Young and Hungry

Groupon Etiquette 101: Who Pays What When Your Discount Meal Requires Start-Up Cash?

Last week, a friend and I trekked out to the dubious dining destination that is Bethesda to take advantage of a LivingSocial deal I had obtained for Robert Wiedmaier's Mussel Bar. Once the check came — and I was over my disbelief that a bottle of Allagash White could possibly cost $9 — I found myself confused as to how much I should pay for the meal. It's one thing when you go in on a deal with another person, but in this case, I had invited a friend along to enjoy the spoils of the deal I had purchased: $20 in exchange for a $40 discount. Was my deal-dining companion obligated by the Law of Manners to pay a little bit more in the end to help cover the initial cost of the deal? Or does the invitation to dine on a deal mean that the party who purchased the deal eats the initial cost? What is the proper dining-by-deal etiquette?

Emily Yoffe, who writes the "Dear Prudence" advice column at Slate recently tried to tackle this question in the Digital Manners Podcast she hosts with Farhad Manjoo, Slate’s technology columnist. According to Yofee, "[i]f you have any kind of coupon or gift certificate, if you're going out with other people, you should offer that as a group thing." Manjoo agreed: "[i]f you have a coupon and you're going with other people, I think that it's sort of implicit that you would be sharing that with the whole table."

But the situation with Groupon and LivingSocial is different specifically because an online deal is not a coupon. These aren’t the days of the Entertainment Book, where a measly $10 got you a book full of discounts to every pretzel and Cinnabon in a 100-mile radius. With Groupon and LivingSocial, one member of the party puts up a sum of money so that the entire party could get a certain amount deducted from the final bill. It’s not that clear-cut here, especially since many people often buy deals for restaurants they couldn’t otherwise afford and tend to splurge on the meal knowing that they have a deal in their back pocket.

My friend and I split the bill evenly. With the $40 discount, our roughly $72 meal cost just $32, or $16 each. She never mentioned anything about covering part of the initial cost. I couldn’t help but feel a bit put-off when she expressed excitement that her bill, including tip, was just $23, considering that I was essentially paying $43.  At the same time, I felt that it would have been too awkward to ask her to cover half of what I originally paid for the deal since I invited her to dine with me on the basis of that deal.

Ironically, in the end, the deal wound up being a total wash for me, anyway. My portion of the meal (roughly $17 for mussels and $18 for two bottles of beer) totaled about $35. Add the $7 tip, that's $42. Now, that's without the LivingSocial discount. My portion of the discounted check, meanwhile, cost $16. Add the same $7 tip, that's $23. Now add the initial LivingSocial fee of $20, that's $43. Based on those numbers, you could say I ended spending one dollar more than I would have had I not purchased the deal. But I'm rounding here, so we'll call it even. My friend, though, saved $20. She got the full discount.

Friends that I've asked about this had a host of opinions. Some felt that if you invite someone out under the premise that you have a deal, you take the fall for the discount, and the amount left after the discount should be split evenly. Many pointed out that the money used to purchase the deal was already gone, so what did it matter anymore? Some added that the person who didn't purchase the deal should at least offer to pay the whole tip as a way to say thanks and to make it more fair. Most didn’t want to bother dealing with the math and felt that splitting the discounted check was just easier. Still, others insisted that unless it's explicit that you’re treating the other person to the meal, your deal-dining-companion should assume that they are going to pay more to even things out. But herein lies the rub: to some, asking a friend to dine on an online deal is explicitly offering to treat them; to others, it’s just a way to go out to dinner, so it’s assumed that the entire bill, including the initial cost of the deal, should be split evenly, just like you would split a bill otherwise.

What say the deal-brokers? Maire Griffin, LivingSocial's communications director, didn’t think there was one answer for this ethical quandary. Instead, she emphasized that it’s a personal preference and that ultimately communication is key: “If you invite a pal to dinner and plan to redeem your LivingSocial voucher, we suggest having a discussion about who’s paying what with your dinner mate before you even get to the restaurant – no matter how you decide to pay. That way, no one is caught off-guard, and the experience is as fun and easy as possible.” Sounds reasonable enough, but who wants to have this awkward conversation? Besides, this is why etiquette exists: to tell us what to do so we can avoid these tricky social situations.

The intricacies of these online dining deals can get very complicated very fast, depending on how much you buy and who pays what, which is why I think some level of eating the upfront discount fee is just necessary. That being said, if your dining companion offers to cover part of the initial cost, there’s nothing wrong with accepting it. Just don’t assume it will happen. However, I do think if you’re sharing the spoils of a deal that you've financed, this behooves your dining companion to pick up the entire tip, which I think we can all agree should always be based on the pre-discounted amount.

Next time, I think I'll stick to deals on individual goods, like a haircut, to avoid all this.

