Restaurant Parties: Can I ask my guests to pay their own way?

by EPI Staff on April 16, 2009

Q: My friend and I would like to throw our other friend a surprise 40th birthday at her favorite restaurant. Due to our budget we’d like to ask guests to pay for their meal and chip in on hers. How could we word this on the invitation?

A: How wonderful that you’d like to treat the birthday girl to dinner out! Unfortunately, since you wouldn’t charge guests to attend a party in your home, it wouldn’t be appropriate to charge them to attend a party in a restaurant and ask them to pay extra to cover the birthday girl’s meal.  It’s best to make it clear when you extend the invitation that you both are acting more as “coordinators” than as hosts.  It’s all in how you phrase it. For this type of get-together it’s best to call your friends and say something like, “Erin, would you and Tim like to meet us at Leunig’s on Saturday the 7th to celebrate Nancy’s 40th? We’re asking Tom, Michelle, Mike and Ginger to join us too.  The plan is to split the tab and treat Nancy to her meal as well.  Let me know if you can come and I’ll make the reservation!”  By putting it this way, it’s clear that you are just organizing the party and not hosting, everyone will know what is expected and can choose to take part or not.

We often hear from people who want to host a party at a restaurant but can’t afford the expense. Here are some other options that won’t break the bank:

  1. Host the party at home where you can control the expenses. Potluck is always an option and a fun way to host on a tight budget.
  2. Stick with the restaurant plan and rework the guest list to a number you can afford.
  3. Ask the restaurant for a set menu from which your guests can choose that still fits your budget.
  4. Plan an hors d’oeuvres-only or desserts-and-coffee-only menu with the restaurant.

For more on entertaining etiquette check out: Emily Post’s Etiquette 17th Edition by Peggy Post or Emily Post’s Entertaining by Peggy Post.

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl April 30, 2009 at 10:55 am

I recently attended a 50th birthday party luncheon for 2 friends where all of the guests paid for their own meal and we all contributed $1 each to cover the birthday girls.
The invitations were clear and tastefully done, and no one was offended.
I think if people know the expectations ahead of time, they can make the decision to attend or not.

Reply

Daniel Post Senning April 30, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Hi Cheryl. Thanks for your comment! It inspired a lively little back and forth here at the office about how to best respond to your very reasonable situation. Something very similar to what you describe is covered in the middle of the answer.

As we talked, consensus developed that there is some discrepancy between how to manage “hosting” an event as opposed to “coordinating” or “organizing” an event. Our advice is meant to cover expectations for someone who will be credited as a host. The social expectations around hosting are clear and established: When someone is invited out to eat by a host they should not expect to pay for their meal. However, when someone is invited to a community event, a different set of expectation apply.

In the case you describe, someone was organizing a gathering where, as you state, “people [knew] the expectations ahead of time.” The event you described worked well because everyone was aware ahead of time of the shared cost of the get together. This showed consideration for all involved on the part of the event coordinator. In some ways, everyone who ultimately contributed was a co-host.

This may seem like hair splitting, but these distinctions are important to how we maintain effective universal guidelines that help us to avoid inadvertently hurting or offending someone.

Thanks again for your input. I also want to acknowledge you as the first community member to comment on Etiquette Daily. That’s a badge to wear with some distinction!

Reply

Lesa July 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

How did your friend word the invitation? I need to word my mom’s the same way, so guess will know they have to pay for their own meal.

Reply

Rachel April 30, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for the advice! (Got some more?)

I’ve wanted to plan a get together for a night at the theatre where everyone pays for their own ticket. I wasn’t sure just how to put it in writing as it’s my birthday and I’m the one organizing and booking the event. What details should I put in the invites? Also how soon should they pay for the tickets: before or after I’ve booked? Should I also let them know the procedures for cancelation in case they can’t make it after they’ve already paid for their ticket?

