Who Should Actually Pay The Dinner Bill When It's Someone's Birthday?

The little rules and best practices of our society aren't always clear and known to everyone. Since most of us (probably) didn't go to finishing school, it's only natural that we'll have some gaps in knowledge when it comes to etiquette. When do you use which fork? Is there a wrong way to hold a wine glass? And who pays the bill?

The question of who pays, or how to split the bill, becomes especially relevant when it's someone's birthday. You want to make the person of honor feel special, but let's be honest — money isn't a renewable resource. So what's the proper solution? The good news is that when simply meeting up with friends at a restaurant, it's customary and socially acceptable for everyone except the birthday person to split the bill.  

But the situation changes if it's a more formalized event. If you invite people to an event that you planned — you're a host, and it's on the host to pay. This remains true even if you're throwing your own birthday party, so don't pick a pricey spot and expect your friends to pay your way.

It's my party, and I'll pay if I have to

Generally, the most agreeable, fairest way to handle the bill after a birthday dinner is for all guests, minus the guest of honor, to split it evenly. That way everyone is roughly paying for their own food and drink, plus a fraction of the birthday person's bill and an equal share of tax and tip. An exception, according to some etiquette experts like Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick — founder and president of The Etiquette School of New York — is if you are the one organizing your own birthday dinner.

"Generally when it's the friends saying 'Let's all get together and celebrate Mary's birthday,' everyone except Mary pays for lunch," she said (via Business Insider). "But sometimes someone wants to have their own birthday luncheon, so let's say Mary invites everyone to celebrate her birthday with her, in which case she would pay for everyone, but everyone should bring a gift for her."

If an event has been framed as something to which you're invited rather than communally-made group plans, the host (be it the honoree or not) should be paying — but to be safe, don't assume that they will. Be prepared to at least cover your own portion of the bill in order to avoid any awkward situations after dinner.

Friends with(out) money

As is the case in any social situation involving friends, the best thing to do is to talk out any uncertainty. Just dropping a simple "Are we planning for everyone but Derek to split the bill?" in the group chat can save you some stress down the line. In general, it's always a good idea to have the payment situation figured out before the meal so no one is stuck doing long division after dessert. Ideally, everyone can contribute cash, or one person can put the dinner on their card, and the rest reimburse them. It's best to avoid asking for separate checks or to split the bill, as it makes your server's job a little trickier and risks throwing off the timing of dishes coming out. 

But if you must ask to split the bill, do it before any orders are placed. According to Toni Dupree, an etiquette coach with Etiquette & Style by Dupree in Houston, doing so after is a major faux pas. "The decision to split the bill should happen before you sit down for dinner, not when the wait staff brings the check" she told Real Simple.

There are a lot of different factors that determine who ought to pull their card out after a group meal. But as long as everyone is communicative and on the same page, the night can be an effortless and fun time spent gathering with loved ones to celebrate another trip around the sun.