can I turn down business lunches as an intern?

A reader writes:

I’m in the last semester of my junior year at college and just started an internship this month that I’m really enjoying. For context, I applied for a different internship that was not customer-facing, and after my Zoom call with HR was asked to interview for an internship on the team who deal with corporate clients. That part is relevant to my question.

In my first week, my boss took me out to a nice, sit-down restaurant lunch and paid for my meal, which was nice. It’s exactly what my mom, who has worked in hiring and as a manager of a team including interns, told me to expect when I got the welcome email saying we’d be going out to lunch on my second day.

Now though, I’m in my third week and I’m being invited to go along with my boss to client lunches 1-2 times a week. Last week my burrito was $18 and at another meal my burger and salad was $16 (both include tip). I get water and don’t want to be weird, only eating half my meal so I can take the rest home to cover another meal later in the week, but it’s getting expensive!

My internship is paid, and it’s slightly more than I was making at my part-time retail job, but it’s part-time and I’m still a broke college student. When I talked to my mom about this, she explained that although my boss was likely expensing the meals, she didn’t think there was a good way I could ask to also have mine expensed. I think she’s probably right, so I’m wondering if there’s a way for me to politely decline these lunch meetings occasionally?

I wrote back and asked, “How is payment working — like at the end of the meal when the check comes, what happens at that point? Are you putting money in without being asked? Is someone dividing up who owes what? Something else?”

The burrito meal was at a Mexican place where your check is brought to your table and then you pay up at the register. All three bills came separately, and each of the other people grabbed their check so I did the same, then we took them to the register to pay. I’m pretty sure my boss only paid for hers, not hers and the client we were meeting with. The other time it was similar, each check came separately and each person paid for their own.

Two other times we’ve been at places with a setup similar to Chipotle where each person orders and pays as they get their food. One of those was with another person on our team, and the other was a meeting with a client.

Also, my mom (who is the person who suggested I write to you) said I should tell you that the person the two interns report to is three levels above me. In my job, I do financial and market research for the relationship managers who all report to Andy, Andy reports to Katlyn, and Katlyn is technically my boss. She’s the one putting the lunches on my schedule or stopping by my desk to invite me.

Talk to your boss! She should be thinking about the expense to you, but probably just isn’t. She’s likely figuring you need to eat and doesn’t realize that the expense is a lot more than if you were handling lunch on your own … but most people would be sympathetic once it’s pointed out. (And you’re a college student, of course you’re broke. It won’t be weird to be up-front about that.)

Say this to her: “I really appreciate you including me in lunches with clients and other staff members, and I’m learning a lot. But I’ve got to be up-front that they’re more expensive than I can manage as a college student! I didn’t want to start turning down the invitations without explaining that, but I can’t afford to eat out so often.”

There is a pretty good chance that she’ll offer to cover your check. She’s almost certainly expensing at least the client lunches, and she should be including yours in that. (I wonder if it’s all those separate checks that’s making her overlook that; if you were at the kind of restaurant that brings one check covering everyone at the table, it would probably be more obvious to her).

But if she doesn’t make that offer, that’s okay; you’ll have explained that it’s not in your budget to keep joining them.

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. Bookworm*

    No advice, just wishing you good luck! These convos can be awkward but hopefully your boss is receptive and this is simply a mistake on her part.

    1. Frodo*

      Here to say the same thing. And kudos to both you and your mom for seeking advice on the best way to handle a tricky situation.

  2. ThatGirl*

    Yep, if these are part of the workday and not just a casual intern-hang at Chipotle, they should be expensed – and I am willing to bet your boss is expensing them. If she has a corporate card, she should just pay for you; if not, she should get you set up to have your lunches reimbursed.

    1. SocialGrenades*

      Who goes to chipotle for a business lunch? Is that a thing? The acoustics are awful and the seating is uncomfortable.

      1. Betty*

        I think ThatGirl is trying to make the point that lunch with coworkers isn’t inherently a business expense, and using Chipotle to be the “this would be an obvious ‘not a reimbursable business lunch'” example

      2. Random Dice*

        It doesn’t matter if YOU would go there for a business lunch. The point is that this person’s manager is going there for a business lunch, and it should be expensed.

        This is someone new to the workplace, she doesn’t need confusing asides about acoustics.

        1. Rejected corporate credit card*

          The odds are very strong that the manager is under the impression that the intern is submitting the receipts for reimbursement.

          1. Em*

            I dunno, at least in my experience there is often manager approval required for reimbursement, especially when it’s an intern or junior employee. I wouldn’t be surprised if the manager just hasn’t considered the experience from her intern’s perspective. To the manager, $16 for lunch 2x per week is probably fine.

      3. SleeplessKJ*

        Depending on where you’re located it’s entirely possible that a place like chipotle is the best one can do. Also these days cutting expenses is a thing.

      4. ThatGirl*

        Well a) I misread and thought the LW had gone to Chipotle vs something like it but b) I also mentioned it in context of interns hanging out there together for lunch – anyway, the actual restaurant doesn’t matter, it was just an example. Fill in Panera or Naf Naf or whatever.

      5. That Coworker's Coworker*

        The Letter Writer doesn’t say any of the meals were actually at Chipotle. They’re just using it as an example of a type of restaurant payment setup: they said “…a setup similar to Chipotle where each person orders and pays as they get their food…”

      6. Chocolate Covered Cotton*

        Isnt it normally expected, when having a business lunch with a client, to pay for the client’s lunch?

