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