Financial Etiquette: Who Pays For the Birthday Dinner?

L Bee Note: Today's post is by Anum Yoon who writes over at Current On Currency. I know many struggle with the “who pays for the birthday dinner” vs. “splitting checks” vs. “treating someone for birthday dinner” dillemma, so enjoy Anum's post!

If you ask who is supposed to pay for a birthday dinner, you’ll get a mixed response. Some believe whoever is hosting the party should always cover any expenses or think everyone should split the cost of the bill, including the guest of honor. Others believe guests paying for themselves and a portion of the cost for the person celebrating their birthday is perfectly acceptable.

The varied ideas of what constitutes proper birthday dinner etiquette can lead to some humiliating conversations if expectations aren’t communicated clearly before dinner.

Related: How to Talk About Money with The People You Love

Who Pays for the Birthday Dinner?

Many think a generational difference comes into play here; for instance, people in their 20s and 30s often have no problem paying for themselves or going dutch, but Grandma Baby Boomer might expect that since she was invited to dinner, the host will be paying for her meal at the restaurant.

Here are some ideas for inviting guests in a way that lets them know you’re not footing the bill without saying “pay for yourself, moocher!”

  • Use the phrase “no host.”
  • Ask guests not to bring a gift, attending dinner in lieu of gifts.
  • Consider phrasing invitations like “let’s all take _____ out to dinner,” implying that this outing is going to be a treat for your friend, not a birthday party.
  • If the party is for you, try making invitations like “Having my birthday dinner at (place, date, time), hope you can join me.”
  • Or if you’re like me, go for the direct route. “Hey, I’d really like us all to have dinner for _____’s birthday, but I think it would work best if we all paid separately. How do you feel about that?”

 The Key is In Setting Expectations (For you and for them!)

If you expect guests to pay, you need to have reasonable expectations. Make sure to pick a restaurant that everyone can afford. It’s not practical to invite people somewhere and expect each person to pitch in $150.

It’s also important to pick a place that suits the needs of your guests – dietary and otherwise. If you want to have dinner at a seafood restaurant but you know cousin Suzy is allergic to shellfish, you should probably consider other possible locations. Or maybe your friend Alex has finally bounced back after difficult times so you need to consider choosing a venue that won’t interfere with his recovery. If you can afford it, consider paying for dessert or including party favors to let your guests know they are appreciated.

What about the Big Eater?

Going dutch isn’t the best idea when there’s an over-orderer at the table. I think we’ve all seen this person once or twice. The friend who gets to the restaurant and sees that everyone is splitting the bill, so she starts ordering things she would never get on her own. Why yes, she thinks she will have that third glass of very expensive wine while the more frugal guests at the table clench their jaws.

If you are planning for guests to evenly split the cost of the bill, consider making a set menu with the restaurant so that the options are priced reasonably well.  Opt for the set menu so you can include in your invitation a rough estimate of what the meal will cost each guest when the bill arrives.

Want to avoid dealing with financial etiquette altogether? An alternative could be to downsize your guest list and have a small party at home, where you cook for everyone. You can encourage guests to bring their favorite dish so there’s a nice variety of food, or just discuss meal options beforehand.

Related: What Happened When I Stopped Eating Out for a Month

Communication is Key

At the end of the day, what you see as proper etiquette will depend on the guests you are inviting. You know your friends and family and should adjust for what best suits your group. The most important part of planning a birthday dinner is communication. If you don’t clearly communicate your expectations, you could end up in a very awkward and potentially embarrassing situation.

Anum Yoon is a recovering bubble tea addict, currently coping with said problem by channeling her energy into personal finance writing. She almost always has a cup of tea or coffee in her hand, and when she’s not talking about money management, she’s cooking up some Korean food in her kitchen.

Have other “money etiquette” questions? Get the money manners guide in our financial best life vault! Click here to subscribe and grab six other worksheets while you’re in there!


One of the most awkward money chats there is: who pays for the birthday dinner? The host? The guests? See what our opinions are on the matter and share with us what you think!

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  • Laurie Norman
    January 14, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    This has happened to me. I organized a birthday cooking event and sent those asked to participate the link for them to sign up. Two showed up with no reservation because they didn’t complete the reservation link to sign up and pay for their spot. Never again.

    • Lauren Bowling
      January 16, 2017 at 2:26 pm

      Oh no! That sounds like my nightmare. It’s so hard because you want to do something nice, then feel like a jerk being hyper vigilant about everyone signing up and paying.

  • Penpal
    February 10, 2016 at 11:11 am

    I think if the birthday boy or girl invites people to their birthday dinner, then the birthday person pays. Just as if you would be inviting them to your house for a birthday dinner that you are throwing yourself. The only time someone else pays is IF THEY invite you. Or else, it is like inviting people to pay for your birthday dinner. That’s just proper etiquette.

  • Stefanie @ brokeandbeau
    April 16, 2015 at 8:55 am

    I pay for what I ate and sometimes a drink for the birthday boy/girl if it’s a good friend.

    • Anum @ Current on Currency
      April 16, 2015 at 9:39 am

      That’s a good idea! It sounds like you and your friends have a good system 🙂

  • Kirsten
    April 16, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Once upon a time, about 20 of us went out to eat and then to play mini golf to celebrate friends birthday. My boyfriend (now husband) did not feel well and did not eat anything at dinner. There was a rude guy who was the date of an actual member of “the circle” and he started splitting the bill EQUALLY among all people. Well, some of us had dessert. Some didn’t. Some were old enough for alcohol, some weren’t. And he wanted my poor boyfriend to pony up too. Thankfully, we outnumbered him, but we clearly could have use some etiquette pointers!

    • Anum @ Current on Currency
      April 16, 2015 at 9:36 am

      There’s always that one person who insists on that – even when it’s clearly not going to be an “equal split.” Being upfront about everything beforehand has saved me from a lot of those awkward financial situations – especially with people I’m not particularly close with. But a dinner out with friends plus a round of mini golf sounds like a really fun birthday idea!