Thanks again,
Rachel

Reply

Daniel Post Senning May 1, 2009 at 8:05 am

Hi Rachel,

This is such a classic question and it does come down to the tone that you are able to establish early on. The formality of the invitation is the first signal to a guest as to the nature of the event. We suggest in the answer given that you call people first. This establishes a less formal tone than a written invitation and allows you to be clear that you are helping to plan an event where everybody will be chipping in. Once you have established that this is not an invitation to a hosted birthday event but rather one where people will be responsible for handling some of their own arrangements, it can a be good idea to follow up with details about all-important information in writing to reduce confusion (cancellation penalties, deadlines for seat reservations, etc.).

Good luck and best wishes for your birthday!

Reply

Candace September 1, 2009 at 4:45 am

I’m also planning a dinner for my husband’s birthday. I am cash strapped but I would like our friends to join us in celebration. Our apartment isn’t large enough to host the party. I would like to make postcards or invites and I’ve been to different websites that are on both sides of the fence. Please, help me to word an invite or small postcard for a dinner party @ a restaurant where guests must pay for their own meals. I will provide a cake. Thanks.

Reply

Alicia October 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Candace the invite is ” Please join us for Bills birthday dinner we will be having dinner at Fantastic resturant. Meals general run from $15-$30. if you are unable to join us for dinner please join us after dinner for the delicious birthday cake I will be bringing.”

Reply

Mary Chandler November 30, 2009 at 11:19 am

What’s the updated term for ” dutch treat”?

Reply

Graceandhonor December 17, 2009 at 11:43 am

“Lets split the bill” or “Lets do halves” …hmmm…good question!

Reply

Billie June 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm

My daughter is having a 20 year retirment party for her husband from the U.S Army at a local restaurant. She is having immediate family whom she is paying for their meals, but is unable to pay for friends that attend. How do you word this on the invitation? This phrase will be put on the friends invitations only. Should we say dutch treat – at your own expense or . . . Any suggestions? Should we include a menu of the restaurant?
Thanks for your help.
Billie

Reply

Graceandhonor June 21, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Billie,

There is no proper or delicate way to invite people to a retirement party and pay for some guests, but not for others. This will cause ill feelings and an invitation should not be issued under these conditions. Perhaps your daughter should consider a party at home in keeping with their budget. A backyard barbecue would be preferable to asking guests to pay their own way.

G&H

Reply

Erin October 5, 2011 at 11:08 am

Wow- ppl can be so cheap!!! Covering ur own meal is not a big deal!!!! Especially when the host wants to be able to invite ALL their friends! I think it’s rude when someone only invites a couple people to make sure it’s in their budget! Grow up people! And stop being so cheap!! B happy u get to go and make memories!!!! 20 bucks isn’t going to kill ya!!!!

Reply

Just Laura October 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

Erin,
Covering one’s own meal is fine, unless one thought that others were doing it. If a person invites me to a party, I expect that they are acting as hosts; i.e., provide food/drinks/place to sit, etc. If they are event coordinators and say something like, “Hey, it’s Suzy’s birthday! Let’s all meet at XYZ restaurant to celebrate!” then I know that I’ll be paying my own way, and can either accept or decline.

Why would it be rude to invite fewer people, if that is all one can afford? There were many times during grad school when I couldn’t afford a large group, but I didn’t want to force others to pay at a party I was throwing, so I only invited a couple of close friends. I understand $20 isn’t much to many people, but to those of us working through college (or even working through life), $20 is a huge deal, and is the difference between the electricity being on, or the car having a few gallons of gas.

Reply

sharon November 15, 2011 at 1:12 am

Erin you are spot on and I totally agree with you…people should be happy to be included in the event…

Reply

Gracea party August 14, 2012 at 3:11 am

You never “host” a party and ask the guests to pay for their own meals. Tacky, tacky, tacky! If you can’t afford a party, then just have them over for finger foods and dessert. Nobody HAS to have an expensive dinner in a restaurant.

