The Politics of Splitting the Check on a First Date


Earning money is hard. Dating is hard. Deciding when, how, and on whom to spend your money on a first date? Also hard, people! It’s fraught with peril and anxiety. Splitting the check on a first date is governed by a complex yet ill-defined set of rules rooted in heteronormative, gender-normative, and otherwise normative ideologies. These systems themselves are complex, ill-defined, and also completely... outdated. (Puns!) All of which is to say, you probably have no fucking clue how to tackle the check when it arrives at the table of your first date.

Now, I can’t tell you exactly what you should do, because "should" depends on a near-infinite array of factors, including your age, level of income, and number of pomegranate margaritas crushed. But I can tell you how to read the room, take the temperature, and translate the subtlest signals into useable inferences for smoothly settling up on that first-date bill. Remember, these aren’t ironclad instructions. You still need to go with your gut (which, hopefully, is not as large as mine).


“Let me buy you... ”

If you start your invitation with these words, you're responsible for the whole check. True, “dinner” is significantly less expensive than “dinner, plus three bottles of wine, then a cocktail and a cab home,” and you may be inclined to equivocate as such. Do not!

This part of speech is an offer: “come hang out with me, and I will pay for all your tasty pomegranate margaritas.” You’re incentivizing a stranger with the promise of free food & drink because you want to make yourself easier to potentially grope later, right? Right! That means you’re on the hook for any and all costs that lead to said potential groping. Now, you may not end up paying the tab for the whole evening; that remains to be seen. But at no point -- even if you moved to a bar, ordered a second dessert, or had to pay for valet parking -- is any portion of this first date the financial responsibility of the person you dragged with you.

Who initiated?

Let’s say that no one kicked off this probably doomed courtship with the promise of free pommy margs. In that case, conventional wisdom states that the person who “initiated” the date is the one who should pay for it. This is largely true, but not without exception.

Location, location, location

Like actual politics, navigating the choppy waters of check-coverage on a first date is a game. Unlike actual politics, the arena in which you “play” is a restaurant or bar, not a room in Washington DC with high ceilings and 535 old white dudes. (Hopefully. If you took your first date to Capitol Hill, you are undateable, and I cannot help you. Godspeed.)

What kind of place are you in: pricey or cheap?  How formal are we talking here? What’s the “vibe?” Does it even “have” a “vibe?” These are the questions you must consider as you case the joint, for their answers are critical to your decision.

Generally speaking, if the restaurant is “fancy,” the person who suggested it is responsible for the bill. (For the purposes of this article, let’s define this as a loose combo of the following: $25 or more for an entree; one or less hamburgers listed on the menu; white tablecloths; napkins that people in bowties re-fold for you when you go to the bathroom; et cetera.) This is simply good manners. After all, you’re on a first date, which will, in all likelihood, lead nowhere. If you volunteer a restaurant where meals are a bundle, you’re also volunteering to drop said bundle. Period full stop. (Again, this isn’t to say that you will end up paying for everything, but you should be prepared to.)

However, if the place is not fancy, there are still plenty of oblique courtship machinations to be deciphered when the check comes. Onward!

Ordering: a delicate waltz

Throughout the evening, take note of what your counterpart is ordering. The idea is to keep your own purchases within about 10% of theirs. This is as tactical as it is practical. To wit:

Tactically, you don’t want to leap way out in front -- or fall way behind -- your romantic interest’s order. If she calls for a Buffalo chicken sandwich, you should not then request a chateaubriand. But don’t demand a grilled cheese from the kids’ menu and desperately flail your expired college ID around, either. (Side note: where the fuck did you go for your first date, Dave & Buster’s?)

Why? First dates are all about finding common ground. “I could sex this person and not hate it” is what you’re aiming for here, and non-hateable sexing is based on perceived equality. Capitalism, on the other hand, is all about celebrating how much better of a person you are than people who have less money than you. Do you see where this is headed? Insecurity about money is not sexy, and drastically out-ordering or under-ordering is a sure way to instill it in your special friend. Getting approximately the same dollar amount of food is a good way to avoid this for now.

