NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Next time you want to start a verbal bonfire, ask a group of men and women who they think should pay on a date.
There are some modern-day guidelines, of course. But as with all "guidelines" they can seem like tips on kissing -- rote, not romantic.
Even so, they can be helpful as general parameters, or, at the very least, as argument starters.
Here's a quick primer from manners expert Letitia Baldrige. (Note to knee-jerk etiquette bashers: If you think Camelot's social secretary gives women a free pass to treat men like ATMs, think again.)
You pursue, you pay. The person who initiates the date should pay. If one person has been doing the paying on the early dates and you continue seeing each other, then you should start alternating who pays when you go out.
Got means? Be generous. When one person's flush and the other's not, the person with the bigger bank account should do more of the treating. Not that the date without funds should never pay, Baldrige said. But at least in the beginning, it would be the more gracious thing to do for the person of means to refuse and offer to take care of the bill.
Remember "Annie Hall." When Woody Allen's Alvy goes on a first date with Diane Keaton's character in the classic romantic comedy, he kisses her before dinner to get it out of the way so they won't be tense all evening. Likewise, when you make a date with someone make clear who's paying, "so there's no awkwardness," Baldrige said.
What happens if you agree to meet for dinner and a movie and the phrase "I'd like to take you out" never enters the conversation? If one of you buys the tickets, the other person might say on the way to the restaurant, "I'd like to pick up dinner," Baldrige suggested.
For those who think men should pay first
Gail Prince, a dating coach and coauthor of the book, "Soul Dating to Soul Mating," thinks it's generally good advice that the person who pursues pays in the beginning.
She notes, however, that the expectation that the man will pay first is still in force among large pockets of daters, particularly those in their 40s and beyond. The woman feels more comfortable and nurtured when the man pays on the first date, she noted, and the man often feels like it's his role.
That squares with the findings of anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of "Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce."
"Throughout nature, males have provided food for females in exchange for sex," Fisher said. Primordially speaking, she argued, humans are hard-wired to understand that exchange system in our mating rituals.
While you're choking on that, keep in mind Fisher is not suggesting that women should offer sex for dinner or that they never should pay on a date. Far from it. When a woman pays, that signals her interest and her power, and a man who lets himself be paid for signals his acceptance of the woman's interest and power.
That can be an important part of getting to know each other. But if serious courtship is the goal, a man paying on a first or second date advances that goal more quickly. "At some point almost all women want to know the man is willing to pay," said Fisher. "They want to know what his intentions are," she said.
Why going Dutch is (often) dopey
There are countless reasons some people think "going Dutch" is a perfect solution. But I'd argue there are very limited situations in which it makes sense.
Baldrige thinks separate checks are a good idea on a blind date, where no one is the pursuer per se. Splitting the bill might also be understandable for those 20-somethings with one foot in college and one foot in a low-paying job.
Beyond that, I think dividing up the cost is a practice best left to nights out with friends, colleagues and potential job contacts.
A date is different because the goal is different. By taking each other out, you're literally taking care of each other, however symbolically. In my book, that goes a long way toward contributing to the sense that you're a couple, not just two separate bodies temporarily taking up the same space.
Even if the date is a bust, paying or being paid for is just a more gracious act than tallying up costs at the end of an evening. It's a generous act, too.
Generosity is sexy. This may seem old-fashioned, gentlemen, and I certainly can't speak for all women. But I'm inclined to think one of three things if a man makes a habit of splitting the bill and never offering to pay: he's not serious, he's cheap or he's not assertive enough.
On the other hand, women who have a permanent aversion to picking up the check are not friends I'd be proud to have.
"Realize it's give and take," Baldrige said. "It's not all take, take, take."
Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. ET. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.