Making plans with new people is exciting, but it can also be tricky if you don’t know much about their finances. The last thing you want to do is suggest an activity or locale outside their budget, so you have to tread carefully.
“When inviting someone to an event, let’s say in this case lunch, it is generally accepted that the person issuing the invitation will, as host, pick up the tab and select the restaurant,” said Liz Bryant, founder of Liz Bryant Business Etiquette. “That said, I find it acceptable to ask your guest if they have a favorite restaurant — or one most convenient to their home or office — that they may prefer.”
Despite looping them in on the planning, she said you should still be prepared to pay the check.
“If finances are a concern for you, you may wish to offer a couple of restaurant choices for your guest, all of which you will have pre-selected in your price range,” Bryant said.
Of course, you won’t always be the person in the host position.
“As the invitee, keep in mind the advice you likely got from your mother when you were starting to go out on dates,” Bryant said. “Don’t choose the most expensive item on the menu, but rather find a selection on the lower end of the cost scale.”
If you’re on the receiving end of the invitation, Bryant said you shouldn’t automatically expect the other person to pay.
“Be prepared should your friend request that the server split the bill,” she said. “If you have been offered a selection of restaurants, you may wish to select one you know will be within your budget so that you are prepared should this occur.”
If finances are a major concern, she recommended meeting your friend for a picnic at a local park.
“Whichever scenario you may choose, remember that you are joining your friend for the company and conversation,” she said. “The food is simply a vehicle to facilitate that.”
Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, said this type of scenario reminds her of a “Friends” episode where the gang’s financial inequalities are brought to light while dining out at a restaurant. Ross, Monica and Chandler order expensive seafood, while Phoebe, Joey and Rachel order something much lighter — i.e., cheaper. However, when the bill came, Ross split it equally between the six.
“People mistakenly think this only occurs at the beginning of a friendship,” she said. “But finances vary over time.”
Smith said even a friend who was once flush with cash may suddenly seek out more budget-friendly venues if they’re saving for a major expense or are hit with unexpected financial obligations. Therefore, she said the best way to make plans is not to ask people about their finances, but their budget for the occasion.
For example, she suggested saying “‘I am so looking forward to seeing you for dinner. I was thinking 5-star fancy…what do you think?’ Then listen for their response, even a pause may be all you need to know before choosing something in the moderate price range.”
Alternately, she said you could suggest good, better and best options that cover a range of price points, then allow them to choose.
“When you are out, ask the waitstaff for separate bills to make both ordering and paying a bit easier,” she said.
If you’re planning something more than a meal — such as taking a trip together — Smith said it’s important to have a serious conversation beforehand.
“You can ask in advance about budgets, or you can put together a general travel itinerary with costs and ask for feedback,” she said. “Do not presume someone’s budget.”
If everyone isn’t on the same page financially, she said you can opt out of traveling to the destination together.
“Instead decide the vacation starts when you check into the hotel,” she said. “Then one person can travel nonstop first class and the other can opt for a layover flight that saves them some serious cash.”
Alternately, she said you could choose to have varying lengths of time at the destination.
“You can all arrive for the long weekend, then if you can extend your stay if you choose,” she said. “Be open and flexible in your thinking to find a solution that will work for everyone.”
Essentially, never assume anything when making plans with someone whose financial situation is unclear to you. Proceed with caution to ensure you don’t inadvertently make a decision that causes the other person undue financial distress.
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