By most standards of etiquette, it is not considered proper to expect
guests to pay for their own meals.
Is this sometimes done? Yes. Does it receive a stamp of approval from
people such as Judith Martin, the famous "Miss Manners"? No. The
prevailing view is that if those who are planning a party cannot
afford to buy meals for invited guests, it is better to structure the
festivities around something other than dining out.
Here are some online references regarding similar situations:
"How Do We Tell Guests To Pay Their Own Way?
Q: My husband and I will be renewing our wedding vows for our 20th
anniversary on the beach at sunset on Waikiki... We would like to go
out to dinner after the renewal of our vows with our friends, but are
not having a reception. Everyone will order off the menu and pay for
their own dinner.
The question is, how do you tell people that will be the case? I will
probably hand-write invitations after we arrive on the island and set
up the details. I'll need to include the dinner details in the
invitation. Your help with wording would be appreciated. Thank you.
A: ...It is hard for me to advise you on the proper etiquette for
handling this issue in terms of wording the invitations since having
guests pay their own way at an event such as this would not be
considered socially correct in the first place. If a group of your
friends were to invite you out to celebrate your anniversary, they
would be expected to pay, not just for themselves, but for your
portion as well. However, when you are inviting guests to celebrate
your anniversary with you, typically the expectation is that you
intend to host the celebration.
I'm afraid that there is simply no wording suggestion I can offer for
the invitations which will conform to the standards of proper
etiquette or social correctness... to extend invitations to a
celebration in honor of such an occasion, expecting guests to pay
their own way, is not a practice which would be deemed 'socially
SuperWeddings: Ask the Wedding Expert
Even the relatively recent introduction of a "cash bar" at a
celebration is considered improper by some authorities on etiquette:
"A 'Host Bar' refers to the scenario in which the hosts of the wedding
or function will provide alcoholic beverages for their guests. This is
the opposite of a 'Cash Bar', which refers to the scenario whereby
guests are expected to pay for their own liquor consumption, a
situation which does not adhere to proper wedding etiquette. Although
having a 'Cash Bar' at a wedding is highly discouraged, today some do
SuperWeddings: Ask the Wedding Expert
"I am planning a surprise fortieth birthday party for my spouse at one
of the fine restaurants in my city and I am preparing to send
invitations to thirty people. My dilemma is that we are unable to
provide dinner for the guests. However, I am providing the banquet
room along with a wonderful cake, of course to share. How do I
tactfully inform the potential guests that they must purchase their
own food and drinks?
Thank you for your help!
Dutch Treat Dilemma
There is no tactful way to inform guests that they are expected to pay
for their own food and drink at a party you are professing to host. I
have a hunch that you will surprise more people than just your
The Proper Thing
"A host is someone who offers hospitality, which includes planning,
orchestrating and paying the bills. So for all those folks who throw
themselves on Miss Manners's mercy, hoping to enlist her sympathy by
pleading that they are planning something really special for
themselves, their spouses or their parents, and expecting her to solve
the detail that they can't afford to pay their guests' way -- too bad.
They are going to have to settle for something they can afford.
It is fine to organize a cooperative party, to which everyone
contributes and no one is host, but then everyone gets to chime in
about the arrangements. Thus it should not favor one person's wishes
(or family ties) over another's. It would only be for someone's
birthday among a group of friends in the habit of celebrating one
another's birthdays, or for an anniversary as a joint family project."
Washington Post: A Host of Concerns
"I want to give my husband a birthday breakfast at a banquet hall. I
wanted to invite 50 to 75 people made up of family and other deacons
and their wives. The breakfast costs approximately $13 per person. I
can not afford to pay the total cost ($650-$975) for the breakfast but
I perhaps could pay part of the cost... So, I was thinking of inviting
the people to the birthday breakfast and putting the cost of the
breakfast on the invitation (at full or partial cost) but also saying
that a gift is not required as their presence would be the gift. Poor
taste or acceptable? Some people might be offended but I think most
would understand that I could not afford to pay for everyone's meal.
Ah, yes, Miss Manners keeps hearing that so-called guests should be
able to understand that they are not being invited to partake in
hospitality, but are expected to purchase the opportunity to attend
other people's personal social events.
What she fails to hear is that so-called hosts might understand that
if they cannot afford to entertain in a certain style, they must
entertain in a style that they can afford."
Archived copy from MSN Women: Miss Manners
To be fair, it should be noted that the verdict is not unanimous on
this sort of thing. Here is an instance in which it is mentioned that
guests at an anniversary party may be asked to pick up their own tab:
"It is not uncommon for guests to pay for their own meals when an
anniversary celebration is held in a restaurant. This allows for all
those who may not be able to afford a big meal to just have a small
amount or drinks only and still join in the celebration without
If you are attending an Anniversary celebration in a restaurant then
you should ascertain whether you are expected to pay for your own meal
prior to attending, typically the host should confirm this to you when
you respond to the invitation."
Anniversary Ideas: Wedding Anniversary Party Planning
Google search strategy:
Google Web Search: "etiquette" + "guests" + "birthday" + "pay"
Google Web Search: "expected to pay" + "guests" + "celebration"
I hope this is helpful. If anything is unclear or incomplete, or if a
link doesn't work for you, please request clarification; I'll be glad
to offer further assistance before you rate my answer.