Picking Up the Check

Here’s one perk to being a grad student: everyone pities you. Wait, that doesn’t sound like a perk… I’ll rephrase. When you’re a PhD student, people with real jobs assume you are poor. They either think you’re taking on debt for your extended schooling or know that you’re living on a small stipend. The perk is that this pity often expresses itself in financial generosity in the form of free meals. For nearly all of our 20s, when Kyle and I went out to eat with ‘real adults’ with real jobs, especially those significantly older than us, there was a good chance that our dining companions would pay for our food. (Of course, we didn’t assume this would happen, and we always reached for the check and expressed gratitude if the other party paid.)


One of my research mentors explained this to me explicitly after I tried to insist on splitting a check: “When you’re in training, let other people pay for you. Then, when you’re done, pay it forward.”


In the past year-ish, Kyle and I have transitioned from being trainees to being full professionals, and we haven’t forgotten about the social contract we benefitted from all through grad school. Now that we have a nice income, we know it’s our turn to pick up the check when we eat out with certain other people. (It seems that our parents still like to pay for us when we eat out with them. I’m not sure when that will change!) But it’s definitely a bit strange to go from always expecting to just pay for ourselves (and sometimes being pleasantly surprised with a gifted meal) to wondering in what situations we could be generous to others.


restaurantinteriorThese are situations in which we’ve paid for our companion’s meal when we’ve eaten out with one or two other people since Kyle started his new job:

  • the other party is a grad student
  • the other party is visiting our city
  • the other party is a younger sibling


(I want to emphasize that we really do want to treat others to meals sometimes, and that we also enjoy being treated to meals when we are. I don’t want to give the impression that we resent spending money on other people or feel that we are being forced to do it. Now that we have a better income, we’re happy to be generous to others from time to time.)


We haven’t eaten out with other people that many times in the last six months so we’re still trying to figure this all out. I did witness Kyle nearly fight with someone over a check when we wanted to split the check she (and her husband) wanted to treat us. I would have graciously accepted after only one or two protestations/offers, but he went about five rounds with her (she won). We were actually visiting their city, so maybe that was why she wanted to pay. Another time, Kyle and I agreed in advance to pay for the meal of the one other person we were eating with, but then he ordered two meals to go in addition. I wanted to split the check at that point and told Kyle so (and the other person also wanted to split it), but he insisted on paying for all the meals.


We also got into a bit of an uncomfortable who-pays-for-what situation when my sister and her boyfriend visited us in Seattle last fall. Her boyfriend wanted to pay for me when the three of us were together, so then I had to find ways to reimburse them by paying for other stuff… They were visiting our city but they also took us out for a really nice meal (agreed in advance that it was my sister’s boyfriend’s treat) as a thank-you for letting them stay with us. So that got a little confusing and awkward until my sister and I got sick of it all and agreed that everyone would just pay for themselves for the rest of the trip. Thankfully she and I were able to speak frankly about it!


I still don’t fully know what ‘rules’ we should be following now that we’re real adults with a real income with respect to treating other people to meals. Well, I do know the grad student one! I think we’ll stick to picking up the check when we eat out with one or two grad students, but I’m not sure how the rest of the guidelines we’ve been following might evolve with time.


In what situations do you pay for other people’s meals or let other people pay for you? Did you have a time in your life when you switched from mostly receiving to mostly giving? Do you ever have culture clashes when you and the other party both insist on paying?


photo by Flickr user sea turtle and used under Creative Commons licensing


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11 Responses to "Picking Up the Check"

  1. Mrs Pop says:

    Hmmm… +1 to picking up the check for those being mentored (I would consider current grad students and younger siblings in that category for you). Mr PoP does this with work lunches fairly regularly even if he can’t expense them.

    The easiest “rule” we have come up with (though I believe it was Mr PoP’s mom that suggested it) is that if we invite people out, especially if we pick the restaurant, we offer to pay. If someone else invites us out or picks the restaurant and offers to pay, we won’t argue, but we will say that we’ll get it next time or have them over soon (and we do). With local friends, alternating payment from outing to outing is generally where we’ve ended up. Family, seems to be whoever does the inviting, which is mostly Mr PoP’s parents. As for out of town friends, we make sure to treat them to at least one meal out if they’ve come to visit us, or if we’re staying with them when we’re in their town.

    Of course, none of these are hard and fast rules, we just do what feels right in the situation. Usually that’s offering to pay, but also being gracious about letting others pay if we’re their guests. I hate it when people get annoying and fight over the check – it often adds an awkward ending to what had been a fun time. =/

    1. Emily says:

      Who invited whom is another good way of deciding when to offer to pay. We don’t generally trade picking up checks with local friends, though. Since we moved to Seattle we’ve been eating out in larger groups, not so much with local individuals or couples. I wonder if other people practice that and we just haven’t seen it, though.

      Great point about mentoring relationships, too. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

      Yeah I was cringing at Kyle’s too-prolonged protestations over who should pay at our one dinner out recently! He’s definitely experiencing some growing pains in this area as I don’t remember him doing that when we were in grad school. 🙂 Thankfully it didn’t cast a pall over the evening!

  2. Yes! People paid for me when I was in college and grad school and now I like to pay for others when I can, even though my hubs is still in school and we’ve got a ton of student loans to pay off. We still like to pay it forward when we can.

    1. Emily says:

      I guess your situation is a bit interested because as a couple you are ‘mixed’ – one still in training and one working in the Real World. That’s great that you’re erring on the side of paying it forward already!

  3. While we now make good money, we still have a lot of stress on our budget from various factors. So we’re not big on rushing to pay for others. (Not that we actually go out with others much, which probably helps.)

    Usually, we eat with someone else if it’s my Mom or a friend staying with us. In which case, each one tends to want to treat us to at least one meal. We don’t argue, and we certainly don’t expect it. But we make sure to say thank you.

    1. Emily says:

      Yeah, this situation doesn’t come up terribly often for us, either! It does make sense for a guest you’re hosting to treat you to one meal because presumably you’re saving them lots of money on lodging.

  4. When I was still studying and people knew that I had a student loan to deal with later on, I think it’s fine if they pay for my meal because my friends or relatives know exactly what I am dealing with and it’s part of our culture. They know after I graduate and paid my student loan, I can pay them forward even in another way.

    1. Emily says:

      Interesting that you include finishing paying off debt as your tipping point… I wonder how common that is. We have student debt still but we’re not aggressively paying it off so I wouldn’t want to delay that long, personally.

  5. James says:

    It really depends on situation. If I feel I have more capability to pay, I’d pay. But most often, I pay for my own meal. With friends, they pay my meal as they know I am paying my student loan. I am glad that they understand my situation.

    1. Emily says:

      Most often we pay for ourselves, too. We often don’t know others’ financial or employment situations very intimately!

  6. […] the month of eating out: with friends in Seattle, with friends in LA, with family that visited us (our treat!), with family that we visited, while traveling, and while out exploring a park. June was the month […]

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