Why men still pick up the check on first dates
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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be the one picking up the check.
I’m paraphrasing Jane Austen — but only just. Sure, women have made tremendous gains since the famous first line of “Pride and Prejudice” was published, but some of the same dynamics still stubbornly persist in heterosexual relationships today.
From who pays for the first date, to who buys the diamond ring used to propose, to who manages the money, every negotiation in relationships can seem weighted, even engineered, toward one inevitable end: The man having — and controlling — the money.
The trend hangs on, even as women today have arguably ascended to their highest-ever levels of educational attainment; economic and political power. A woman is the frontrunner on the Democratic presidential ticket, women have cracked — if not quite broken — the glass ceiling, and female college graduates outnumber their male peers.
Yet at the end of a date, especially a first date, the default expectation is that the man will pay.
It’s an unwritten rule overwhelmingly held: Three-quarters of about 1,000 people asked in a 2014 NerdWallet survey favored that outcome, with only about 20% preferring to go Dutch and an anomalous 4% saying men shouldn’t pay the bill.
That abates only a little as the relationship progresses: Nearly 60% of the surveyed women said with most dates (all interviewed were in a relationship) they don’t pay, compared with 41% of women who said they usually split.
Men and women alike argue in favor of male check privilege, saying it’s the gentlemanly thing to do, that it signals the man’s level of interest.
But others say it sets up a power dynamic skewed towards the man, one that can only continue if and when the relationship progresses. Moreover, it smacks of transaction, they argue, setting up an expectation that the woman must in some way repay her date.
Then there’s the more equal-opportunity argument: Who pays for the check is an individual choice, dependent on who’s involved and the context. Call it the Hillary Clinton theory of dating, which the leading Democratic candidate for president explained to Cosmopolitan’s Prachi Gupta:
“Look, I think splitting the cost on a date has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis. You know, many years ago I remember doing that, and I know a lot of young people who even today do because they kind of consider more casual dates, group dates, to be ones where everybody pays their fair share, but I think you also have to be alert to the feelings of the person that you are dating. If it’s important to that person to either split in the beginning of the relationship, or for one or the other of you to pay for whatever combination of reasons, you know, you just have to evaluate that and take it into account. So I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, at least that I have ever seen followed in every instance.”
Wondering how women of different generations had grappled with this question, I turned to the women holding the highest office in my own life: my mother and grandmother.
Unsurprisingly, my grandmother — who dated in the not-so-progressive early ’50s, albeit in Brooklyn — had never paid for dates.
She brokered the rationale in terms of employment: Not only did she not work and my grandfather did, but he — at work in real estate with employees of his own — was accustomed to paying for others. My grandmother would treat friends when they went out for meals, maybe male friends, if there was such an occasion. But as for dates:
“You bet he paid,” she said, laughing.
So did she think my sisters and I should split the bill with a romantic prospect? “I have no idea.”
My mother’s dating experience decades later growing up in Israel and then America sounded, by contrast, far more modern: Group dates and hang outs in which nobody really paid for anyone else.
There’s no question that the custom developed before women had the access to education and higher-waged jobs that they now enjoy, more or less, today.
But with online dating reinvigorating the formal date, the unquestioned assumption makes a wallet-grab — or lack thereof — a Bermuda triangle, where politics, economics and plain old etiquette can only hope to coexist.
How this began
Many assume, and correctly, that it’s the tug of historical precedent.
But that wasn’t always the case. A non-relative male paying for a meal was once so anomalous that it was considered — and not always incorrectly — prostitution, says Moira Weigel, a Yale University PhD student and the author of the just-published “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating,” with police officers staking out bars and restaurants and even arresting daters.
“It was really very shocking in a way that I think is hard to remember now,” Weigel said.
Modern dating as we know it — think the archetype of dinner and a movie — came around at the turn of the 20th century, as women began working outside their homes and moving to cities.
Ironically, these measures of freedom accompanied a new dating dynamic, one that continues to restrict female daters today: the male-issued date invitation. Without ready access to their own spaces where men could call on them, women — once able to invite male visitors to call on them — no longer had that right.
“Once courtship moves public… men become the hosts,” Weigel said. “That’s a really big shift.”
Read more: 10 things dating sites won’t tell you
Men paid because they made the invitation, and because they made more money.
April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert, says that role of a host is critical today, too. And, old-fashioned as it may sound, she believes dating is clearest when a man asks and a woman accepts.
“It’s just good manners to invite someone on a date and pick up the check,” she said. “That said, if a date turns into a relationship, it’s absolutely a good idea for the woman to offset a guy’s dating expenses. In a relationship, she can pick up the check sometimes, or she can cook for him, buy tickets to something that they both go to — or as a gift for him.”
Date payment as economic signpost
“Lets just stick to traditional gender roles this time,” one guy told me on a first date, smiling and reaching for the check.
And that, in many ways, is the root of this contentious issue. The way you pay for a date reveals more than just what you ate for dinner or your favorite kind of win — it sets a tone for how decisions will be made.
So it’s equally or even more important how someone approaches the check argument, said Kimberly Palmer, author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” which was published in early May.
“If one person, the man, always insists on paying, it can seem gentlemanly or polite but can also be a sign he’s controlling in a relationship,” Palmer said.
The same goes for constantly suggesting expensive dates, or arguing about who pays for what, all of which “gives you insight into how that person approaches money,” she said.
It’s an issue that Palmer, who fervently believes in splitting the check, knows well. About 15 years ago, she went on a date to an expensive sushi restaurant — and, over her date’s protestations, insisted on paying for her half of the meal.
Now they’re happily married with two children, but all these years later she still hisses a little when remembering the $50 or $60 dollar meal cost for a poor University of Chicago graduate student.
That first date dynamic forecasted the different financial approaches Palmer and her husband had and continue to have, she said, where he assumed control of their finances and she had to insist that they both play a role.
There was so much there that Palmer literally wrote the book on it — and all of it, she says, could have been predicted by their first date.
Letting the man pay: a feminist argument
But equality-minded arguments here play both ways, with some arguing that the gender wage gap — by the most recent count, women’s median earnings are 83% of men’s — justifies this continued male-tilted check burden.
Certainly, though women have more economic agency than they ever have before, their salaries continue to lag behind male earnings, statistics show.
Differences in income levels should certainly influence spending in relationships, relationship expert Masini said.
It’s a means of “wage distribution,” however small, Weigel said, but also even another form of justice — reimbursement of sorts for the various additional costs levied on women for beauty products, clothing and more.
“I do think women pay for a lot of things that are involved in maintaining this gendered theatre of courtship, even if they’re not the ones paying for this specific drink or dinner,” Weigel said.
Then, of course, the ugly reality that even if you believe in going Dutch, most people don’t. So even if you thing it’s the right thing to do, there may be some shame or even offense associated with your date not paying in full.
“As much as we can believe intellectually that expectation of codes doesn’t exist,” Weigel said, “It doesn’t mean they don’t.”
Why men still pick up the check on first dates