For the format that’s easy on the eyes:

Imagine you’re at the tail end of a business meeting at a restaurant. Your plate is still 2/3 full since you didn’t get to eat as much as you wanted because you were too busy answering questions. (That’s a problem for a different post.) The check comes.

“I’ve got it, Jim!”
“No, Bob. Let me!”
“Really, it’s quite alright!”
*insert wrestling match over the check holder1*

I never liked playing the back and forth game of who pays the bill. I don’t like it as a diner and I didn’t like it when I worked as a server.

The problem seems to be one of signaling. I’ll have to get Robin Hanson or Scott Alexander's opinion but it seems like it’s rude if you don’t offer to pay for the group. It’s also rude and signals cheapness if you don’t argue with whoever is offering to pay.

In poorer families, when one person, let’s say Grandma, is known to have more money, everyone else knows not to argue with her and instead just says “thank you” with a hint of humility and shame.

The dating world has certain established norms like "the man pays for things". The problem in the non-dating world is it would be weird to say upfront that you aren’t going to pay for someone’s meal because there’s not an established norm of who pays for a meal outside of a potential employer paying for a potential new employee’s meal.

It’s like trying to break up a friendship. There’s no norm for that like there is for breaking up a romantic relationship:

I wanted to try to solve the problem of communicating that we can pay for ourselves without it being so weird.

Enter BYOL. There’s (bring your own booze) BYOB. I am coining the term (buy your own lunch) BYOL. Well, technically my cofounder Kelsey helped me come up with the name so she deserves credit.


We’d love to meet for lunch (byol).”
“We’re having a lunch meeting at Mendocino Farms (byol).”
“We’d love to meet for dinner at 6pm (byol).”
“Our meetings are BYOL.”

Yes, I know dinner and lunch are different things, but we like byol over byom and I don’t think anyone is going to get confused.

My next step is including it in messages and seeing how it goes. I'm going to include a hyperlink to the Medium post. It might look a little pompous to link to my own writing but someone has to do it.

Some other awkwardness to consider:

Servers don’t like splitting the bill among too many individuals.

My co-founders and I will usually pay with one card and the other person can pay cash, with their card, or Venmo us. For really large parties, cash or Venmo seem to be the best options, otherwise, one person does need to pay for everyone.

Let me know what you think, or if there any tweaks, problems, or alternative solutions you see. I tend to lean toward meta-communicating rather than avoiding but am open to hearing other strategies.

And if you try it definitely let me know how it goes!

1. Fun fact: Yes, that black book they give you the bill in is called a “check holder” or “check presenter”. No, despite working in the restaurant business, I never knew.

Further reading:


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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:11 PM

It is not at all rude, at a business lunch, to say "Oh, thank you!" when someone says they will pay for lunch. Especially if you are a founder of a small company and meeting with people at more established companies who will likely be able to expense the meal. Those people don't care, because it's not their money.

If you are meeting with people in a similar position (fellow founders), you can just ask to split which people will either accept or they will offer to pay, in which case see above.

If you are meeting with casual acquaintances, you can also say "Split the check?" and it's totally fine.

The weirdness points of adding that to your e-mail and including a link to this post is far greater than saying "Thank you" when someone else offers to pay, so carefully consider if it's worth spending them this way.

Thanks for the reply! I don't mind letting people pay if they genuinely want to and our in a better position to. The problem is that in many instances there does seem to be a signaling game like there is in Chinese culture with refusing gifts at first, where just accepting without protesting is considered rude.

There are a lot of contexts where "each pay for your own" is common in my social circles - work lunches (not sponsored by work), large (4+ families) group meals. Smaller meals vary based on who it is, and our comfort level.

Some groups routinely use "credit card roulette" - pick one member at random each time to pay for all. I have a number of friends and coworkers who, when we're one-on-one, we do a rough (not well-tracked) alternation - you got the last one, I'll get this one.

In any case, I suspect you'll get a lot more mileage out of not being bothered by it and being flexible to whatever your co-diners are used to than you will trying to enforce your preference in every instance. But I look forward to hearing the results - maybe I'm wrong and everyone's looking for a bit more structure in their shared economic activities.

Thanks for the reply! Switching off for who pays is something I do and don't mind but it's only applied to friends who meet semi-regularly. The problem with business meetings, is that it's unlikely I'm going to be meeting them again in the future on any regular basis, if it all.

Hmm. It's exactly this case (meals with people you don't expect to routinely interact with) where your attempt to change/subvert norms is lowest-value and highest-risk.

For repeat partners, you may be able to get recurring value from establishing a more comfortable interaction and using that many times. For repeat partners, you have multiple attempts for them to understand your intent and get over the initial weirdness that you seem to care about this far more than most. For repeat partners, you can attempt multiple patterns and discuss which one works best.

For one-off (or rare) interactions, you have none of these advantages - just an assertion that you're uncomfortable with the common pattern. This runs a risk that you'll be perceived as needy or troublesome, and it will interfere with the actual interaction you want to have (presuming you're not eating with them for the sole purpose of discussing who should pay). In most cases, I'd advise going with their preferences over yours for such meals.

The one off vs repeat interactions is a good point. I guess my dream scenario is to have this become a meme and in-turn a norm.

I think the worst co-diner's preference is usually to awkwardly ignore that the bill is there in which case I assume their preference is that we pay for their lunch. I suppose I can say "Would you like to Venmo us or pay cash?" or something like that if we don't think it's worth it offer to pay for their lunch.

I guess my dream scenario is to have this become a meme and in-turn a norm.

Ah. I guess I should be transparent in saying that I don't want this to be the norm, and I don't intend to pursue it as a general strategy. I'm fine to request separate checks or to evenly split the bill if I think that's most comfortable for my dining partners, but my preference is for loosely-tracked alternation.

I kind of like the lightweight obligation/excuse to repeat the meal which is incurred by having one person pay.

I kind of like the lightweight obligation/excuse to repeat the meal which is incurred by having one person pay.

Mm, I see. I guess I don't find I need to incentivize friends to get together. And this norm would be for more casual and/or business meetings in which case I doubt people would be getting back together because they felt obliged to pay for the next meal.