      7. NaoNao*

        I worked at an office tower downtown where there were many fast-casual places just like that within a block or two: Chipotle, Panera, Stack Sub, Cheesecake Factory, Mellow Mushroom, the dining chairs at a nearby Whole Foods, and so on. It seemed pretty common for groups or a couple people to “take” someone out to lunch and go to these very casual places–like grab the sandwich and then use a park or the office lunchroom to eat in.

        I will say there were also more upscale “white tablecloth” places around too, and that’s where I brought my intern for a goodbye lunch, I agree that fast-casual on the go places aren’t ideal for business lunches.

    2. Smithy*

      Just wanted to add that the boss might not be expensing, is paying for this out of pocket, and sees this as a “normal” cost for a downtown lunch. The blind spot might be that the intern is being put in a tough position of wanting to join or knowing it would be beneficial to join, but not finding those prices to be “no big deal” for lunch.

      I’m in DC, and it’s far far too easy to go to lunch at places where those are the prices. Now I’m not making intern prices, and normally make that choice for myself. But when I’m invited to lunch by a colleague (junior, peer or mildly senior) where there’s no expectation of someone else picking up the tab – none of us are expensing.

      This does NOT mean the OP still needs to be going or should suck up the expense. However if lunches aren’t being expensed, the pivot might be to see about eating take away in the office where the OP can join with their lunch. Or suggesting coffee instead that could be cheaper.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        That’s what I was thinking, but I also come from an environment (academia) where there is no mechanism for expensing a random lunch.

        1. no*

          Depends on the institution! I can easily expense random lunches, boots, 40lbs of rock, tobacco… We’re one of the weirder parts of the university, but the process is accessible to everyone.

      2. amoeba*

        Yeah, I’d also never expense a normal lunch break with coworkers, no matter if at the canteen or at a restaurant – but if it’s a client lunch that’s probably more like a work meeting, typically it would be paid for by the company here!

        1. Smithy*

          Right. I’m in nonprofit fundraising, and no boss of mine would ever tell me that I’d have to pay for a meal with a donor (provided it was a situation where it didn’t make sense for them to pay – or made more sense for me to pay). And if I was already traveling out of town and doing an expense report, it’d be really easy to include that specific meal into the expense report.

          However….when I’ve done those meetings in town, if it’s just a coffee, just lunch for me, even taxi fair to/from the meeting – once I hit a certain point in my salary, I stopped expensing those. Not that I had to, but I’d only really do it at a cost/benefit analysis to myself. I didn’t have a set up for a company card or a month expense report, so to figure out how to submit $40 in taxi expenses, $13 for two business coffees and $19 for a business lunch – I should have, could have – but regularly wouldn’t.

          Big picture is this doesn’t happen regularly – so spread out over three months, it can begin to feel unimportant. Particularly when those expenses are covered at other times. Now if I had an intern, it would be that helpful reminder to pick up the tab for both of us and then actually do the leg work to get it covered as a good internship program should want me to do.

    3. learnedthehardway*

      Agreeing – the boss is undoubtedly expensing business lunches. The intern should explain the cost issue and ask how to submit receipts for the business lunches. Hopefully, the manager will just start paying for them and submitting the expenses herself, but if she doesn’t, at least the intern will know how to submit the expense for reimbursement.

    4. The Intern*

      Hi. I’m the intern! The place is pretty upscale Italian restaurant that’s not national (which is why I didn’t name it in the letter). Meals there are about $15-$20, and the place isn’t all metal like Chipotle. It’s similar to Chipotle in that you pick all the toppings for your pasta and they make it there, so I used Chipotle as a comparison because I figured people would know that set up. :)

  3. OrdinaryJoe*

    Fully agree with her probably not thinking about it. This is especially true if she’s more use to being joined by co-workers (who also expense) vs an intern who doesn’t know how to do that or what the standard protocol is. She might also be thinking that you will be submitting your own expense report as part of your training.

    I would also veto the To Go box unless everyone else is doing it.

    1. ferrina*

      This is something that I see higher-ups overlook all the time. We regularly need to coach our early career staff on expensing and encourage them to have these conversations with the higher-ups. Most higher-ups will forget, but are happy to help get it taken care of (and those that are grumpy about it always have other issues that make them difficult)

    2. Sweet Tooth*

      Why would you veto the to-go box? I’ve been to plenty of business meals where someone, any level from New Grad to VP, doesn’t finish and brings it back. We all want to reduce waste!

      1. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

        I don’t think it’s bad to take leftovers to go. As long as the intern isn’t over-ordering, there’s no reason not to.

        1. Antilles*

          Over-ordering is the only scenario where I could argue against the to-go boxes. Like, if you’re ordering an extra entree or a 64-ounce steak solely because you know you’ll get extra meals out of it? Yeah, that might raise some eyebrows and get you a polite hint/warning of “remember, even though we’re billing this to the project, part of our role is to be reasonable stewards of the client’s money”.
          Otherwise, yeah, not really sure about the concern here.

          1. FridayFriyay*

            Right but in this case that isn’t even a factor since the LW is already paying for the meals themself.

