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Paying Your Way: Rules for Chipping In, Splitting Checks & Buying Drinks

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There are unwritten rules (until now!) with regard to chipping in some cash for a BBQ, how much of a gift you should get for housewarmings, weddings, etc; and many of the multitude of events you’ll likely attend now that you’re an upstanding member of the community. In general, you want to pay your own way and not be the jerk people talk about when they BS around the campfire. If you bought 8 drinks and the $25 entree at lunch and everyone else stayed sober, don’t offer to split the check or someone will want to split your lip. Don’t be the guy that’s always at other people’s houses drinking their beers. Don’t be the guy that throws in a ten on a meal that cost $9.75.

The Basic Rule:

It worked in Hammurabi’s day and it works today – an eye for an eye. You always pay your way, you always get people back, you never take advantage of someone else’s generosity, and always err on the side of paying too much and never on the side of paying too little. It’s okay to forget sometimes, especially if drinking is involved, and most people won’t count one for one but we all recognize trends and who seems to be a little tighter than the rest.

Buying Rounds:

We all know the guy who will gladly take a beer but can’t find his wallet later on during the night. If you don’t want to drink, gently decline and you’re off the hook. If you want to buy your own, gently decline. If you take someone else’s offering, be sure to get them back sometime during the night. You’d think this would go without saying but… it doesn’t.

Dining Out:

The whole idea of splitting a restaurant bill only works if everyone pretty much got the same priced thing, plus or minus a few dollars. While I’ve never personally been in the situation where there was ever a disparity past like three dollars, I’ve heard stories from people that have. Listen guy who got the lobster when everyone else got turkey sandwiches, don’t suggest they split the check. You look like a jerk for saving ten bucks. Splitting the check isn’t an opportunity to save money, it’s an opportunity to save some time.

Carpools, Rides:

Carpooling to something? The national average for gas is in the $3 range so it’s certainly not cheap, be sure to offer to chip in a few dollars to help pay for hauling your sorry behind from A to B. Sometimes it might be worth it to just fork over five or ten (whatever you think it costs to drive to the place, divided by the people and then add a few dollars) without asking, if the driver refuses then offer again; if they still refuse, thank them politely and buy them a drink sometime.

Parties, BBQs:

First, ask the host if they want you to bring anything. If they say no, ask them they want you to bring beer or wine. If they still say no, look for a tip jar or something when you show up and throw in what you think you’re eating and drinking. If there isn’t one, remember to invite them to your party or BBQ the next time around and don’t ask them to bring something. If they say yes to anything, do that and you’re done.

Group Gifts:

This all depends on how much you make but I think that $20 is always a safe number (or whatever that safe number is in your circles) when it comes to chipping in a few dollars for a housewarming or a boatwarming or a whatever gift. Don’t be that jerk that throws in a fiver and thinks it’s all good because it’s not (unless it’s a bicycle warming).

Wedding Gifts:

Consider how much it likely costs the lucky couple for you to attend their event and give them a gift that’s commensurate to that cost, adjusting up if they’re close friends. If you have no idea how much you think it costs, the safest number is $100 (which won’t be that far off). For example, if you’re invited to a wedding where you’re the date, spring for something about how much you think the wedding cost them. If you have been great friends with the bride or groom for many many years, get them something a little (or a lot) nicer.

These rules are of course just guidelines that you should adjust for your group’s financial picture. My friends all have full time jobs and so these rules and their dollar amounts are good enough, if you’re in college then you probably want to adjust some of the numbers down a little. Scratching together a hundred dollars for a wedding gift is much harder for someone in college than someone with a job and everyone understands this. Also, $100 may make sense in Baltimore and in most places, but perhaps not in Manhattan.

Ultimately, the general rule still applies regardless of where you are, pay your own way and don’t take advantage.

