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The Thankless Gesture of Trying to Buy Your Parents Dinner

Why does a nice night out with mom and dad always have to turn into a fight the moment the check arrives?

For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

Growing up, Harry was fortunate enough to have a mom and dad who supported him no matter what. That is, unless he wanted to buy them lunch — then he could go fuck himself. 

To this day, the 50-year-old has yet to successfully pick up the tab for his parents. After hearing over and over again that his money was no good to them, he finally decided enough was enough. But he knew he needed to get creative, so he came up with a plan. “My brother and I cooked it up between us with a waiter,” Harry says. When it was time to pay, he gave the waiter a subtle nod to prepare the bill. “Then my wife and my brother’s wife engaged my parents in a full-court press of conversation,” he tells me. That’s when he and his brother pretended to go to the bathroom. “Instead,” he says, “we went to the bar and paid the bill between us.”

Even if they were too polite to scream in front of their grandchildren in a crowded restaurant, he could tell the furtive gesture was lost on his parents. They were furious. “My dad’s blood was boiling and my mom wouldn’t speak to my brother or I for the rest of the day,” he recalls. “They calmed down eventually, but they will not speak of that afternoon.”

Harry isn’t the first to experience such a dramatic parental row over a tab. According to etiquette expert Thomas Farley, aka “Mister Manners,” just because many parents might be too stubborn to let their adult children pay for dinner, it’s polite to offer. But if and when the offer is shot down, it’s important to understand that paying for things is a flex a lot of parents have a hard time giving up. “For many parents, the feelings of responsibility for their children — in all respects — are tough to release,” Farley explains. Even when their adult children are financially well-off, “moms and dads may nonetheless feel a sense of pride in continuing to treat their grown children to restaurant meals, family vacations, professional sporting events, concerts, plays and the like.”

Again, though, Farley believes adult children should still make the offer — not as a bluff, but because it’s rude not to. Think of it as the equivalent of the wallet reach on first dates. “To sit back and allow the parent to pay without a protest would be presumptuous,” he notes. “But after a few back-and-forth volleys, the child should give in, grudgingly but graciously allowing parents to have their way.” 

The one exception is if your parents cannot afford to pick up the tab, but insist on doing so anyway. In those instances, it’s important to not accept invitations to expensive dinners or events that would force them to live beyond their means, and suggest lower cost ways to spend time together, like a picnic or home-cooked meal. 

Otherwise, if you really want to show your parents your appreciation opt for a figurative side dish as opposed to the main course — e.g., buying them a T-shirt from the concert they treated you to. Beyond that, never underestimate the power of a handwritten thank you note as “a further way to show true appreciation,” Farley recommends.

At this point, Harry has definitely gotten the message and relented. “It’s better to be on good terms with them than constantly poking away at some deep-seated insecurity they clearly have.” Unfortunately for Harry, though, his own adult children, who all work full-time, have never conspired to buy him dinner. But if that day ever comes, he’s ready to abandon family tradition: “I’m more than happy to let them pay.”