The Incentives Behind Who Pays On A First Date


A year ago at work, a colleague of mine was telling us about a recent date she had went on. She said the date went really well and she thought the two of them had great chemistry, even though this was her first time seeing someone significantly older than her. Then she abruptly stopped and mentioned that one thing did kind of bother her. She had obviously offered to pay, but had no real intention of paying for the dinner date. As you can probably guess, yes this guy did make her pay. The miniature economist inside me immediately broke this down into a story of incentives between the two genders. However, I saved that for myself because I don’t think she would have appreciated a theoretical explanation of what she thought to be a sore spot to a good night out. Now I want to take a look at some of the incentives behind who decides to pay for a first date and what I believe to be the equilibrium solution for the long-term.

Let’s start off with the stereotypical scenario of a first date. Many women I know take it that a man should pay for the first date. This establishes a level of respect and sincerity that definitely illustrates the “I’m interested in you” factor. Putting forth some money is kind of like an investment, if the guy really valued this date he won’t hesitate to pay. Women are courteous enough to offer to pay (or split), but this is really a measurement of interest. Everyone wants to feel desired even if there isn’t going to be a second date. I think women are establishing this basic evaluation through a general expectation of payment.

Sure enough, men are very aware of this and pay for first dates, in general, to keep the women interested. For the man who is really into the woman he is seeing, it’s pretty much a no-brainer. He will pay and he will try to better his chances to keep her interest. The interesting stuff happens when he is not interested or he happens to be a serial dater. Being a man on a date with a woman you’re not interested in can be a true test of your fundamental beliefs on this issue. On one hand you can not really care about what she thinks and get her to fork over some of her money. On the other hand a man can value his reputation (or be a true gentleman) and pay for a sub par date. Being a serial dater adds a higher probability that the man expects this date will not end up being a long-term thing. It’s not an efficient decision to go on numerous first dates and pay for all of them, when clearly you expect to continue this behavior in the future. The economic patterns of a serial dater make me think he is more prone to asking for women to bear some burden of the payment (I’m assuming that he is not super rich. That easily allows for numerous payments.).

It seems to me that financial investments and dating behaviors are somewhat analogous in this instance. The serial dater is like your hedge fund manager. He is moving a ton of assets and as long as he makes an overall profit at the end of the quarter, it doesn’t really matter what happened in between. The guy who is holding onto long-term bonds is the one who places a lot of value on seeing his date again. The disinterested guy can be illustrated by an investor who foresees a high level of risk in his current investments and sells them for a loss before losing anymore. My basic point is that a man’s willingness to pay is directly correlated to his desire to see the woman again. While women as people have a desire to feel wanted, not every man will pay because not every man is interested enough.

What is the equilibrium solution?

I have a feeling that splitting the cost of the first date will become more of a common occurrence. One economic risk that men are running so far is the fact that their current behavior allows women to find men who will wine and dine them. There’s nothing wrong with that and many men are completely fine with that, but there are quite a few who aren’t (I can name a few). At the same time I hear a lot of guilty women telling me about “putting out” on a first date after their date paid for dinner because of  an expectation of some form of return on the investment, if you know what I mean. Both of these occurrences are less than optimal for the respective genders. It represents the misallocation of burdens for each gender instead of an equal distribution.

I believe that splitting  payment consistently will become a solution in the long run. For women it solves any guilt associated with having a man pay. I know that there are plenty of women who do not feel any pressure to have sex in that scenario, but let’s face the truth that there are many women who do. For men it places less emphasis on the importance of their decision. Second dates will probably happen more frequently because they can afford a lower standard for the overall success of the date. I don’t really think you can evaluate mediocre first dates that well, but it is really easy to discern terrible or awesome first dates. Secondly, less emphasis leads to less rudeness. I think women perceiving men as rude has a lot to do with men feeling they did not get their moneys worth and are hesitant to pay. In general, splitting can equally distribute the burden put on both genders because they have an equal stake in the date.

Penguins can go on dates too

Really what I am hinting at is an expectation for men to pay places extra burdens on both genders, which are pretty much negative externalities. Splitting can lead to less guilt for women and better decision-making for men. However I don’t think this will happen anytime soon. There are a lot of societal expectations that need to change because the scenario I’m describing assumes a great deal of gender equality. My suggestion isn’t to stop one gender from choosing to pay in full, I just think it’s more efficient economically to have the norm as splitting payment. That way the evaluation of payment is a bit more sincere in some senses if someone covers your bill for a first date. Keep in mind that economics is evaluating the overall satisfaction the individual is generating here, not just the health of their financial decisions.

It’s really weird to think that people are subconsciously identifying the economic costs and benefits of their actions.  The main purpose of this article was to try to outline how this occurs in everyday life.

I know this is a really hot-button issue and I would love to hear your take on who should pay! Agree or disagree, I value your opinion so if you feel strongly about this I definitely want to know. Also this post was pretty theoretical and I’ll leave it up to you if you want to share any practical experiences on the matter.

2 comments on “The Incentives Behind Who Pays On A First Date

  1. Brandy says:

    I am definitely one of those women who feels like I owe the man (or woman) something if he/she pays for dinner. And I don’t like feeling that way. On a first date, I always offer to pay for myself. If may date says “no, I got it,” and still offers after I ask “you sure?” then I say “thank you” and don’t feel [as] guilty when he pays. I offered and was fully willing to pay for myself, so that means he was simply doing something nice for the sake of being nice (I hope), so I don’t owe him anything. At least that’s what I tell myself. Still, if we go out again and I get a chance to pay for drinks or movie tickets, I will. I have a job, so there’s no reason I can contribute if we’re paying to go out and do something. At least that’s the way I see it. Besides, I budget for “free spending.” I agree with you that it’s more efficient economically to just split the payment. My boyfriend and I each paid for ourselves for just about every date for the first few months. Now he pays for most dates (though I still pay for some) since I take care of rent and bills while he takes care of groceries and most dates. So, we’re still kinda splitting it haha.
    But back to who should pay, not just what I do…I think that splitting the bill also helps with gender equality. Which, I know is a whole other issue, and although women are way closer to being equal that we used to be, we’re still fighting the mindset of how women are viewed in the work place. Work success and popularity are often negatively correlated for women. And if women keep expecting men to pay for dinner and then put out for it later, then the mind-set in the work place isn’t going to change. If we start splitting the bill, both the man and the woman are more likely to recognize each other and financial equals, which can translate into the workplace. I know I kind of went off in a different direction, but I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” which is all about the different challenges women face in the workplace (most of which I wasn’t aware of) and how it’s mostly the mindset of people/society that cause this. So if we could shift society’s view, even a little, by splitting the bill, I think that would go a long way to helping shift the view of successful women in the workplace. OKay, end rant lol. And thanks for such an insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • royyman32 says:

      I loved your response 🙂 your section on financial equal was very enlightening. I hadn’t thought of hat happens past the decision to split. Makes sense thought because they are equally valuing the money put in. Also I do the same thing with my girlfriend, just split payment down the middle. That was quite a good read 🙂

      It was nice also to hear you acknowledge the fact that you do feel like you owe the man something. I agree that it’s a guilt trip that’s built into the system regardless of whether a woman can pay for herself or not.

      Thanks for such a well thought out response 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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