Why we still care who pays for the first date

A dating scene in <i>Frances Ha</i>

A dating scene in Frances Ha

My friend Lily*, blonde, leggy, gorgeous, is the sort of woman that men chase down the street to get her phone number. This really happened after she locked eyes with a handsome gentleman in a meaningful ‘missed connections’ kind of way while out strolling one weekend. They made plans for a date. We were all dead with envy that none of us had experienced this deeply romantic/ideal memoir material kind of moment. The Big Date arrived and he not only took her to a decidedly average pasta joint, but readily accepted her half-hearted offer to go Dutch.

“He let me pay half which my traditional side balked at. Though obviously as a bra burning femmo, I was conflicted” she texted later about the date and we moaned back and forth, only half-seriously about how to date “as a feminist” and how Germaine and Naomi would surely have been giving us a transcontinental tut-tutting if they could hear us.

“Dinner tab chivalry”, as Jezebel coined it, remains stuck in feminism’s (bony, humourless) craw. But it kind of makes sense. Women are making their own money, but still not as much as men. Women ask men out (I know right!) but still there remain blogs on why women shouldn’t do such bold and vampish things, and what rules they should abide by, and how they can “enchant” a man. Women can be alpha, but we still need books that tell us to “lean in” and to “take a seat at the table”, and to not be afraid of being too bossy, or too much. Most of all, women are still expected to play nice. So when a gentleman wants to pay for our plate of ragu (actually scratch that, nobody would order that on a first date) this niceness, or fear of not being nice imbues that plate of average pasta with more angst than it should. So whether you let a gentleman pay for your very specific martini, throw it in his face if he offers to or split the cost of it down the middle, it’s interesting that it’s still something we think about. As Laura Beck wrote in Jezebel, the whole “guys should pay for dinner” convention has been more resistant to ideological change than other vestiges of our peculiar form of patriarchal culture.”

We're talking about it again because a study was published last week based on the findings of psychologist David Frederick of Chapman University in California. Frederick found that little has changed, reaching for the wallet wise, since your grandpa took your grandma out for a soda and a swing dance.


Frederick and his team trawled through data from more than 17,000 people to see how changing gender norms have impacted on dating. Curiously, as the study reports “Consistent with conventional norms, most men (84 percent) and women (58 percent) reported that men pay for most expenses, even after dating for a while. Over half (57 percent) of women claim they offer to help pay, but many women (39 percent) confessed they hope men would reject their offers to pay, and 44 percent of women were bothered when men expected women to help pay.”

The survey also found that 76 per cent of the men felt bad about pocketing payments from possible partners. This seems to say a lot about how we put a monetary value on feelings, and how obligation is a stubborn old thing.

While crying personal choice is certainly a thorn in modern feminism's side (insert any story here on pole dancing, brazilian waxing, ‘opting out’ being a SAHM and botox) it, and our own experiences shape how we feel about the dinner tab 'debate'. And that is surely OK.

If a dude can't can't handle you insisting on paying your way, he's not right for you. If you equate him splitting the bill with him thinking you're not marriage material then you need to look within (and maybe stop sizing men up for marriage on the first date and just enjoy yourself). If you asked them out you should probably pay. Some people are stingy, some are generous, and money doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. It's OK to go on a cheap date and heck, to be a cheap date too if you fancy it. 

Besides, if you've been courting a while and you like each other and have a good balance in your relationship then things tend, and should, to even out anyway. Everybody likes to be treated, and sometimes it's OK to simply revel in it. Just to be clear, you should never take someone to an average restaurant. And besides all that, remember always that money can’t buy you love.

*Lily is not her real. But trust me, she is a total fox.