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Who should pay on the first date?

Select takes a closer look at an age-old question that continues to stump modern-day singles.

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When Densu Dixon, 26, went on his first date with a woman he met on Tinder, he assumed she would be paying for her share of dinner and drinks that night. Instead, he found himself footing the bill for $150 worth of food and wine, including what she had consumed. He didn't see her again after that.

For many modern-day (heterosexual) singles, the idea of who should pick up the bill on the first date is fraught with questions: Does she want to go Dutch? Is he a traditionalist who prefers paying on the first few dates? Why does who pays always have to do with gender?

When I posed this question to some of my friends and acquaintances, all of whom are heterosexual and in their early to mid-twenties, I received a range of responses.

One man told me he insisted on paying in full for the first four dates, while two women said they were okay with splitting the bill but were also fine with men paying because of the existence of the gender pay gap. According to Pew Research Center, women in 2020 earned 84% of what men earned due to factors, like choosing lower-paying occupations, taking time off for motherhood and other forms of gender discrimination in the workplace.

Select explores the age-old question of who should pay on the first date, the meaning behind it and how couples can best navigate modern-day dating demands.

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To split or not to split?

Though women have made great strides in achieving gender equality in the workforce and in higher education over the last few decades, a 2019 survey conducted by the online dating website Elite Singles polled 300,000 singles and found that 63% of men surveyed believed that men should be the ones to pay on the first date — 46% of the women surveyed came to the same conclusion.

Similar trends hold true even beyond the first date. In a survey from 2008, sociologists found that despite a majority of men (74%) and women (83%) saying they both contributed to dating expenses after being together for six months, 84% of men and 58% of women surveyed reported that men still ended up paying for more after the six-month mark.

"There used to be a very clear script about what should happen on a first date, and then courtship. And as we move toward egalitarianism and more women in the workplace making their own incomes, some of those things have started to change," says David Frederick, an associate professor of psychology at Chapman University and one of the researchers behind the study.

In the past, there was an understanding that men should expect to pay in full for the first date. However, according to Frederick, a new counter norm has emerged: Women are expected to at least offer to chip in, whether by reaching for their wallet or by vocalizing a desire to pay.

For many, it may be unclear what should happen next. Should the man insist on paying or should he take her up on the offer? Frederick says people have a tendency to fall back on existing gender norms, with men insisting on paying the bill. Yet this doesn't hold true for everyone.

When Dixon goes on a first date, he says he typically covers it, but if he goes out with a woman with a higher income, sometimes she will.

Frederick's 2008 survey also found that 44% of men said they would stop dating a woman who never offers to pay for any expenses on a date. Some men tended to perceive women who didn't contribute in a relationship as freeloaders.

Suhani Mendpara, 24, a data analyst, told Select she always offers to split the bill on the first date, even if men don't typically take her up on her offer. Mendpara is indifferent to splitting or having her date pay but says if she especially likes a guy, she appreciates it if he picks up the bill.

When Ellen Lamont, an associate sociology professor at Appalachian State University and author of The Mating Game, interviewed more than 100 heterosexual and LGBTQ+ singles in the San Francisco Bay Area, she found that heterosexual women tended to ascribe more meaning to men paying for the first date. In fact, a 2016 survey by Refinery29 showed nearly 60% of women reported feeling appreciated when their date paid.

"Women, they were really invested in this ritual, in the sense that they believe that if a man didn't treat you on the first date, they actually weren't very interested in you…" Lamont says. "From my interviews, more of the men actually talked about it in terms of like, 'it's just expected of me.'"

But what about the old adage that men may expect sex in exchange for them paying for a date? In the 2008 survey, researchers found this to be false: Fewer than 20% of the men interviewed believed that women should engage in sexual activity if men paid the bill on the first date.

So, what do same-sex couples do about the bill on a first date? Since gender norms don't exist in the same way when both partners are the same gender, Lamont found the LGBTQ+ couples she interviewed were more likely to split costs and were more focused on finding free dating activities.

What should you do on a first date?

Dating expert Amy Nobile recommends that men in heterosexual relationships pick up the bill on all of the dates before a couple becomes exclusive. In Nobile's experience, her male and female clients tend to favor chivalry. Some people, however, may prefer a more egalitarian approach to their relationship from the beginning.

Olivia Smith, 22, a college student, suggests that couples could jointly plan the date with a focus on mutual affordability in order to remove gendered expectations of who should pay. By communicating about what kinds of activities and events are affordable before the first date, singles can have conversations about how to split the bill beforehand and avoid implicit expectations of who should pay, says Smith.

Whenever it comes time to pay, people can opt for a payment app like Venmo if they choose to split the bill. And for whoever is treating, a dining rewards credit card can help ease the cost of the meal. A card like the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® allows you to earn cash back or points on your date, whether it's for coffee, drinks or dinner.

Regardless of whether couples choose to split things evenly or base their decision on gender norms or income, being open about what you can and can't afford and what you're comfortable having someone else pay for is important, especially if you don't want to be stuck with any surprise expenses.

Catch up on Select's in-depth coverage of personal financetech and toolswellness and more, and follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter to stay up to date.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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