Reply

Jen November 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I just celebrated my best friends 40th birthday with friends at a restaurant. Her only sister served as the coordinator. We all expected to pay for our own meal and split the birthday girls tab. At the end of the meal, her sister – the coordinator- had asked for her own tab and did not contribute to our tab to cover the guest of honor. The coordinator also did not tip the bartender for our first round of drinks – I did. I called her privately the next day and told her I found her actions rude and cheap. Was I out of line? This is the fourth time in about ten years she’s done something like this and I’m just fed up with her selfish and oblivious behavior.

Reply

Alicia November 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Yes you were wrong to call her up and call her rude and cheap. One does not criticize the manners of someone unless they are their minor child or specifically ask,

Reply

Jerry November 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm

The answer to your question is “it depends.” Were you asking for reimbursement for your share? Will you have to see this person again? Is this a lot of money to you? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” then you were ok in calling your friend’s sister to seek reimbursement and/or let her know that you won’t put up with another round of her (engaging in the function equivalent of) skipping out on the check.

If the answer to the questions is “no” — if you were just calling to put her in her so-called place — you were, indeed, out of line.

Reply

Elizabeth November 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm

The best thing to do is to address these things as they happen, not later. When you noticed that she hadn’t included tip or didn’t add the sister’s portion, you just have to very innocently and sweetly (and loudly) pipe up and say, “Oh, Gertrude, it looks like you forgot to add in the money for the tip (or for your sister’s meal).” When everyone’s eyes are on her, she’ll be shamed into doing the right thing. When you all were going over your bills, why didn’t someone just say: “Oh, I think there’s been a mistake. I thought we were splitting this four ways instead of three. Did someone forget to add in the amount for sister’s dinner?” Or similar. Just don’t let them get away with it to begin with, and you won’t have a problem.

Reply

Jerry November 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm

That’s a good way, too, if you can pull off assertive and sweet at the same time! :-)

Reply

Jen November 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Alicia, thanks for the feedback. You’re probably right.

Jerry, I am expecting her to reimburse others – one of the guests ended up spending $53 toward just a $32 portion because we had to pay extra to cover guest of honor.

I probably let my frustration get the best of me because as I said – she’s done it before and the guest was her own sister! I’m going to have to continue to deal with this woman and really never want to be stuck covering her again. It’s especially annoying because she undertips/stiffs at establishments that my husband and I frequent.

Reply

Mac December 5, 2012 at 12:05 am

We hold an annual holiday event that is with a mixed culture of Asian and Americans, most are married to the opposite culture. This is a Pot Luck but we charge a very low ($10 for adults and $5 for 6-17 years old) admission which covers expenses like the Hall rental and entertainment. In some cases a photographer may be present. There is a cash bar available here but coffee is included in the party. The crowd normally loves this each year however a few now want to track the expenses. This is NOT a Non Profit event. We do take some of the money and use it locally to help others in need. Are we obligated to tell paying guests where the money goes? This does not sound right! This has been an event going on the 3rd year and until now there was never a problem. Thanks.

Reply

Country Girl December 5, 2012 at 5:09 am

Yes. The organizers are absolutely obligated to tell attendants where their money is going. (I would not call them guests, since these people are paying their own way to this event along with bringing their own food.)

If this were truly a for-profit (or what you called a “not non-profit”) event where the organizers could keep or redistribute the extra money as they saw fit, then those organizing would need to have a valid business license for party/event planning and those paying admission would need to know that this was the case.

It sounds more likely that these people are coming together for a holiday function and are giving money under the pretense that they are paying for the entertainment and hall rental. In this case, it is considered STEALING for the organizer(s) to take any part of that money and put it toward something else, even something as good spirited as a worthy cause, without the permission of the attendants. If there exists no business license and no hiring contract, then the organizers are spending money that they have no (moral or legal) right to spend. These attendants are owed an explanation as well as an apology for any deception that might have occurred as the only appropriate thing to do with the extra money without having acquired all the givers’ permission to apply to next year’s party or give to a good cause, is/was to return the correct percentage to the attendants.

