Few topics in life get awkward faster than money. (Except maybe talking about sex with your parents or explaining why you’re a die-hard Democrat to your 90-year-old grandmother.) People can be famously neurotic about money, whether they have a ton of it or are trying to save more. And on a first date, which is already a delicate, nerve-wracking situation, trying to figure out who should pay for what, and when, and how much, can be confusing and stressful, to say the least.
When it comes to money etiquette in dating circa now, says couples therapist and relationship expert Tara Fields, Ph.D., author of The Love Fix, there really aren’t any hard-and-fast rules. And that’s what can make things so difficult to navigate. Everyone has different values around money—how to spend it, how to save it, and what role it plays. The most important thing is to gauge whether your values are similar, because that can help you figure out whether this is someone you should keep seeing, she says. “It’s about compatibility,” she says. “Money is important in relationships right from the get-go. It’s really symbolic of emotions and an area that can have tremendous meaning.”
Below, Fields explains some of her top tips for navigating the awkward topic of money when you’re dating.
Know What Your Own Money Values are
My friend Jamie, age 29, always expects her dates—no matter how they met, or who asked out whom—to pick up the tab. She’s financially well-off in her own right, with a successful career and busy social life, but for her, how someone takes care of her on a date represents how well that person will (or won’t) take care of her in all areas of life. She wants a provider, so she’s looking for someone who likes to provide for others—and there are plenty of people like that.
“Even in this day and age, there are plenty of men and women who take pride in being the breadwinner and wanting their partners to be in a more traditional role,” says Fields. “It’s about generosity of spirit, and the money is just a symbol of that. Often, paying for others is a gesture of love and care—a way to show someone that you don’t mind investing in them, even if you’re just getting to know them.” If, on the other hand, you ardently believe in splitting the check for one reason or another—because it’s easier, cleaner, fairer, or whatever—that’s OK, too. Explaining that you prefer to split the check to your date and see how it goes over with her or him. If he or she insists on picking up the tab, then say you’d like to get the next one.
It Never Hurts to Offer
I know several single women who don’t have strong rules or beliefs about who should pay for whom on dates, but when someone doesn’t offer to buy the first drink, they can’t help but raise an eyebrow about what that says about him or her. Whether you’re the asker or the askee, you can’t go wrong by offering to get the check or at least split it. “It’s nice to always offer and make the gesture,” says Fields. “Be sensitive to different financial situations and try to pick up on cues based on people’s jobs and living situations. “Maybe if you can’t afford to take someone to dinner, or they can’t afford to take you, you could cook a beautiful meal or head to your favorite BBQ place. It’s important not to feel like you have to match the person dollar for dollar, but be generous in whatever way you can, so you feel like your’e both contributing.”
My favorite way to resolve the question of who should pay is to alternate (assuming you’re going out on more than one date). On our first date, my boyfriend did pay—although I’d also forgotten to hit the bank before arriving at a cash-only bar, so it kind of took that option off the table—but after that, we took turns and didn’t add up every tab in our heads. As we see it, it all evens out in the end, and it’s a little more romantic to let one person treat the other rather than splitting it between two cards every time. Plus, in early relationships, it can be a sign to show you really like someone and expect to have plenty of opportunities to pay each other back. “There’ll be plenty of time for the other person to reciprocate,” says Fields. “It’s also a way you get to know someone. If you’ve been dating for months and he or she never treats you or makes you dinner, then ask yourself if you’re OK with that, because it says something about them emotionally.”
Don’t be Afraid to Talk About it
Whether it’s telling your date that you’re more comfortable splitting the check, or explaining to someone you’ve been seeing for several months that you’re on a tight budget, it’s smart to communicate about money—awkward as it might feel. “People will be honest about their age or their number of sex partners before they’ll tell you how much they make,” says Fields. “You don’t have to outright ask how much they make, but before you make any kind of serious commitment, you have to have the money talk. Discuss each of your budgets and at least make sure you have a ballpark sense of what the other person makes and what their financial situation is in terms of savings and debt.” It might be unromantic, but it’s realistic, says Fields, especially given that money is one of the top two reasons why couples break up (in-laws are the other—ha).
Don’t Overlook Someone’s Attitude About Money
At the end of the day, it’s wise to pay attention to what someone is showing you about their character, especially when it comes to money. “Often, people who are cheap financially end up being cheap emotionally,” says Fields. “On the other hand, if they always insist on picking up the tab and never let you pay, are they being sweet and generous, or is it something they saw one of their parents do in a dysfunctional way? Is it their way of being in control of the situation—or worse, you?” You want someone whose money habits fall in a happy, healthy middle ground. “This is all an opportunity to understand each other more or better, so you can see where the other is coming from and find that sweet spot.”
A version of this article was originally published in October 2016.