        2. Boof*

          Yeah; I’ll admit I sometimes get a to go box of desert to take home to the fam at some of the expensed shindigs these days, but an intern probably shouldn’t do the extra to go order unless higher ups are + telling them to go ahead (it’s ok to give the eyebrow “hmm, should I…?” soft query if higher ups are doing the same)
          Boxing up anything uneaten from a standard lunch should always be ok and any place that makes it weird is a weird place and maybe not worth paying too much mind to if you can manage it

          1. nm*

            For real I think I’ve seen more often that people get weird looks for NOT taking their leftovers. Like the other people at the table are thinking “if it was that bad we shouldn’t go to this restaurant anymore”

          2. amoeba*

            I mean, they’re paying for their own meal in this scenario, so I’d argue that they can order as many desserts to take home as they like! (Not that they’d probably like to, seeing that they’re already struggling with the cost…)

            1. Boof*

              I’m talking about a scenario where someone else is paying for food; you are right if they are paying themselves they can do whatever provided they aren’t a slob about it! (I’m thinking back to some of the weird food posts in the past)

    3. renata ricotta*

      I have these type of lunches frequently and think to-go boxes are totally fine, even if only one person (including the most junior person) does it. It won’t read as being unduly frugal; many portions are too large to comfortably eat in one sitting, and plenty of people just don’t like to waste food.

    4. Antilles*

      Why veto the To Go box?
      It’s pretty much universal that if you go to a restaurant and don’t finish your meal, you can take the rest to go. Even at business meals when the company is paying for it, I’ve seen enough people do it that it wouldn’t even cross my mind to think that’s strange.

    5. Candi*

      I have to disagree on the to go box.

      It’s extremely rare at any meal I can eat a restaurant-sized serving in one go. This is my normal. It being a client-facing meal wouldn’t make it an exception.

      As long as it’s the normally-served food for that order, I don’t see a problem.

    6. Elliot*

      I don’t understand to-go boxes as being weird (Unless you’re like, ordering a whole extra meal to go). Portions at restaurants are way more food than most of us would normally eat in one sitting at home or if we were preparing our own meal, and eating that much isn’t healthy or comfortable. I can’t remember the last time I finished a meal at a restaurant!

      1. amoeba*

        If you’re paying for yourself and the restaurant is also offering takeaway, I’d even say that’s completely normal as well! “Oh, I like the food here, will get something for dinner/my flatmate/whatever as well”

    7. Random Dice*

      Wait what? You think people should throw away perfectly good food? Why?!


      Enjoying contributing carbon to our climate?

      I’m genuinely confused.

      1. OrdinaryJoe*

        My opinion was just for business lunches, not snobbery or wanting to contribute carbon to the climate :-)

        My opinion was based on potential mess of transferring food, taking up space on the table, having to make room on the table for your plate and a to go container (assuming you are doing it yourself vs the staff doing it – which seems more and more common now), and then one more thing to juggle when you are potentially shaking hands, dealing with business materials, etc.

        For formal business meals, I just find it overly complicated. Personally meals or just with casual coworkers … totally different

        1. CheesePlease*

          If it’s a client meeting at a place like Chipotle, I doubt there is anything super formal occurring.

        2. Observer*

          My opinion was just for business lunches, not snobbery or wanting to contribute carbon to the climate :-)

          I’m not sure what one has to do with the other.

          For formal business meals, I just find it overly complicated.

          It doesn’t sound like any to go box scenario I’ve seen.

        3. Broadway Duchess*

          I am baffled by this take, especially given the description of the restaurant(s) on question. I an almost never able to finish a meal at a restaurant unless it is a fabulous, gourmet place; I paid for it, I’m taking it with me. Never once has the experience of boxing up my own meal looked like what you describe; the servers often ask me if I want a box before I can even ask. LW shouldn’t feel a need to throw out perfectly good food that he paid for and presumably needs (and that’s before getting into the financial irresponsibly of wasting food) as some weird adherence to a social norm that doesn’t actually exist.

          1. Paulina*

            Some places I eat switched to box-it-yourself (with a container provided by the restaurant) because of Covid, and a few have yet to switch back to boxing it for you. They mostly ask proactively, however, some of them if there’s anything left on the plate at all.

      2. Syfy Geek*

        It can depend on how long it’s going to be between finishing lunch and being able to get the food into a fridge. If I can’t put my leftovers into a refrigerator, and it’s something that should not be stored at room temp, I’m not taking them with me.

        And depending on what I’m already carrying in my hands, I may not be able to carry leftovers after we leave.

        1. Working*

          ^^at least in Australia, if an employee took leftovers home grom a work lunch and got sick, there’s a strong argument that the employer, or the restaurant, would be liable.

          And that’s why you don’t get the option.

          Just order a smaller meal.

          1. Critical Rolls*

            There are a lot of people/places where “just order a smaller meal” is not actually a very doable option. It’s much weirder/more memorable to order two sides as a meal than it is to take home leftovers. And I kind of doubt Australian employers are liable for their employees failing to follow good practice with their lunch leftovers.

          2. coffee*

            It’s not common in Australia to take home leftovers because our meals are smaller. I think this is a cultural US thing which doesn’t really translate to Australian business etiquette.

            1. Rejected corporate credit card*

              This is an Australia-specific thing, allegedly done on the public health grounds of preventing food poisoning.

          3. Lunita*

            I’ve never heard of that in the US, and there’s no reason you can’t get a to go box. I do it all the time at business lunches and it’s not complicated or weird. And we all kept leftovers in the company fridge.

            1. amoeba*

              In Europe it’s much less common because smaller portions, but even here I’d say it’s a perfectly normal thing to ask, in casual restaurants at least! Maybe don’t try it for the Michelin-starred tasting menu, but something fast food-adjacent? Sure.

    8. Just Another Cog in the Machine*

      Where I used to work (a global company), occasionally a couple people from the office Italy would come visit. We would take them out to lunch, and one mentioned once how great he thought US “doggie bags” (his words) were. In Italy, no one would dare take their leftovers home (although their portions are probably smaller, so it’s less common/necessary), but he loved having lunch for the next day.

      He said he would also make a point to visit the outlet mall 45 minutes away and stock up on Christmas presents.