{ 21 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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21 Responses to “Paying Your Way: Rules for Chipping In, Splitting Checks & Buying Drinks”

  1. Patrick says:

    I liked to buy the first round when I went out with a group of guys from my squadron (back in my Air Force days). One night as I took everyone’s order one guy said, “Oh you’re paying? I’ll have a double rum and coke.”

    Everyone else at least thanked me or bought me a drink that night. He didn’t even say thanks. (I think it was more like, “Sucka!”) I lost a lot of respect for him, but at least I knew not to count that guy as a friend.

  2. Hazzard says:

    And for your own protection, never be the one guy there with no cash who ends up putting everything on the credit card. That NEVER seems to work in your favor because there are plenty of people that don’t follow the rules above.

  3. plonkee says:

    Wedding Gifts
    I’ve never paid that much for a wedding gift, more like in the region of £20-£30. Which is about the same as my meal. I recently went to a First Communion and gave about £14 in cash – about the same as the meal. I’m not sure whether I’m cheap or people just don’t spend as much over here.

    Dining Out
    Courtesy of 3 months in the US, I’m the only person that ever remembers that you’re supposed to tip. I usually end up contributing more to cover the difference between what I think the tip should be and what people have put in. There isn’t often a problem with people “forgetting” their two double vodkas or whatever, but its easier to pay extra than not enough.

    Parties/BBQs
    I always bring a quantity of alcohol – I don’t have friends who don’t drink at all. I usually offer to bring something if its one of my friends (not if I’m just the date). I’ve never seen a tip jar at a purely social gathering.

    Buying Rounds
    Its hard to avoid rounds in my social circle. Its considered slightly anti-social to refuse a drink when offered unless you obviously have more than half left. Usually if one person is drinking cokes, then they don’t have to buy a round most of the time. The only time its ever difficult is if there are several people in the group. In that case we spontaneously split into smaller groups.

  4. Kevin says:

    Another way of splitting the carpooling costs, if it is an option, is to alternate driving each week. This way, no money changes hands and it’s reasonably fair.

  5. CK says:

    I confess I’ve never seen a tip jar at a party hosted in someones home. Do people really do this?

  6. Dry says:

    From your examples, it sounds like staying away from the booze would solve most of your problems.

    Re wedding gifts: sure it costs the happy couple for you to come. But it costs me, too! Travel costs, hotel costs, and now a $100 gift? I don’t think so. If you’re just getting out of college, when everyone you know decides to get married, you could go bankrupt.

    • jim says:

      Then don’t go!

      • MO says:

        Many of my friends who got married right out of college would even say “don’t worry about the gift” or “i know you just graduated and didn’t start working…” True friends would understand if you’re not working or just graduated and would appreciate a small gift in lieu of you not coming.

        • dong says:

          A gift’s never necessary but if you can afford it then give it. I mean I rather have a friend come then not come becuae they’re worried about cost, but at the same time if you’re in good financial situation you should give gift. Sorta gift of the magi kinda thing…

  7. Michelle says:

    Regarding Parties/BBQs – NEVER show up to a someone’s home empty handed and expect to enjoy food & drink. Even if you don’t drink alcohol, bring SOMETHING as a gesture of respect and thanks. Bring flowers if you don’t want to deal with food.

  8. Scott says:

    What about the guy that collects all the cash from everyone’s bill and puts everything on his credit card to get the points? Taboo or not?

    I also like the idea of when people suggest you had a great party and want you to do it again (like Christmas parties and other seasonal things) you should say doing it again is a great idea – why don’t we make it a rotating thing? That way you’re not always stuck with the bill and the mess and are less likely to get burned out. For example, we hosted a keg race (I know REAL classy) last Christmas as an alternative to the typical wine & cheese party and had about 40 people show up to drain the two kegs my roomie and I got. Now I’m all about some fun but we dropped some real $$$ on those kegs that we never saw again. Hence why we’re pushing the winning team to pick two people to host it this year. Thus the legend lives on with minimal hassle.

