Last month, Sean Lans, a 24-year-old from New York City, was invited to his friend’s birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant he couldn’t afford, he said.
The plan was to go to dinner, then go to a place that had a cover charge of $35. After looking at the menu, Lans decided to skip the dinner portion of the evening; he said the cheapest entree, a burger, was $41. Fries could be added to the meal for an exorbitant $11. (Lans said he assumed that at a fine dining restaurant, “the burger is just going to be three bites.”)
“I’m not really looking to spend the equivalent of a week of grocery money on a single night out,” he said in a TikTok video posted on January 29.
Not going to the dinner caused a bit of a stink with his friend, he said. And talking about the incident on TikTok resulted in a viral video for Lans.
“Expensive birthday dinners are unfair,” he titled his video, which has garnered over 1.9 million views since he posted it.
“Read the room,” Lans said in the clip, “Yeah, it’s your birthday, but you should know if your friends are going to be happy where you choose.”
Lans’ video about a bougie birthday dinner hit home for many, which isn’t surprising, given the rising cost of going out to eat. Restaurant prices have been increasing faster than the overall rate of inflation for the past two years, according to the Consumer Price Index. All those intimate group dinners with small plates and $17 cocktails can add up after a while.
″$76 minimum not including drinks or a birthday gift is a big ask,” one person said in the comments of the clip.
“I’m sorry but if you have working class friends and are expecting them to join expensive dinners and trips, something is wrong with you,” another wrote.
It wasn’t unfair for the friend to have an expensive birthday dinner, others said, but it was unfair for the friend to be upset at Lans because he couldn’t partake.
For Lans, the most interesting part of the conversation was the strong divide between those who split the bill at a birthday dinner and those who thought it should be a given that the birthday person pays for all their guests.
“Many people were attributing this to different cultural values,” he told HuffPost in an email interview. “It’s always interesting to hear the unique ways that people from different cultures approach situations or view scenarios from different perspectives.”
A month after the incident, Lans said he still thinks his decision was a reasonable compromise. So does Melanie Ross Mills, a therapist and friendship expert.
“I think it’s wise to know our limits and kind of him to make the effort to meet up later for drinks,” she said. “We’ve all probably experienced a time where we extended ourselves financially and ended up trying to figure out how we were going to get out of our bind.”
Sometimes “that results in feeling bitter or resentful toward the situation or person that got us there in the first place, if we felt obligated,” she said.
Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the weekly etiquette podcast, “Were You Raised By Wolves,” thinks Lans did the right thing, too.
“To paraphrase the great advice columnist Judith Martin, an invitation is neither a subpoena nor an invoice,” Leighton told HuffPost. “The TikToker was free to decline this invitation.”
Declining without offering explanations or excuses is usually the best tack to take, but given the closeness of this relationship, Leighton said Lans could have divulged a little more.
“I’d offer up a simple, ‘Unfortunately, my budget can’t accommodate the dinner portion of the evening, but I’d love to meet up with you all afterwards,’” he said.
Ideally, though, hosts in scenarios like this would have created the guest list first, then found a venue that could accommodate everyone’s budgets, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, that doesn’t often happen, Leighton said.
“Like with destination weddings, not everyone’s going to be able to afford to go and a host has to be comfortable with that,” he said.
These kinds of hiccups in mixed-income friendships ― or when one friend is going big with their plans ― can certainly be awkward. But having conversations about the issue, ideally in advance, is important if you want to maintain the friendship, said Carly Dober, founder and psychologist at Enriching Lives Psychology.
“While it can be embarrassing for some to talk about money and very taboo at times, this way you can prevent people from being offended if any perceived slights that might be misinterpreted,” she said.
If you’re the cash-strapped friend, “you want to acknowledge that you want to be there but seek a negotiation or alternative that works for the both of you,” Dober said.
As for Lans and his friend, they’re doing better now. He doesn’t think the friend has seen his viral video, but regardless, they know that much of Lans’ lifestyle content revolves around the people in his life and his lived experiences.
“I try to change small details that don’t change the overall message but will make it difficult for the original person to know it’s about them,” he said.
“I will say that since that birthday dinner occurred, I’ve spent time with that friend on a few different occasions and things have been back to normal, so I don’t think there were any hard feelings from the events of that dinner.”