Who Pays When It's Business?

Who Pays When It's Business?

You’re out to lunch with your mentor.

She’s always given you smart advice on everything from dealing with your difficult colleague to whether to accept that new job. You're grateful and want to show your appreciation, but she's older, wiser and, well, higher on the pay scale.

When the waiter drops the check at your table, you both glance down at it. What happens next?

A handwritten thank you note is liquid gold.

Whether you’re a salesperson, freelance graphic designer or chairwoman of the board, business meals and coffee meetings are both key to furthering your career—and fraught with potential etiquette faux pas.

Now you'll have one less to wrestle with: The guidelines in our chart below will help you navigate the world of power lunches with aplomb, no matter who's sitting across from you.

Client You pay
Your boss She pays
The head or owner of your company She pays
Colleagues Split the check
Someone junior to you You pay
Former colleague or ex-boss for a friendly catch-up Split it
Someone to whom you owe a thank you You pay
Someone who is providing help (résumé review,
advice, networking opportunities)
You pay
Mentor You pay


Here are a few more rules of thumb for when you really want to impress:

1. Don’t Let the Check Reach the Table

“When the check arrives, it makes everyone uncomfortable for a second,” says Patricia Rossi, NBC Daytime’s national manners correspondent and author of the forthcoming book, Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations. If the check is yours to pay, she says, the most graceful way to do so is to never let it reach the table, even if everyone knows the meal is going on the company card. Excuse yourself as if you were headed to the bathroom and track down the waiter or maitre d’ instead.

2. Ask Once, Then Let It Go

Sometimes if you’re out with a colleague or a former boss, she’ll grab the check when it arrives. Ask once if she's absolutely sure, then thank her. A polite acceptance: “Well, if you insist, thank you so much. I’ll get it next time.”

3. If You're Treated, Send a Thank You

It doesn’t matter whether it's a colleague, a direct superior or a mentee: “A handwritten thank you note is liquid gold,” says Rossi. At the very least, a thank you email is in order. Here are her guidelines for doing it well:

  • It needn't be long; three lines will suffice.
  • Don’t reference the business aspect of the meeting, or say something like, "Thanks for lunch. I look forward to working on your account." That will make it seem like you are sending the note to get something.
  • Mention something personal you discussed at the meeting, like her family or a recent vacation. You want to make it clear you heard and remembered something that was important to her.
  • Send it within three days. (Here are more great tips on writing a memorable thank you note.)

Know What to Say at Your Business Meal

Read our expert's tips

4. If Money Is Tight, Opt for Coffee

Say you're unemployed and don’t have a lot to spare at the moment, but could really use a recommendation from a former colleague. There’s no need to shell out for dinner in order to show your appreciation. “Coffee is fun and easy," says Rossi, "and that takes the stress off."

More on Money Etiquette

For more tips on navigating a business lunch successfully, read this.

Check out more awkwardness-busting tips in our 8 Most Awkward Money Situations slide show.


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