Dinner Party Dilemma: Is It Ever Okay to Ask Friends to Pay for a Meal?

(Image credit: Bridget Pizzo)

My boyfriend and I are in our early twenties. We love hosting dinner parties, and we don’t mind getting creative with seating in our small apartment. It’s harder to get creative with our budget, though, and we’re wondering if there’s a nice way to ask friends to chip in for a meal. We’re doing the cooking, and we think our friends enjoy the night out. We don’t mind that we don’t get invited back, because we get that not everyone enjoys hosting. What’s a young couple on a tight budget to do when they don’t want to go broke entertaining?

Broke Hosts

Dear Broke Hosts,

I think my answer may surprise you: You don’t have to overspend in the name of etiquette.

As much as I love etiquette rules, I think there are ways around them. It’s really cool that you like entertaining, because the best parties are the ones the hosts want to give. The details don’t matter nearly as much as people think. But I hear what you’re saying: You like cooking, you want to serve a beautiful meal, and that isn’t cheap.

So, can you ask guests to pay to come to a dinner party at your place? Maybe, if you do it just right. Let the pearl clutching begin!

Consider a micro-managed potluck.

When I host holiday meals at my house, there are usually 30 or more guests. A few weeks ahead of time, I send out the invitation, including a request that each guest bring a dish, adding “Please let me know what you’ll be bringing, so I can fill in the blanks. If you don’t know what to bring, I’m happy to give out assignments!” Usually, it all works out and we end up providing the meat and a couple of sides. There are always a few people who prefer an assignment, so they get the things no one else chose. You can do this on a much smaller scale.

If you go the potluck route, you can host a beautiful dinner and not spend a fortune. Hosting is still more expensive than coming as a guest, because you’ll probably provide extras, like a pre-dinner cocktail, or a cheese course after the meal. A meticulously planned potluck allows you a measure of control. You could invite guests for an Italian-themed potluck, or even a meal based on a cookbook you all like. (A friend of mine has a cookbook club. Instead of novels, everyone comes to the host’s home with a dish from the same cookbook, with one person taking an appetizer, a couple more making sides, and so on. Brilliant.)

Be thoughtful about who and how you ask.

But you want to cook it yourself, and control the menu. I get it. That’s part of being a host. Before you go asking for cash, you need to ask yourself how your friends will really feel. And they need to be close friends. This is definitely something to bring up privately, in a way that will allow your friend to say no without feeling awkward. Let’s say you’re having coffee.

“Hey,” you say. “I have a weird question.”

Announcing that your question is weird lets your friend off the hook. You said it first, so she’s allowed to agree. Do not get mad if she agrees.

“I met this awesome pig farmer at the farmers market the other day, and she has fresh shoulder roasts. I’ve always wanted to try cooking one, and I know hers are great, but they’re super expensive. Would you be interested in chipping in if I was willing to cook? Can you think of anyone else who’d want to join?”

How many friends do you have who you could ask that question? Not many, right? So maybe you need to change your mindset.

Work with what you’ve got.

Most people want things they can’t afford. I want a Chloe handbag. I also want to go to Stockholm for a couple of weeks. And I would really enjoy a newly renovated kitchen. None of those things are in my budget, so I can’t have them. But I can afford a nice tote bag, a weekend at the beach, and a couple of pretty tea towels. So that’s what I get, and I enjoy them.

I don’t want you to stop entertaining, because I bet your friends enjoy it. And I don’t want you to go broke, or feel resentful. I certainly don’t want you to alienate your friends by asking for money. I hope your friends are more important than organic, grass-fed pork shoulder. It might be time to host a few potlucks or start a supper club, so at least you know you’ll get some invitations in return.

You can ask people to bring something if they ask. Never turn down an offer. “What can I bring?” should be met with a specific request. “A small appetizer would be great!” You may even be able to make a polite request for help. I think you’ll find that, “Would you mind bringing a bottle of wine to share?” is met with a lot more enthusiasm than, “Gimme 32 bucks.”

How about it, readers? Have you ever asked someone to pay to eat with you? Have you ever been invited for dinner and asked to pay for your meal?