    Some people do love hosting though. I guess I’ve just found myself in over my head with lots of event planning lately ;-)

  9. Tim says:

    i hate splitting checks. we get separate checks if we are among people that we really don’t know. if among friends, we don’t split checks. we alternate on who picks up the tab, because it evens out in the long run among our friends.

    most restaurants will let you charge a portion of the check anyways.

  10. HC says:

    This sounds ruthlessly mercenary to me. Yes, scamming rounds of drinks without paying for anyone else’s is taking advantage, but I don’t agree with all the rest of it.

    Yes, it is nice to offer to bring wine or something to dinner, but if your host declines, then you don’t chip in money, you RECIPROCATE LATER with your own invitation.

    And for cripe’s sake, if you host/attend a wedding with the idea that guests should be offsetting the reception expenses 1:1, then just agree that your circle of friends will all go to the JotP and you’ll just send each other $100 checks. [headdesk]

    You send an invitation to someone because you want them to be there for your wedding day. You give a gift because you want to contribute to your friend’s joy. If it becomes about ledger balances, you aren’t friends. Period.

    Does nobody read Miss Manners anymore?

    • jim says:

      This is why they’re unwritten rules because if you write them down then people will flip out. I’m not saying everything is measured a penny for a penny either, just using generalities.

  11. My friend said the same thing about wedding gifts – if it poses too much of a financial hardship she would rather me come instead of worrying about a gift.

    I came to her wedding empty handed but my appearance meant more to her than anything. I had to take a bus to the train station, get on the train to go home and borrow my parents’ car and then drive 30 miles to the church on a Sunday night. It took me about 3 hours travel time because I got lost. But I’m getting her a gift either way … in the $20-30 range because that’s what I can afford.

  12. JM says:

    On wedding gifts: There is no excuse not to give a nice wedding gift, no matter if you are dirt poor or super rich. Why? Because you have more than a year to pull the money together. Its a bona fide rule of etiquette that you don’t have to bring the gift to the reception.

    At a bare minimum, you have at least a month from the day you receive your invitation up to The Date PLUS one year from The Date. That’s 13 months minimum. You should be able to scrape together a hundred dollars over the course of 13 months no matter who you are. That’s only $7.69 a month from your welfare check, Scrooge. Even less ($6.92/month) if you put that in a high yield interest savings account.

    If you at all care about the person, you should know even before you get your invitation. So you might have up to two or more years.

  13. Cathy says:

    Hi,
    How do you let the bridal party know that they are invited to the bachlorette party (dinner & overnight at hotel & possible limo) but that they’re paying thier own way?

    I’d appreciate your input. Thanks a lot.

    • jim says:

      I think the best way is to list an estimated cost of the party per person so that they know it’s not all paid for, that’s what I’ve seen. I mean people know that stuff isn’t free, they just need to be reminded.

  14. Robin says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but I’ve never seen a tip jar at a social gathering. That’s just silly.

    Also, as a newlywed bride, I can tell you our gifts didn’t come close to paying for the wedding… but that’s ok! We invited everyone because we wanted to, and it wasn’t about the gifts. If I have the money to spend on a wedding gift, I will. If I have time, I’ll make (I do needlework) something. If not, I know my real friends value my friendship more than my money…

  15. Dani says:

    Our friends host a pig roast camp-out weekend on their property upstate. They provide the pig to roast, some side dishes, games, firewood, etc. and most everyone (there’s been upwards of 70 people some years) camps on their property and brings their own food and something to contribute. I say ‘most’ because there are always some who come up to camp and are unprepared with food and other stuff, and don’t contribute. The hosts started putting out a ‘piggy jar’ for any contributions that people want to make. There are still those that don’t get it. We bring stuff AND contribute money. The hosts have to maintain and prepare the property and take care of the outhouses and stuff at their own expense. It’s just courtesy to help them out with expenses.


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