Whether you’re planning to host guests or take a trip to see friends and family, it’s important to know proper etiquette rules surrounding who should pay for food during the visit. This can help avoid awkwardness and frustration that causes someone — likely the host — to feel they’ve been taken advantage of.
Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, said there are many factors to weigh when deciding the obligations of each party.
“The first consideration is who did the asking,” she said. “The overarching guideline is the person who does the asking does the paying.”
Smith added that socioeconomic factors are also an important consideration, as hosts and guests might have very different budgets.
“Should my recently graduated, but currently jobless, nephew come for a stay, I will be footing the bill,” she said. “Of course, I would expect him to be useful and helpful around the house. And, perhaps a box of chocolates as a host-gift would be thoughtful.”
On the other hand, she noted that sometimes the guest has much more spending power than the host.
“[For example, if] I am on an overseas assignment and a wealthy auntie comes calling, I would be the one on the couch, but she may be the one paying for dinner,” Smith said.
When it comes to who pays for groceries, Smith said it would depend on both who did the inviting and each person’s financial situation.
“The longer the stay, and certainly one more than a few days, groceries and staples should be discussed during the planning phase,” she said. “Similarly with the dinner bill, who is paying should be an explicit conversation before reservations are even made.”
However, even if the guest is cash poor, Smith said they’re not off the hook completely.
“From getting up early to bring coffee and pastries back to making/serving/cleaning an entire meal, there is always something for a guest to do to show the host some appreciation,” she said.
Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert and the founder and executive director of Manor of Manners, noted that being a wonderful host isn’t always easy — and in fact, can be largely overwhelming. However, she said there are certain responsibilities that come with hosting guests for several days — including having food on hand.
“A good host will be prepared for the arrival of her guests and yes, she will pay for the meals for at least a couple of days,” she said. “Even if the meal is just a simple and inexpensive [one], the good hospitality resonates when we graciously host our guest.”
She said this also includes finding out if guests have any dietary restrictions in advance, to ensure the food meets their needs. Additionally, she advised against experimenting with new recipes, as a well-intentioned — yet largely untested — fancy meal can result in disaster.
If the host has the money, Parker said it’s perfectly fine to serve delicacies. However, she noted the guest will try to reciprocate, so if you know they can’t afford to do so, make it clear you’re just happy to see them and don’t regularly prepare such elaborate meals.
“Some people have wrong intentions, for example, to show off how well they are doing, which can put the guest in a rather intimidating situation — especially if they are not on the same financial level,” she said. “Be a gracious host, this is all that matters.”
While Parker said guests are not required or expected to purchase food for at least the first couple days of their visit, she recommended offering to help with meal preparation or serving. A few days into the visit, she encouraged guests to purchase food and prepare the meal.
“If we cannot cook, but the host is an amazing chef, we can ask the host how can we contribute for the next meal,” she said. “In this case, we can definitely purchase the groceri[es]. As guests, we should be almost equally involved, because we do not want to be a burden for the host.”
Alternately, she suggested guests take their host out to dinner a couple of days into their stay — and definitely pay for it.
“The general rule is for all of us to work together and build beautiful and pleasant memories,” she said.
Reuniting with loved ones should be a fun experience, so it’s important for hosts and guests to consider their unique situation and work together to contribute to mealtime accordingly. Discussing this issue in advance can be a smart way to avoid tension and ensure everyone is on the same page.
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