A lunch that went bad

A colleague of mine, let’s call her Cindy, emailed me and asked for advice on a situation she had recently experienced. She had been invited to lunch by someone she didn’t know well, we’ll call this person Sarah. Sarah wanted Cindy to join her for lunch at her private club.

Cindy had to reschedule the first meeting because she was sick and had asked if they could meet in the New Year. However, Sarah insisted they meet during the holidays because she wanted Cindy to see the lovely holiday decorations in the club. Cindy reluctantly agreed.

The two had a nice lunch. Cindy didn’t disclose what the lunch meeting was about, but at the end Sarah asked the waiter to split the bill. Cindy was mortified. She had assumed Sarah would pay for her lunch since she had invited her and also thought the private club wouldn’t accept money anyway. Because of her assumptions she had not brought her wallet with her to lunch. So, she had to tell Sarah that she had assumed the lunch would be covered and didn’t have any money to pay her share.

Sarah seemed to understand, but stated that because she invites people to lunch a lot it gets expensive for her so she asks her guests to split the bill.

Oh boy, what went wrong here?

Well first off, I don’t think Sarah was clear about why they were meeting. Again, Cindy didn’t go into detail, but perhaps Sarah wanted to network, or wanted advice or maybe she wanted to promote a service or product. When asking someone to meet with you, it’s important to state the purpose of the meeting.

The second mistake Sarah made was forcing Cindy to accommodate her schedule – even though it was so that Cindy could see the holiday decorations. A good host always accommodates her guests and does not push. That said, Cindy’s error was to capitulate to Sarah on the rescheduled meeting date. She should have been firmer in stating she did not have time to meet during the holidays, and while she was sorry she wouldn’t be able to see the holiday decorations she simply couldn’t meet sooner.

Another problem was Cindy left her wallet at the office. While she was absolutely correct to assume Sarah would pay for the meal, you have to be prepared in case the person you’re meeting with wants to split the bill.

The biggest gaffe was in Sarah asking Cindy to split the bill. The person who issues the invitation always pays for the meal. Sarah stated that she asks her guests to split the bill “because it gets expensive.” I certainly understand this. However, if money is tight, she should pair down her lunch invitations; perhaps, meet for coffee instead.

I feel for Cindy. It was a very awkward situation.

Have you ever assumed because someone invited you to lunch they would pay? Have you been in Sarah’s shoes and felt it was OK to ask to split the bill? How do you think Cindy should have handled this?


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Carole on December 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    I don’t know who came up with the idea that “the invitee pays the bill”, but that’s not how it’s done on my planet.

    When I dine with GFs in my circle, the assumption is always, we split the bill. If the relationship is something else, i.e. business or a date, then the “invitee pays” rule is more likely. But if it mattered to me (like my budget was tight, so didn’t want to pay for lunch out), I would probably confirm before accepting, otherwise would assume I needed to pay my share.

    On a similar note, once a GF invited me to dinner, saying “I want to take you out”. When the bill came, she proceeded to go to the restroom. When she came back, she seemed to be surprised that I hadn’t taken care of the bill in her absence. Since she clearly invited me out with a specific invitation, I simply waited, and continued to converse over coffee. She paid the bill and didn’t say anything else like “shall we split this?” like we always do today. I never asked her about it. We’re still good friends.

  2. Victoria on December 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I think the difference is a girlfriend vs someone you don’t know well/business associate. When it is a friend, the assumption always is to split (although I find it even nicer to pay and say – next time you get it – implying that we should do it again soon…or if the friend took the time to come to my neighborhood, I pay and the next time I’ll go to their neighborhood and they pay).

    When it is a business associate looking to network/ask for advice/etc. then the invitee ALWAYS should pay. It is the price of doing business. I have asked many, many people to network with me – and do so over coffee so it doesn’t break the bank to always pay. It is a small price to pay for the person’s time and advice.

  3. ArdenClise on December 29, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Hi Carole, with close friends it’s OK to split the check, but if someone invites you to lunch, as your GF did, and says “I want to tak you out”, they pay. Weird she was trying to get out of it.

    Social functions are a little squishier, but anything business related or where someone doesn’t know the other person well the inviter always pays. Just the way it is. Keeps it from being awkward.

  4. ArdenClise on December 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    I agree with you Victoria. I like what you say about paying for a friend and next time they can pay, which does say you’d like to meet again.

    Coffee is a good way to go when networking and meeting with business associates, keeps it less expensive.

  5. lunch on February 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I don’t work…(well not for money anyway).  So it’s important that I do have the chance to see other people especially women my age sometimes.  I am shocked to hear someone assume their lunch would be paid for.  I arrange lunches all the time!   OMG am I suppost to pay for these lunches?  If you eat it you should pay for it.  You are there for relationship building (because no woman is an island), we need each other.  Cindi is clearly not looking for a free lunch but she still ate it.  MY Gosh I’ll never see another woman again if that was the case.  I will research this by asking around.

  6. ArdenClise on February 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm

     Thanks for commenting. If you invite someone for a meal, you should pay. However, if it’s a friend you could split the bill. Sure the guest eats, but if not for the invitation s/he might not go out to lunch and spend the money. In a business situation it is always the invitee who pays.
    If you invite someone you don’t know well and you expect to split the bill, I would suggest making that clear up front. Say something like, “Would you like to join me for a dutch treat lunch?” That way there is no confusion or misunderstanding.
    I hope that helps.

  7. gutie2 on August 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

    if I ask an old friend to meet me for lunch, am I expected to pay the whole tab?

  8. ArdenClise on August 20, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    gutie2 If it’s a close friend and you normally split the check you don’t need to pay.for her or her daughter. But if it’s someone you don’t know well and you invite her, you should expect to pay for both. Thanks for asking.

  9. gutie2 on August 21, 2014 at 10:59 am

    The friend is someone who I have known since childhood but have not seen for several years. She has been asking me to go visit her but she lives far from me so i asked her to meet for lunch at a location near her job which is closer to me. My wording to her was, “would you like to meet me at”….for lunch or a drink?… She later called and asked if it would be OK to bring her daughter.  I am retired and live on a fixed income so cannot afford to pay for 3. Just do not want it to get awkward.  Wondering how I should handle the situation.

  10. ArdenClise on September 10, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    gutie2 Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. Say something up front before you meet to indicate you would love to go dutch on a lunch. Or invite her and her daughter to coffee or drinks, which is more affordable, that way you can pay.If it feels strange to say something up front, it’s okay to ask if you can split the tab when the check comes.

    I hope that helps.

  11. guest111234 on December 25, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I am a young law student and a law firm invited me out to lunch with a few of their associates. When the tab came, it seemed a bit awkward. I assumed that because they had invited me and they knew that I was a student, I wouldn’t be expected to pay the tab. One of the older associates quickly took charge of the tab, but I felt as if I should have made more of an effort to pay the bill. 
    Thank you!

  12. ArdenClise on December 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    guest111234 You were just fine in assuming the law firm would pay for the meal. You didn’t even need to offer to pay given you’re a student and you were invited by the attorneys. Whomever invites is expected to pay. Now when they hire you and you’re a hot shot lawyer at the firm you’ll be expected to pay. Until then, enjoy being treated.

    Thanks for writing.

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