  4. LucyGoosy*

    Went through this as an AmeriCorps–office was federally funded so there was no food budget for events, but once a month the company had an optional-not-optional happy hour where we had to buy our own drinks. I would always make excuses about why I couldn’t go, but one day when my boss asked why I wasn’t coming, I almost started crying and said, “Because I can’t afford it!” She clarified that she was happy to pay for me out of her OWN pocket, and eventually, it became easier to opt-out of things like that.

      1. Sloanicota*

        To be honest, many of our office happy hours are at a nearby bar, and everybody’s paying for their own drinks (the rare times the happy hour has been on site, drinks were provided by the company). But you don’t have to order a drink to participate, of course.

      2. De Minimis*

        Federal laws can be very strict about the circumstances where food can be purchased, if the funding is going directly to a federal agency. Pretty much unless someone is on travel status, no food allowed. I’ve been to meetings where upper management decided to pay out of pocket because they wanted to provide snacks for the attendees.

        It appears to be way, way more loose for Federal grantees though.

          1. LucyGoosy*

            This was also around the time of Muffin-gate, so at the time there was definitely zero chill about using public funds for anything that could be consumed.

  5. Eldritch Office Worker*

    You may also be able to submit a retroactive expense report for at least the last month, if not longer. See if you can get some money back.

    1. Beth*

      I’m also betting this will be the case! OP, if your manager responds to this by explaining the expense reimbursement process, please do ask if it’s OK to file for reimbursement for your past lunches. Even if you don’t have the receipts anymore, if you paid by card, your credit card statement will show the cost.

      1. oranges*

        Yes! Ask for the retroactive expense report policy. We have months at my work for that stuff. (And you don’t need a receipt under $25.)


    2. EGGO*

      I once submitted 18 months worth of mileage at one time. No one told me when I started to track mileage and I was young and dumb and didn’t know! It was nice getting a huge chunk of cash at once! lol

  6. RPOhno*

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you get a response along the lines of “you’re not putting in for reimbursement?” and learn something about expense reporting at the company…

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Yea. In the supervisor’s mind, they’re probably performing a niceness by getting LW’s lunch paid for by the company instead of out-of-pocket.

        1. Drago Cucina*

          Depending on the client, they may not be allowed to have someone else pay for their meals. Especially if anything in their company is, even tangentially, government-related.

        2. Betty*

          Enh, depends on industry. If client is US government, there are super strict rules, to the point that it’s normal for there to be a system for government clients to pay for boxed lunches/sandwich trays at a contractor-hosted meeting.

        3. MigraineMonth*

          Yeah, that part surprised me as well. Unless there are rules against it (e.g. government), I would expect everyone’s meal would be expensed, including the client.

          That does make me less sure that the boss is expensing her own meal, as well.

        4. HonorBox*

          There are instances when I’ll pick up my own tab when someone offers because I don’t want the optics to be that I was getting some type of personal benefit through work.

        5. Industry Behemoth*

          A boss of mine wasn’t able to take a US Government employee to lunch at her club, because he couldn’t pay directly for his own meal there. The club would have required charging it to my boss’s account.

    2. UKDancer*

      Yes when I have new staff I usually talk them through expenses policy before they first have to go to something. I explain the type of things we cover, what we pay for at a corporate level, how to claim on the system and why you need to keep all the receipts.

      But it’s more than likely your boss thinks someone else has explained how to claim things. I’d mention it and see what happens. People don’t always remember what new arrivals need to be told, especially if they’ve been there a while.

    3. Ally McBeal*

      I think you’re right, but it’s crappy of someone who supervises interns to not explicitly ask their intern “hey, you got training on how to expense these client lunches, right?” They shouldn’t be assuming that intern orientation covers something like that, especially since the company has non-public-facing internships and that sort of info would be irrelevant and confusing during intern orientation for those folks.

  7. Jesshereforthecomments*

    LW, is there any feedback you can give at the end of your internship, similar to an exit interview – whether it’s to HR at the organization or to someone at your school? I would suggest you tell them all the positive things, including that you got to sit in on client meetings, but also let them know that they may need to remind the intern managers that interns often cannot afford to eat out and help the leaders be sensitive to that.

    While I agree with the advice that your boss probably just didn’t think about it and had no bad intentions, it’s something she should have already been aware of in my opinion, and she needs to address this issue for herself in managing future interns.

    1. Antilles*

      I don’t think it’s something you need to wait that long for though. This seems like pure forgetfulness that could be addressed like, tomorrow with one quick conversation. Why wait the extra months till the internship ends in December (I’m guessing) to address this?

      1. Martin Blackwood*

        I think doing both would be a good idea, to fix in the short term w OPs boss, and potentially long term by flagging to HR that interns aren’t getting told about reimbursements or having their managers pay or what have you

      2. Somewhere in Texas*

        I read this as an opportunity for training for intern managers as a whole for the next batch. Not in replacement of a here and now conversation, but an addition to help future interns.

  8. renata ricotta*

    People sometimes just aren’t thinking through these things! I organized our summer law student intern program at my firm, and made sure to send out an email to all attorneys at the beginning of the summer emphasizing that (1) they should invite the interns to lunch whenever possible to increase their learning experiences, and (2) they needed to pick up the check and expense the meal without letting it get to the awkward-check-dancing point! It’s one of those things that feel like Common Sense, but sometimes people need reminders for whatever reason.

    It stinks you have to be the one to raise it here, but Alison’s suggested wording would go over very well in my workplace, and would prompt people to realize they should have been paying for you all along.

