1. Sara Reiss

    Q: My in-laws often choose to have us meet them at restaurants for their birthday dinners. When the check comes around, each couple typically pays for their own family’s meal. I always feel a little bit guilty. Should I be treating my mother-in-law, the birthday girl? If so, then it would seem awkward to pay for her meal and not my father-in-law’s, too. We are already spending a good deal of money on OUR food to attend the birthday dinner and we get her a present. It seems like a lot to also buy the meal. What is the right thing to do? We also run into this problem at Mother’s Day brunch. We buy a mother’s day gift, do we also buy the meal when we are meeting up at a restaurant? I’m talking about a small get together with just my family (spouse, 2 kids) and husband’s parents.

    • Elizabeth

      There are rules, and then there are traditions particular to families. Normally, if you invite someone over to your house, you provide the food. If you invite them out, you foot the bill. It’s not different whether you are at home or at a restaurant. If you host an event, you host it by providing the food, whether at home or out. Sometimes when you go out with the same people regularly and not for a particular event, friends or families will take turns footing the bill. For some families, though, it’s more simple to just split.

      Regarding the particular instances you mentioned: usually, for adults, if you invite people out to celebrate your birthday, you are the host and should pay. So, I think your in-laws should actually be treating you when you go out to celebrate their birthdays. Mother’s Day seems different – you’re thanking someone for all their years of care and love, and it seems like in that case they should be treated.

      If your in-laws invite you to restaurants that are too expensive for your family, why not suggest something more casual or invite them over to your home? You could cook or bring in take-out, both of which would be less expensive.

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      I’m guessing in these instances there is no real host? By that I mean whoever coordinated the get-together did not mention anything like “I’d like to take you out to dinner” and instead said something like “we’re going out to dinner. Would you like to join us.” When there is no host everyone is responsible for their own meal. If you would like to you can pay for all or part of your mother’s meal as an additional gift, but you are not required to.

  2. Cyra

    Hi Sara,

    I think the answer to your question lies in who is setting up the dinner. If your in-laws are setting up their own celebration dinners then they should be paying at least for themselves–if not for everyone. If, however, you are setting up a Mother’s Day brunch or birthday dinner (which really would be much nicer than them setting it up for themselves), then you should be paying. But also remember that how much you spend isn’t the important part. Taking your MIL out to dinner may be present enough, or you could invite her to a birthday dinner at your house where the meal expenses can be less to still allow your budget to afford a present.

  3. Sara Reis

    Thanks for your replies. I’ve had similar thoughts before so it’s nice to hear others’ opinions. As far as the birthday celebrations, the person who is having the birthday (my MIL or FIL) usually picks where they want to eat and then invites us. In this case, I should not feel obligated to pay for their bill. Since they are hosting the event, it would be kind of them to pay for ours. However, I agree it would be a nice treat to have my MIL’s bday dinner at our home every now and then so we can host them on a special occasion. It is just a bit intimidating to cook for my mother-in-law although I have done so on a number of occasions–just not her birthday. :)

    I think that for Mother’s Day brunch, we will treat this year. I just may need to consider the meal expenses when I buy her present. Thanks!

  4. Sara

    Also, I just wanted to add that it is quite common for us to be invited to a friend’s birthday get together at a restaurant and I can only think of one occasion when the host paid for everyone’s dinner. Although I agree that this is proper etiquette, it seems like at least where we are from, that this is not common practice anymore. People typically pay their own way and the host may provide appetizers and/or dessert for the group. (We live in a large southern city.) I wonder if it is different depending on region of the country or income? We are solidly middle to upper middle class and so are our friends.

  5. Cyra

    No, I don’t think it’s a regional thing. Here in the Northwest the same thing usually happens; people invite you out to pay for yourself. And really, I think getting together and everyone paying for themselves is fine….depending on how the invitation is presented. What I’ve noticed is that people want to look they’re “throwing a party” without actually paying for it. So they’ll send out actual invitations and expect people to RSVP and but then not pay for anyone. This is just unacceptable. Either you’re hosting a party or arranging a get-together. Either is perfectly fine and both can be a lot of fun, just be honest with yourself about what you’re doing! I have no problem with people calling up their friends and saying, “Hey! I’m going out to dinner for my birthday on Friday at X Restaurant. If you want to come too, that’d be great!”

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