Photo by Steve46814/Creative Commons Attribution License

  • MJ

    Are you joking? If you extend an invitation to someone, you don't ask them to cover your costs. That's just cheap.

  • sigmagrrl

    Yeah, don't invite someone out under the guises of a free meal and then, when the bill goes over, expect them to pony up anything. Think of it as a date: who did the askin'? If you, then pay up!

  • royela

    I think this depends on your mindset going into the meal. Personally, I think it's great to be able to treat a friend but this can be an expensive habit to have. Having the LivingSocial deal just makes it easier to more affordably treat a friend. Plus, who wants to try out a new restaurant alone!

    Since you did the inviting on the premise of having a deal, I'm guessing that you at least intended to split the savings from the deal? Then, even if your friend pitched in for her half the cost of the deal ($10), your savings wouldn't have been the full $20 you'd have saved alone. Is $10 really worth the awkward conversation to split the check?

    P.S. Allagash is a bit pricy but you have to admit Mussel Bar has an impressive beer selection!

    Hopefully your friend will just remember you the next time she picks up a good deal to try a new restaurant. 😉

  • gd

    I feel like humanity is divided between those people who fight to cover the check, and those people who Scroogily obsess over making sure everyone pays THEIR FAIR SHARE down to the cent. Problems arise only when these groups mingle.

  • LB

    The important distinction in this case is the invitation - if you invite someone out to dinner, then covering the check in its entirity (or splitting the bill) is the expectation of the inviter - not the invitee, irregardless of any discount. If you want to split the costs evenly, this should be done when purchasing the Groupon/Living Social deal at the outset, not when the final bill arrives, i.e. call said friend and say "There's a great deal for xyz, want to go in on it together?" BAM, $10 crisis averted.

  • Mxfield

    You cheap bastard. It's a groupon! It's not like you shelled out $50 for it.

  • What?

    This is the dumbest post I've read all week. Congrats!

  • Raul

    I've only used Groupon once, and I took my girlfriend out to eat. Normally we split the bill in half, but I offered to pay in full, since the meal would be partially discounted. That way, I get to treat her out to a meal and not have to pay full price. I think that's probably the best way to look at these offers. In my opinion, you're better off only inviting someone out to a Groupon-discounted meal if you're interested in paying the full amount.

    That said, if someone invited me to a Groupon-discounted meal, I'd offer to pay more of the final bill so the discount was shared evenly. I think that's the mark of what a good friend would do. Needless to say, my girlfriend later paid my drink tab, so it all evened out in the end.

  • yup

    I generally share my coupons with people who share theirs with me; as with Raul, it all evens out in the end.

  • Bruce

    The only time I've come even close to confronting this issue is when I saw a Groupon for a restaurant I had already discussed going to with my friends. I e-mailed them, told them that Groupon was having a "$15 for $30 off" deal, and told them I'd go ahead and buy it if they were interested. They were, so I did.

    At the restaurant, we didn't even discuss it: we split the discounted bill evenly, but I was credited with having already paid their shares of the Groupon. In other words, we essentially split the price of the Groupon, and shared the benefit. It didn't occur to any of us to do it any other way.

  • Mrs. D

    If I'm dining at a place where my bill will be less than the value of the certificate, I typically say beforehand, at the point of invitation, that I've got the first X amount of the bill plus the tip on that. If I pick places where my portion of the bill is substantially less than the value of the cert, I look like a hero for picking up SO MUCH of the bill. But so long as my bill is at least a *little* less than the value of the certificate (I prefer to pick places where my bill will be at least 20% less than the value of the certificate), my friends are usually still happy to save some dough. Because, as others have mentioned, I would never dine with people who were all "one-way-street" on who buys the coupon, we all end up in the "bigger savings" position on occasion, and everyone ends up happy.

    But I think the general rule of etiquette that should be followed is that you should pick up the whole bill if it's a date, a special occasion, or the person you invited cannot afford the restaurant. These rules apply even if you're paying full price, so I think they're fair for the use of coupons. As others have mentioned, if you truly want to go halvsies, send an invite when you see the coupon offering to split the thing (coupon cost, meal cost, tip, etc.) from the start.

  • Karla@{TheClassyWoman}

    I've had a lot of people ask me about how to tip on a Groupon, so I thought I'd share the etiquette of it with you. :)

    A Groupon is to be treated in the same manner as a Gift Certificate, that being, that once the deal amount is subtracted from your total bill, that you tip based on the original total before any discounts. So, if you got a $40 restaurant groupon for $20, you would tip based on the total before any discounts, so if you actually spent $47 plus tax. You would tip on that amount, not the $27 after your discount.