    1. Corelle*

      Seconding that Allison’s suggested working would go over well at my workplace also. I am sensitive to these things as a manager but many of my peers don’t think about it! It’s unfortunate but it happens. Someday you’ll take an intern out to lunch and I bet you won’t need a reminder, OP!

  9. Momma Bear*

    Definitely clarify the expectation here. If you can expense them, find out how. If you can’t afford them, the person organizing needs to know that you appreciate the opportunity but can’t do it so often on your own dime.

  10. ReallyBadPerson*

    I think that once people reach a certain financial bracket, say, middle management, and are there for a few years, they just forget how much every cent counts, even if they were previously broke. I spent my college years and most of my 20s pretty strapped, but when I read that the LW got a burger and salad AND paid her tip for $16, I thought what a good deal that was! So your boss will probably thank you, as I do, for the reminder that this is not something interns can normally afford to spend on a meal.

    1. Adultiest Adult*

      I’m in the nonprofit life, and I have definitely seen this as a thing… people forget how challenging those early years can be. And nonprofits in general can be terrible about expensing anything. But this is one thing I will say about my own boss, although in conversations she can be forgetful about finances, if she takes me out to lunch or coffee, she always pays, and she makes it clear that’s her responsibility. And as a result I expect to pick up the tab for anyone under me in a similar situation. Especially our interns, who don’t get paid at all!

  11. Snow Globe*

    Where I work, lunches with clients are *always* reimbursed for everyone attending (and I work for a company that is stingy with non-client related expenses.) I would bet that is the case here, but no one has explained the process to the LW. It may even be explained in an employee handbook, if there is one.

  12. Candi*

    I’d like to congratulate the mother here for sensible advice, and the referral to useful sources wen she didn’t have the answers.

    1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      I’m the mom in this, so thank you! As soon as we talked about it I said, “You gotta write AAM and see what Alison’s take is on this. I don’t think she’s going to like it!” lol

  13. CubeFarmer*

    How clueless do you have to be to not think about lunch expenses for an intern? Even I, a mid-career person, bring my own lunch because eating out in Manhattan is $$$.

    1. CRM*

      There are a lot of managers out there that probably could have afforded these lunches even as an intern, because they were receiving financial help from parents (even if they didn’t come from significant wealth, they may have been able to live at home or use their parents’ credit card for small things). Depending on their life experiences, they might not even realize that there are interns out there who don’t receive extra assistance.

      If expensing the lunches is an option, the manager might assume the intern already knows how to do that. But a good manager would definitely double check (with any new hire, but especially with an intern). That part feels the most clueless to me.

    2. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      So, so many people do not think about expenses for other people, and I’ve found that it gets progressively worse the more $$ someone makes.

      They just assume everyone can do what they do. Even if they were once in that very same situation!

    3. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I’d imagine it’s more that the manager assumes someone else covered that part of the intern’s onboarding.

      1. Feckless Rando*

        That was my thought. If this manager is 3 levels above they probably aren’t the day to day oversight person, so they probably thought the day to day manager had/would make sure the intern knew.

      2. UKDancer*

        Yes definitely. If the manager is fairly senior they’re not directly involved in onboarding and probably assumed someone else mentioned the policy and rules.

    4. CheesePlease*

      My manager eats out probably 3-4x a week. In some company cultures it’s just the normal to buy lunch regularly

  14. Drago Cucina*

    Lots of good advice, but I wanted to give Mom kudos for referring to AAM. See, not all parents give bad advice :-D

  15. Unkempt Flatware*

    I’ve found that many many people forget how difficult it is for people to dine out. Pressure to do so is so common. I am at the top of my field making a good salary and I am financially unable to go out to lunch. It’s fine to invite folks to lunch but it is another to pressure someone, implicitly or explicitly and putting someone in a position to either lie or admit their financial limitations is Not Cool.

    Invitations from a boss are hard to say no to. Offers from others to pay for me make me feel even worse. When someone is an intern or just starting out, it is a kindness to explain very clearly how lunch is paid for when inviting them and that they are of course allowed to decline without issue. For those who are new and need to set boundaries, I encourage you to set them right away. “No thank you. I always bring my lunch from home.” Be sure to use Always or Will Always when politely declining. It makes a firmer and permanent No.

  16. Pyanfar*

    This is why I am a huge proponent of companies having a “most senior person at the table pays” rule. It does two things…makes sure that the lowest paid person doesn’t get stuck floating expenses on a personal card AND makes sure that someone not at the meal reviews and approves the expense (or corrects the person who expensed something that shouldn’t have been).

    There is a corollary to this rule…the person ordering lunches always gets to order one for themselves and include the cost in the order…but that is for another day…

    1. oranges*

      Yes to these both!
      Slightly related: Several years ago, I worked at a place with very limited parking. I’d been there the longest, so I was one of the few in the department with onsite parking. It was well known that I’d be happy to pick up lunch for your team meeting, so long as you added a salad and chips to that order.

    2. Ashley*

      I always liked this rule. In settings where we had people at similar levels we would talk ahead of time if we were dining with an outsider. On a work trip where we were all pretty junior there was some turn taking so no one’s report was to big. (Individual checks weren’t required and it saves everyone time to do a group check.) Sometimes it depended when it fell in the month for someone’s credit card statement closing vs when reports were due and paid. If we had a customer and not some clearly senior I usually offered knowing I could float it until the reimbursement to avoid awkwardness for others. (Plus I love credit card rewards.)
      It is always good at new jobs to make friends with someone who you can run these questions by and as an intern having someone dedicated to the intern program can be super helpful. I think most places just forgot that you don’t know the way things work or assume your boss will tell you forgetting your boss is the person that never does the reports right to start with.