Reply

Jerry December 5, 2012 at 10:17 am

No. The organizers have zero duty to tell people where there money is going, just like Hallmark has no duty to tell its customers where their money has gone. However, given that it appears you are doing this as a community outreach event, realpolitik suggests that you tell people that money goes to hall rental, to entertainment, to food and drink, and to charity.

You mentioned that “[t]his is NOT a Non Profit event. We do take some of the money and use it locally to help others in need.” But just because you’re not registered as a 501(c)(3) doesn’t mean that you’re not engaged in charitable work. You may consider consulting with someone about taxes, though. This is not an area where you want to make a mistake.

County Girl: How on earth do you believe that Mac’s organization is “STEALING”? They offered a service at a set price. Is a hotel “STEALING” when you rent a hall from them for a private function? And unless you know the jurisdiction in which Mac is operating, you have no way of knowing whether his operation requires a business license or a “hiring contract” (whatever that is).

Reply

Country Girl December 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Mac, so far as we’ve heard, is not a for-profit business like Hallmark or a hotel is, so these are not his customers. He has really not even mentioned that he is part of any operation or organization at all. All we know is that he takes part in organizing this event.

And I felt when I read it very similar to how Elizabeth describes it.

I equate it to this: if you and I decide to go to lunch and I say “I’ll take care of organizing everything. The cost of the lunch will be $40.” You are going to be pretty bewildered when you attend lunch only to receive a $15 sandwich. You (like myself) would probably be curious what happened to the rest of your money. How would you react to my response of “Oh, well there was extra so I decided to give it to someone else I thought deserved it more, but that’s really none of your business…”?

Reply

Jerry December 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm

I wrote a response and my computer froze. Ugh. Here it is — short version.

1. What got my attention was your liberal use of “STEALING” (and in all caps, no less). Mac is not stealing by any stretch of the imagination. He’s letting people know what he’s providing (a hall, a photographer, a band, and a bartender), what others are expected to provide (food), and the cost for everything. If someone wants to come under these conditions, great. If not, great. But “STEALING” suggests that he’s taking something to which he’s not entitled, or that he’s lying (and not lying by omission) about what he’s providing. None of this is the case here

2. If you were to offer to organize a lunch for $40, I would say “Great, Country Girl. What do I get for $40?” (Unless the answer was a petite filet and lobster bisque, I’m probably not going to attend.) You would answer the question, and I would make a decision as to whether the combination of your food and the company was worth $40 to me. At the end of the day as long as I get what’s advertised, there’s no cause for complaint if the organizer is takes some of my money and puts it in his own pocket, gives it to charity, or even puts it in a paper shredder! (And if you asked for a nominal amount of money and still didn’t deliver what I expected, I would say “oh, well. I guess I won’t be attending any of Country Girl’s events in the future.”)

3. Elizabeth’s advice that Mac might disclose that some money goes to charity (which was also my advice if you read the last sentence of my first paragraph) is good advice. But etiquette doesn’t compel Mac to make this disclosure — common sense and realpolitik do!

Reply

Country Girl December 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm

I really hate to make dark on what seems to have be intended as a fun and joyous holiday event, but making a profit from another person without their permission is nearly the precise definition of stealing. If I give you $300 to buy me a lawn mower and you spend $150 on the mower, it matters not if you pocket the rest, give it to your needy cousin Leon, or a pet charity (which by tax deduction you still benefit from); if I have neither received my full $300 worth of product nor my extra money back, then you have stolen from me. And I am quite sure a court of law would agree.

You will notice this differs immensely from entering into a transaction with one who holds a business license, and thus holds the responsibility to be monitored, taxed, be held accountable, along with the ability to make a profit. If you have a business license, then I enter into the transaction aware that you will be making a profit. There are no false pretenses. That is not the case here. These folks, by their suspicions alone, do not have appeared to have entered into a business transaction with Mac. They have given him money to supplement the party they are attending. Mac can either assure that the entire amount will be put toward the party by lowering his “admission”, he can return the unused money, or he may gain permission from attendees before collection to use any extra money for whatever purpose. He cannot, though, legally profit from this event without the permission of those entrusting him with their money.

