Advice | Friends don’t charge friends for dinner parties

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This column originally ran Nov. 18, 2022, and has been updated.

The subject line on the email simply said, “Disgusted.”

“My husband and I were invited to a friend’s house for dinner for takeout,” the reader wrote. “I asked what to bring, and she said to bring a bottle of wine and a dessert.”

No worries. The friend arrived with the dessert and two bottles of wine.

“She informs me that she wants us to pay for our part of the takeout,” the Florida resident wrote, understandably asking that her name not be disclosed. “This really bothers me because we consider them friends.”

“I am really disgusted that they treated us like this,” she wrote. “When she invited us for dinner, she should have told me that she wanted us to pay, and we could have declined the invitation. Any advice you can provide would be appreciated because I don’t know how to handle this.”

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Before I share what I told this reader, let me say this: I’m nonplussed about this habit of charging guests.

It’s helpful that Cash App and Venmo make it easier to recoup shared, agreed-upon expenses. But has this contributed to a breach in etiquette so egregious that folks think it’s acceptable to pass along the cost of their celebration to their guests?

Retirement parties disguised as fundraisers. Or weddings-turned-money-grabs.

Invitations come with the term “no-host,” which invitees are supposed to surmise means they’re paying for their own meal. Or worse, there is no warning, and you arrive at the restaurant or catering hall only to be handed a check later.

The dinner guest felt blindsided.

“I was caught off guard,” she wrote. “I didn’t know what to say. To me, it’s not the money so much as it is you just don’t treat friends like this. In the past, we bought takeout at the same restaurant and took it to their house. She never mentioned that she wanted us to pay when I asked what I should bring.”

But Michelle, you might argue, there are times when it’s okay to ask people to share the cost of a meal.

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Yes, that’s true if you’re a restaurateur or raising money for a charitable cause.

Unless everyone expected to pay is sharing the title of host — with the right to pick the place or food — it’s unacceptable to solicit money for your event.

But Michelle, you might counter, surely people with limited means — say young adults — shouldn’t have to forgo celebrating a momentous occasion just because they can’t afford to treat everyone.

My position on this issue has gotten blowback from young adults who are confusing hanging out with hosting.

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“If we all stuck to the ‘you invite, you pay’ rule, we’d never have any celebrations that didn’t involve the host cooking, cleaning, and otherwise handling all the preparation,” one reader wrote during one of my online chats.

Friends agreeing to gather at a restaurant and celebrate a milestone is not the same as an invitation to a soiree. If you invite them out, you’re on the hook because you are the host. If you can’t afford the party, practice some delayed gratification.

Here’s what I recommended to the fuming friend.

If you want to make your feelings known so that you don’t harbor resentment, talk it out. Be honest. I advised the reader to call her friend right away. Don’t brood.

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I gave her a script: “Hey, I was a bit bothered that you asked for us to pay for the takeout. When we host, we don’t ask you to pay. Did I misunderstand the invitation? It’s not the money, it’s just you didn’t mention paying for our meal when I asked what we could bring.”

How she responds will help you figure out whether the friendship is worth preserving, I said.

“I took your advice,” the reader later emailed. “She was very apologetic. She said she had been under stress and wasn’t thinking correctly. She is sending me a check because she said the takeout should have been on them.”

This was never about the money. No one in this situation was hurting for cash.

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If you find yourself in a similar situation, respectfully push back. Don’t accept a financial obligation that you weren’t given an opportunity to turn down.

Here’s a script you could use: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not prepared to pay because I was not aware this was a paid affair. Next time, I would be happy to consider contributing if we are sharing the hosting duty.”

If you still feel pressured to pay to keep the peace, you have my permission to make it a rule to ask this particular comrade about the cost of all future invites. If there’s a price presented, send your regrets on principle. Because guests don’t pay.

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