    There are too many people abusing Groupons in restaurants and spas by only paying tip on the discounted amount. It is no different than when you use any other coupon, Gift Card or Gift Certificate. While tipping is personal preference, it should be 20% at spas and 15-20% at restaurants depending on the overall experience.

    *On a side note, the vendor generally offers a deal for around 50% of their regular price, then they have to pay Groupon half of that amount, meaning they really end up with just 25% of that original cost. While it's not your problem, when you don't tip a server properly on top of their often small profit, it just leaves a really bad taste in everyone's mouth.

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  • Jason

    This is how I would handle Groupon etiquette:

    As you stated, if you use the Groupon (or similar device) as a premise to ask someone out to dinner, you're implicitly promising to discount their meal as part of the outing. They wouldn't normally be going out and spending *anything*, but you, who already took the initiative to spend $20 to purchase this Groupon, invited them to come along, informing them that "Hey! I've got a Groupon, so you should come!".

    When the bill comes you have two socially acceptable ways to handle it:
    You can 1) split the $20 two ways. You get $20, and they get $20 and the remaining bill is subtracted based on who bought what, or you just divide the remaining bill in half and each pay half. BUT, you should be clear about which way you're handling it before you both start ordering. No one likes to be caught off-guard.

    If you'd like to take the lion's share of the Groupon or even all of it (since, as you pointed out YOU did buy it), then you invite the person out but withhold mentioning the Groupon. It's your discount, and you don't have an explicit obligation to share it and as long as you don't mention it they won't look for it. Then if you decide to share even a small portion of it, it's a pleasant surprise that they got anything at all. After all, they were expecting to pay full price.

  • hannah

    if it's not a date, the other person puts 20 in and then you split what the bill is above that.


    As a Groupon/LivingSocial hoarder that tends to keep them 'til the day of expiration, I have invited many friends out to places so I can comment on this. Proper etiquette in my mind is that if you're inviting a friend out based on one of these deals then you're committing them to a share of the savings (about half). Depending on the discount, this usually entails splitting whatever the remaining cost is and knowing that I had fronted for the deal the friend will pay the full tip. In this way it comes to close to even as far as financial burden goes and each person saves some money compared to if we had eaten separately.

  • alicialeanna

    I agree... the conversation should be brought up before the dining experience.

    Ironically the same story that you wrote about happened to me except I was the friend that paid. My dinner companion suggested that I pay since she paid for a Gropoun. However I did not know that a coupon/discount was being used. That situation made me think twice about going out with this counterpart.

    In the end life's too short and I just let it go.

  • Kate

    My friends and I usually handle it like this:

    If I pay $20 for the deal, s/he pays the first $20 left over. Then we split what's left. If it's close and I don't have cash, though, s/he might just pay all of it. If s/he pays under $20 I obviously don't ask him/her for anything. But it's best to have cash when you're the deal provider.

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  • jj

    I find it interesting that you're discussing etiquette and propriety while holding a mussel that looks like that.

  • Funyons

    Here's the answer. Your friend invites you out sometime. End of quandary!

  • goy

    Leave it to a Jew to fret over $20. Seriously.

  • *** SUPERGIRL ***

    If I paid to get a groupon, that is my gift certificate to use for my meal. If I ask a friend if they want to go to the place w/ me, I'd make sure to mention going dutch. That $40 is my payment.

  • *** SUPERGIRL ***

    In OP's example, my meal's completely covered by the $40. In fact, $4 dollars of my tip is covered by the 40 groupon too. The only way my groupon has anything to do with a friend's meal is if my treat

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  • aelfman

    I think a new term is needed. So the invitation is "Hey I got a $40 Groupon, do you wanna go double-dutch? And that would mean splitting both the meal and the cost of the coupon.

  • PinkSphinx

    Hmmm. Surely it depends on the friend. I bought a Groupon for a 3 course meal for 2 people for £30, I wanted to use the voucher so I asked a friend I knew lived nearby the restaurant, I said I have bought a 3 course meal for 2. I spent the money on the voucher and I didnt want it going to waste. I didnt mention her contribution at all, I didnt really think about it. When we sat down and we were given menus, and she immediately said 'Ok, so how do you want to do this - how much did you pay for the voucher?' I said - 'Dont worry about it, just get me a drink in the bar later'. We ordered a bottle of wine, and subsequently a cocktail each. When the bill came it was around £34, She put down £30 and I put down £20, I think mainly based on the cash we had on us. We then went to a very upmarket bar where she spent well over the extra £20. If it was a date, then definitley wouldn't accept the invitee paying a penny. If a group of friends talks before a deal is bought, then everything gets split evenly. If you know the invitee has money troubles, dont ask them if you dont want to pay the full whack. They may offer to pay the tip, but they shouldnt feel obliged to pay something they can't afford.

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