Jerry December 6, 2012 at 11:51 am

No, the very definition of stealing is the taking of property to which you have no right. I don’t know why you’re on this “business license” thing. It’s a red herring as not all businesses require licenses. Also I also don’t know why you mention taxes, as all activities that generate wealth — yes, even your kid’s lemonade stand — are supposed to pay taxes on that wealth. (You can ask your accountant if you don’t want to take my word for it). Please don’t use the word “legally” unless your a lawyer or have consulted with one — you wind up embarrassing yourself.

With respect to your first paragraph, you don’t need “permission” to make a profit. And with respect to your lawnmower hypothetical, it’s not a good one. If you give me $300 for a lawnmower with the understanding that I would select a lawnmower that was suitable for use, and that I would act in your best interest, you could argue (successfully) that my failure to return any excess money was stealing. But that’s not what appears to have happened here. What appears to have happened here is that someone organized an event, promised certain things (a hall, a photographer, a band, and a bartender), and delivered those things. There is no harm here. You also have completely glossed over the logistical problems with distributing pro rata refunds to a large group of people. You may choose to research the doctrine of cy pres.

Country Girl December 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Ah Jerry you kid yourself to presume to think you know what would embarrass me. For the record, you’re talking to a girl who walked down the aisle in front of a couple hundred people in a wedding dress covered top to bottom in a hideous dark eye shadow that she had accidentally dumped onto herself moments prior, so stating the facts as I understand them is not even up there. =)

This whole discussion has unfortunately taken a sharp turn from the helpful for Mac I’m afraid, and I will take my due blame for that.

The bottom line is, I suppose, that Mac’s crowd is expressing that they are unhappy with or at least questionable of what they are perceiving is taking place with their money. Since this is the case; if Mac believes he is doing things on the up and up, I can’t figure why he wishes to deny them those answers. Albeit vague, he already gave all of us a short synopsis. While Jerry and I disagree on if he owes or does not owe to disclose this information, I think that we both agree that by totally digging his heels in the sand, he stands to lose his attendants and, in effect, the event. This is something he will have to weigh into his decision, and I hope he has found at least 1-2 useful pieces to take from here to help him make it.

Elizabeth December 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Mac,
I wonder if you are getting these questions because people are wondering whether the ticket price is buying them something of value. They have to bring their own food and pay for their own drinks. Perhaps the price you are charging are feeling steep? I think if people know that there IS some extra money left over and it is going to some sort of charity, they wouldn’t feel so suspicious? Perhaps they think that you and the organizers are pocketing the profits? I would include a small line on the invitation that acknowledges that any excess proceeds will go to local needy families, or whatever it is that you do with it.

Reply

Alona February 16, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Hello,
My mom’s 50th birthday is approaching and my dad booked a restaurant and invited all their friends to join the celebration. He is willing to pay up to $14 per person, but not more then that. I have just been assuming that the restaurant will simply do the buffet or a simplified menu for the event, but after talking to my dad today I have realized they will be using their regular menu. My dad says he will be letting everyone know that day about his arrangement and if guests want something over his specified amount they will have to pay for it themselves. He also said that the restaurant is ok with that and they have done things like this before. Unfortunately, my dad has no clue about hosting anything as he never done a single party in his life. I tried hinting him that the guests should not be paying for their meal (well, maybe the alcohol, but definitely not the food), but he goes with what the restaurant says. Do you think it is ok to “host” a party like that? Or should I be more persistent? Or should my hubby and I pick up the “extras” of the guests? Please help! The party is in 3 weeks and if we will have to pick up the rest of the tab I still have to talk to my husband as I am not working right now. Thank you!

