By Emma Dahl

Whenever I go on a first date, I insist on paying for my part of the meal. Do I want to pay for my food? Not really. But do I feel morally obliged to at least pretend like I want to split the bill? Yes.

I’d say one of the few advantages of growing up “back in the day” was that you knew who was paying for the date. Splitting up date costs can be uncomfortable, but which way is the best to make sure everyone is enjoying the date? Obviously I benefit the most if I don’t have to pay, but that means a bigger hit for whomever I went out with, and this method can also rely on outdated gender norms, which makes me uncomfortable. Alternatively, we could split costs, or call it an IOU. Or, we could cut gender norms out and just say whoever was the “asker” should pay for the “askee”. Ultimately, I think there’s not one “correct” way to split up date costs, and the best way to do it depends on a few different factors.

Splitting costs

The fairest way to go is to just split costs. This could either take the form of a 50/50 split, a dutch split where everyone pays for what they ordered, or an IOU that I’ll discuss below. The benefit of splitting costs this way is that it avoids one person feeling indebted to the other. It’s also a more modern way to handle bills and is easier to negotiate if, for example, I go on a date with another woman and there aren’t gender norms to help dictate who is supposed to pay.

While it does mean I have to pay for my part of the bill, it also takes the financial burden off of my date and, I’d argue, sets a tone for future dates. If I like my date, the goal would be to maximise the benefit of the date for everyone involved, not just myself. Relationships are about both parties benefiting, so if I see my date turning into a relationship, I’m more likely to pay for my part. When I pay my part, it increases the overall welfare between the two of us.

The “IOU” system

Another way to split date costs is with the trusty IOU. IOUs are a good way to split up dates under the condition that the payer is also the one that selected the date. If my date decides they wants to go to a steakhouse for our date, I’m fine going, but wouldn’t be happy about paying given that I’m a vegetarian. But if they really likes steak, it will probably be worth it for them to go and pay for the both of us. They are getting a lot of satisfaction out of the money they spend there, so it would make sense for them to pay. Likewise, if I wanted to take my steak-eating date to a vegetarian taco restaurant, I would be really happy about being able to eat at my favorite place. Spending money there gives me a lot of satisfaction, so I would be fine paying. But, having to pay $15 for steamed veggies at the steak house is not going to make me very happy, so the IOU system of alternating who pays for dates works well.

IOU is also a good way to go if there’s a big income disparity between me and my date- if I have more income and can afford a fancy restaurant, it would make sense for me to pay there, and then they can take me out for ice cream next time. IOU lets everyone feel like they paid their fair share without forcing anyone to take a big financial hit. The only issue I have with the IOU system is that sometimes it can lead to the awkward “no, let me pay” argument where both parties have to pretend like they want to pay for the date. The key with IOU is to make sure everyone is clear with who is paying.

Let them pay

Finally, I could just let them pay. This payment method is the trickiest to me- while the IOU and split payment methods both create a pathway to cost sharing, simply letting the other person pay sets up a relationship where the other person pays for every date. If I see the relationship going somewhere, this can be problematic- eventually, someone is going to feel uncomfortable about the other person never/ always footing the bill. Also it can play into (what I consider) outdated gender norms that can have larger implications for a relationship down the road. If the date seems like it’ll turn into something more, I think IOU is the best way to handle it.

But, if it seems like a dead-end, it makes more sense for me to just let my date pay. Generally speaking, people are happier when they have to pay less for something, and if I get something entirely for free, I’m even happier. The issue with getting free stuff comes in down the road when I have to pay for someone else’s free stuff. But, if I’m getting something for free with no-strings-attached, I’d be a fool to say no. The whole point of cost-sharing on dates is to maximise the overall benefit. If I’m not concerned about how happy my date is, though, and I’m really only there for the free tacos, it’s most beneficial to me to just let them pay.

How do you deal with cost sharing on dates? Tweet me at @economicsemma and let me know!