fixed up two friends, and after offering to pay on their first date, the girlfriend called McGuire from the ladies’ toilet. She said, in astonishment: “He’s making me pay.”

“Some women are really feminist in all parts of life — and then revert to the '50s kind of would-be housewife model,” McGuire said.

But some gals really, truly want to pay, like Kristina Hoock.

In college, Hoock dated a traditional guy who never let her pitch in. He once bought her $800 worth of clothing on a single shopping trip. Although meant to show how much he cared for her, his splurges made her feel obligated to hang out with him — and created rifts in the relationship. They fought over his domineering spending style, and, frustrated, they eventually quit shopping together. He later proved to be controlling and jealous —  which triggered their eventual breakup.

“I feel uncomfortable if a guy pays for everything,” said the 24-year-old Hoock, now a business consultant for IBM. “I feel like the balance of power has shifted in his direction. I want to at least provide for myself. This is my date, too.”

The man called the shots when the old dating etiquette came about in the 1920s. In those days, trends emerged like “rating and dating,” meaning men with more money got the prettiest ladies and more of them. And “petting and paying” referred to a man paying for a woman — and then expecting her to return to his car later to “pet,” anything but going all the way was fair game.

Back then, few women could afford to pay for dates — but many can today. Women still earn only 77 cents to every dollar men make. But plenty of women these days make more than the men they date. Who earns more is starting to matter. A fair amount, a third, of gals believe they should pay more of the dating expenses if they earn more than a guy. But it remains a double standard, since more women, about half, believe a man should pay more if he makes more.

“It’s a totally different world, and it’s an expensive world,” Lever, the sociologist, said. “You can’t go around being a little princess on the pedestal.”

Some of the trends from the early era of dating have stuck around. Guys still tend to ask out gals. But who initiates the date is starting to matter. About half of surveyed men said the initiator should pay. And guys are still chivalrous: Three-quarters of surveyed men said they feel guilty when they let women pay, regardless of what she makes. The same percentage don’t mind if their dates order the priciest prime rib on their dollar.

But most gals wouldn’t dare. Nearly 9 in 10 of surveyed women said they wouldn’t go for the most expensive item on the menu. Gals show their generosity in other ways: They’re way more likely to treat the guy they’ve been dating for a while to a home-cooked meal, 80 percent, than to a restaurant dinner, 50 percent, or a movie, also 50 percent.

‘Is she really interested in me?’
If not to use the guy, why are some gals so reluctant to help pay the tab? Bill behavior isn’t as simple as dollars and cents. It can reveal something disconcerting about the cutie across the dinner table. A gal worries that a guy who never lets her pay might be controlling. Gals also worry that a guy who expects her to pay might be a cheapskate, doesn’t like her or isn’t gentlemanly. But a guy also worries when a gal always relies on his wallet.

Jeremy Chung, a 31-year-old music teacher from Huntington Beach, Calif., expects gals to offer after a few dates. After that, he starts having doubts.

“‘Is she just in this because I'm paying — or is she really interested in me?’” Chung said.

To avoid a misunderstanding, why don’t singles just lay their paying preferences on the dinner table? With all the different factions out there, it’s easy to understand why the topic is taboo. For some, money isn’t exactly an appropriate dinner topic on the first few dates, anyway. About two-thirds of surveyed women said they try to keep their incomes a secret from their dates.

Chung said he’s never had to bring up who pays. In January, a gal offered on their second date to get a round of beers at the House of Blues in Anaheim, Calif.

“If a girl is just like ‘I'll get this one,’ that’s totally cool,” Chung said. “We don’t even have to discuss it.”

So do guys expect that in return?
If women don’t address it, some surveyed men said they would. Others use more subtle approaches: Only pay half the tab, lie and say you don’t have enough cash in your wallet — or take her to cheaper restaurants. And if nothing works, nearly half of men, especially younger ones, said they’d just break up with a freeloading lady.

Couples who stay together usually establish some kind of tab-sharing system around the third month. About half of surveyed people said that was the case. But over the entire courtship, 8 in 10 surveyed men said they end up covering most dating expenses. Even guys who make less than their girlfriends pay more, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, some people are finding ways to broach the touchy topic early on.

Hoock, the business consultant, planned on treating her new honey to dinner because he had accompanied her to all her favorite places in San Francisco, one last time, before she moved. She now lives in New York City.

Although they’d been flirting for months, this was their first formal date. They went to a wine bar — and indulged in tapas and a few glasses of the alcohol. When the bill came for about $100, Hoock grabbed it — and so did he. They both tugged to gain hold of it, when she suddenly passed her credit card to the waiter — and said, “Go, go!”

Then, Hoock told her sweetie that they could take turns paying. Surprised, he said he’d never spoken to anybody about thatbefore. But he agreed.

And about whether most guys expect “dessert” after dinner: A third of surveyed women, especially older ones, say they feel less pressure to pet when they pay.

But the answer is “No.” Only 16 percent of men say they expect something, something when they provide for the woman.

This isn’t the 1920s. This is 2008, and after guys pay, they expect gals to pitch in — not put out.