Birds of a feather when it comes to friends and money: Who foots the restaurant bill?


Birds of a feather when it comes to friends and money: Who foots the restaurant bill?



When I started college, I noticed an odd thing in regards to first-year college roommates. They all seemed to have been placed together based on height. All pairs were either 5’4’’ or 5’7”. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Indeed many decades earlier, researchers (Berkowitz, 1969) found that indeed friends are similar in height. I suppose there are many reasons for such a similarity. For example, both can reach the same cookie dough, can wear the same traveling pants and can look each other in the eye. There is something, as George Bush noted, to be said about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing their souls. I still find it somewhat funny and weird to see a pack of friends that are all the same height.   Whenever I see such a scene I think of the movie Heathers. That’s how it all starts, my friends. Same height –eventually a single-minded pack.



We talk about needing diversity in the workplace and on fictional television show friendships. There is the phenomenon of the Black Best Friend on television shows. There is also the phenomenon of how 1/4th of a band of friends is an ethnic minority (most likely black). Although, Friends and Seinfeld didn’t subscribe to that notion.   Admittedly, as a Latina, I wonder when Hispanics will be included in such equations. Notably, the View just hired its first female hostess by bringing on Rosie Perez. This may be interesting.   So, as a society we encourage diversity in groups in order to expand perspectives, sympathy and understanding.   Psychological science points to the utility of such groupings (to a certain extent).



Now, however, there are some instances where diversity in friendship groups may be a bit uncomfortable. For instance, consider this question. What happens when the restaurant check is placed on the table and the group consists of vastly differing income brackets? The television show Friends tackled this issues a decade ago. I don’t think we are any clearer to a solution.



Over a decade ago, I made very little money. I will be frank with you as to how little. As a PhD individual in the middle of doing her post-doctoral training I made 33k a year. That was actually less than I had made previously as a paralegal. Even more sadly for me, my friends made about four times that amount. Going out on trips or out to restaurants was quite a situation. However, I never ever suggested that we each pay only what we had spent. I was determined to put in equal share of the bill. Stupidly I was concerned with “saving face” and “pulling my own weight.” A couple of times my way richer friends would offer to cover the bill in its entirety and I would be thankful although a bit uncomfortable. Furthermore, I was a social scientist addressing HIV/AIDS and they were Wall Streeters who felt slightly uncomfortable at the AIDS talk. After a while, we stopped going out as often.



Fast forward a decade and I am doing way better financially. Although, admittedly, I will never ever catch up to my Wall Street friends. But that is ok. I can hold my own and I am proud of my work. Furthermore, somehow my rich friends don’t feel as rich as they are saddled with a lot of fancy debt. It’s all about perspective.



Nonetheless, I now find myself in a reverse situation from a decade ago. I hang out with colleagues or friends that I have made in the non-profit field and when we go out to eat that salary difference rears its head again. This time I am the one that offers to cover the entire bill. Yet, it makes me uncomfortable. At times I feel that there is an underlying expectation that I pick up the bill as I am an executive manager, I make more money, I live in a double income household and so on.   This is not necessarily an issue with my male friends and colleagues. It is more so when it is other females.   I have slowly stopped offering to cover the whole bill. I believe in just again splitting the bill evenly. I do not care if they order three drinks and I order one. I’m ok with splitting it evenly and most people are ok with that.


A year ago, I was with a colleague who had overspent on a business trip and was quite distressed by that. One evening we got a bite to eat before heading off to our rooms to work. When the waitress came over and dropped the bill on the table, my colleague never noticed the bill was there. I eventually put my card down and the waitress  charged me the whole bill. I had just really had a diet coke while my colleague had a whole meal.   That was an awfully pricey soda for me. I didn’t say anything and that colleague then thanked me for getting the bill when they realized that it had been paid.   I don’t say all this to complain about the person. I rather like this person.  It is just an example of how dinners can be a financial and emotionally tangled minefield. It reminds me of when I was making a pittance of a salary and how uncomfortable I felt going out with my Wall Street friends. How often does the high earner of the group offer to cover the bill? Does it make the other individuals low wage earners) uncomfortable?  I know that when I was in the extremely low-wage earner position(in comparison to my Wall Street friends), I eventually stopped going out with those friends that made 4-6 times my salary.  I stopped eating out with them for other reasons as well.  I sheepishly admit, I felt that I worked way harder than most of them and yet they earned way more. That there made me feel a bit angry and uncomfortable.  I didn’t need a side reminder accompanying my dinner that life is unfair at times.