    3. Anonosaurus*

      100%. When i take anyone in my team out for coffee or lunch, I pay with my corporate card if it’s work related and with my personal card if it’s social. I know what some of them are making and I would never expect them to pay, or even to front it and reclaim. in my first job out of college I was expected to cover business travel expenses and seek reimbursement, but the organisation (a non-profit, yes how did you guess) took forever to pay back. I once had to ask my then fiance to transfer cash to me by Western Union so I could cover the end of a trip. After that I insisted on a float from petty cash otherwise I wasn’t going, but I was bolshy as hell when I was in my twenties.

      tl;Dr – boss has probably just overlooked this and will be happy to correct it either by reimbursement or picking up your check. I would and so would any decent boss I’ve worked with.

    4. Paulina*

      Yes. And the most senior person is also most likely the person with the most influence on the place chosen (and thus the level of expenses).

  17. Lisa*

    If the lunch can be expensed, the senior person should be submitting for reimbursement. Also, wouldn’t her expense report have to be approved by her boss?

  18. KatKatKatKat*

    Once you get this straightened out with your boss (there are business lunches that should be reimbursed), you should submit your receipts from these prior lunches for reimbursement. If you don’t have the receipts, that should be ok because they’re under $25 and you can just print off those specific transactions from your bank statement or credit card (just those specific transactions – you don’t need to give them your entire statement).

    My view is slightly different from Alison’s: Go into this discussion with your boss with the mindset that these should be reimbursed and you’re just asking for how to get them reimbursed :) Good luck and get that money!

    1. DontAssumeReimbursement*

      They wouldn’t have been reimbursed at any place I’ve ever worked and assuming they would be would reflect badly on OP.

      1. SusieQQ*

        I am curious about this. All the places I work at would reimburse this. It’s jarring for me to hear that at some places it is the norm for employees to pay for their own work lunches.

  19. Flax Dancer*

    What IS there about having money that makes people oblivious to the reality that most people in this world do NOT have as much money as they do, and that blithely assuming that OF COURSE your college-student intern can afford everything that you pay for without a second thought?!

    Please, affluent people: stop being thickheaded about how much other people have! (And realize, too, that even those on a par with your salary may be helping out/supporting elderly or disabled family members, have high medical expenses, be paying off astronomical student loans, etc. Just because people have a good salary doesn’t mean that 90% of it can go for discretionary expenses!) Being thoughtful and sensitive to this very basic reality will go a LONG way towards winning you the loyalty and respect of colleagues and subordinates- it really will!

    1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      This, so much. There was definitely a time when I had to watch everything I bought, and a lunch out could mean I was going to be eating ramen for the rest of the week. Now that I finally make enough that I don’t have to budget every meal carefully, I try to be really aware of what I’m asking of people. Even getting a coffee out can be pricey!

    2. ghost_cat*

      I am in a government role (so no expense accounts) and about a quarter of our team works from other states. When remote staff visit our office, there is invariably a ‘let’s do a team lunch’. Great, except for the remote staff all receive travel allowances and their lunch is covered. My isn’t. Or, there’s the ‘let’s do an afternoon tea and everyone bring a plate’. Except again, the remote staff usually don’t (staying in a hotel, limited shops near the office etc etc) and we are expected to cater for everyone. It’s gotten to the point where I try and organise a WFH day when remote staff are visiting.

  20. HonorBox*

    LW, first and foremost, your mom sounds awesome. Thank you for asking her for advice and for submitting your letter.

    I think saying something to your boss would be great, as I’m guessing they’re just not thinking about the cost and the fact that you, as an intern, haven’t been shown how to expense meals. The other thing you could do is ask whoever oversees finance if there is a form you need to fill out for work-related meal expenses. I would ask that in a way that conveys “of course there is, but I wasn’t shown where it is” and not like you’re asking for a favor.

  21. pcake*

    In a similar situation, I used to order just a side – like a rice and bean plate or a bowl or rice. That way, I was eating – it seems odd if you’re at lunch and not eating – but it cost a third to a half of a full burrito or lunch.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Best would be for business to cover a business lunch because of the whole tip-culture problem–ordering just a side means the waiter earns less that day. And many of us need more food than that to be productive for the rest of the day.

  22. New Mom*

    I’m someone who has managed interns the previous four summers. I’m sorry this is happening to you and I think Alison’s advice is great about talking to the manager. I hope it was just an oversight in her part and not intentional because I remember how frugal I had to be in college and would’ve been beyond stressed. But she should not react badly when you bring up costs.

    I was pretty annoyed at my own organization this past summer because one of the requirements for interns is to get a background check. When I got mine way back in the day it was pre-paid by the company at the background check organization they recommended and no one told m this has changed at some point.
    This past summer one of the interns told me she couldn’t do the internship because she couldn’t afford the out of pocket cost and when I reached out to HR they were like “oh, we don’t pre-pay anymore but they can request a reimbursement”.
    I felt terrible because no one told me and I had no idea the interns were forking over the cost for that, and if it’s been going on for a while that means last summer my previous interns had to pay and were not reimbursed.
    I provide this example as an encouragement to speak up because organizations can be really disorganized sometimes and don’t let them take advantage of you.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Yikes, can you point this out to HR and get last year’s interns paid? Background checks can be pricey!

    2. nnn*

      If you’re in any sort of position to communicate upstream towards the people who made that decision, you might mention that requiring employees to pay money upfront is frequently given as a prime example of how to tell if a job is a scam, so that policy is really not good for your organization’s credibility.

