Should you charge friends for dinner at your house?
One of the latest examples involved Amber Nelson, an L.A.-based podcaster, who turned to Twitter to ask, “Got invited to someone’s place for dinner and they charged me for it….this is weird, right?” Yes it is, and nearly 400,000 people on Twitter seemed to agree.
As Nelson explained, she’d had a couple servings of penne alla vodka for which the bill was $20; predictably, the horrified responses ensued. (Even actor Kristen Schaal got in on it.) So did the choruses of “it happened to me”: “It peeves me when someone Venmos me $9 for a drink after I just bought a round,” wrote one person. “Boss offered tacos. Later charged each of us $17. They weren’t even good tacos,” added another.
There were parties where guests had to cough up $5 to use the bathroom, or $400 just to attend. There was pizza at the “multimillion-dollar new home in the suburbs” for which the guest received a payment request. There was the baby shower planned by friends who later emailed the guest of honor a bill for the event; the BBQ given by wealthy pals who asked for money when the guest departed. In one disturbing incident, a friend was invited to another’s house and offered only water because she hadn’t brought her own alcohol; meanwhile, the friend who lived there made herself a Manhattan.
Although this question has been a mainstay for years, being harried, exhausted and confused about our return to social norms after a long pandemic isn’t helping. None of us quite know how to emerge from our homes and reengage with this world, or if we should do so at all. We could all do with a few etiquette reminders, so we brought in the experts.
First off: No, don’t charge your friends
When it comes to charging your friends for a homemade dinner, there’s no question: “That’s absolutely rude and completely unacceptable by any rules of etiquette,” said Crystal L. Bailey, director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington, which serves children, teens and adults as a modern manners authority in the U.S. and internationally. “If you’re hosting someone and inviting them over, hosting is taking care of that experience and that person. It’s not even a socioeconomic thing, no matter how difficult it is to get a meal together. We think of being able to break bread with people, and there is not that financial transaction when you’re inviting someone into your home.”
“A host can be a rude host, and the question is, will your guests want to say yes to the next invitation they receive?”
— Lizzie Post
Can you charge friends for dinner at your place? Sure, but there will very likely be consequences. “A host can be a rude host, and the question is, will your guests want to say yes to the next invitation they receive?” askedLizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette icon Emily Post and herself the author of numerous books about etiquette as well as co-president of the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. “People can do anything, that doesn’t make it polite.”
Why does this question keep coming up?
It’s easy to blame technology for creating distances IRL. And certainly, there’s more than enough financial stress to go around right now. But also, perhaps it’s that we’re living in what seems a more brutally transactional, capitalist culture than ever before.
“I don’t know if it’s the ease of being able to exchange by technology that’s given the brazenness and boldness to make that request,” mused Bailey. “Would you also expect me to have $20 on me, if we didn’t have technology? It’s perfectly fine to use Venmo,” she clarified. “But we need to be thoughtful about sending a funds request if there has not been a conversation about it.”
Post feels there’s been a trickle-down effect from our use of Venmo. “Even if you set your account to private, you’re still seeing a feed that shows you people paying each other back for things or charging for things,” she says. “It creates this idea that it’s OK to be thinking all the time about who owes what to whom. I think it’s too much information, and too commonplace; we just Venmo each other everything.”
Avoid the drama and communicate beforehand
It’s not that asking for contributions for a dinner party is inherently bad; it’s that you need to explain to your guests what the expectation is before your noodles and vodka sauce are in their stomachs. Said Post, “When you invite a guest and spring on them afterward that you expect a certain amount, it puts them in a horrible position. It’s incredibly inconsiderate and disrespectful. It’s deceitful. Honesty is good etiquette.”
If, say, you want to do something that might be costly or complicated — or even that isn’t — you are within your etiquette rights to ask for contributions beforehand from those who’d like to come. “I could see a situation like that in which people are putting in for the experience in advance … but not a bait and switch and here’s your bill,” said Bailey. “If you want to send out an invite saying Italian dinner, my house, $20 a plate, you can do that!” added Post, who admitted, “I still don’t think that’s a good idea.” Instead, embrace the potluck.
Just be direct, advised Colu Henry, author of the upcoming cookbook “Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food.” Say something like, “‘I need community, I don’t have the funds to pay for a huge dinner, but if you were into potlucking or contributing… .’ The up-frontness is key.”
