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Who Should Pay on the First Date?

After five years of marriage, life happened and I found myself single again. When some friends set me up on a date, it was thrilling. I suddenly became aware of everyday occurrences that I had completely lost sight of for years. For example, did you know that sometimes when people walk down the street, they make eye contact with strangers they find attractive. I’d totally forgotten!

I also forgot about all the complications associated with dating, including the dreaded who-pays-on-a-first-date conundrum. But when this time last year a perfectly pleasant round of beers wrapped up with Kevin (or was his name Sean? I forget), it seemed obvious who would pay the bill.

It’s the classic little dance: The woman makes a perfunctory offer to pay, knowing full well that the man will get the check. Instead, Sean (or was his name Kevin?) casually suggested we split the tab, and that’s what we did.

And I was miffed! I mean, unless I misread something, I’m pretty sure you found me to be smart and charming. So pick up the bill, Kevin/Sean/whatever your name was!

But I hesitate to share that thought here. After all, I fall into the ranks of educated, professional urbanite, left-leaning and moderately feminist. In other words, I make my own money and am looking for a guy who digs my mind and wit. So where do I get off expecting chivalry based on the assumption of my economic inferiority and need to be cared for? (Thanks a lot, Mom!)

Despite plenty of logical explanations of why I should buy my own drink, I still couldn’t shake the notion that the guy pays for the first date. So I decided to find out what’s going on in the dating world—and why we pay (or don’t) the way we do.

First stop: the numbers

A recent Glamour magazine online poll of nearly 3,000 women found that 23 percent of respondents let the guy pay outright, 13 percent let him pay but take care of the tip, and 45 percent do “the reach” (my personal favorite). The remaining either treated the guy, or insisted on splitting the bill.

In the U.K., 25 percent of women thought men should pay on the first date, and 58 percent expect to split the bill, according to a survey by an online bank. Of men, 55 percent expect to pick up the tab, and 29 percent presume they’ll split the tab. But I don’t really identify with most Glamour readers, and I’m not really clear on how my life parallels that of my sisters across the pond, so I asked my friends and a few experts.

What the experts say

The handful of therapists and relationship journalists all said the same thing: Guys should pay for the first date and probably a few dates after that. The reason (feel free to skip ahead if you’ve taken a women’s studies class in the past 40 years) is that since the dawn of time, men were responsible for satisfying the material goods for the family, and women were responsible for creating a nurturing nest for the family. We’re hardwired that way, so it is best to just accept these roles and make them work, these folks say.

The most insightful expert conversation was with Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles– based psychiatrist who wrote Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live With Themand When to Leave Them and most recently, Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets. Lieberman’s position on why men should treat on the first date: “The same reason men have different physical characteristics,” she says. “There are certain psychological and biological factors that have created long-standing traditions, and those are the natural way the sexes should treat each other. The man should be the knight, and the woman should be the princess. People say that sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but fairy tales come from the collective unconscious of society.”

That point pained me in a special soft spot—that spot where I fail to understand why my 4-year-old is among the legions of little girls obsessed with Rapunzel, Snow White, and Ariel despite her mother’s thinly veiled, vitriolic loathing of all things princess. But I digress.

Lieberman went so far as to suggest that men who do not pick up the tab are telling their date that they are not only uninterested in them, but that they are emotionally cheap. “If he pays on the first date, that is a good indication he will be generous with his love and attention in a relationship,” she says. And I can tell you as someone who writes and thinks about personal finances all the time, there’s a direct link between how each of us treats money and the depths of our souls.

So I wondered, “What do everyday people think about the matter?” I informally asked people I know and conducted a scientifically precise Facebook survey (otherwise known as a discussion) on the topic.

What you say

Most everyone agreed that the guy should pay on the first date, but women were quick to point out that the asker pays—and that it’s polite to do “the reach” for the bill, feigning an attempt to pay despite zero intention to do so. The guys all agreed they should pay.

“Any guy who doesn’t at least offer to pay for a first date has no class in my book,” says my former newspaper colleague Ray who has been married for a bunch of years to a progressive, professionally successful woman. “Any girl who insists on paying for both her and the guy on a first date would probably also demand that he only pee sitting down.”

Ray added that guys have a financial obligation to pick up first-date tabs since men continue to make on average more money than women. “Women are not likely to become totally equal with men in earnings until men start having and nursing babies, too,” he says.

Can’t argue with that. Yet one guy I went out with later told me he found a whole lot wrong with that. After being married for nearly 30 years, Larry divorced and found himself going on lots of dates—all of which involved the conventional expectation that he cover the tab. “I was horrified to find that every woman expected me to pay for dinner,” Larry says. “In this day and age of feminism, when women are making their own money, where the hell does the sense of entitlement come from that, ‘I’m not responsible for paying for what I just ate’? I was especially horrified, since 95 percent of the time, I’m sure I never want to see this person again.” His indignity mimicked my doubts about my own conventional leanings on the matter.

What evolution has to do with it

But it looks as if Larry wins that argument, according Robert Glover, a Seattle-based family therapist, dating coach to men, and author of No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex and Life. “The storyline of women having to be selective about partners and choosing the best one, and men having to have wealth and status to get the most desirable women, would have only come into play in the last 10,000 years since the beginning of agriculture when people began to own stuff like land, cattle, crops and slaves.”

Glover made another excellent, if obvious, point in favor of guys discreetly handing the server an AmEx at the end of a meal. “Men don’t often think of this, but women tend to spend more money, time, and effort than men in preparing to go on the date,” he says. I dare anyone to argue.

Perhaps the best point of all came from Mike, 43, who lives in New York City but was raised in Alabama. “Guys often complain that it’s not fair to have to always pay for dates,” Mike says. “It’s also not fair that a 60-year-old male CEO can date a 30-year-old female model, but a 60-year-old woman would be very unlikely to get a date with a 30-year-old male model. Accept reality and be a gentleman.”

My conclusion

After concluding my research, I feel confident in my position that women are totally justified in expecting to be treated on the first date. Men seem to appreciate “the reach,” but most of them really do prefer to pay. After you’ve been dating awhile, by all means, work out a way of divvying the cost of dates that makes sense for both parties’ finances and preferences. And guys? Choose a first date that you can afford. THEN PICK UP THE BILL.

As for Larry, he did pay for our wine and burgers on that date after I made a feeble reach, though I sensed a bit of begrudgery on his part. When we proceeded to a bar that night, I paid the tab, and that he didn’t argue irritated me a little. That was six months ago. And though he doesn’t want you to know this, he’s very graciously insisted on picking up most of the checks since.

Who Should Pay on the First Date?” was written by  for RetailMeNot.com.