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The Financial Balancing Act of Birthday Dinners

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Or, How to Avoid a $90 Green Salad


An article in the New York Times Magazine had me blushing like nobody’s business.


The piece, “You Do the Math,” discussed the topic of birthday-party dinners. Innocuous, right? But in regard to these dinners, the author wrote frankly about the concerns of costs and the etiquette of payment. Those issues rang the “dirty little secret” bell. Who wants to ’fess up to the minefield of emotions and mental math that can shadow these celebrations?

Anyone on a limited budget must have a memory or two like the one that flashed through my mind: getting socked with a painfully expensive bill out of all proportion to what you’d actually eaten at dinner. Even when you anticipate extras like shared bottles of wine and a portion to cover the birthday guest’s night out, those amounts can be a nasty shock. And it’s awful to leave (or arrive at) a dinner feeling financially stressed, a bit resentful, or even taken for a ride.

The article also uncorked a surge of relief in me—I wasn’t the only one who felt rotten or hesitant about such birthday dinners! I didn’t want to be a begrudging guest, yet there were times when the financial drain and anxiety eclipsed the fun of the party. In my increasingly costly city, is this something that people take into account? And how can you avoid either getting burned or becoming an irritating cheapskate?


Do the Homework
I’ve learned the hard way to check the prices at unfamiliar restaurants. If the party invitation names a place I’ve never heard of, I’ll check online to find out how pricey it is. That way I can tell in advance if it’s within my means, and there’s no stomach-knotting moment when a casual-looking bistro turns out to have $40 spaghetti.


Know Your Limits
If cost could be a deciding factor, it’s best to guesstimate ahead of time how much the night may cost, rounding up to cover extra drinks, those unanticipated tasting menus, the mysterious 10 percent short at the end of the night. Most often, the check will be split evenly among the invitees. People will be looking to indulge. And sometimes people order extravagantly precisely because they know the cost will be spread around. Can your wallet take the hit? If it’s out of your league, better to face the fact ahead of time.  


But What If You Really Want to Go?
So your bank account has put the kibosh on dinner. It’s a damn shame, but you might still be able to toast the guest of honor. If the group is going to have drinks before or after dinner, offer to come for that part of the night and treat the birthday dame or fellow to a glass of bubbly.


Do Unto Others
Please forgive a bit of preachiness here: look out for each other. Keep an eye out for any significant discrepancy in how people order or drink, and if a fellow guest has had much less than the rest, offer to lower the amount they chip in. Or slip them back some money from the communal pot when the check comes. If they insist on paying more, great—but he or she may accept the offer and breathe a little easier.


Photo courtesy of David Playford

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