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Who Pays For the Birthday Dinner? + Other Low Cost Birthday Dinner Ideas

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If you ask who is supposed to pay for a birthday dinner, you’ll get a mixed response. In fact, there are many “splitting the bill” ideologies:

  1. Whoever is “hosting” the party should always cover any expenses.
  2. The group should split the cost of the bill evenly, including the guest of honor.
  3. Guests should pay for themselves and split the cost for the person celebrating their birthday,

But what if you're on a budget? The varied ideas of what constitutes proper birthday dinner etiquette can lead to some pretty awkward money conversations if expectations aren’t communicated clearly before dinner.

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So, 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 (the person who invited them) should pay for her meal at the restaurant.

According to The Art of Manliness :

  • If it's the birthday of a single friend, usually the dinner is split by the other friends.
  • With a couple, the friends can treat the couple and split the bill evenly, or the significant other can pay for the birthday boy/girl.
  • If it's your birthday and you're single and want to pay, insist when the bill comes.

How to phrase that the host is paying on an invite

It's really quite simple. You can say “my treat,” or “I'd like to take a group of friends out to dinner for my birthday.” Upfront communication can alleviate so much awkwardness when it comes to who pays for what at the end of the night.

If you expect guests to pay, set 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 can afford it, consider paying for dessert or including party favors to let your guests know their attendance is appreciated.

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

  • Use the phrase “no host.”
  • Ask guests not to bring a gift, attending dinner in lieu of gifts.
  • 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 know you have a large expense coming up, such as a big night out with friends or a party you're hosting, leverage an automatic savings app to “Save the change” from your normal expenses and help you save money for a big occasion faster.

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What's a good restaurant for a birthday dinner?

This article says 6 people should be the cutoff if you want to have dinner out at a nice/sit-down restaurant on your birthday. I'm inclined to agree (maybe eight at the max.) Perhaps it's just me, but I can't remember the last time I went to a big birthday meal I thoroughly enjoyed. Usually, the place is too loud, or too crowded, and the nature of a dinner table means you can only speak with the people around you.

  • With this in mind, the best restaurants are ones that are quiet and offer a chance for good conversation.
  • Opt for fun, fast-casual places so everyone can order (and pay) separately. These places are also more accommodating of larger groups.
  • If it's a smaller group, feel free to go to a “sit down” restaurant, but try to make sure the vibe steers more casual. You never know everyone's budget for the evening.

What about splitting the bill when I didn't order much?

Oh God. This is the oldest finance-based question in the book. And there's no really great answer, other than if you are on a budget and only ordered a small amount, try to sneak off before the bill comes and settle up on your own away from the crowd.

Here are some tips on how to pay only your portion of the bill when out with friends:

  • Before the bill comes, silently slip out and ask your waiter if you can get your bill first as you have to get to an appointment. This way you only pay for your portion.
  • If it's a restaurant that doesn't allow for credit card payments (Hello, NYC) say you brought cash and offer to pay (x amount) for your salad and water.
  • 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.

13 birthday dinner idea alternatives

The bigger the group, the harder it is to truly connect over a meal.

So for those who want to skip the birthday dinner tradition altogether or create a dining experience on a budget, I've got two handfuls birthday dinner ideas below.

  • Cook at home. Downsize your guest list and you cook for everyone. Nothing says “thoughtful” like a home-cooked meal. One year, my brother cooked tacos for a group of about 20 people on my birthday and it was a big hit, AND CHEAP. As a recession looms, entertaining at home is the way to go.
  • You can encourage guests to potluck by bringing their favorite dish so there’s a nice variety of food and less prep work for the host.
  • Gather the group at one of these 24 chain restaurants that offer free food to the birthday person on their day of birth.
  • Make a nice picnic of sandwiches and a simple cheese board to take to the local park. Have everyone bring a beverage and enjoy the outdoors.
  • Order pizza for the birthday guest of honor. Everyone likes pizza and for the price of your one dinner at a nice restaurant, you can feed a crowd and actually hear one another speak.
  • If you really want to go out for your birthday, try breakfast or lunch rather than dinner. It's more casual and a lot less expensive.


Non-Dinner Ideas to Celebrate a Birthday

Got more than 6-8 people who want to attend? Plan on doing something creative, fun, and way more interactive than sitting at a restaurant. Many of these cheap date ideas can also be easily adapted to birthdays! Also, don't be afraid to try out the following:

  • Escape Room
  • Tubing or day at a public lake/river/beach
  • Host a game night at your place (or at someone willing to host for you)
  • Go on a big group hike or schedule a private athletic class for you and your friends
  • Splash out on a special evening outing like painting, flower arranging, or candle making (I like Groupon for this so I can get activities I wouldn't do all the time for a major discount.)
  • Segway tour
  • Create one of these DIY scavenger hunts for your group
  • Balloons! (My boyfriend left some at my house on my door this year and it created the most kid-like glee. Seriously, I was super touched.)

I mean, I could literally go on and on, but I won't. Hopefully, by now, you get the idea that the more creative you can be with the birthday dinner ideas, the more fun you'll have.


Communicate – It 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.

*Anum Yoon helped contribute to this post.


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