Gimme one margarita…
“Who pays for the first date?” is such a fun question to ask during a girls’ night, I am surprised they don’t have an episode dedicated to such an essential matter on Sex and the City. So I took the matter into my own hands like a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw and investigated the dilemma myself. I even asked the question to my friends on Instagram. Because my poll was so narrow, “50/50” VS “men should pay”, I had more “it depends” and food for thoughts I never dreamt of having. The poll, which had no statistical evidence whatsoever of course, was also not so clear cut, with 37 votes for 50/50 and 16 votes for “the man should pay”.
Just two minor caveats here. I will use “men” and “women” in this article as writing shortcuts, and generalize tons of learnings without grammatical precautions, just to make this article easy to write and read. Second: as you can probably already tell, this is an article mostly about straight dating. But more on that later.
The first important point is: the most feminist option is not as obvious as I thought it was. Of course, gender equality means you should go 50/50, but what about the extra investment a woman makes, going on a date? First, there is the financial investment in her appearance: hair, makeup, nails, hair removal, you name it… Of course, these costs are not necessary per se, some women will make them without the incentives of dates, and others will just spend less than others. These investments are obviously not compulsory too, just very well ingrained in our society’s expectations of how a single straight woman is supposed to behave. And men have their own beauty expenses, of course, of course... But if you assume all beauty expenses a typical single woman makes in her appearance are for dating and dating only, a good market sizing exercise would be to add all the beauty expenses and divide it by the number of dates she goes in a year. Then you’ll have a good idea of how much she should expect in terms of drinks offered. I’ll let you do the math.
Apart from the financial investment, there is also the psychological investment of going on a date with strangers women most likely found on a dating app. One could argue that, in our patriarchal and kind of unsafe society, a woman should be compensated, even rewarded for the risk she takes. But this may sound too gloomy. Moving on!
So, apart from one specific date, let’s talk structural. Is it really fair to pay half the bill when you’re most likely earning less than the man in front of you? In a world where gendered income inequality is still very much a thing unfortunately, the date could take into consideration the likeliness that the man in the date is more privileged, financially speaking at least. It may be unfair for a woman to pay for her own drink! But how would you know, really? Would you talk about your tax bracket during a first date?Perhaps the man in front of you is not richer than you. Then, should the woman pay? Anyway, some women want the men to acknowledge this and express, in a way, their gratitude.
This is a way to make chivalry somehow feminist, which doesn’t sit right with everyone. Some women said to me “I don’t want to owe him”, basically saying how they felt they had to go on unwanted second dates to pay back what the men paid on the first date. Some were also afraid of entitled men who believe women owed them something intimate after they paid. So if you take the date in the narrow context of just a couple of hours, “Who owes who?” has a different answer than if you take the wider context into consideration (beauty expenses, risk, systemic inequalities). But how many men are willing to consider the wider context when the bill is on the table?
By the way, because my poll was so narrow, the clever comebacks I had from a couple of men were: “The woman should pay”. And my answer to that (apart from “aha very clever”) is: How would they react, really?
I also heard a financial argument: some men want to do 50/50 because they go on dates… a lot of them. If you are some kind of Tinder addict or Don Juan, paying the full price of every date can become a dent in your budget. But maybe (maybe) if you can’t afford the lifestyle, perhaps you should reconsider it. A couple of margaritas are not that expensive.
But let’s move on from the pure economics of dating for one second. We are definitely not making Excel sheets and profits and loss statements to estimate the compensation we expect to receive from this… are we? The reason why the answer to my question is not straightforward is that it has a muddy cultural and sociological background behind it.
A few months ago I watched a TikTok where an Eastern-European woman mocked Western girls for accepting to pay half. We don’t live in a vacuum: what we expect is also built on our past experiences. If you are used to 50/50, a woman expecting you to pay for the full price will look awfully entitled. If you only had dates where men usually pay for drinks, you’ll quickly look down on the man suggesting to go Dutch, even if he is… Dutch. This cultural aspect will create a risk when you date someone from another culture or education: there could easily lead to a misunderstanding. A friend told me she will feel unwanted if the man won’t pay for her drink, and might call it quits based just on that. Paying, in her logic, means that the man cares for her and acknowledges her worth. But a male friend of mine said, on the contrary, he will look down on a woman who will passively wait to be invited, believing she will act entitled in their potential relationship. Money is here a signal for what to expect later on in the relationship: on the one hand, whether they put some extra time, effort and money into their relationship, on the other hand, whether they treat their partner as their equal.
Some try to go past societal and cultural logic with more practical answers. These were the less gendered and more inclusive answers, usually given by queer friends, for obvious reasons. They also don’t have the cultural burden and need for relationship signals straight people may have: the expectation for a woman to look financially oblivious, the need for a man to express his value with money. One answer was “The one who organizes the date pays”. This sounded to me like the most reasonable option if you don’t want to go 50/50 but still want to take an ungendered or nonheterosexual path to dating. “If you ask to see me, you pay” basically. Another practical solution, coming from a queer perspective, was the “paying for the next round” option: you do not go Dutch because it sounds cheap and inconvenient, but you still do 50/50.
Finally, you can also see this problem as a ritual to influence the date's outcome. The issue is not who pays, but how you pay. How do you fight for the bill? How slowly should you open your purse and look for your wallet? It is, as always, a question of balance. Usually, whatever happens, and whatever your opinion is, you probably should argue for both options, but at the same time stay flexible. But the best ritual also varies. On the one hand, you should at least have your wallet in your hand and vaguely argue about it, talking about how you spent a really nice time, yadda yadda yadda... On the other hand, there is something gentleman-like to pay without the woman noticing it, creating a subtle surprise, without creating emotional pressure.
Whatever you choose, you have to take a risk. That’s exciting! I love this question because, on further inspection, it does not have a clear-cut answer, but you still have to answer it. You have to make a choice, you cannot be passive about it. Your finance, your feminism, your ego, your culture, your education, your strategy… Everything is wrapped up in a fistful of dollars.