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The Hard Earned Lessons of Going ‘Dutch’ on a Date

“Don’t let a boy ever pay for your dinner,” my mother warned me when I entered my teens. “You must have a say about where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

And she put her hard-earned money where her mouth was. When at twelve I went with my childhood friend Ray to the movies, she tucked money in my pocket, whispering, “You owe him nothing.” We both knew how absurd her words were — Ray was so painfully shy he spoke to no one but me — but my mother was not one to miss a chance to teach me about life.

My father was a lawyer to the poor and my mother an executive secretary to the rich. Together they kept us comfortable in our spacious apartment, but it was rented because they were unable to actually own one of equal size.

My mother was practical about expenses: She wouldn’t invest in a piano until I had proven my virtuosity with one hand — on the accordion (Sure enough, I failed the one-hand test). My parents’ one luxury was an every-other-summer trip to Europe to visit to my father’s sister.

I always had boyfriends, and going for ice cream or a movie and paying for myself was natural. But at fourteen, although I was underdeveloped and solemn, I drew the attention of eighteen and twenty-year old boys. They would come to the house, pass my mother’s grilling, and when we left to go out my mother would give me more money than I needed. “Just in case,” she would whisper. The boys’ reactions to my paying varied from a feeble protest to a surprised acceptance. But there was never unwanted heavy panting in cars or forced goodbye kisses in the lobby of my building.

For my sixteenth birthday, my steady boyfriend gave me a simple watch. My mother had a veritable fit and insisted the gift was too “meaningful.” I lost the fight that ensued and, with a heavy heart, returned the watch.

Turned out that this inexpensive watch was the last time the boyfriend had to stretch his budget for a gift. He was my age and possessed the charming combination of limited financial resources and expensive taste when picking concerts and comedy clubs. For the rest of my high school years we split expenses down to the penny. His frequent gifts were limited single roses or Swiss chocolate.

I often found myself in heated debates with my girlfriends. “If a guy wants my company, he should pay for it,” they argued.

I could not think of a worse argument. It strengthened my resolve.

But paying my share became increasingly difficult when the high-school boyfriend was no more and I crammed four years of college into three, and therefore mostly unable to work. As I attracted the attention of wealthy guys, my mother insisted on paying for the expensive restaurants they took me — restaurants my parents would never afford to go themselves. My girlfriends pointed out that it was ridiculous for me to try matching the men’s wallets while it also fell on me alone to invest in clothes and grooming.

“Principle is principle,” I replied. But even I had a moment’s hesitation when an heir to the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer took me out to a restaurant where my share of the dinner was close to my mother’s weekly salary. I offered to pay anyway.

To keep my lifestyle, I assumed a load of 24 credits a semester, but skipped many lectures in order to work as a well-paid three-language translator. I did my own hair and nails, and spent school breaks with my mother buying fabrics on sale. We worked along a dressmaker who came to the house for the day and cut three dresses which my mother and I finished. We would add sleeves to the floral one, a scooped collar to the polka dot one, and pockets to the plaid one.

Before settling down with the next boyfriend, other occasional “heirs” appeared — one from an oil refinery, one a candy conglomerate, and another, a hotel chain. Even though I was serious, and guileless, they sought out my company. Maybe they found my reaction to the person, not the family ties and money, refreshing.

At the end, the “Dutching” principle forced me to be selective; I couldn’t afford the jerks, the narcissists, the bores. I was interested in the out-of-the-ordinary studies or work, and I ended up spending time at a physics lab, a radio station, an architectural drafting department, and the bowels of a navy destroyer.

Best of all, with no strings attached, I regarded myself as a true equal, and this conviction must have zapped my male friends with a new kind of respect for me. Looking back at this nascent feminism, I believe that I showed my respect for them, too.

Talia Carner’s fourth novel, “HOTEL MOSCOW,” will be released by HarperCollins on June 2nd. For more about the author and the book, please check

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