The Moneyist: My friend got us free theater tickets. When I got home, she texted me, ‘Can you get our next meal or activity?’ Am I obliged to treat her?

Dear Quentin,

After not seeing a friend for a few months, she asked if I wanted to go to a show with her that evening, if she could get free tickets from work. I graciously accepted. I expressed my enthusiasm throughout the evening, and I thanked her several times.

I felt I was both overtly and appropriately grateful. For instance, I drove us to the theater, and paid $10 for parking. When we got dinner, I was happy to split the bill 50/50 even though she had a $15 cocktail and I had water. 

The show was great! I told her how serendipitous it was because it ended up being a table read of my all-time favorite movie, “When Harry Met Sally.” My friend had never seen the film. It was a Netflix/Seth Rogen


Later that night, my friend texted me, “As I got these tickets, can you get our next meal or activity?” I replied to say she gave me the impression the tickets were free. She replied that they were free but, “It doesn’t matter because she still ‘got them.’”

“‘I told her that I was sorry for disappointing her and I sent her $30 via Venmo for her half of dinner. She didn’t accept it.’”

I said, “Oh, I guess you expected me to cover dinner?” She replied, “No, that wouldn’t be fair because the tickets were free.” However, she repeated that I should still commit to taking care of our next social engagement.

I am not a tit-for-tat person, especially with friends. I often treat friends to a drink. That said, this request confuses me. Was it in poor taste not to cover dinner? She told me about her new job, and that she is making $30,000 a year more than me.

She said that she doesn’t want to go around in circles about this, and that she finds it really annoying. I told her that I was sorry for disappointing her, and I sent her $30 via Venmo for her half of dinner. She didn’t accept it.

“‘She told me about her new job, and that she is making $30,000 a year more than me.’”

In the past year, I have hosted her and her husband for dinner twice, and gave them leftovers to take home, both times. She has never hosted me and, frankly, I’ve never thought twice about it. I had them over because I wanted to.

If I had treated her to dinner before the show, paid for parking, and drove, it would have been roughly an $80 night for me and $0 for her. Is it reasonable to invite someone to something (free) and expect them to treat you? 

I get joy from including friends in fun activities and opportunities. Am I out of touch, tacky or unjustified to not see where she is coming from? I don’t know how to move on with a casual friendship as this will feel like an elephant in the room.

I want to respond to her with, “I will be happy to invite you to the next event I get free tickets to. I will let you drive, pay for parking and split the dinner bill, even if I get a second course and you don’t. I will then make sure you pay for the next time.”

So far, I have refrained from sending that text. What do you advise?

Confused Friend

Dear Friend,

Your dilemma reminds me of this letter I received a few years ago. It is very similar, but in that case the friend had snagged $70 tickets for free and surprised his friend by asking him to pick up the tab for their pre-concert sushi ($150). 

In that case, and this, you have been presented with a “gift tax.” Your friend put a monetary value on these theater tickets, despite snagging them for free, and believes she should be reimbursed for that market value.

Of course, that is ridiculous. Firstly, she surprised you with her conditions after you got home and, secondly, did so by text. She could have said, “I’ve got the tickets, so would you mind getting dinner?” You could have made a decision before accepting.

You have two decisions: Do you acquiesce and take this friend for dinner? And do you want a friend who would behave in such a penny-pinching way? This is the kind of weird swerve of etiquette that can end a friendship, especially a casual one.

“‘This is the kind of weird swerve of etiquette that can end a friendship, especially a casual one.‘”

Even if you did take her for dinner, there will be a bad aftertaste for both of you, and one that is unlikely to go away. With this friend, you will think twice before accepting or offering any further invitations, or even going Dutch on an evening. 

Should you have offered to get dinner? That would have been generous, and a nice gesture, but I also believe going 50/50 and paying for parking, and dropping your friend home is just as acceptable. There’s no right or wrong answer.

If you feel resentful or awkward or bullied into taking your friend for dinner, don’t do it. You offered her $30 and she didn’t accept it. That’s passive aggressive, given that she has made it clear that she believes that she is out of pocket. (She’s not.)

There is often an imbalance of finances in friendships, but solid friendships are a safe space where you can discuss the state-of-play face-to-face, not via text and not after-the-fact. Your friend squandered all the goodwill from her invitation.

She can’t lay claim to the moral high ground and ask you to pay for your next outing, while rejecting your $30. It’s too late for her to pretend it’s about anything other than monetizing free tickets. Do you really want a friend like that? 

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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