Amina likes to pay her own way, so when her date paid the bill while she was in the bathroom, she felt as if her needs were not important.

Ashraf loves the buzz of paying for dinner on a first date. When he was growing up, his family never went out for dinner, and so he likes to celebrate the ability to be generous.

How do you reconcile these two needs? And are there any answers to the question “Who should pay on a first/second/third date?”

You could argue that you don’t know how many dates you’ll be having with each other, so it makes sense to split from the beginning – but there are emotional connotations with paying and being paid for and even with talking about money. Spending money represents different things to different people.

For Amina, splitting the bill is a way to express and celebrate independence. Growing up, she was not allowed much freedom, and so now she wants to make the most of it. But Zahra, her date, paid while Amina was in the bathroom, because talking about money is embarrassing in her family. She thought it would be easier that way, but Amina’s reaction proved her wrong!

For Ashraf, being generous was a way of feeling good. But for his date, Pietro, to be paid for was to be treated like a child and therefore shameful – and that made Pietro feel bad!

As well as these kind of beliefs and stories internalised from our childhoods, traditional stereotypes may also affect our emotional response to a date. The most common is a heterosexual woman (perhaps unconsciously) seeing a heterosexual man paying the bill as a sign of his ability to protect and take care of a partner. In that case, splitting the bill or the man not paying may cause the woman to feel uncomfortable. This is because something that is unfamiliar can feel unsafe.

Particular actions can become proxies for the other person’s values or practices, but these may be inaccurate. We may believe that not offering to split the bill or allowing the other person to pay is rude or greedy, but they may be doing it for completely different reasons.

Cultural norms can also lead to a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to money. In some cultures, for example, it’s perfectly normal not to say “thank you” when someone has paid, but just to assume that next time you’ll pay.

And if one person is much wealthier than the other (but unaware of it), they may not think it a big deal to either pay or let the other person pay. The less well-off person might be too embarrassed to admit they can’t afford the cost of the date, and be relieved when the other person offers to pay. Talking about these things is even harder than talking about your needs during sex!

Because there are multiple layers of cultural norms, beliefs and emotions involved in the question of who should pay on a date, it’s best to talk about it and ask for clarification. You could ask “What do you normally do on a date about paying?” or “How do you feel about splitting the bill?” or “What do you and your friends think about who should pay on a date?” or tell a story like the ones above, and ask for their thoughts.

Talking about money – just like sex, religion and politics – are all great ideas on dates because you can learn so much about each other. Find out about each other’s spending habits, what money represents to you and your families, and attitudes towards risk and security. These are topics that lead to more in-depth conversations and create a deeper connection. Practise on your friends first, though, so you can do it in a relaxed, non-awkward way and without becoming defensive or dogmatic about differences!

And before going on dates, decide what your own policy is, whether splitting the bill, taking turns, or paying for whatever you ate and drank (or whatever). Then you can be confident and relaxed about saying what you’d like to do, without anxiety or embarrassment, which will make it easier for the other person to be the same.

It’s also a good a idea to keep your dates fairly cheap until you feel comfortable communicating directly with each other about money. A coffee date, a walk, an activity like bowling or crazy golf are all good for the first three dates. And of course you can always start with a short (free) video-date!

Main photo by Yan Krukau.