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My friend is richer than me - should they shout dinner?

If you went to dinner with a friend who earned 3-4 times your salary, would you split the bill 50/50?

Many Aussies struggling with the cost-of-living crisis have been forced to tighten their budget for eating out in favour of paying bills. And as money stress pulls the purse strings tighter than ever, it raises the question: should the higher-earning or rich friend be picking up the bill?

Working in the money and lifestyle space, nothing flaps my flares more than a hot financial debate. From dissecting the appropriate amount to give as a wedding gift to establishing whether you should tell your mates your salary, there’s no end to question marks where money is concerned.

A skin-prickling debate I’ve seen discussed on podcasts and Reddit threads lately is whether the wealthier friend picks up the bill when hanging out with friends who earn less than them.

Compilation image of social media snapshot discussing rich friend paying dinner and aan image of a phone using paywave
Working out who is the richer friend isn't as simple, or ethical, as you might think. (Source: Supplied)

If you went to dinner with a friend who earned 3-4 times your salary, would part of you resent the idea of splitting the bill 50/50? Likewise, if you were flush with cash and dined out with a friend you knew earned substantially less, would you treat?

I don’t regularly foot the bill for my friends, nor do my friends pick up for me – unless it’s a prearranged meal in lieu of a birthday gift. Many of my friends are in a similar, if not better, financial position than me – at least, from what I understand. But it has got me thinking about circumstances in which I might like to be the one to say, ‘I’ve got this’.

I asked my social media community for the answers and, as expected, it’s complicated.

It’s nice to treat, especially if you invitation

The strong consensus was that, while there was no expectation someone else should pick up the bill, it’s a nice thing to do from time to time – especially if you’re the one who sent out the invitation.

“I've been both the lower earner and the higher earner in friendships and the former informs how I behave in the latter,” one commenter said.

“Being skint can be isolating,” they added. “If I’m inviting my friend out and I know they can’t afford it, I either pay for the whole thing or I buy the booze/extras.”

Also by Emma Edwards:

The act of being ‘invited’ seems to be a critical differentiator in expectations around who’s picking up the bill. It’s one thing to mutually agree to grab dinner after work one night. It’s another entirely to specifically invite someone to dinner with you at a place of your choosing.

Many said they’d make it clear that something was ‘their treat’ when inviting a friend out, especially if they were aware of any financial difficulties the friend may be experiencing.

'It would make me uncomfortable'

Several expressed that having a wealthier friend repeatedly pay for them when going out would make them uncomfortable – and I can see why.

“It doesn't always feel good to be paid for, but sometimes it does,” one comment said, honing the importance of understanding the nature of the relationship in order to discern what was appropriate.

For the benefit of both parties, it seems an occasional treat is far more appropriate than an expected standard that the richer friend will pay.

Just pay for what you had

Others were more hard-lined when it came to financial boundaries, adopting a ‘pay for what you had’ approach, which seemed popular. This generally relies on choosing a venue that’s affordable for everyone, which is simple in some circumstances, but more complicated in others.

The issue of affordability might not be as clear-cut as it seems. Many of us are confident we can choose somewhere that’s affordable for others, but are we overlooking the fact that the idea of what’s affordable is arguably relative?

As one commenter added: “Just because someone earns more doesn't mean they have more disposable income or good money habits.”

Given that we all have different financial responsibilities, values and priorities, how much do we ever really know about someone else’s idea of affordability?

Another commenter expressed this nuance by saying that some friends “earn less but live at home with their family” while others earn more but “pay more bills and manage a chronic illness”.

It really highlights the value of cultivating spaces for healthy, open money conversations with friends, where those who are struggling have the space to say so. Appreciating the full spectrum of someone’s financial experience is important.

Split the bill or pay based on earnings?

In a recent episode of the You’re In Good Company podcast, hosts Maddie and Sophie talked to internet personality Kath Ebbs about the “socialist” model of splitting bills with friends.

Explaining the theory, Ebbs said: “You and your friend group are really open about how much you make. You state it. And then bills are split in percentages [based on how much you earn]”.

So, if two friends dine out together, one earning $50,000 and the other earning $100,000, a $200 bill might be split 25/75 rather than 50/50.

Ebbs makes the point that, while some might go out to brunch and not be too stressed about the cost, splitting the bill evenly could set someone back a week. “There’s so much shame around just being like, ‘I don’t have the money, I can’t do it’,” she said.

Even if the socialist model isn’t for you, it serves as an important reminder that people experiencing financial hardship might not always feel comfortable expressing it in a group setting. If you know someone is having a hard time, grabbing a bill - if you’re able and if it feels appropriate - could be a big help.

Reciprocity doesn’t have to be of equal value

Those who chose to cover the bill for friends as a common occurrence made me consider different expressions of reciprocity. Some explained that while they might shout things like dinners, their friend might pick up the bill for coffees or drinks as a way of ‘treating back’ in a way they can afford.

In a heavily transactional society, it could pay to separate the monetary value from the act of treating someone you love. While those with more discretionary income may cover certain costs in a friendship (at their own discretion), those with less cash to splash can still contribute to the relationship at a lower dollar value.

The nature of the friendship, the extent of the income discrepancy

What became clear in much of the debate is that the nature of the friendship may come into play. It’s one thing to be a bit more financially entwined with your childhood bestie than it is a work colleague who you’ve just started hanging with outside of the office.

On top of that, there’s no standard measure of income discrepancy. Earning less doesn’t always mean earning little. A discrepancy of a CEO’s income versus someone on minimum wage may bring about different nuances than two people earning over six figures and both living comfortable, albeit different, lifestyles.

The bottom line? Lower your expectations but empathy and equity go a long way

Ultimately, despite a hot debate around different nuances, the bottom line is no, a wealthier friend shouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill. But there remains room for empathy, open communication and varying degrees of generosity when dealing with wide income discrepancies in friendships, whether you cover the bill from time to time, or make a point of asking for everyone’s budget preferences in advance.

There’s no hard line that says anybody ‘should’ do anything, but we might all benefit from thinking a little more deeply about how to make our shared leisure time more equitable and cultivate safe spaces for people to honour their own financial boundaries. I know I will be.

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