And even if the expectation is that a bunch of casual friends are just coming over to order Doordash and hang and you’ll all split the bill, do everyone a favor and make that clear from the get-go, unless it’s already an established norm in your circle.
Talk to your friend, but not over Venmo
“Last Christmas, we spent the holidays with our friends,” said Henry. Wanting to go all-out, at first the group put together a spreadsheet to keep track of who was spending what to make sure it was all fair. Soon enough, they ditched the grid. “At the end of the day, I was like, ‘I don’t care,’” she said. The whole point of hosting, she reminds us, is for the familial rapport. “You’re doing this because you want to, and then next time they’re going to. That’s the way my world works.”
When it comes to social etiquette, there should be a feeling of reciprocity. If you’re worrying about how you can recoup what you spent on a meal, remember that your friends had you over last month. “Everybody picks up this social tab. That feels good,” said Post. “We do not need to send invoices and receipts after parties have occurred.”
“It’s down to the golden rule, treating everybody the way you want to be treated,” said Bailey.
If you do feel that you’re the only one picking up the bill, talk to your friend — but not over Venmo.
What else do guests need to know?
It bears reminding that as a guest, you have some duties. “I expect that I’m going to bring a gift for my host. I might ask if there’s something I can bring to contribute,” said Bailey. The host may say no, and “that’s when we bring a host gift, a candle, a bottle of wine — not to expect them to serve that that night — chocolate… .” It doesn’t have to be expensive or ornate. “My grandmother from Richmond, she would always say, ‘Don’t show up with your arms swinging,’” she added. “I remember growing up, visiting family on Sunday, she’d bring a two-liter of soda. It can be small, within your means, something you made. It’s being thoughtful of the people hosting you.”
Also, give your host a bit of padding by arriving five to 10 minutes after the start time, Bailey recommended. We might have a tendency to overstay since we’re so excited to catch up after being away from each other for so long. Pay attention to the clues: If your host is starting to clean up or the music stops, it’s time to say your goodbyes. In another viral topic, respect the host’s rules when it comes to shoes in the house. And in these COVID times, be aware of others in terms of mask-wearing or testing before a gathering. Think about how you serve and share food, and what will be safest and make people most comfortable.
Create a positive host-guest relationship
Hosts have duties too. Know your budget and stick with it, said Post. “Sending someone a Venmo request after the fact is not a good solution to ‘Oops I spent too much.’ That’s on you to deal with. Don’t make it your friends’ problem.” Your role should be to take care of your friends and create an evening of enjoyment, whether that’s “six friends with mac and cheese at a card table, or 12 friends around a fancy dining room table. It’s what fits your budget,” said Post.
Don’t over-serve your guests, Bailey advised. And do what you can to make them feel comfortable: “Make sure they have a safe way to get home; we may not be as sure of our tolerances as we used to be. [Hide away] anything you don’t want to share (like your 30th-anniversary wine!), and don’t make it a big deal if someone spills red wine on your white carpet. That person feels awful! Let people know where everything is, offer to take their coat, their bag.” And when it comes to shoes off in the house, “Maybe have cheapie pairs of socks on hand, or let them know your expectations in advance.”
“The whole idea is that I am trying to provide a good experience for whomever I’m hosting. As soon as you start to step on the toes of that sentiment, it’s not a great host-guest relationship,” added Post.
If you’re asked to pay up unexpectedly…
Any guest who receives a Venmo charge for a dinner after the fact “is well within their social right to say ‘I wasn’t aware of this when I said yes,’” said Post. “From there, they can choose to pay it or not. I would probably pay it and then ask my friend to warn me ahead of time or, frankly, I might not want to socialize. You try getting a $50 bill and then wanting to hang out with that person again.”
“I think I would say, ‘It wasn’t clear to me that we would be paying for this experience of this evening, but here’s your $20,’” said Bailey. “And that’s not a person I’d invite again to my home or go to their home again.”
Henry agrees. “It’s nice to be able to treat someone,” she said. “And in terms of community, having people over and cooking for them, it is a gift. It’s something I’m grateful to be able to offer. I think that charging people sounds like a bit of a bait and switch. And the best way to beat a bait and switch is a dine and dash! I would, nope, uh uh. They would be off of my friend list. I imagine it would be someone I wasn’t really close with to begin with.”