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Why Is Splitting the Bill Called ‘Going Dutch’?

It might be more of a pejorative than not in the U.S., but honestly, we could all stand to learn a lesson or two in personal finance from our friends in the Netherlands

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Any time I’ve described a first date as one where we “went Dutch,” it’s safe to assume there wasn’t a second. Whether the dude wasn’t into it enough to pay for all the drinks or he was on such a tight budget that he looked relieved when I did “the reach,” there is something about going halfsies on mozzarella sticks that never sits well with even the most lactose tolerant of individuals. 

Not that I feel great about the double standard either. But instead of calling it what it is — namely, a mostly unfair and archaic gender norm — I could get away with calling it something vaguely European. The thing is, while the phrase “going Dutch” has been through many iterations before it came to be a moniker for mediocre dates, “going Dutch” doesn’t trace back to the Netherlands exactly, at least not in a straight line. 

According to one popular theory, “going Dutch” immigrated to America in the 17th and 18th centuries with German people, who would later become the Pennsylvania Dutch. “During this time, the most evident German characteristic was to never let a debt go unpaid,” explains financial analyst Scott Hasting. As a result, German immigrants quickly gained a reputation for paying their share. “Be it food, rent or any services that required paying money, Germans would always be fair and pay their end of the bargain,” Hastings continues. And since the German word for German is Deutsch, “going Dutch” was presumably a sloppy, shortened version of “going Deutsch.” 

It’s a rather flattering interpretation of something that today is largely associated with being cheap on dates, but there are a number of alternative theories for how the saying became synonymous with splitting the bill. University of Chicago historian Steven Pincus argues that the term was likely intended to be derogatory, stemming from tensions in the 1600s between the Dutch and English over trade and naval power. Pincus suggests that “going Dutch” was on par with a “Dutch reckoning,” or a bill that’s so unbelievably high that you’re obviously getting ripped off, as well as “Dutch courage,” an insult meant to imply that someone is overly confident when drunk. 

Katherine Martin, a specialist in historical and contemporary lexicography with the Oxford University Press, explained to NPR that after the wars were over, the word “Dutch” in England became synonymous with the old ways of doing things, or a way to snub anything foreign or outside of conventional norms. Sex workers were know as Dutch widows. Parties where the host got more intoxicated than their guests were referred to as Dutch feasts. And a Dutch act? Well, that was a glib way to describe suicide. In the U.S., the idiom “Dutch treat,” which first surfaced in The Baltimore American in 1873, underscored a cultural affinity for paying for your half of the bar tab. 

Behavioral scientist Merle van den Akker, who grew up in the Netherlands and studies spending and saving habits at the University of Warwick, points out that “going Dutch” is a “typical indication of how the Dutch manage money: Never pay too much, and pay for what you owe,” van den Akker writes on her site, Money on the Mind. She explains that while Dutch people have acquired debt for things like mortgages and higher education, consumer debt is highly frowned upon in their culture, which she argues results in more frugal behaviors overall. 

To that end, van den Akker doesn’t see the phrase “going Dutch” as an insult, but as a source of pride in contrast to American culture. “The idea of being in debt to show off wealth, especially wealth that isn’t yours, is a very foreign idea,” she continues. “The Dutch are prudent and are proud of being able to live within their means.” 

So the next time a dude offers to “go Dutch,” I won’t assume he’s either cheap or not interested in me. Instead, I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt that, between the two of us, he obviously has the higher credit score.