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

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.