Dear Quentin,

I have a good friend whom I like very much. He is one of those people I feel very comfortable around, as if I have known him for years. It’s hard to make friends in New York. People have so little time for friendship after work, the gym, kickboxing classes, therapy, checking their stock portfolio and, frankly, plotting their next move to climb up the corporate ladder. I grew up in the Midwest, so I expected people to have more time to develop friendships. This friend has put in the effort, meaning we meet once a week for dinner for about one and a half hours.

He called me this morning to invite me to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I am not a big classical-music buff (I usually fall asleep at operas) but I said I would go and would try to develop a taste for classical music. It beats sitting at home or sitting through all of those advertisements at the cinema. He said, “Great, I look forward to seeing you.” But before we hung up the phone, he added, “What would be nice is if you took me to dinner.” It was 8 a.m.  — early to call anyone, but my point is that I was tired — so I said, “Sure!”

However, I was shocked and did not know what to say. I have invited him to the theater in the past and did not expect him to buy me dinner. In fact, the last time I brought him to the theater, I also brought another friend and ended up bringing that other friend for dinner! I didn’t mind, as I see it as “what goes around, comes around,” in a good way. I try not to keep an accounting of who is inviting whom, and assume that it all works out square and even in the wash. But now I’m faced with an evening with this friend where I feel obliged, or forced, to buy him dinner. 

It takes the good out of the gesture if you have been instructed to take out your credit card. What would you do? Is this normal behavior?

Friend In Need

Related: ‘I felt humiliated’: She slipped the waiter her credit card on her way to the restroom. Is it emasculating for a woman to pay for dinner on a first date?

“Some people have certain social protocols to make life easier, especially in an expensive city like New York.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Friend,

What would be nice — to use your friend’s phrase — is if he had worded his question differently: “Would you like to see this concert at Carnegie Hall? I’ll get the tickets, and you can get dinner.” It’s not the most polished way of proffering an invitation, but at least it establishes the conditions up front. You wouldn’t like to accept a free ticket from a stranger on the street who then pointed at a nearby restaurant and added, “Now you have to buy me dinner!” Taking him to dinner seems fair, but being asked to do so after you accepted his theater invitation is a rug pull.

There is another, unspoken issue here. The invitation seems pointed, and if it seems pointed, it probably is pointed. You have your own social contract, which may be less transactional on the surface but may not work as consistently, leaving room for a missed dinner invitation here and a missed theater invitation there. That can leave people who have a different mode of behavior with a bee in their bonnet — “I paid the last time we went to Carnegie Hall, and he didn’t even buy me dinner!” — even if you feel like you returned the favor in other ways.

Some people have certain social protocols to make life easier, especially in an expensive city like New York. For example, if one person buys a $20 glass of wine, it’s polite for them to tell their dinner companion, “Let me leave the $20 tip, as I had a drink and I don’t think it’s fair that you should pay for my alcohol.” And the next time they meet and the same thing happens with the other friend, they can say, “I’ll get the tip.” That is, the protocol is understood. The problem here is that tickets to Carnegie Hall range from $81 to $224, so it’s not a cheap night out. 

What do you do? You won’t enjoy the concert, especially as you’re only going because he had a spare ticket and you think you’re doing him a favor by trying not to sleep through a recital. And you certainly won’t enjoy your meal, knowing that you have been instructed to produce your credit card at the end of it. The beauty of offering an invitation is that it’s a gift, a gift with monetary value, sure, and also one that says your friend wants to spend time with you. So you won’t be doing him any favors by going now. 

If you have, say, three days or more before the event, decline. Make a polite excuse, and the next time you meet for dinner, pick up the bill. 

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘I don’t want my wife to lose everything’: I’ve been diagnosed with dementia — I suddenly could not spell or write legibly

‘Things have not been easy’: My sister is a hoarder and procrastinator. She is delaying probate of our parents’ estate. What can I do?

‘I gave up a job that I loved passionately’: My husband secretly set up a trust that includes our home and his investments. What should I do?

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