Reply

Winifred Rosenburg February 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm

You are right. A host should provide a meal, not part of a meal. Is it possible for the restaurant or you to print out a smaller menu with only things within his budget for the occasion? You can get pitchers of soda for the table and tell the restaurant to put alcoholic drinks on individual guests’ tabs (after explaining of course that alcoholic drinks are not included).

Reply

Michelle Esposito October 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Am hosting a 50th B.day party in a few days for my husband. I was willing to run a bar tab for some but not for others. How can I pull that off w/o anyone getting offended? I was wondering if I limit all the guest to a couple of drinks? Should I run a tab for a set amount or length of time? Or should I just not run a tab at all? Please let me know.

Reply

Jody October 11, 2013 at 7:09 am

Michelle, it’s generous of you to want to run a bar tab. I do think that if you’re going to run a tab for some you need to run it for everybody. One compromise would be yours, to run the tab for a couple drinks (though it might be hard to keep track of who had a couple and who’s trying to get more). Another compromise might be to provide only a limited selection, such as beer or wine; if anybody asks for something more you could explain that’s what you’ve arranged with the restaurant for your party. If your party is in a private facility or a restaurant’s private room, without a bar in the room, it should be fairly easy to limit the selection.

Reply

Paula March 13, 2014 at 2:29 pm

We are inviting family to celebrate an 18th birthday party. We do not want to host it, just coordinate it. The thing is, the birthday girl has a dad & mom who don’t get along well, & so both sides of the family will be invited for the sake of the daughter. How do we word the invitation to say that there will be separate checks??? Is it okay just to say that???

Reply

Alicia March 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Honestly this sounds like a bad idea. Skip non hosting a party for people who do not get along. I’m not sure who you are in relationship to the high school graduate but I’d leave the parents to each do something for their sides of the family or not as they wish.
However, if you are in the position to be the coordinator of this party and know the drama you are creating and bith you and the high school kid want this

Join us at fabulous restaurant at 7pm to celebrate for high school graduate.
Entrees are about $x- $y
website of restaurant

Reply

Kristen June 21, 2014 at 4:32 pm

My husband will be graduating from dental school in May and we were wanting to go out to Omaha Prime (plates run $40-$60) to celebrate after the hooding ceremony on Friday night. The actual graduation is on Saturday. Since those attending will be mostly if not all family members we are wanting them to join us to celebrate but we can’t afford to buy everyone’s meal. How can we word an invite so those joining us know the expense. Or should we just plan on going just the two of us to avoid any drama. I am fine either way I would just feel bad to have a private dinner when all our family members would be from out of town.

Reply

Elizabeth June 21, 2014 at 8:04 pm

Choose a less expensive place where you can afford to treat. The family is taking time out to celebrate your accomplishment, they should be treated to a meal. Or order in to someone’s house. You can go to the fancy place another time in celebration with just the two of you. You may have some family who may also not be able to afford a really expensive place like that, and wouldn’t it be sad if, say, everyone but grandma and uncle bill went to fancy dinner, but they couldn’t because they couldn’t afford it? The most important thing is celebratin with family, not the food. Fried chicken or BBQ is celebratory without costing a ton.

Reply

Kayla July 9, 2014 at 12:04 am

Okay, So I am about to turn 24 in a couple weeks and I had planned on doing a party like always, but I can’t afford to. (I will be returning from a trip the night prior). I thought going out to eat would be an amazing idea.
The thing is I was reading on here and I don’t want to come off rude if I ask for those to pay for themselves. I was going to say:
“I would love for you to join me for an intimate dinner to celebrate my 24th birthday. I have chosen _____ at ____ as it is a decent location for those coming from the North and South. I must note that unfortunately I am unable to pay full tab and would like to ask everyone to cover their personal tabs…”
Something along the lines of this….without sounding rude or cheap. My friends and I are really close and we are all on a budget…so they understand my tone…but I would like it to be worded correctly because I am inviting one person that has not had a chance to interact with us yet. Please help and thank you.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: