Lubanga - Issue Picture from Getty Images

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By DEBORAH LUBANGA

As midterm exams were just a week away, University of Georgia student, Austin Simmons, 19, wanted to have a little fun before studying consumed all of his free time. His girlfriend, Jacquelyn Harms, 19, had mentioned a craving for Outback Steakhouse, so he invited her out for a Friday-night dinner date. The pair both dressed up for the occasion and ate too many onion rings as they talked and laughed. As the evening wound down, the waiter delivered the check, and Simmons reached for his wallet.

“I’ve generally been much more able to pay for dates than my girlfriend has and I’m happy to pay,” Simmons says. “Now that she has a job, however, she wants to start paying for more dates, and I’m fine with that too.”

Millennials like Simmons and Harms, with their strong belief in gender equality, want to break away from the traditional dating script of previous generations. However, the way they envision dating in theory isn’t how it always works in practice. In fact, times have not changed when it comes to who pays the dinner bill according to a 2013 “Who Pays for Dates?” study. Posted on NBCNews.com, the poll surveyed 17,000 unmarried, heterosexual men and women. When the results were broken down by age group, the study found that 80 percent of men ages 18 to 25 pay for most dates, and perhaps even more surprising, 81 percent feel guilty when they don’t.

Apparently women play a major role in enforcing this dating tradition, says Ellen Lamont, a sociology professor at Appalachian State University. She says women often feel that if a man doesn’t pay, his feelings toward a potential relationship are lukewarm, so “they end up using payment for dates as a signal that they interpret as deeper interest on the part of the man,” she says.

Meanwhile, it’s uncertainty that causes men to reach for the check, according to the “Who Pays for Dates?” study. It concluded that people have a genuine “interest in preserving the gender differences that tell us who we are and how each of us is expected to act in a given situation.” So when the check comes at the end of a first date, traditional gender roles dictate that the man pays. And men continue to pay for dates believing that’s what is expected of them and to avoid the risk of “being viewed as lacking economic resources or as being uninterested, unchivalrous, or — worse yet – cheap.”

Washington State University student Tyler Hickey, 20, believes that if the man can afford it, then he should pay unless he and his date agree in advance to split the bill. “If she protests then I usually offer to let her pick up the bill for concessions or some other expense,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t end up happening, at least she knows that you’re not just writing her off as being incapable of paying for herself or being unnecessarily chauvinistic.”

For the most part millennial women aren’t bothered when their dates pay, even though 60 percent make a sincere offer to chip in. For example, New York University student Ashima Goel, 20, is always willing to split the dinner bill, but is flattered when her date insists on paying. “It shows me that he likes me and that he is a nice, chivalrous guy,” she says.

However, some young couples manage to practice put their dating theories into practice. University of Washington student Joanna Liao, 20, suggests couples alternate who pays, like she does in her own relationship. Rather than make the bill the man’s responsibility by default she says, “Whoever has the means to and whoever would like to pay can and should.”

But if a woman pays for all or even part of the date, did the couple really go on one? Dating coach Sherrie Schneider doesn’t think so. “[A date is] when a guy asks you out several days in advance and has specific plans. He picks you up, takes you out, and pays,” says Schneider, who co-authored “Not Your Mother’s Rules,” a dating guide for young women.

This differing view on what counts as a date highlights a generation gap between baby boomers like Schneider and millennials. However, in practice that gap is relatively narrow, with most young people landing somewhere in the middle. For example, University of Idaho student Alyssa Pietz, 20, prefers to be asked out, but in her experience “it’s about fifty-fifty when it comes to who initiates [the date].” Moreover, she’s fine with splitting the bill, but says, “I’m not going to pay for the guy even if I asked him out.”

So when it comes to paying for dates, how can millennials find a balance between their modern views and traditional tendencies? Etiquette expert Lizzie Post, who co-authored the 18th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” recommends clearly addressing who will pay for what, preferably before the actual date. She says, “It’s in your court as to what you’re comfortable with but you also need to explain that or indicate that to the person that you’re going out with.” But to minimize any uncertainty, she firmly believes in the rule: “Whoever does the asking does the paying.”