Life | Personal Stories | Article
Fighting to Pay for a Meal: Why Do We Do It?
by Ooi May Sim | 19 Jan 2023 | 7 mins read
We’ve all seen it: Sweet, docile people at a restaurant suddenly turning into incessant bill snatchers once the check arrives at the table. Or people racing to the cashier counter with their credit cards in their hands to pay for the meal. Because when Chinese people dine out on special occasions, they don’t split the bill.
Often, most of the ‘fighting’ begins before the bill even reaches the table. After ordering all the dishes, many leave the table under the guise of having to “go to the toilet” or “to make a phone call” but will head to the counter to hijack the bill instead.
Some people even leave their credit cards at the counter to ‘guarantee’ that the bill will be put on their tab. (We don’t recommend doing this though as there is the danger that your credit card could get misplaced during the busy dinner rush or misused by unscrupulous people).
And if you simply sit there and not join in the ‘fight’ to pay for the bill, you will probably be seen as a cheapskate.
That’s because fighting to pay goes beyond money. It is a way of showing generosity and respect in feeding loved ones. And because food is an integral part of many Asian cultures, treating your family and friends to a meal symbolises the sharing of love, wealth and abundance.
Of course, some people fight to pay for the bill for other reasons, such as to show off or to save face, even when they cannot afford it.
To understand the psychology behind this unspoken custom, we speak to four bill fighters to find out why they do it, and whether hijacking the bill affects their budget.
Understanding battle strategies
For Ash, fighting to pay for the bill only happens sometimes, on special occasions or when he is feeling particularly generous.
The 30-year-old explains that when it comes to his family, he would normally try to pay for meals whenever he goes back to his hometown as he feels that he should be treating them to some nice food.
“With friends, it’s normally (for) a birthday or when they are stressed out and deserve a treat,” he says.
Alyssa on the other hand, doesn’t have to battle it out with her family “as they expect me to pay”. However, she constantly ‘fights’ to treat her best friend.
“We rarely see each other since she (lives) in Sarawak, so whenever we meet, we fight to belanja (treat) each other,” she says.
However, it’s a battle that the 28-year-old has been losing because although she successfully manages to pay for the bill at the restaurant, her best friend, who has her bank account number, would simply transfer the money back to her.
“Now, the fight is to not let her see the receipt (so she wouldn’t know the amount),” she says.
Like Alyssa, Jerilyn fights to pay for meals with select friends because they do the same, which makes her feel bad.
“Another reason is that I would like to treat them since I can’t contribute (in other ways, aside) from buying them meals,” says the 23-year-old.
For 36-year-old Sasha, paying for meals with family became a thing after she moved out from her family home. “I made it a point to treat my parents to either a lunch or dinner at least once a month as a way to give back to them,” she says, but adds that her parents would still try to wrestle the bill from her even though she is one who invited everyone out.
“They will tell me to save my money for my future, and I’ll tell them to save for their retirement. This will go on and on and no one would back down,” she says.
Her solution: Conspire with the restaurant. “As I am always the one making the reservation, I would pre-empt them not to let my parents pay. They would laugh, but it always works!” shares Sasha.
What’s an acceptable amount?
For Sasha, how much she spends when footing the food bill for her loved ones depends on the type of restaurant they go to, the occasion, and the person(s) she is going out with.
“I would normally spend around RM300 whenever I take my parents out for dinner,” she says, adding that this amount feeds four adults and two children.
However, Sasha says that meals on special occasions such as for a CNY reunion dinner would typically cost more.
“As these are not ordinary dinners, I would try to take them [her parents] to eat something ‘better’, like seafood,” she says.
At their last family reunion dinner, Sasha spent RM700 paying for a steamboat meal that had prawns, scallops, and fish.
“Seafood is really expensive, especially during the CNY period, but as my family likes it and doesn’t eat it often, I feel that it is a great treat,” says Sasha who reveals that she takes a few months to save up for the dinner.
Ash and Alyssa usually spend between RM50 to RM300 on these meals, and have never bust their budget with their treating.
“I don’t save up for it (because) I know that I have plenty of savings to cover the meal,” says Ash.
Alyssa, who has a daily budget for her spending, says she reorganises her money to allocate for these meals.
“My budget for a day is RM50. If I end up spending RM150 (on a meal), I will spend less (during) the remaining days (of the month). It’s tedious but it works for me,” she says.
Jerilyn shares that while she doesn’t deliberately save up for these meals, she wouldn’t offer to pay if she is unable to afford it.
Don’t fight if you can’t afford it
Wanting to treat a loved one is a nice gesture, but it should be done within limits and shouldn’t be viewed as something that is compulsory that a person should do, shares Alyssa.
“Unfortunately, many people (these days) do it to show face. It’s nice to treat someone but being nice doesn’t mean you need to suffer financially,” she says.
Sasha admits that this used to be her.
“I have a friend who earns considerably more than me who would always pay for our meals whenever we weren’t looking. I would feel very paiseh [embarrassed], so I started fighting for the bill too, even when I knew it was over my budget,” she says.
And as the rules of probability go, Sasha would win these battles sometimes and see her finances for the month suffer.
“Whenever I managed to pay for the bill, I would end up ‘paying’ for it for an entire month, as I wasn’t earning a lot back then,” she says.
So, Sasha decided to talk to her friend about it. “I told her that I didn’t feel good about her always footing the bill and asked her if we could split it instead. My friend, who thought she was being kind, said she didn’t realise how uncomfortable I was feeling and agreed to follow my suggestion,” she says.
Jerilyn also recommends those who cannot foot the bill to either go Dutch, take turns to pay, or pool together money for meals or trips.
Ultimately, putting up a fight to pay for the bill is something that is part and parcel of our culture as Malaysians, and while treating your loved ones is a lovely gesture, don’t fight to do it if you know that your finances can’t support it.