Who Buys Your Birthday Lunch?

October 11, 2010 By: erik Category: Complaining, Musings, Partying, Reviews, Spain, USA 1,563 views

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Thirty CandlesWhen you live abroad, most customs that don’t match your own seem odd at first. Some traditions are pretty clearly worse, but the people practicing them don’t know any better; most are just different, neither better nor worse; and some are hands down superior to the customs in your own country, and it’s your compatriots back home that don’t know any better. Today I’m going to talk about a Spanish custom that falls into the latter category, being pretty clearly preferable to the tradition in my home country. It’s about who buys lunch or drinks or dinner on your birthday.

The Wrong Way

In the United States, it’s the friends of the person celebrating their birthday that buy lunch for the birthday person. On your birthday, your friends will take you out to lunch, and, depending on how many people are with you, either one person will buy your lunch, or your friends will split the cost of your meal.

If you’re out for drinks, you’re liable to get one round from each friend. Either not many people go out with you for drinks, or you could get very, very drunk.

If you’re out for dinner, then your friends or family are probably splitting your tab amongst themselves.

The final result is that, in the US, if you have any social life whatsoever, you’re going to get some free food or drinks once a year.

The Right Way

In Spain, it’s totally reversed: the person celebrating their birthday pays for everyone’s food and drinks. My initial reaction to this was, “Man, that sucks! It’s my special day and I’m the one taking the financial hit?” But when you consider it further, there are two wonderful corollaries:

  1. Absolutely all of your friends want to come celebrate your birthday with you.
  2. You get free food and drinks all year round!

In my particular social group of about ten people that goes out once a week, we normally split the costs evenly. But every couple weeks someone has a birthday and that week they pick up the dinner tab. It’s always a pleasant surprise.

Even though the giving and receiving theoretically comes out even in both systems, you really don’t mind spending more on your birthday because your friends are there congratulating you on your special day, and the incentive for people to come out and celebrate with their friends acts as a great social lubricant and generally increases happiness for the whole population all year round.

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  • This is how things work in the Shire, too.

    • Interestingly, there is a bar in town (not one where I bought drinks for people today) named La Comarca, which is very, er, Tolkienesque. I never knew what the name meant until a Spanish friend who lives in England visited us and told me it translated to “The Shire”. Oh!

  • uncle Neil

    How does this Spanish custom work for members, or non-members, of your group that are struggling financially or living comfortably with very low expenses?

    • Obviously if you’re poor, your friends won’t expect much, but we’re talking about $0.80 glasses of wine, so you could buy a round for you and your three closest friends for $3.20. If three bucks once a year breaks your bank, then you probably don’t socialize with the bar-going folks anyway.

  • I’ve gotten so used to how things are over here that I can hardly remember what it was like back in the U.S…but you’re right, this is a good one. 🙂

    • I, too, find my “expat blogging” ability waning as each initially shocking custom becomes more and more normal.

  • I had the same reaction when i first discovered this in other European countries. Now I appreciate it because it helps avoid all those tedious “alpha male” disputes about who gets to pay for dinner 😉

    • If you can’t be the alpha dog the rest of the year, then your birthday should be your special day!

  • marc

    Hi! I’m Marc, from Barcelona. in my last birthday i invited all my friends to my home….i cooked for them…and they came to my home with presents and alcohol. If the lunch is in a restaurant…every one pays his meal… it’s possible to invite a drink …but not all drinks and not all night! hahaha

  • TAC

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Spain over the last 10 years and I never understood this custom. Now it makes perfect sense! And I would contend that it is every bit as good, if not better, than our custom. 🙂