Practically, you’ll also want to keep your expenses closely matched throughout the meal. If you pull this off successfully, you have an escape hatch: you can each put cards down, split it evenly, and leave the Dave & Buster’s headed separate ways with little financial wear or anxiety to show for it.


Hailing the check

At some point, the first date will be over. If it went well, the server may come to your table multiple times before it dawns on one of you that you should ask for the check. This is a good sign. If, by contrast, you've barely finished your entree when you look up to find your date making frantic "check-please" gestures in the waitstaff's general direction, assume your first date is rapidly nearing its conclusion. Could it be that you ordered too many pommy margs?

No. Impossible. Nevertheless, the next step is the most critical, so get your shit together and focus. 

Physical dramedy: reaches, shrugs, and rummages

Now that the check is on your table, the real first-date fun begins. Body language is absolutely crucial to deciphering the appropriate payment maneuvers. Below, I’ve detailed six common behaviors, and their approximate implications.

  • The Reach: In the Seinfeld episode “The Opera,” George Costanza (all honor to his name) introduced this concept as an empty gesture. It is. There’s not a two-top in the world big enough to obstruct someone from laying hands on the bill if they actually want to see it. Not even at Dave & Buster’s!
  • The Rummage: A second-cousin of The Reach, blindly fumbling about for a wallet is a slightly more subtle way of indicating to your date that you think they should pay.
  • The Cold Shoulder: If, upon the arrival of your check, your date pretends it simply doesn’t exist, you’re dealing with one of two types -- either a sociopathic operator who expects you to pay, or a clueless dolt who can’t hold their pomegranate margaritas. A thoroughly bad sign, in both cases.
  • The Snatch & Grab: If your date immediately springs for the billfold, your only counter is the Warm Shrug. Anything more or less will make you seem disinterested or entitled. Neither bodes well for a budding relationship.
  • The Warm Shrug: Dating etiquette dictates you must offer protest when your date makes a quick stab for the bill. Shrug your shoulders and turn your palms to the ceiling in an appeal for the privilege of paying. This can be accompanied with words of mild disagreement for added effect.
  • The Adamant Overrule: The gauntlet having been thrown, the initial check-picker-upper is faced with a choice. Does he/she accede to a split, or to insist on paying? If it’s the latter, look for this move. One part bluster, one part compassion, this is the final sign for which you must wait before discontinuing your ministrations. The check is theirs.

Go dutch, then go home

In lieu of the anxiety, platitudes, and charades, you may decide that you should pay half the bill, and your date should cover the other half. Congratulations! This is the simplest solution, and the most equitable one. It’s progressive, too. Splitting the check eschews arcane gender assumptions for the pure fairness of halfsies. So you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice.

Just the tip (not, like, sex)

The American gratuity system has a politics all its own, and I’ve stepped in that dogshit plenty. If you went Dutch, a consequential dilemma looms. How much do you tip? How much did your date tip? Do you seem cheap? Do they? Remember, anything under 15% means your date is an unloveable, free-market-fetishizing libertarian. Or just bad at math. One of those two.

But if you’ve arrived at a single-payer solution for your check, and you are the payer, it’s not uncommon for your date to offer to leave the tip in cash. This is another good sign. It says, "Hey, not only do I want to contribute, but I also know that most servers appreciate their tips in cash. I'm both reasonable, and thoughtful. I could, perhaps, make the sex with you." Seal the deal with a spirited multi-player game on one of D&B's several Time Crisis 2 arcade machines, then commence the bone-a-thon.

Conclusion (possibly, like, sex)

The simple reality is that paying for things with a stranger is always uncomfortable at first, especially on a first date, where there's an implicit understanding that hanky-panky may be afoot. In fact, in this regard, handling the check isn't dissimilar from the hanky-panky itself. Good bill-politicking and good intimacy are even governed by the comparable common-sense guidelines: be generous, be reasonable, and communicate openly. Don't do anything that might make you or your companion uncomfortable. Unless they're somehow "uncomfortable" with drinking nine pomegranate margaritas in an action-packed arcadestaurant, in which case, honestly, this whole thing was doomed from the start.

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Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist. He neither drinks pommy margs nor knows anyone named Buster. He is excellent at Time Crisis 2, though. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.