  23. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    I swear bosses forget that people don’t magically know how expenses work at their company. My first job out of college I got sent on a business trip at the end of my first week and while I knew I would be reimbursed for expenses, nobody thought to explain HOW the process worked.

    The boss may have thought you were planning on expensing these all along.

  24. Ann O'Nemity*

    Everyone is assuming the manager is expensing the lunches, but if that’s the case why aren’t they picking up the whole bill? Why not pay for the client and the intern?

    It’s possible the company is just stingy, so the manager is paying out of pocket and expecting everyone to do the same.

  25. Purple People Eater*

    LW – You should certainly address this now. And if it turns out it can’t be expensed at least you will have told them why you need to opt out.

    I worked for a semi-state agency that wasn’t allowed to expense meals except for out-of-state travel. But the Director insisted on weekly business lunches at the location of her choosing. It was awful. I was fairly new in my career and this was a new job. I tried to not go because I was broke and was told it wasn’t a requirement but it was expected and a lot of business was decided over lunch. I opted out for a bit but realized I was losing out on projects so I started going again but tried to keep my total under $10 (sometimes that was only a cup of soup or a side salad and water). I stayed a few years until I had enough experience for a better job. But it was rough.

  26. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    Congratulations on having a mother who is a shining exception to the rule of “don’t get job advice from parents,” She’s smart!

  27. Nothing Happening Here*

    I have never gone to a business lunch where I was expected to pay for myself. This is wrong on so many levels. It’s like saying everyone in the department is getting a new computer and the amount you are expected to pay out of your pocket is $900. This is work. It is not fun. It is not socializing. It is occurring during work hours. OP should not be expected to pay for this out of their own pocket.

    This is totally different from a bunch of co-workers going out during lunch hour.

  28. Ess Ess*

    Normally client lunches are expensed. She may be assuming you are taking your own check to submit for reimbursement. Just be matter of fact and ask her if you should be expensing these lunches since they are client-facing.

  29. Melissa*

    I totally agree that it probably just hasn’t occurred to your boss! For people who are middle aged and mid-career, something like Chipotle might seem like the “cheap lunch” option. How quickly we forget that a $15 lunch is not really cheap! When you point out to her that you’re on a budget, you’re not just doing yourself a favor, but also every intern who comes after you.

  30. mango chiffon*

    Very upsetting and really hope the company is able to reimburse you for this.

    My hope is this just didn’t occur to your boss and she was thinking you were expensing these without understanding the process. In my experience in an administrative/financial role, a lot of managers really don’t think about this, and in some cases for our summer interns, the process of reimbursement is different than that of regular staff. At my organizations, interns don’t get a “full” IT profile, and aren’t connected to our expense reporting system. If they need to be reimbursed in any way, the process ends up needing to be a third party reimbursement that us administrative coordinators submit, rather than a typical staff reimbursement in our expense reporting system. These things are often the last things that managers (in my experience) would remember.

    1. LJ*

      And if the company isn’t reimbursing for client lunches, frankly that’s probably a red flag for the financial well-being of the company. Employees should not be out of pocket in conducting their duties for work.

  31. I don't mean to be rude, I'm just good at it*

    Decades ago I was friends with a major league baseball player. When he came into town he would invite me to lunch. I was working a full time minimum wage job and going to school at night. AKA Broke college students.

    We went to one of the most expensive restaurants in town and I ordered the $10 popcorn shrimp lunch (more than double my usual lunch cost) and he laughed and ordered me a lobster. I almost died, but he paid for lunch.

    I was late back to work and my bosses were not happy until I introduced my friend to them. He came to town twice a year, and we went to lunch twice a year. Usually with my bosses in tow.

  32. Guin*

    Wow, all these people with expense accounts. My organization is so poor that they won’t even pay for meeting food anymore – I’m talking a full day/half day meeting. We’re told to bring our own drinks, and then our department VP brings “snacks.” Today it was popcorn. I can’t imagine being able to go out to a $20/pp lunch and being able to just expense it. No one goes out for lunch; we all bring sandwiches from home.

    1. Clara*

      That really doesn’t sound like your organisation is in a healthy place… I would be very concerned about them being able to even pay my salary / cover their basic expenses if popcorn is a stretch!

  33. Kr*

    We all make different amounts and it doesn’t have to be weird. I know there are a lot of stigmas and there can be shame in not having enough money but if you approach it really matter of fact and casual, it likely won’t be weird. Good luck!

  34. Pip*

    Glad you wrote in for advice on handling this, and Alison’s right. Just be upfront about it. Honestly though, it’s part of your boss’s job to be thinking, “Hey, I’m inviting a college intern to a lunch. I should tell her ahead of time I’ll be paying for her meal.” I was a college intern once, and my boss picked up the tab for any meal she invited me to. That’s just basic consideration and common sense. Especially if she’s asking you to come! It’s not like you invited yourself along and then expected her to pay. Best of luck with this and with the rest of your internship.

  35. Elsewise*

    I absolutely agree with the majority here that it would be absurd for you to be expected to pay out of pocket for these lunches. However, I do want to point out that for a lot of people, getting reimbursed is also an issue. If I have $20 in my bank account, spending $16 on lunch and knowing I’ll be paid back in two weeks (if your reimbursement process is fast, which it often isn’t!) still leaves me with practically nothing to live off in the meantime.

    Making payments you know will be reimbursed is a great situation to use a credit card, but not everyone has one. And some demographics are more likely than others- white or Asian baby boomers with college degrees making more than six figures are the most likely, while credit card use is less common in people who are Black or Latine, have less than a high school degree, lower earners, and millennials or Gen Z. (Credit Card Statistics and Trends 2023, Forbes, I am not citing this APA format bite me) For anyone without a credit card, reimbursement can be really inaccessible.

