More reasons men should pay on first dates

Give him the benefit of doubt. He can do it! 


I wrote this for Forbes last year, and it came up a gain recently when Gregory Nesmith, host of Dude of Disruption (every Sunday 2-3pm on WHCR 90.3 FM NYC) gave the post a shout-out.

Since writing this, I have expanded my reason for men making the token gesture to get the bill on first dates: Historically, men can and do leave, because financially, they had the freedom to do so. Even today, when women initiate the majority of divorce and can be and often are family breadwinners, men opt out of parenting responsibilities. Per my often citing of the Pew research that found that a mere 22 percent of men who live separately from their children see their kids once per week or more. Less than a quarter of parents (the majority fathers) who owe child support actually pay it. The rest, in my book, are absentee fathers.

Paying for a round of IPAs or cappuccinos or burgers on a first or second date of course is zero guarantee of long-term commitment to adult responsibilities. But first dates are that sneak-preview of what each party wants the other to believe — that they are indeed always charming and engaging, that they roll out of bed with luxurious flowing hair or a close shave, and are the type of man who upholds his basic responsibilities.

Here’s the original post:

If there is a singular conversation starter about gender and money it is this:

Who pays on the first date?

As women make huge huge gains in family medical leave and gaining seats on corporate boards and in Congress, dating expectations barely budge. The status quo is that men pay on first dates. Last week NerdWallet released the results of a survey that found 77 percent of straight people believe men should pay on first dates — a sentiment held by 82 percent of men and 72 percent of women. I am one of those women. I have no financial reason not to pay for my own $29 grilled farm-raised salmon on a first outing with a man. But I really, really prefer if he cooly assumes the bill and slips the server his Visa.

It’s not about snagging a rich husband or a free meal.

It’s about sex.

A first date is about sex. Whether or not you are open to hooking up on a first counter is irrelevant. We marry for romantic love and date as a means of vetting others for romantic chemistry. It is not about learning about their financial status, because you very likely already have a sense about that if you met through friends, work or even online. It is about finding out if the pairing is ripe with that intangible, electric thing that happens between two people. While intellect, status and humor certainly inform that jolt, it all comes down to sexual compatibility.

Today, since we have evolved from wrestling wild animals for food, there are but a few clear and socially acceptable ways a man can express that masculinity that women so crave. Those ways include a few old-fashioned dating rituals like arranging the evening, opening doors and paying the bill. He does those things and it turns the woman on. Easy-peasy.

The other reason men should pay for dates? It’s easy-peasy. The navigation of gender politics is an anxiety-inducing daily grind. Women resent they earn less, care for children more and are expected to wax every last hair from their mons pubis before going on the date in the first place. Men are stricken with anxiety when they feel an innocent urge to compliment a female colleague on her cool new shoes, and resent their wives’ demands for equal work at home even when they earn most or all of the income. Interaction of the genders is a stressful, hot, messy Wild West with few rules and lots of proverbial gun-slinging.

By contrast, a first date guided by traditional gender roles offers the calming promise of established ritual and rules. When no one is battling a panic attack over who picks up the tab, everyone can relax, make googley eyes and luxuriate in the smoldering chemical fire for which each party waxed and groomed in the first place.

Over the past couple of years I have worked through my own conflicting feelings about who pays on a first date using two methods of research: 1) Going on lots of dates, and 2) Writing publicly about the topic in posts like this and this, which always elicit heated debate about who should be bankrolling a couple’s first rounds of Grey Goose and tonic.

The essence of my internal mud-wrestling match — and that of many other professional women — is that I am an ardent feminist, committed to equal rights and equal pay for equal work. Logic follows that each person on a dates has equal responsibility for picking up the tab for the meal they just ate — especially if both can afford it. Yet when it comes to mating protocol — specifically first-date ritual — women crave something different than we demand in Washington and in our paychecks. We want a man who assumes the bill at the whiskey bar, and a man who takes over in bed.

The jury is out on whether women’s desire for dominant men is bred or learned, but the lust for the alpha male persists.

Boston University computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam in 2011 published A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire, which analyzed thousands of romance novels, forum posts and web searches (the bibliography contains more than 1,300 items) and found that women clearly prefer men who are “strong, confident and swaggering.”

Critics argue that the assumption that men will pay for a first date is now obsolete since women earn nearly as much as men. Further, it’s also a detriment to feminism, they claim, since it sets a precedent that the woman will forever be financially subordinate to the man in that relationship.

This is not the case. In the same 30 year-period that we have held fast to traditional habits about first-date paying, we have also enjoyed enormous gains in gender equality.

