how to handle networking lunches when I no longer have an expense account

A reader writes:

I recently moved from a lower-level job with a big corporation to a higher-level position at a smaller place. The corporate job put an emphasis on fancy lunches to connect with new people in the industry and allowed each employee a generous expense account. Due to our remote location and budget, it’s clear that lunch meetings will not be part of the networking we’re doing at the small company.

A colleague I used to lunch with has emailed me to say we should get together. Traditionally in our industry, someone in my position should always pay, and the person in her position should be treated–it doesn’t alternate. She works in an expensive part of town; the last lunch I treated her to was $90, not an amount I feel comfortable paying out of pocket (she insisted on a particularly fancy restaurant instead of the ones I’d suggested, citing her dietary restrictions).

Should I suggest we meet for something else (coffee? a drink?) and push for a cheaper location? Or perhaps there’s a graceful way to hint ahead of time that I won’t be able to pick up the tab?

I wrote back to this reader and asked: “Is there a benefit to you to meet with her or would it be purely social? Is there a benefit to your company?” The response:

Yes. She could eventually sell projects to my company, and the lunch is a way to entice her to do so.

Well, first, talk to your manager at your new company. If you’d be having lunch with her as a business development strategy, in the hope that your employer could eventually do business with her, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if they’d consider a business expense. It’s entirely possible that the answer may be yes; it doesn’t sound like you’ve actually heard of any blanket ban on this sort of thing, just that you’re assuming it’s likely. So ask, and explain why.

If the answer is no but you still want to get together with this woman, then write back and suggest coffee. Don’t make a big deal out of the fact that it’s not lunch. Just say something like, “I’d love to catch up. How’s 3:00 on Tuesday at XYZ Coffee?” (Make sure that you’re suggesting somewhere that her dietary restrictions will allow her to say yes to, if you know what they are.)

If she counters with an expensive restaurant and you’re not up for that, then you’ll have to get more direct. For instance: “I’d love to, but the new job doesn’t have us on expense accounts! (Or, I’m on a tighter budget these days.) But I’d love to see you. Have you ever been to ___? It’s great.” (Name some lower-priced option than what she suggested.)

For whatever it’s worth, though, it sounds like you’ve had multiple expensive lunches with this woman — or rather, she’s had multiple expensive lunches on you — and it might be worth thinking about whether anything is really likely to come of it, professionally. If not, she’s getting a bunch of fancy lunches (where she gets to overrule you and name the location, no less), and you’re getting … what?

If your employer doesn’t value the business contact enough to let you expense it, then you need to ask yourself whether you do. For instance,will she be valuable to you as a networking contact the next time you’re looking for a job? Or is she a resource who allows you to perform your own job better? If so, you might be willing to shoulder the expense in the name of the real networking benefits you derive from the relationship. Or do you simply like her socially? In that case, the rules should change and you should stop paying for everything, because otherwise it’s not really a social relationship. Or are you simply continuing to meet with her out of a vague idea that it’s good to network? In that case, you might ask whether it’s worth it to you to pay to network with someone who insists on more expensive meals than you’re comfortable paying for (if indeed she does, once you redirect her).

I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that’s the place to start with your thinking.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Ash*

    $90 for lunch seems insane! Even if you’re in an expensive part of the country (or any country really), I’m assuming that you aren’t guzzling wine or cocktails, so where the heck did that price tag come from?

    1. KayDay*

      That’s definitely an expensive lunch, but 2 people could definitely spend $90 at an expensive restaurant over lunch. BLT Steak (for example) is a popular “power-lunch” place here: If they got 2 petit fillets (38) and split an appetizer of tuna tartare (18) that’s 94 dollars before tax and tip.

      That said, there are plenty of restaurants that are much cheaper and having great food. Also, I can’t think of a dietary restriction that forces anyone to only eat at ninety-dollar-lunch places. Plenty of less expensive places should be able to accommodate her.

      1. -X-*

        Yeah. Two nice entrees at $25-30 each, plus two appetizers at $10 each, plus some sodas and/or coffee at $5 each. Plus tax and tip and we’re over $90.

        Fancy sure, but not out of the ordinary where I live.

        1. Tasha*

          Maybe it’s just my social group or region, but we tend to not order appetizers or split one thing among 4-6 people. Dinner entrees might run $18-$25, but lunch is closer to $12-$16. (This also applies when I’m getting reimbursed for a work function.) So lunch for two people would be around $40. There are probably about two places nearby where lunch for two could plausibly go over $70, and neither of them has particularly amazing food.

          1. Cat*

            No, this is normal people pricing; I think that is usual for most people everywhere in the U.S. I think the fancy $45/person business lunch is really just for a select group of people.

            I do remember back in the days before the legal market crashed, the big New York law firms had a $60/person lunch budget for their summer associates (law student interns they were trying to woo), I think, and some people complained that that didn’t get them what they wanted.

            1. KayDay*

              yes, this. I was trying to say that a 45/person lunch is definitely very expensive, but at the same time completely plausible for someone who has an expense account dedicated to nice lunches for networking. I think there are a number of restaurants where a majority of their business comes from people who aren’t paying for the meal themselves.

          2. KellyK*

            Yeah, your experience totally matches mine. Entrees more in the $15 range even at nicer places at lunch time, and usually not getting appetizers.

            I think you have to not only go to an upscale place but order multiple courses (either apps, dessert, or both) to get a lunch that expensive. *But* if people are used to networking lunches being paid for, that makes them a lot more inclined to go for the pricey stuff. The person buying wants to add to the schmooze factor, and the person being treated goes “Yay, free steak!”

            I was curious about how my area compares, so I looked on Yelp, because they have dollar sign rankings for restaurants. Three dollar signs is “spendy,” 31-60 per person for app, entrée and one drink. Searching on “lunch” I found exactly one restaurant in my area that fits that category, and none in the $$$$ range, which is 60 and up.

            That one spendy place is a common one for “special” work lunches, and work parties for contract wins or other major occasions are often held there. Even there, you’d have to work at it to order $45 worth of food. Their apps run from $4 (small cup of soup) to $15 (artisanal cheese plate), and even their most expensive lunch entrée is only $15 (though you could hit 20 if you added filet mignon to their most expensive entrée salad).

            There’s also a sushi and hibachi place, where you could break $45 if you ordered the most expensive hibachi combo (shrimp & lobster) *and* an appetizer, or if you ordered a ton of sushi.

            Though I’m also in the suburbs–I wouldn’t be surprised if similar places are more expensive in the city.

  2. -X-*

    Also, I work in one of the most expensive places in the country (midtown Manhattan) and while it would be easy to spend $90 for lunch for two people, it’s also very possible to have a nice lunch for two, with good service in what appears to a fancy restaurant, for $45-50.

    There is great food for much less around here, but not in places that give the impression of “really nice.”

    1. Elizabeth*

      Maybe I’m calibrated differently, especially because I’m in an area (teaching) where fancy meals are not usually part of doing business. But if I’m spending $50 of my own money on a meal for two, it’d better be a nice dinner with my fiance or a special treat with a good friend – not a networking lunch with a former colleague.

    2. Jessa*

      However, picking up on the fact that the OP said the contact was claiming certain restrictions. I’d be careful to pick a smaller, less expensive place that MET those restrictions so you can say “Oh yes, Jimmy’s is vegetarian or Sarah’s is Kosher,” or whatever to the contact.

  3. Lisa*

    Just cause you don’t have say $1000 a month dedicated to these expenses as part of your dept budget, doesn’t mean they won’t reimburse you on a case by case basis. Get it in writing tho, and limit them until you physically see that check / money. The last thing you need is a yes from your manager but a no from AP so you are out of that money.

    1. AG*

      I agree that it’s definitely worth checking with higher-ups. Even when I worked at a non-profit there was a lot of leeway about expensing business lunches.

  4. Blinx*

    I’m confused. If she’s trying to get your company to buy something (projects?) from her company, shouldn’t SHE be treating??

    1. Cat*

      Maybe it’s a situation where it’s an agent (literary, talent, etc.) courting someone they want to represent.

    2. Penny*

      I was confused by that too. In my experience, the person selling something would treat the potential buyer.

  5. KayDay*

    I think there are two equally acceptable initial options. You could ask your company if this is something you could expense (it’s totally normally to allow a few lunches to be reimbursed, even if employees don’t have an actual expense account to draw from). If they say no, or if you don’t want to ask, it’s also fine to simply ask her for coffee.

    If (and only if) she insists on something expensive, I would simply be upfront and say that you no longer are able to expense the meals. And also, if she only insists on going to fancy places, that’s a sign she’s farm more interested in the free fancy lunch than in actually connecting professionally. Certainly most people love getting a free lunch on someone else’s dime, but normal people would also be okay with something less expensive.

  6. EnnVeeEl*

    I’m going to start limiting where I can eat based on my diet restrictions to only the swankiest places in town…And only if someone else is footing the bill.

    This is a networking COFFEE meeting. They sell water at Starbucks if she can’t have any caffeine.

    There are people who set up networking lunches just for free food and to get out of the office. I’ve come across this a couple of times.

    1. Sascha*

      My boss was telling me the other day that she has had interview candidates try to get free trips from her. They had no intention of actually changing jobs, they just wanted an out of town free trip. Seems too bizarre to be true.

      1. Kou*

        That’s especially weird considering that, if the company pays interview expenses, it’s like a one night in-and-out deal.

        1. Rana*

          No kidding. All the interviews I did that way were all-day affairs, and most of them were in smallish places that rolled up the sidewalks at 9pm. Add in the hassle of dealing with the airport, and I can’t say that any of them qualified as a pleasure trip, even when I enjoyed the interview and interviewers.

        2. Cat*

          Sadly, I totally knew people who used to play this game in law school (as with the uber expensive lunches, before the legal market crashed). They’d sign up to interview at a bunch of firms in the same city and then schedule them so they got, say, a week in a luxury hotel in New York split between the different firms and just had to go to interviews in the morning. I don’t think that really works anymore.

  7. Sascha*

    And I thought I was going wild at On the Border on Saturday nights with my second (gasp) margarita.

    1. KellyK*

      Yeah, I know. I feel vaguely guilty when I spend ten bucks on lunch for myself.

        1. twentymilehike*

          Haha Sascha, we are on the same program! On a regular day, if I didn’t bring my lunch to work with me, then I sadly drive past the Starbucks and subject myself to free Folgers from the stained coffee pot. Or if I can’t resist the urge, I force myself to make a meal from the office cupboard of lost of and forgotten cans and boxes.

          1. Sascha*

            Lol I have done that many times. I feel guilty for getting both in one day, unless it’s pay day, and then I forget about my bills for a few blissful moments. Probably the only reason I like going to conferences is because it’s all on the company dime – I can get multiple fancy coffees, lunch and dinner out, I’m usually in a nice hotel, and I get to feel like Tony Stark for a few days.

    2. Claire*

      In my area, On the Border is a gentleman’s club so…could be pretty wild??

      1. Lizzie B.*

        It’s also a chain of slightly upscale Mexican restaurants. Food’s pretty good, but a bit overpriced.

  8. Another Emily*

    What I find a bit telling is your industry convention is that someone in your position always pays, yet she’s the one emailing you to say you should get together. That seems inappropriate to me and add that she gets to choose the (pricey) restaurant, it does seem like she’s just using you for a bunch of free lunches.

    Even if she’s actually a great contact, her behaviour comes accross as really entitled.

  9. anon-2*

    If it’s personal networking – you each pay your own.

    If it’s a business lunch – a LEGITIMATE one – and your company expects to get something out of it, then the company should pay.

  10. Sniper*

    An industry where Person A asks Person B to go to lunch and Person B is on the hook for the tab? I want to know what that industry is so I can get in it and start asking others to breakfast, lunch and dinner!

    1. Tasha*

      If Person B is senior and/or makes significantly more, I can see how that’s a rational policy. When grad students meet with faculty members, the professor generally offers to pay for a drink, even if the grad student initiated the meeting.

      1. Rana*

        But even then, the faculty member gets to call the shots as to where they go and how much they’re willing to pay. If the grad student doesn’t like their choice, that’s on them, not the faculty member.

    2. Cat*

      I think if you picture this as a scene from Entourage it all starts to make sense.

  11. anon-2*

    I might add one thing — such things can be tax deductible.

    And if your boss renegs on paying after saying he would, be careful because then

    a) you will be expected to do this and
    b) you may have to claim it on your taxes as a business expense (or even, a bad debt – which is a “Dinner Table Story” I have… another time)

  12. Chocolate Teapot*

    USD 90 works out at EUR 68 based on today’s exchange rate. For that you could get a business lunch of several courses here. (The funky-trendy restaurant round the corner from my office proposes 3 courses for EUR 23.50 for example).

    But even so, will it really benefit the company? After all, even the best Michelin starred food never tastes right if you feel you are eating it under false pretences.

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