    If you have decision-making power in your organization (LW clearly doesn’t, I’m addressing this to the commentariat in general), I really encourage having a purchase card option for those who can’t pay now and wait to be reimbursed.

    1. FraudRisk?*

      FWIW, my last several employers have not issued cards to any non-executive as they were considered a fraud risk. I’ve had to pay >$1k out of pocket and get reimbursed later multiple times which is not fun. That’s been fairly standard for employees who don’t travel much at past employers too, but that varied a bit from place to place.

      1. amoeba*

        Wow, this sucks! We don’t have individual company credit cards but one for the whole department, and for major costs (hotels, conferences, etc.) we can either pay for ourselves and get reimbursed or ask our assistant to do the booking for us via the company card, whichever we prefer.

        1. metadata minion*

          Yeah, I don’t have a company card but when booking flights or conference fees or whatever, I’ve always put it on my boss’s card. I do have to pay for food myself while traveling (and get reimbursed), and I’m now suddenly curious what the workaround would be if I couldn’t afford it. I almost never travel, so it’s not like it comes up much, but we’re decidedly not a well-paid profession.

          1. Adultiest Adult*

            Sometimes the workaround is “We don’t send you.” Which puts the person at a sizeable disadvantage when it comes to future business projects, promotions, etc. Sometimes the workaround is “Okay, there’s some policy about you can get a purchase order issued, but you have to submit this form in triplicate to Susan on accounting six weeks in advance–oh, and we won’t necessarily tell you, but we will definitely remember you as the weird one who couldn’t just put the expenses on your own card.” Which can also affect people’s future opportunities. It’s a messed up system, and also how I ended up with $400 of pizza for the office on my own credit card at one point–we literally had to play the game of, who can afford to put this on their card and wait to be paid back?

  36. DontAssumeReimbursement*

    LW, despite what everyone is saying, do not assume these are costs you can get reimbursed. While apparently there are companies where that is normal based on the comments here, it is certainly not universally so.

    Most of the time when I’ve gone to these sorts of meals I have been expected to pay. Every once in a while the boss would pay for everyone and (presumably) get reimbursed but that was not normal. If I’d have tried to get reimbursed it would have reflected badly on me.

    I agree with the person who said to tell your boss thanks for the invite but you can’t afford to go and see what they say. I would consider still going every so often if you can swing it, and you might tell your boss that if you can rather than bowing out entirely.

    Good luck

    1. Clara*

      I think the amount of people saying reimbursement is normal highlights that it’s totally fine to ask if there is an expenses policy that would mean they’re covered. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the case, but it wouldn’t be rude to check in, especially when the cost is making attendance difficult.

  37. Quinalla*

    Definitely talk to your boss! Interns 100% can expense things at my job, but standard practice is for the most senior person to cover all the check(s) and then they expense it all so that the most senior person who either (a) has a corporate card or (b) can afford to float the expense no problem is the one dealing with it. Also, the senior person is most familiar with expensing rules, is less likely to be questioned, etc. Just better all around.

    It’s unfortunate your boss isn’t thinking about this, but that is how it goes sometimes when you are in a privileged position. You can easily become oblivious to those kind of things if you don’t make an effort to notice.

  38. Jo*

    I worked in government where meals could never be expensed (unless traveling). Nor would it really be appropriate for a boss to pay out of pocket for for an employee beyond rare occasions.

    I’d suggest you talk candidly to your boss and also weigh how much value the lunches have to you. You might cut order something small and less expensive (eating more before or after on your own if necessary) or else going less often.

  39. Restricted Clause*

    I like Alison’s answer – some people are oblivious and need to be diplomatically told about boundaries. It’s good to start as an intern so you learn to push back appropriately during your career. When I was laid off years ago, for example, a good friend invited me to dinner to discuss this. She liked her wine (I didn’t drink) and my part of the bill came to $100 when split! I’m sure she was clueless but I didn’t go out with her to dinner again until I was employed.

  40. SusieQQ*

    I feel like I’m missing something. It’s weird that she’s NOT expensing the meals, right? If I went out to a business lunch that my boss put on my calendar, I would 1000% of the expectation that they’re paying.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      The weird part is that the employer did not bother making the expectation explicitly clear with an intern. If their job to make sure the intern knows stuff, not put the intern in an awkward position of not knowing. The power imbalance plus the money plus the experience imbalance means whether it’s reimbursable or expense-able or yes-really-everyone-pays-their-own, the boss is being crappy here by not making sure the interns know what they’re being invited to when they’re being invited to it.

    2. Adultiest Adult*

      Some places will pay for client-facing lunches but not lunches between two or more employees, even if business is discussed. Some of the places may require advanced approval for the expense, in order for it to be reimbursable. Some places will pay for none of it–government is an often-quoted example, and some nonprofits. I think this question is really revealing of the kind of work environments different people are used to! While if I took my intern out to lunch, I would 100% pay out of respect for our comparative positions, that money would be coming out of my own pocket to do so. Only major, pre-approved food expenses are reimbursable at my agency (think pizza once a year for the office, ordered by a manager, and a tray of cold cuts for the holiday party.)

  41. Anonymous for This*

    The OP said these are client lunches. I worked in a field that is considered part of financial services for decades and I never paid out of pocket for my meal when it was a client lunch. In this case, the boss is inviting the OP.

    I am actually flabbergasted that the boss isn’t picking up the check for the group.

Comments are closed.