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Modern Love and Money: Who Picks Up the Check?

Key Points
  • While financial situations and gender attitudes are changing, some conventions persist when it comes to paying for dates.

  • Especially on first dates, it's generally accepted that whoever initiates the date is expected to pay.

  • As a relationship continues and grows, how you share costs can be a window into your future financial compatibility.

Dear Readers,

With Valentine's Day right around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to explore the always-tricky world of dating and money. Because, as if dating didn't come with enough questions, today's variety of financial situations and gender roles can add another layer of uncertainty: Who pays for what? Traditionally, the male was always expected to pick up the bill. But traditions need to change with the times—right?

According to a November 2015 study, "Who Pays for Dates? Following Versus Challenging Gender Norms," by Janet Lever, David A. Frederick and Rosanna Hertz, and published by Sage Journals, certain conventions persist. For instance, in heterosexual couples, over 80 percent of men and nearly 60 percent of women surveyed said that men pay for most expenses—not only on first dates, but also on subsequent dates. Those are very gender specific stats that more or less reflect the historical status quo.

However, nearly two-thirds of the men also felt that women should contribute. I agree with that, and extend that sentiment to same-sex couples. If a woman—or any adult— wants to be treated as an equal, he or she needs to be willing to carry their own weight financially. Traditional gender roles aside, I think the ideal is for both people to be willing to share in the financial side of a relationship.

At this point you might rightly be asking, where's the romance in all this? So in order to get greater insight into how today's couples keep love and money working hand-in-hand, I did a little personal research by talking with some friends of different ages and genders.

First date financials

There seems to be the greatest consensus on who pays for the first date. If a man asks a woman out, it's expected that he'll pick up the tab. In same-sex couples or if a woman does the asking, the general agreement is that the person who extended the invitation should be responsible for paying for the date. Sounds fair enough.

However, there's also a bit of nuance to consider. For instance, is it offensive to offer to contribute on a first date or is it a positive sign, even if the offer is refused? One person went so far as to say that if a date makes no effort to share the cost, there probably wouldn't be a second occasion. On the other hand, another person said if the offer to share the cost is accepted, that also could be considered a negative. Go figure.

There are, of course, subtle ways to pay for a date to avoid any awkwardness. For instance, if you’re going to an event, the asking party can pay for the tickets in advance. Or if it's a multi-part date, say dinner and then drinks somewhere else afterward, whoever initiated the date could pick up dinner and the guest could offer to pay for the drinks.

One interesting new twist in today's dating world is the prevalence of dating apps that result in people having more first dates now than even a few years ago. This can get pretty expensive—and even more confusing!

So what's the take-away here? To me, it comes down to being prepared to pay your share, being considerate of the other person's feelings and budget, and being willing to openly discuss your thoughts. Sounds like that could be a good start to a relationship.

Splitting the bill as time goes on

Just as today it's more common for partners to be equal or trade off being the primary breadwinner, it appears very common for couples to share the costs of dating as a relationship continues. Whether a couple splits the bills or takes turns paying, unless one person's income is significantly greater than the other's, cost-sharing seems generally to be considered the fair thing to do.

Of course, it doesn't always have to be fifty-fifty. One person can always offer to pick up the tip, buy an extra round, or spring for a movie. The important point is that neither party feels like they're always responsible or that they're being taken advantage of.

Ideally, as a relationship grows, you'll talk to your partner about the best way to handle dating costs that would be comfortable for both of you. After a few dates, take the initiative and bring up the topic. Showing that you're sensitive to and aware of monetary concerns would not only be appreciated at the time, but also could be interpreted as a sign of future financial responsibility.

Keeping finance from ruining your romance

To me, the romantic side of dating is about finding a partner whose personality and interests jibe with your own. But the financial side is also important. After all, attitudes about money can be a window to much more. Starting out with a mutual awareness and concern for each other's finances—and a willingness to talk freely about money issues—can lay a foundation for ongoing openness as you begin to share your life. 

Have a personal finance question? Email us at Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiries, contact Schwab.


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