To wit: the pay gap has been narrowed from 36 cents on the man’s dollar in 1980 to 16 cents in 2013, women today make up 40 percent of family breadwinners, and since women eclipsed men in college degrees earned in 1982, their momentum is such that National Center for Education Statistics projects men will make up just 41 percent of college students by 2020. Yes, there is much work to do on nearly all fronts of gender equality. But there is much to celebrate in a half-century of feminism. If nothing more, proof is in the fact I can indeed pay for my own $29 farm-raised grilled salmon even though my date nearly always insists on springing for it.

And this is how it should be. A man’s desire to pay for a first date does not automatically translate into how he votes on abortion, whether he engages in catcalls or will discourage his wife from attending graduate school. Nor does a woman’s desire for a man to pick up the tab indicate she is a gold-digger.

Now, allow me to remind you I am talking about the theatric ritual of first dates. Long-term, neither gender can afford to expect men to take full financial responsibility — and we don’t.

A 2013 study called “Who Pays for Dates? Following versus Challenging Conventional Gender Norms,” based on a poll of 17,000 people (which found attitudes about first-date paying nearly identical to that of NerdWallet), revealed that both men and women expect for her to share expenses as the relationship continues — well into the long-term. That Chapman University study found that within the first month, 4 in 10 men and women agreed that dating expenses were at least partially shared, and 74 percent of men and 83 percent of women reported some sharing of expenses by month six.

In real life, I see this is in fact what transpires — including in my own romantic life. As a couple gets to know each other, they determine who can afford what, what each other’s tastes are and how to sort out finances in an equitable way. And since people tend to date along economic and class lines, a bi-lateral chipping-in is in order shortly after the white-hot first date is over.




Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

12 thoughts on “More reasons men should pay on first dates

  1. I think the reason why women prefer men pay on the first few dates is very simple. We (meaning your audience) overwhelmingly take care of every aspect of our every day lives – we go to work (many of us in demanding/high responsibility jobs), we take majority care of the kids, we pay all the bills, we deal with the toilet when it backs up and the car when it breaks down, and we take out our own freaking trash. Every freaking week (can you tell I really hate that one?). It’s rare to meet a man who handles all of these responsibilities without the assistance of a woman, even if he is divorced. So, to the men, can you please just pick a place for a date? Tell me when to be there, and I’ll be there. And, yes, pay the bill, not because I can’t pay it myself, but because that’s one effing thing less that I have to worry/think about. You’d be shocked how far that small gesture can go!

  2. I’ve definitely wrestled with this one. I just started dating last year, and have split the check on the first date almost every time or even paid the bill because he lost his debit card. I was proud of myself after having been married for so long and intertwined financially with a man that I could do it on my own and didn’t need a dude to pay for my meal. But you know what? Those dudes ended up making a piss poor effort to impress me after that, and I ended up making concessions to meet them. Needless to say, these situations didn’t last long. It could also be that I’m far less tolerant of BS in general, but I think if a man doesn’t want to or is unable to pay for a first date, then he’s probably not going to show up in a major way later on down the road. I also agree with Kat- we are already doing EVERYTHING for ourselves and our kids, on top of giving up time with our children and ourselves to hang out with them, and these dudes can’t afford to give us a little recognition and a break? I’m a little over it if you can’t tell

    1. Your comment implies (incorrectly) that your time is more valuable than that of the men you’re dating.

      1. On an individual basis, that is correct. But on the aggregate, women are more productive and contribute more than men. Hence, our bill pickle.

          1. In families where the dad lives separately from his kids, just 22% see their children more than once per week. Women do far more housework and childcare than men overall, with higher-earning women actually doing more than lower-earning, while 40% of US households are headed by breadwinning women.

            1. Yes, I read your blog post. Even if I agree that the premise that “women do more” is correct that has zero bearing on whether I should pay for a date. In fact, even if I knew with certainty that a woman I was dating was carrying 100% of the load for herself and her children with no help from the father, that doesn’t compel me to “give her a break” by paying for the date. Pity is no place to start a relationship.

  3. Whether I pay on a first date depends on how I see the date going. If it’s going nowhere then I ask the waitress to bring separate checks. If it looks like there will be a second date then I’ll pick up the bill. Of course most of the time I’ll suggest drinks or coffee for a first date to limit my initial investment of time and money. I don’t mind spending an hour of my time and $10 on drinks to get to know someone new but I’m not wasting an evening and buying you $29 farm raised salmon if there’s not going to be a second date.

    1. Fair enough. I’ve also insisted on paying for a date … for example, if I it was on the pricey side, I knew he didn’t have a lot of money, and if I knew he was going to ask for a second date and my answer would be no :/

      1. If all women were that forthright about their intentions it would make dating a lot easier but many just feel entitled to free meals (see above).

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