This leads me to wonder about diversity in income brackets and friendships.   There are other things than salary that bind us as friends obviously. However, a restaurant meal can be a tricky minefield to navigate. Is this like the height phenomenon where like-minded friends are of the same height? Most certainly in our society there are differences by income bracket and friendships across economic strata are at times difficult to navigate.  But when you start off as friends who are poor and then salaries start to diverge as career paths differ how do you maintain that friendship? Do you stay stuck in the memories of the past? Creating new memories without exposing economic differences is a worthwhile balancing act but it is a balancing act that can be at times emotionally taxing.


Potlucks, anyone?



11 replies »

  1. Great post! I actually felt physically uncomfortable while reading about the restaurant bill situation! We’ve all been there. I had to laugh though when you mentioned your low salary because it was actually my highest salary after 16 years of teaching in WV public schools. I was always that person making less at the restaurant table, although because I made so little and had two children to care for, I didn’t go out that frequently.


  2. Wow….great topic! While I’m not poor, student loans make it hard for me to gallivant the way I would like. I have a friend who is very well off for many reasons (no student loans, doesn’t pay rent bc her dad owns the building she lives in, she works for the family business, and she has her own side jobs). Needless to say, she would always pay the bill and, for lack of a better comparison, it made me feel like a hooker! LOL! I actually had to have a very frank talk with her about it and things are better now. If I couldn’t talk to her about it, I probably would have stopped hanging out with her bc dinner would send me into an emotional tailspin….ay ay ay…such is life 🙂


  3. I am also a fan of separate bills, especially when dining with people who will drink twice the cost of my meal.
    That being said, with my closest friends, over the last few decades, since we are already in a position of knowing financial limitations at a given time, I think it’s important to invite people while saying things like, “My treat,” or “Let me take you out for lunch,” or “Lunch on me, Wednesday, are you available?” It puts a strained party at ease. I know this, because we turned down many an invite over financials years back.
    I remember being at a restaurant, paralyzed by prices, wondering if I was prepared to be in debt for dinner at the cost of saving face. I outgrew that the following day, lol!
    I love having such an intimate circle, where we cover one another dependent on prosperity. That’s a kindness. Such a kindness. I don’t view it as charity, neither when I’m the giver or the recipient. I view it more of “I like you so much more than eating this sushi without you.”


  4. Just about to head off to a restaurant lunch. Big occasion and friends from way back will be there.
    Thankfully, the bill will be only a small part of our thoughts for the day, but it is always a bit of a drag to work out.
    It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you say goodbye to someone. You gush out all of the niceties and tell them you are looking forward to seeing them again soon.
    Only to find that they are travelling on the same train as you, or walking the same path.
    That small talk- over talk- is the same as the meal finishing and all of the ‘Street smarts’ kicking in.
    It’s when you see your friends and associates in the cold, harsh light of day. When the bill comes and the calculations start.
    ‘I had the chips and 3 cokes’, “I didn’t have the prawns they must have been Frank’s”. All of that stuff just can make or break an occasion and I am thankful that my financial status can handle the ups and downs of such trauma.B


  5. Oh I totally agree, Mimi, it does get to feel awkward covering the whole bill – one can do it once to a same group of friends but doing it more gets into a weird zone of guilt, pride, uncertainty…from all sides … I reckon potluck dinners get to be the best way out or everyone pays for their own 😦 life does get complicated as purchase power increases


  6. You are so right there, Mimi. I’ve stopped hanging out with my grade school, high school and college friends because I’ve veered off from the usual career ladder and we started having littler and littler in common. And the money issue really raises its head up given that I’m quite a prideful person. I still eat dinner with them from time to time but it wasn’t as it was before.

    It’s a good way to test a friendship though whether it be in school or in the office. You get to separate your friends by circumstance and by proximity and your true friends. Thankfully, I have managed to salvage a friendship from high school who I’ve gone through a lot with. I now have a small circle of close friends who are comfortable with growing separately but not growing apart. 😀


  7. I really enjoyed this post and found myself nodding my head in agreement throughout. I have been on both sides of the situation and it can be uncomfortable on both.
    I also think that as life takes us down different paths, we naturally migrate through ever-changing “friend pools”. Some lifelong friends will always remain, but those are the one above this sort of superficial situation.


  8. I was involved with a situation similar to those you have described, Mimi. It was many years ago; maybe 1959! My new husband and I were with another couple – the woman was a long-time friend of mine – and we enjoyed their company. Until we went to a nightclub where excellent food was served – at a price. The menu showed entree prices that were over our heads. This wasn’t the first time – but the last – that we had dinner with them. They invariably ordered the most expensive entrees and we ordered the least expensive (which was still way above our comfort zone). The bill was split in half. The other couple didn’t know that we had to eat lots of pasta and chopped meat for the next two weeks in order to make up for the big hole in our food budget. They didn’t have to worry about their food budget. Other than those “out for dinner” times, we found their company to be really nice.


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