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No single answer to the ‘Who pays?’ question

Reaction was strong to TODAY contributing psychiatrist Gail Saltz's advice to parents whose grown kids don't reach for their wallets when the dinner check arrives.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Last week brought plenty of interesting replies on the topic of adult children paying for dinner. There were some excellent suggestions, too.

These include involving the waiter or waitress. For example, you can call ahead to tell the restaurant to provide separate checks. Or not.

I should emphasize that I am not a financial expert, and the question of how dinner is paid for isn’t about money. It’s about relationships — power, love, nurturing, dependence, independence.

When both parties are able to afford dinner, what happens financially is a means of nonverbal communication, for better or worse. One needs to acknowledge that, make it verbal and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

From Ohio: My husband and I faced this problem. It solved itself one evening when the waiter asked how we wanted the check and my husband said two and two. Since then, they actually offer to pay their share.

From Tennessee: In your advice, I did not see you ask who is extending the invitation for dinner. Where we come from it is customary for the party inviting to pay if the payment arrangements aren't “going Dutch.”

From Orlando: One of the best days for me was the day I picked up the dinner tab. After that, it became a game as to who would get the tab. Whenever a parent would claim to “use the restroom” but instead head toward the waiter’s station to pay the bill early, I’d run interference.

I finally learned to call ahead and give the wait staff a heads-up as to who would be footing the bill. Now my brother and I go toe to toe over the tab while our widowed mother sits there laughing at us. So we've learned to split things. I pay for the movie, big bro pays for the meal or vice versa. In the meantime, Mom gets to relax, we have fun, and we all enjoy one another’s company.

From Boston: I get the sense that the stepmother does not feel this 26-year-old woman is her “daughter,” and thus she is not going to dinner with the same mindset as the father. She did not start her question with “my stepdaughter” but rather with “my husband's eldest daughter from his first marriage.” She is walking into this like a group of couples going to dinner rather than a family going to dinner.

My stepmother is similar. She treats me as a family friend and expects me to pay. But she would never expect her own children (my step-siblings) to pay.

From Michigan: What about the reverse? Whenever my boyfriend and I go to dinner with his parents, he picks up the check and they do not offer to pay their portion. He does not want to bring it up with them, because he feels bad that his salary is higher than his father’s. He complains to me about them expecting him to pay all the time.

Now we don't go out with them as much, or I pay for his and my portions myself (I am a student and cannot afford to do this as frequently as he can) and just make his parents pay for themselves. I hate being the bad guy, but I don't think this is right. What to do?

(DR. GAIL REPLIES: It’s unhealthy that your boyfriend is using you to sidestep the issue with his parents. He is hardly creating a respectful adult relationship with them. Tell your boyfriend that you agree about the payment situation, but he does need to negotiate with his parents without putting you in the middle.

You can lend your help and advice. For example, you can suggest how he approach them, or find some less expensive restaurants. If he still won’t broach the topic with them, you can negotiate with your boyfriend yourself. For example, he can pay and you can reimburse him for your dinner while declining to get involved with paying while at the table with his parents.)

From New York: I completely disagree with this woman. I am 30 years old and when I eat out with my parents they always happily pick up the bill. It's called a cycle. When I am my parents’ age, I will pick up the tab for my adult kids.

From Pittsburgh: I have been on both sides of the issue regarding adult children paying for dinner. On the one hand, we have my husband’s parents, who are in their 70s. On the other hand, we have our two grown daughters, who are in their 20s.

My husband’s parents definitely feel good about picking up the tab when they can, and by the same token, my husband and I are very happy to do the same for our daughters. We always offer to pay when with his parents, but his dad is clearly offended when he is not allowed to treat us.

Why is this woman so concerned about this? I fear that the issue may stem more from the blended marriage. If her husband wishes to treat the young couple, then why not allow it? It’s just a kind and considerate gesture, which most of us would like to make for our children when we can.

From Georgia: I am 25 and my parents always pay when my husband and I go out with them to dinner. We never offered to pay. But early on in our relationship, before my husband and I were married, I asked if we as a family should start taking turns paying or splitting the bill now that I was independent. My parents gave an emphatic “No!”

My husband’s family, on the other hand, do it completely opposite. My husband has been labeled “independent” since he turned 18. And even in college he would pay for his own meals when they all went out together. So when we go out with his family, we split the bill. This was an arrangement he had with his family before he even met me, and I have no problem with it.

My husband did feel a little guilty at first, when my parents kept paying for our meals. But he learned that that’s just the way we do it in my family, just as he pays his own way with his family. Neither way is right or wrong, it just is.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .